Not many people would expect to find a coworking space co-located with a church. Nevertheless, that's what's happening in Canton, GA. The Oak House, one of the first coworking spaces of its kind occupies several rooms inside the Oak Leaf Church building in downtown Canton. I sat down with Brian Cain, Executive Director at Oak House, a couple of weeks ago to find out more about their unique coworking space, how they got started, and what’s on the horizon. The Oak House is delighted user of Habu.
7:00 AM EST: Brian picks up the call, more chipper than I’ve ever heard somebody be pre-sunrise, sounding like he’s been up for hours. This early rise isn't atypical for Brian. Aside from getting the coworking space and various meeting rooms ready for the day, The Oak House also operates a coffee bar in the main entrance. And to be clear, I should say that Brian is almost the only employee at The Oak House. Barring some of the after-hours events, for which Brian has an assistant, Brian is a solo operator.
“We’ve been in this building for 210 days,” Brian told me, “Of those, I’ve not been here for 16 of them.” That includes weekends, by the way.
What was immediately clear from my conversation with Brian was that he's got the drive to make this thing a success. And it’s working. Brian told me they'd surpassed their Y2 projections already, in just 16 weeks.
But I wanted to know more about how The Oak House got started, and how he got involved.
Brian, a former sergeant in the Holly Springs Police Department, retired from law enforcement in November 2014. He took up a career in sales, wherein he eventually relocated to his hometown of Canton, and commuted to Atlanta for work each day. And as many rural and suburban commuters who've started coworking spaces have realized, Brian began thinking that there must be a better way than an hour and a half round trip commute.
“78% of the people in our county commute outside the county for work,” Brian explained. “And yet, many of these people work for companies that can offer a flexible working situation.”
So Brian and a friend put together a 70-page business plan to build a coworking space in their town. But they quickly ran into one of the main obstacles for many coworking space founders: money. “We figured out it was going to be really expensive,” Brian admitted.
So the plan sat on the shelf gathering dust.
But as with all important things in life providence intervened. At the end of 2016, on a typical Sunday afternoon, Brian attended church with his family. But that day was different. The pastor, Will Goodwin, had something interesting up his sleeve.
"You know when the pastor begins talking about the Book of Nehemiah, one of two things are going to happen. We're either going to have a building campaign, or the church is expanding to a second campus. I knew the church wasn't big enough to launch a second campus, so that meant we were about to begin a building campaign."
The pastor spoke to the Oak Leaf Church congregation about his vision for the project. He rightly realized that churches are virtually empty six days of the week, barring any community functions. He envisioned the church building being utilized in a much more effective and vibrant way. He wanted it to become an integral part of the town's community.
“He asked me if I wanted to run it, but I wasn’t very interested at first,” Brian admitted. “I was on track to make $100K for the first time ever at my sales job. And that meant a lot to me.”
As would most married people on the verge of making a life-altering decision, Brian consulted his wife.
Now, what happened next is inspiring, whether you’re religious or not.
"[My wife and I] had this big, long discussion about how most people in ministry are poor… it's not a very high paying job. I told her that I wasn't going to do it because it would mean a massive pay cut," Brian explained. "She just looked at me and said, ‘Well, I'll support you in whatever decision you make, but you need to come to a decision if you're going to chase God or money.'
And I think that's a decision many of us make in coworking. I’ve lost count of how many founders have started a workspace guided by a meaningful value. We're all sacrificing money for a value, principle or a higher purpose, be it social impact, community development, human connection, or whatever belief system we may have.
How many of you quit lucrative jobs or dropped well-paying clients to build your dream space? I'm betting many, if not most.
I asked Brian about the reception to the coworking idea. Were the church members on board? I was surprised by the answer.
“Several people left the church as a result,” Brian admitted. That floored me. Church, community, effective use of resources. All of these things seem like a no-brainer. But the coworking space wasn't the problem.
As we’ve written about recently, coworking spaces often serve alcohol at events as part of the networking, socially bonding experience. The Oak House is no exception.
It turns out that some of the more conservative church members were staunchly opposed to any alcohol consumption in or out of the church. That meant they were at a crossroads with the events strategy of the coworking space, and therefore opted to leave.
That made me even more curious about the integration of the church members and coworking members. Were they the same? Did they mingle?
Turns out, of the 20 members at Oak House, 12 have zero affiliation with the church whatsoever, and only three are members of the church. It's an area that Brian would like to see improved. "The two pools haven't mixed together much, which I think is really sad. I mean, it's an opportunity for the people of our church to do Jesus told them to do." Brian laughed, "But change is hard for some people, and the community is finally starting to rally more around the vision for what this space will be. But it will take time."
It’s unfortunate to see a coworking space cause even a slight divide in the community, but these things happen. No coworking space is for everybody.
And of course, the divide can be tougher to bridge when something as fundamental as religion is involved. But it's an excellent sign that secular and non-secular people can work alongside one another inside a coworking space that's also inside a church, without religion getting involved. It's undoubtedly one of the risks taken on by spaces in this niche.
And it shows via the small, thriving and deeply connected community present at The Oak House. The members regularly gather for events and social outings, whether for professional workshops or watching a football game on one of the many large, in-space TV screens.
Speaking of TV screens, the facilities at The Oak House are top-notch, even compared to most urban spaces. “One of the benefits of being in a church,” Brian said happily, “is that churches spend a lot of money on quality equipment.”
It’s true. Brian showed me the church's top-of-the-line sound system in the event area, which doubles as the gathering space for Oak Leaf Church's Sunday service. What's more, the meeting rooms were stunning, fully kitted out with large LCD TV screens, beautiful tables handcrafted from reclaimed wood taken from the church building itself and oh-so-stylish chairs. Moreover, the coffee shop looks cozy and bright. I could certainly imagine myself enjoying a morning cappuccino each day before work.
At the moment, The Oak House is the only game in town, although another space does exist in the next city over. But Brian's approach exemplifies the spirit of “coopetition,” with the way he works with the competition.
“There’s a third space opening,” Brian told me. “Once that happens we’ll be starting a passport program where each of our members can access the services of the others for a discount.”
“We all offer different things,” Brian continued, explaining the logic behind the collaboration. “Our space doesn’t have offices, another doesn’t have meeting rooms, and the last one doesn’t have a private area for people to work in when there’s an event going on.” Brian’s hope is that this passport program will further connect the region’s inhabitants by making access to high-quality workspace and community that much easier.
Lastly, Brian pointed that The Oak House tries to keep everything very simple. They only have a handful of items on their coffee menu, and their coworking pricing is dead easy: just three plans based on a members frequency of use and team size.
What’s more, and I think this is brilliant, to make things even simpler they offer a coffee membership. For only $29 per month, you can get a free mug from The Oak House and unlimited coffee drinks.
“Our motto is ‘keep it simple,’” Brian explained. With that in mind, it’s no coincidence that The Oak House chose Habu as their coworking software from the outset, as that’s our motto too!
Marketing Director at Habu, founder at Coworking Insights, coworking maven, digital nomad, lover of wine & tacos.