How we bootstrapped our coworking space – Part 2

This is the second part of the article “How we bootstrapped our coworking space” from March 2015 (read Part 1 and Part 3).

A year and a half ago, we were notified that we had five days to move out of our coworking space

Today our project is stronger than ever, our development plans are very ambitious and we haven’t even started. This is the tale of the thrilling adventure of how we bootstrapped our coworking space, with practically no investments at the start.

Where we left it off

Back in March 2015 when I wrote the first part of our founding story, we were about to announce the opening of a second location in the coming weeks. Our community of transformers was growing steadily, our outreach and impact as well, our international events on intrapreneurship were booming, and ‘everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds’.

Then someone bought us tickets to a rollercoaster ride..

Adversity is always around the corner when in bootstrapping mode

The Solvay Sport property we were occupying was sold to a private members club, who, in partnership with a real estate company, wanted to build a massive luxury wellness club with a hotel attached to it. To start the project, they needed to change the zoning plan, but this was opposed by the neighbours and the three surrounding communes.

We were assured that nothing would change in our contract and that we could continue to build our community and projects. But we always remained vigilant that the lease was temporary and that it could be terminated at any time. So while we kept building our ecosystem, we were continuously preparing for the next step.

A permanent home

Sustainable coworking buildingWe met a couple of visionary executives from CityDev, the real estate development agency of Brussels Region. They liked our project, and we started looking for a permanent home for transforma bxl. A few meetings and visits followed, until we found the property that we liked.

The new building is located in Evere, northeast part of Brussels, in a completely different area from our original location which was in Watermael-Boitsfort, southeast part of Brussels.

We announced the news to our members, who expressed their wish to stay on the Watermael-Boitsfort site, even though it was an old building with challenging conditions at times, when the heating system broke down, for example. We respected their wishes and came to an agreement with the property management company that would allow us to stay in Solvay Sport until at least the end of 2016. So we would then have two locations – what a luxury after less than 2 years of existence!

We were of no use to the big guys

But although we were assured that the deal was secured with the new owners of the property, it appeared that their CEO changed his mind at the last minute. We were notified by a mere SMS that we had literally five days to move out. All of a sudden, we were of no use to the big guys. Why would we be? When we were creating value in a building that was supposed to be abandoned so they could tear it down.

I always compare an entrepreneur’s life to a Mario Bros game, you need to survive until the end of the level, that’s when you find the extra life bonus, where you get to grab the big mushroom that will take you further. In our case, we signed the new lease with CityDev in Evere on the day in which the termination of the first lease was confirmed.

It was mid-June 2015, just before the summer. Needless to say that the sky fell on our head that day, we were in shock and our members were speechless. Big bucks rule, but these are the trials and tribulations of bootstrapping, you are vulnerable until you become stronger. You need to be resilient and face adversity with a cool head.

Most of our members were supportive, although the change of location didn’t suit them. Changing the location of a coworking space turned out to be a big challenge; we learned it the hard way: moving the house almost meant starting again from scratch..

Like a phoenix we rose from the ashes

In addition to securing the new location, we had already found the furniture and even plants for it. So when the confirmed news broke, we could move extremely quickly to ensure that our members still in need of a workplace wouldn’t suffer from a hiatus in their activity.

We immediately brought in workers to dismantle wall separations and open the space, had the internet installed, cleaned up, and within three days the new location was open for business in its beta version.

Hacking and transforming the space

After that, the hacking of the space started: we needed to reinvent the entire workspace and adapt it to our activity and our values: openness, collaboration, innovation, creativity, co-creation…

Designers too costly, too slow
We had to find the concepts on our own

We consulted a couple of Interior Designers who were excited about the project, but their timeline was too long. We wanted to be ready at the beginning of September, they could only start working on the project in the Autumn.. Furthermore, they were very costly. So we had to come up with the space design ourselves.

We started by defining the functionality of every area:

  • What use do we want to make of it?
  • What kind of unique experience do we want to create?
  • How to translate that experience in terms of space design

We worked with two local artists, Karim and Dave, and during the whole summer we went back and forth with them and other partners in order to find the right look and feel, while keeping the space extremely functional.

All ‘Bout The Money

Transforming the new location required resources: time, talent and money. The latter had been the main challenge in kick-starting the project a couple of years beforehand, but now, a phone call and an appointment with our banker was sufficient to get their agreement on a loan.

We didn’t have to argue much, they knew what we were capable of, and they had a lot of trust in us. However, bankers are not inclined to take risks anymore, so as long as we were willing to personally guarantee the loan and finance 20% of the necessary investment, they were game.

And then it was time to play.

Restarting the community and embracing our local anchorage

At the end of September, after four months of intense labour, we were ready to reopen. We celebrated the end of the transformation process with a concert apéro, with the great Pretchel Dave & Shamen on the mic.

The hardest part was about to start: bring life to the building, rebuild our community and attract talented members whose values are in line with ours..

One of the major obstacles we faced when we changed locations was the general belief that Evere, our new location, was far and out of reach. This impression proved to be quite unfounded, since our location is very well connected with public transportation (bus, tram and suburban train), very close to highways connecting Brussels to the Flemish and the Walloon regions, in addition to a having a private parking lot which makes mobility and accessibility a strength, not a weakness.

We have been getting this message across, and whoever gives it a try comes to realise that the location is in fact very convenient. Only 15 minutes from Schuman or Merode with the suburban train is not that long of a trip after all.

We’re lucky today to count on a very solid and dynamic nucleus of a community. The growth is steady and we’re attracting more members each month. And that’s what matters more than numbers: the community feeling and the relationships between our members. You can really feel a cosy and family atmosphere in transforma bxl, we cherish that feeling and try to nurture it on a daily basis.

The real fun is about to start

So what are we up to now? Well, as I have been saying for the past months, in 2016 we were in second gear. We spent the year strengthening the core of the community and crash testing our services. We hired our first employee, Mike, a very determined and committed refugee from Syria, and we improved our innovation offering.

Now we’re shifting to third gear and from there, the growth will be faster, so fourth, fifth and sixth gears will follow shortly. We’re planning an expansion, with a number of higher value services that will turn transforma bxl into a landmark of entrepreneurship and innovation in Brussels and in Belgium.

Watch this space, we’ll announce more soon…

Highlights from the past year (and a half)

Communities we welcomed at transforma bxl:

Organisations we welcomed in the Innovation Garden:

ABinbev, Board of Innovation, Sappi, Belfius, Brussels Airport, L’Oreal, Decathlon, Nagelmackers, Swissport,TNS, Sogeti, Edebex, Agila, MCI, The European Commission, Kornferry, Bridgestone, Orange, Fluxys, Toyota Europe, King Baudouin Foundation, …

Anis Bedda

Anis Bedda

Co-founder at transforma bxl

Anis is the the cofounder of BottomUp Innovation, a company helping organisations innovate from the bottom up using the principles of intrapreneurship, open innovation and crowd sourcing. (Read More)