New York City is a sanctuary for small startup companies and progressive thinkers. And Projective Space has capitalized on just that. The shared workspace has helped such prominent tech startups as Maven, Buffer, Stripe and Uber all grow roots before making it in the big time. However when we visited Projective Space, which is located on one sparse floor of a building in the Lower East Side, the place was admittedly underwhelming — but that’s all by design. We sat down with Johnny and James Wahba, two of the three cofounders of Projective Space, to ask them about the rise of coworking, how their space encourages collaboration, and why burgeoning startups should jump at the chance to work in a shared workspace.
Q. Can you tell us about the origins of Projective Space?
James Wahba (JA). When we launched in 2011, it was really just to solve our own need. We wanted to work amongst entrepreneurs who were inspiring. We wanted it to be a collaborative space where we could feel comfortable asking others questions about trying to figure out our own problems.
Johnny Wahba (JO). Five years ago was the early days for the term “coworking.” If you were to ask people, “What is coworking?” most would be have no idea. Others may have read about it and thought it was super deep in the tech world. But at that time, [with coworking], people would rent desks or work out of spaces that were within existing businesses. There were no pure-pay coworking spaces at that point.
JA. Well there were office suites. Regus had just been around, but they were really just renting out small rooms. They didn’t have an open plan. And the way we approached coworking, instead of posting it on Craigslist — like “Hey I have a desk for rent, we’ll give it to the first person who responds” — we wanted to have an application process. We wanted to make sure that everybody who joined was actually a good fit.
First, it starts with creating a good group of people to work in the space. If you don’t have people who share the same values, ideas and drive…then it’s going to be hard to get them to connect.
JO. One thing was, we were pretty clear that we wanted to have existing businesses. I mean, there are two ways to run a shared workspace. If you promote it like Craigslist, you become a commodity when you’re selling space. And you’re really not able to create a community, which is a value to the community. You’re just filling seats with anyone with a check book.
JA. And if you do that, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. All of a sudden you realize that 30 percent of the people are bad apples and ruining the whole vibe. You may be excited the first month, as a coworking operator, because you can pay your rent. But it takes away from the community and then that bad word spreads.
JO. Also, when we say “bad apples,” it’s not someone who is yelling and screaming, or someone who doesn’t take showers. It’s that you might have a satellite sales team for a company and all they’re doing is dialing for dollars all day long. That’s really the stereotypical worst tenant for us.
JA. Or even a silent member that comes in and never says “hi” to anybody and then leaves. You want people to be productive, but you still want them to realize that this is a place to be social and to connect.
JO. We’ve also had companies come here to fundraise, hire a bunch of people and literally crank and get stuff done. We just had a company called Maven — a women’s health service — that was in our space. They came in for 12 months, started as probably two or three people, grew their team and then moved into their own space. It was impressive.
JA. I think Maven was a big inspiration for other teams in this space. And then you read in tech rooms that they made over 2 million — that’s an inspiration. It’s like working out in a gym, or training for some sport, and you see someone’s regimen. And maybe that’s the secret to their success.
Q. Working in this type of environment, how does that help smaller startups?
JO. It allows them to test the waters without a big risk of failing. They can see if their business is scalable and say: “Let’s do it for a month and not sign a long-term lease. Let’s do it in a place that has good internet, good services and where we can just get work done.” Now Projective has evolved from that point. There is definitely a super busy time. But then after five there could be ping pong going on, or an event that we, a member or an outside partner puts on. And the events normally aren’t too crazy. We do sometimes throw parties, but really they’re more inspirational and designed for the people who are working within the space.
Q. How does this space lend itself to collaboration?
JA. First, it starts with creating a good group of people to work in the space. If you don’t have people who share the same values, ideas and drive, then it’s going to be hard to get them to connect. For example, if you have a hardcore developer and you seat him next to a fiction writer, it might be cool at night for them to share ideas, but they’re not really going to be inspiring each other to get work done. We focus on accepting people who will increase the likelihood for those great connections.
JO. Yeah, if you have similar interests or similar businesses, you’re running into the same problems over and over again. And those problems have been collectively solved by people within our community. You can literally fire off an email to the group and get a response within seconds for something that would have otherwise been super complicated. These are things that you could sit at home trying to solve on your own, zone out and maybe go too deep down that rabbit hole. But people just ask each other questions and then get them solved.
Q. So, is it just about having the right people?
JA. It starts with the right people. A good layout is a big component too. We wanted to have an open plan for our teams to work in so that people can hear snippets of conversations, they can hear little ideas and get inspired. If you’re in an enclosed space it’s hard to hear those conversations. And for most people, if they never hear anything inspiring throughout the day they probably don’t want to stick around at night. They’d rather go home. So we feel having an open plan is creative. It just keeps it airy, keeps it transparent. You can’t be a crazy boss who’s screaming and yelling in an open plan. It kind of inspires a good behavior in a way.
Q. How much do you promote the past successes of companies, like Maven’s, when trying to sell others on Projective Space?
JA. I think it’s a big part, and it’s more than we realized. I think we were like, “Let’s get the most amazing people in the same room working on their own things.” But then the legacy of companies like Uber, Indiegogo, Eventbrite, Stripe, Postmates, Buffer, like those companies who launched in New York out of Projective Space, and where they are now — it’s a huge a badge. I think companies literally get psyched to hear that they’re sitting in the same workspace that, like, Uber and Stripe used to sit at. I think what it shows is that we’re not really involved in the day-to-day operations. We’re not acting like their mentor or investor. But we are creating the environment where they can actually be productive; whether that’s internet, air conditioning, security, a comfortable environment and so on.
Q. For small businesses growing, do you think the new hires are excited to join a shared workspace?
JA. Part of what makes people excited to start a new job is the definitely the workspace. We’re excited when we see companies hiring new employees because it shows that this is the kind of place that they’d like to work at. And also, actually, a lot of the new hires — like the sales people, the developers, the interns — we see them creating connections between each other, too. And if you’re fresh out of college it’s kind of cool to see another young person who’s also starting and sharing a beer with them. Or coffee.
“When we started there were probably six coworking spaces in New York City. Now there’s probably 80. So the growth of coworking has just shaped the perception of what coworking is. We’re not teaching people what it is anymore.”
Q. What’s the biggest change you’ve experienced in Projective Space’s five-year existence?
JA. I think the biggest change probably is the idea of “coworking.” In the early days, we were doing a lot more explaining of why you would want to work in a shared workspace and not get your own office. I mean some people used to think that they should work from home, save up money, and then (basically) blow it on renting a small office. And we would have to educate them on why coworking would be a better choice. When we started there were probably six coworking spaces in New York City. Now there’s probably 80. So the growth of coworking has just shaped the perception of what coworking is. We’re not teaching people what it is anymore. But I think coworking as a model is also evolving.
JO. When the term “coworking” was being kicked around initially, about five years ago, it was very communal. Like, “So I’m going to go and restock the toilets with toilet paper and you work on the printer when it goes down.” A big thing for me — and I’m more of the operations side — is that technologies have come a long way. In the past few years we’ve probably switched every single technology out for something new. And as far as our networking equipment I mean…
JA. …our wi-fi has gotten much better.
JO. So these shifts have happened. And a lot of stuff has become easier. But the real trick is: how do you create a connection between the members? So we spend a lot of time working with our community leaders to try and set up programs where we put more emphasis on the community and less emphasis on the space building. The space should look good and function well, but I think the emphasis really is going to be on the community.