In the early days of 2014, I had no idea that by the end of the year I would have launched a new business venture. Let alone one that would introduce a whole new way of work to the business professionals living in Chicago’s near west suburbs. Yet Suite Spotte opened its doors on December 2, 2014. This is our story.
Like many solo business owners, I ran my small business coaching practice from local coffee shops, public libraries, client offices, and yes, even my home. I’ve participated in video-conference calls wearing a professional top with pajama bottoms, discussed serious business issues with a client at a coffee shop while a parent soothes a crying baby at the table next to us. I’ve even avoided eye contact with a patron waiting for a table in the cafe where I’ve just started my third hour on my laptop slurping a cup of lukewarm coffee and remnants of that morning’s muffin. Sound familiar? Sad but true.
I look back at my behavior with untold guilt, but rare were the alternative workplaces in 2014 for suburban home-based entrepreneurs beyond the kitchen countertop or coffee shop. As unproductive as these “work” places were, the solitude was far worse.
The initial idea of converting our “empty nester” loft in downtown La Grange into a coworking space hit me as I was wondering for the umpteenth time why I had to commute to the city to find a coworking space. Coworking was thriving in Chicago’s urban neighborhoods but had not made it to the suburbs yet.
To this day it surprises me that so many people working in the suburbs in 2014 had never heard of coworking. What a difference 15 miles made. While I knew there was going to be an “education” process, I had no idea just how much of a challenge it would be.
Just before working on the biz plan for Suite Spotte, I had been knee-deep in writing a short book, Rocka Million, A Manifesto for the Gutsy Micropreneur. It was my call-to-action for small business owners to shift the way they think about their businesses; and to stop trying to be, do, and perfect everything in their business on their own.
Based on the tons of research I had gathered for Rocka Million, collaboration and coworking regularly popped up in the discussions surrounding the culture-changing sharing and gig economies. That affirmed our decision to open a coworking space with a significant focus on building a collaborative community.
Rocka Million became my tool to share the message that “soaring collectively is superior to flying solo.” I took my story to local meetups, networking groups, libraries and chambers to spread the word. It was through this circuit of networking groups and by hosting a meetup at our “nearly” complete buildout of Suite Spotte that our first five charter members joined us.
We offered a healthy membership incentive for our charter members that encouraged them to spread the word and to give us much-needed feedback on Suite Spotte – what worked and what not so much. When the doors opened on December 2nd, we had five excited members and were ready to bring on many more.
Those first few months were a whirlwind. We hosted several different local groups, tours, happy hours, and workshops. Our charter members and the early adopters hosted events to introduce Suite Spotte to their networks, shared their press contacts, and encouraged colleagues to book a tour and check us out. We adjusted, tried a lot of different things, had some great successes and some dismal failures. Yet we remain to tell our story.
Beyond the grassroots on the ground efforts, we tackled our digital presence. With a preference to support our members, we contracted with our marketing members to help with our social media, blogging, and email blasts. We still maintain a strong inclination to use member companies to source services or products.
At the start, we had relied heavily on developing events, plans, and pricing on the coworking trends in the city. Later we found we didn't truly understand that there were some critical differences in the suburbs.
If we had a do-over, I would spend more time in the planning stage talking with the local business owners and remote workers who work in their homes or coffee shops to find out more about their needs and how coworking could be of benefit. The Rocka Million project gave me the macro-perspective I needed to supplement that with the micro to be better prepared for the education process we were soon to face.
First and foremost we "listen to our members." That continues to be our mantra. They are the key to where we need to go with the business. Opening a second office in Forest Park was based on their input.
Moreover, we don’t for granted the fact that our members have Suite Spotte’s back and, as a result, our Forest Park office is doing exceptionally well. Our space is designed differently based on what we learned from our first office, but still maintains the Suite Spotte “feel." We even received a community PRIDE award this year recognizing the contribution we make to the local community (prominently displayed by the front door).
Second, we build a lot of flexibility into the space design. It has allowed us to add more casual seating, dedicated desks, phone booths, and private offices as demand required. The members who occupy half of our private offices are those who have grown from hot desks or dedicated desks at Suite Spotte. You gotta love that!
Suite Spotte has one huge advantage when it comes to space flexibility. My business partner is a general contractor and cabinet maker. His expertise has been invaluable in modifying our 4,000 sqft. La Grange space multiple times and building out our 5,700 sqft. Forest Park location over the past 3+ years. Although he prefers to remain in the background and at a distance from the day-to-day operations of the business, he's front and center when it comes to creating an attractive and functional space for our members.
Suite Spotte members are the source of my joy and keep me motivated every day. They are incredibly resourceful, selfless, and genuinely want to see each other succeed. Because they live within the local community, they are also each others’ neighbors. Most have kids in the same school or participate in the same community events. Being close to home, they have the flexibility to dash off to a school play or run home to meet the contractor to get a quick quote on a home repair. Our 24/7/365 access gives them a chance to work when it works best for them.
We've also been blessed with amazing partners who support Suite Spotte in serving and connecting our members. From bringing in local gurus on a myriad of business topics that encourage Suite Spotters to broaden their thinking to industry-specific software providers who get what coworking is all about (insert big shout out to Habu and Greetly). Our partners enable Suite Spotte to easily bring our communities together and operate at a higher level than you might expect from a business our size. If you don't have the right partner, get someone else. Chronic "hoping-it-will-get-better" leads to acute indigestion.
Not all coworking spaces place the emphasis that Suite Spotte does on building its member community. At Suite Spotte, we are primarily interested in helping our members grow, while celebrating, commiserating, and sharing successes and encouragement. Don't get me wrong, Suite Spotte is a business, and we keep our eye on the bottom line. We believe that there is more than one way for a coworking business to be profitable.
Suite Spotte's way means we're cheering on a dynamic solopreneur as he grows his marketing business to a multi-office, 15+ employee workforce in less than three years.
It means connecting two members from entirely different professions who collaborate on an industry-disruptive product. It means supporting the perseverance of two savvy freelancers who join forces to offer an end-to-end creative solution for their clients. And it means encouraging a remote employee as he expands his knowledge and skillset with his current employer. It means all of those and so many more. Those are the components of our ROI (Return on Inspiration), and it's off the charts!
A serial entrepreneur, published author, and change addict, Sue Reardon is the co-founder of Suite Spotte, a collaborative coworking community. It’s at Suite Spotte that local entrepreneurs and remote employees work independently, yet freely exchange ideas in a highly productive workplace. In December 2014, Suite Spotte opened its first location in La Grange, a near west suburb of Chicago. In August 2017, their second location opened in the suburban community of Forest Park. Where next? Stay tuned.