In episode 72 of Amplify Your Business, Lance sits down for a talk with Alex Putici, Founder of Alberta's largest coworking community Work Nicer. Watch as they discuss the importance of communities and staying true to your values (even when it means turning down partnerships), and what it's been like for a company that relies on community gathering to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
(0:52) So Alex, what is Work Nicer all about?
We started six years ago and have since grown into the largest coworking community in Alberta. This is a place for people, no matter the industry, to come together around a community that is going through the same troubles as they are, whether that's entrepreneurship, remote work, building a business, whatever it is. This is a place to rally around people who are experiencing common problems and celebrate your wins. It's amazing to see the momentum that we can build just by being around other people.
(4:35) In the early days, when you started the first outpost, you likely had a commercial real estate background to get started in this business, correct?
Actually, no! I think if I knew what I know now about the real estate industry, I probably wouldn't have started. Landlords can be tough, and there are lots of things you need to deal with that I didn't predict. Before this, I was working in the alarm industry and door-to-door sales. Long story short, I started to ask myself if this is what I wanted to do for the next five to 10 years of my life.
Around this time, my friends and I started a charity in Calgary called 100 Men Who Give a Damn. We're a group of guys who get together four times per year at a brewery that a friend of mine owns, and three of our members will get up and talk about a local charity that is near and dear to them before we pick one to each donate $100 to. That's $10,000 four times per year to a local charity. It might not be the most efficient way to raise funds, but it helped me realize the power of bringing people together with different backgrounds from different industries for a purpose that's greater than themselves. I asked myself "how can I do this every day of the year, instead of just four times per year?", and that's where Work Nicer came from. I got together with 10 friends who owned small businesses, and we opened our first small location in Calgary!
(6:45) How long did it take to open your second location?
Well that first spot we opened was tiny (only 3000 sq ft). We outgrew that in about six months before moving to a larger spot that eventually became outpost #1. This was around 2016, and we opened our second outpost around 2018 (Roxbury). We've been growing since then. I love the community we are building. We've been able to grow by listening to our members and giving the people what they need. The idea is that we have like-minded people attract more like-minded people. If we stay dedicated to the people we have, that will facilitate growth, and we'll keep doing this until people don't want us to any more.
(8:04) So where do most of your memberships come from then?
Members bringing their friends and clients in is a big part of it, for sure. But, we focus closely on our current membership and meeting their needs, and that seems to draw more people in. They see from the outside looking in and say "that's someone that I'd like to be". It seems to be something that people really gravitate towards. We also host events and make community partnerships that get people into the space, whether that's getting involved in the startup scene or ATB and the great work that they do, Calgary and Edmonton economic development, or local coffee shops and pubs. We want to show people that coworking is about more than what goes on in these four walls. This is just a tool for people to use - community extends far beyond that. Getting involved, talking to the community, and asking people how we can support them, is more critical than anything for our own growth.
It's also about putting our money where our mouth is. We aren't just going to events and offering money or sponsorships. For one thing, we didn't have the money for that when we started, but second it's also not authentic. We're going to get involved and roll up our sleeves to work together, because that's what Work Nicer is all about. If we want to be a center of the community, then we need to get involved and do this shit for real.
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(10:43) Pre-pandemic then, what was the biggest challenge for Work Nicer?
Well every time we grow, it's something we've never done before. We're constantly learning and growing. From a practical perspective it's the same challenges every business faces, from cash flow to training and hiring new staff. But at the end of the day, we can figure all of that out if we know the community is taken care of - that is the hardest thing to do. Sometimes we have to make some hard decisions to stick to our vision and values. For example, sometimes we have to say no to members that might come in and spend $30,000 per year. We might need that $30,000, but they might not be the right fit. Those are hard calls to make, but when we stay dedicated to our principles and values, the right decision becomes clearer and is easier to make.
(12:49) As the founder, do you often find yourself being the "values police", or is this something your team has embodied as you grow?
That's always the hope (that people embody our values). My job as a leader is to set that path, and guide people to understand and embody our values. Ultimately, it is me, but I can't do it alone. Having the right team that's bought in and open to feedback and pointing out not only where we succeed but also where we struggle is very important to our success.
(14:00) Has the pandemic been difficult to navigate?
It has. In a lot of ways what we do has been made "illegal" for the last year and a half. But I'm very thankful - so many people out there have said community is important to them. The pandemic certainly put us to the test, but the fact that we're still standing is evidence that what we're saying is true. We don't do it perfectly every time, but fundamentally this is a human organization, not just an office space. Why would we have any customers at all if we were just a place to work? People say they stay because they want us to be here after the pandemic. We did a lot for our members who needed help, but ultimately it was members helping other members. We were just in inbetween for them. Some members kept paying, and others needed more support, so we were moving things around between them and trying to pay our bills the rest of the time.
I think we're coming out of the pandemic STRONGER than when we went in. We have more problems than ever before (growing pains and all that), but we've never been stronger. Early on, this was a conscious choice we made. It would have been easy to sit back, wait things out and see what happens, but the right decision is often not the easy one. We found opportunities and solutions on a case-by-case basis for our members. With our hundreds of members, that can be exhausting for our team (at the time) of five to six people. We've since grown to 20+ staff coming out of the pandemic. I definitely wasn't this gray going in but it wouldn't trade it for anything.
(18:44) What's your plan for growth into the future? Are you planning to capitalize on low real estate prices and expand, or be more cautious?
We're not slowing down - our foot is on the gas. We have lots of opportunities, but the hard part is choosing what to say yes to because that means you have to say no to something else. There is a lot of cheap space out there, but not all of it is great. It's not always the buildings themselves either. Who your landlords are really matters - we've had some tough conversations and I'm glad we've been able to work it out with most of them, but it really makes you think about the people you partner with. We really do want to grow, but we're looking at each opportunity carefully. It's not like we have a plan that says we need to add a certain number of square feet at a certain time - if we're able to grow and maintain the experience, or make it better, then we're going to take the opportunity.
(21:47) If you had to start over again knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
That's not an easy question to answer. I love the journey, and so every problem that's come up has influenced the way we do things and the time we do them. What we have right now is the result of what we've done along the way. That being said, I did learn a lot from the company I was with before Work Nicer. We've put in better processes and procedures from day one because I've seen the problems that can arise from that. I would also say to start bringing on a team as quickly as possible, even if you have to do it through interns and student workers. That forces you as a founder to do the work that needs to be done, because they force you to deliver and avoid putting things off.
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