For our fall salon we gathered at Workshop Chicago, a co-working space in the River West neighborhood, which proved to be the perfect setting to complement our conversation focused on passion projects. With stunning views of the skyline and a cotton-candy colored sunset, we couldn’t have asked for a better evening or space to host some of Chicago’s most creative women entrepreneurs. We recently sat down with Ben Skoda, Director of Workshop, community-building expert and all-around great guy, to learn more about what Workshop’s all about. So first thing's first, can you explain what co-working is and why it is beneficial?
We often talk about the advantages of sharing at Workshop. Co-working is simply the practice of sharing for grown-ups. Many of us have been taught to work hard to achieve things on our own, but I think our society is built to benefit from and support a stronger sharing infrastructure.
When you offer some of what you have to a community of like-minded people, you start to see the benefits come back to you from others who do the same. You can call it karma or the golden rule or whatever, but the principle does really play out in real life. Not only do you end up receiving tangible benefits from those around you, but you get to learn, connect, and experience humanity on a whole new level than a lot of us are accustomed to.
It’s hard to articulate, but it’s really beautiful to see it happen consistently at Workshop.
We encourage anyone who is drawn to our space and community to apply for membership. Our goal has always been to attract the best people, regardless of their role or industry. We think that’s the best way to build a community based on sharing anyway. We’ve ended up with a really unique, eclectic mix of people representing a variety of creative, business, and nonprofit endeavors and an array of skillsets. It’s fun to watch the interactions.
Co-working can be beneficial to workers in many industries and positions, but we consistently see the success stories of people who freelance, or have recently launched a new entrepreneurial venture. They typically have limited time and resources, which inhibits ability to secure their own office space. Many of them need to move their work out of their home or the local coffee shop, and they see the benefits of connecting with other people in an environment that fosters connections of all types.
Co-working seems to promote collaboration and conversation. Are there any moments of co-working that have occurred at Workshop that you are particularly proud of?
One of my favorite things to do is to introduce people and slowly back out of the conversation. It’s such a treat to see people who have connected at Workshop collaborating. We’ve seen several instances of freelancers being hired through Workshop connections.
But to answer your questions specifically, there was one instance of a collaboration leading to a conversation that led to a friend landing her dream job. To summarize, she and a friend visited Workshop because they wanted to use our space for an event they were collaborating on, and I loved what they were doing so much I invited them to join a conversational meet-up I was hosting a few weeks later. In that conversation, she shared with us her “ideal job.” A couple of weeks later, a Workshop member asked me if I knew anyone who might be a good fit for a job opening she saw, and it was literally the other girl’s dream job. She interviewed and got hired.
In short, I recognized the value of space in the development of a community. I wanted to gather all of the like-minded, thoughtful people I knew in Chicago, and hopefully connect them to other great people. One of the biggest challenges of building community in the digital age is to literally gather people in the same room. I figured that the easiest way to counteract that was to find us a room.
That’s such a good point about the need for a physical space to foster connections in our digital age. And the physical space you've created is wonderful! How did you create an environment conducive to many different types of work that also encourages collaboration?
Well thanks. We had a wonderful team collaborating on the space. It was strategic in that we knew we wanted to facilitate different work configurations, as well as a variety of meetings and events.We started with the canvas of a beautiful, industrial space and assembled a team that included an interior architect, a designer, a couple of talented builders, and a few experienced organizers and hosts. The result is a collaboration that has allowed us to host dozens of co-workers in a way that encourages conversation and collaboration, along with many creative gatherings–everything from small concerts to yoga, workshops, lectures, book signings, dance parties, and a lot in-between.
You've hosted a variety of events and opened your doors to many groups in Chicago including our very own Natalie Pavela's Yoga+ event - how do you decide which events to host?
We’ve had the good fortune of so many creative people reaching out to us. That was always the goal—to create a space that inspires others to use it as their platform. Our business model allows us to find an appropriate balance of revenue-generating space rentals and collaborative or co-branded gatherings that offer something valuable to our community and perpetuate the message we’re sharing with the world.
So we approach some people with ideas for creative gatherings, and sometimes people approach us. Either way, it’s been incredible to look back at what has happened here and dream of what’s still to come.
What has been your personal favorite event you've hosted?
That’s a tough one. I’ll give you two: One was the Creative Mornings Happy Hour with author Dallas Clayton. It was a magical night of content and connecting, and so cool to collaborate with that team.
Another favorite was an event we hosted called Failure:Lab, where storytellers are invited to share a 10-minute story of a failure in their life, and songwriters share some of their most heart-warming and hopeful songs. The Failure:Lab team has hosted these events all over Michigan, and this was the first in Chicago—but hopefully not the last.
It was such a pleasure to be part of a gathering that was based on sharing from the heart, celebrating raw humanity, and connecting through vulnerability. We want Workshop to shed light on the human elements of work and life, and humanity was on display that night. Wow.
I love Dallas Clayton! And Failure Lab sounds like such an authentic event. I’m assuming starting Workshop hasn’t been all smooth sailing and has likely involved some setbacks or even failures along the way. What would you say has been the most challenging part about starting Workshop and how have you overcome?
Every new thing has plenty of challenges, but our biggest is ensuring that our business model allows us to sustain consistent revenue generating. We’re both a service-based and a mission-based company, and I tend to focus more on the “mission” side. But I’m constantly reminded that we won’t be around to support the mission if we can’t pay the bills.
So the challenge is to be flexible and have patience with a new business in a new industry, and to let the community and customer inform your best streams of revenue. We’re still adjusting our model to reflect what people seem to want from us the most, and at the same time we’re always working to offer the best experience for those who have already invested in our services.Can you share one of your favorite moments that has occurred at Workshop?
This may sound odd, but one of the best moments was when I got on a plane with my wife and spent some time in Europe over the summer. I say that because Workshop thrived in my absence, which proved that we had established something that people were starting to understand. It was no longer just this crazy idea I had, it was actually a strategic concept that had growth potential. That was a great moment.
There’s so much we want to see happen in 2015! We have a vision for facilitating even more types of gatherings and work sessions. We’d love for people to see Workshop as a hub for a certain type of connection, and become the best/first option for facilitating specific event types.
Also, we’ve had some folks reach out to get our insights on creating space and community-focused branding. We’d love to get better at sharing that, and to be able to offer something more concrete to help other brands connect to people. It certainly fits within our mission and focus.
Additionally, we want to grow in our collaborative content production. We want to utilize our skilled, creative friends at Workshop to help us produce innovative, thoughtful content simply because it would make the world a better, more human place.
Ultimately, we want Workshop’s footprint to be one that celebrates the challenges and triumphs of people and togetherness.
With exposed brick, lots of natural light, quintessential views of the Chicago skyline and a supportive community filling the space, we think Workshop just may be the coolest place to co-work in Chicago. Check out Workshop’s website and follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter to learn more. Thanks, Ben, for sharing your space with us!