How big is the co-working phenomenon? Reliable estimates put almost a million workers in shared spaces worldwide, and their ranks are expected to nearly quadruple by 2020. And the biggest fish remains WeWork, which, despite some recent hiccups—like cutting 7 percent of its staff in June—still counts 65,000 co-working members packed into 90 locations spread across eight countries.
But if you think co-working is good only for camaraderie and free beer, you’ll be surprised at what businesses can get out of it. Washington, D.C.-based 12-person design and marketing shop Brllnt (pronounced “brilliant”), for example, was largely built and scaled within a WeWork. There, its founders succeeded in scoring clients, talent, and a merger partner—without ever needing to hop on a call or dash across town.
In March 2014, before Brllnt was born, Melanie Charlton, a creative director for a startup, and her brother Jonathan Smalley, then in R&D at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, were brainstorming a company in her basement in Annapolis, Maryland.
The fledgling founders moved from Charlton’s basement to a local art co-op, but complications arose. “We knew it was time to move out,” says Charlton, “when our client calls got interrupted by band saws in the background.” So they set their sights on an office space in a city.
Brllnt got started when Charlton and Smalley obtained some key client leads from her former employer, the mobile web developer Fiddlefly.
The pair considered Baltimore but ultimately chose D.C. because they had more clients there. And they zeroed in on co-working spaces, sensing that being among scores of other co-workers could give their business a boost. In July 2014, they moved into D.C.‘s only WeWork location at the time, situated in a former Wonder Bread factory. (The high ceilings and outdoor space helped seal the deal.)
Brllnt’s first office at WeWork was a glassed-in, six-person space that was used by four people—the founders and their first two employees. Monthly cost: $2,850.
Workers’ playtime? One way Brllnt made its connections: video games. “We were known as the office with Mario Golf,” says Charlton.
Charlton’s dog, Cinna—a Shiba Inu who boasts her own Instagram account—frequently visited the pet-friendly location (and turned up in the “Dogs of WeWork” calendar).
The D.C. WeWork was initially filled with tiny companies drunk on the startup lifestyle (and free beer—legend has it that of WeWork’s first-generation locations, it consumed the most). Brllnt’s office quickly became a popular place to hang out, in part because Charlton and Smalley were known for helping out fellow WeWorkers seeking resources or other assistance.
Fellow WeWorkers provided both a talent pool and a sounding board for recruitment efforts. Brllnt even hired two people from WeWork’s own staff.
Brllnt’s video games and status as WeWork’s go-to office resulted in a steady stream of visitors, and proved to be a very effective form of lead generation. In Charlton’s telling, she and Smalley eventually met around 80 percent of their fellow members—there were roughly 500—and scored 50 percent of their first year’s clients from WeWorkers. Among them: floral delivery startup UrbanStems, which has raised more than $8 million (and is no longer based at WeWork).
A co-working merger
In August 2014, Smalley met Jason Nellis, founder of content strategy firm Overachiever Media. Nellis and Smalley chatted about their roles as their companies’ main salespeople, and bid together on a couple of projects. They started sharing a WeWork glassed-in office to reduce overhead and increase space before merging their businesses (it was as if “we’d moved in together before getting married,” says Charlton). Then, this past February, they moved again, into a 12-person space (monthly cost: $5,400), later adding another three-person meeting room.
How important is WeWork to Brllnt’s present and future? Fourteen of its 33 past and present clients came from WeWork. Eight were found “down the hall,” and four more were co-worker referrals. And the company keeps growing—which may force certain decisions.
Time to move on?
As Brllnt continues to add headcount, it’s bumping up against the limits of its location’s offices. Charlton acknowledges that soon the benefits of having a large enough private space will outweigh the advantages and costs of WeWork. “We have interns this summer, and there’s always the question of how we rearrange our space to accommodate them,” she says. So Brllnt is keeping its options open regarding its next move—and WeWork continues to rearrange its existing office spaces to accommodate clients that need more room.
Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative — and the director of strategy for LACoMotion, a new mobility festival coming to the Arts District of Los Angeles in November 2017.
He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.
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