Through Link Coworking, Liz Elam creates collaborative spaces for fellow entrepreneurs.
Shooting the breeze while hanging out at the water cooler, going to lunch in the company cafeteria or being surrounded by a bunch of love ’em, hate ’em co-workers is a way of working that’s a thing of the past for many people. As corporations cut costs and send people back home to work, and others cut jobs altogether—pushing many a job-seeker to set up their own business—coffee shops, guest bedrooms and other ill-equipped spaces are pressed in to use as offices.
With this dramatic shift in the way people work, co-working is a growing trend. The industry has grown 200 percent year-over-year for seven years, according to Deskmag, an online magazine that tracks the industry’s evolution. Today, what started out as a West Coast phenomenon has hit 2,000 co-working spaces worldwide, and is still climbing.
“I just saw one opened in Tasmania,” notes Liz Elam, an energetic Austin entrepreneur who is building a business and fostering a global movement spurred by people discovering the short-lived joy of being home-based worker bees.
“Co-working is a membership club, just like you would join a gym, but instead it is for a place to work,” explains the chipper Elam, owner of Link Coworking in Northwest Austin.“You’ll have an attorney sitting next to an entrepreneur sitting next to a small-business owner, and discussions start. It becomes this awesome, collaborative, fun thing.”
People are inspired by each other, they hire each other and, in the midst of all this, they get their work done. But co-working is not just about getting the work done, maintains Elam.
“It’s about that community you miss when you don’t go to a workplace anymore,” Elam says.
At Link Coworking, everything is open seating. Just like at the gym, you can’t guarantee that one of the other regulars hasn’t nabbed your favorite treadmill, or desk, in this case. Plus, there’s a twist. You can sit anywhere you want, says Elam, just don’t get too comfortable with the set-up.
“Every single Friday, we rearrange it, so there’s a new arrangement every Monday when you come in,” Elam says. “It’s new, it’s fresh and our members love it.”
There’s a map of the world in Link Coworking’s sparklingly clean break room. (For those familiar with communal break rooms, that may seem an oxymoron, but such a phenomenon does exist.) The map shows all the countries members have visited, and underneath they’ve been invited to add their academic qualifications and the languages they speak. Higher degrees abound, and there’s a veritable Tower of Babel list of languages. For Elam, it’s a way for her to correct perceptions about this new industry.
“I found that a lot of people think that it is just 20-year-olds in hoodies doing code in a co-working space,” she says. “That is not this group at all.”
Early on, Elam thought her co-working space would be filled with outside sales people because that was the world she came from. Then she realized there was a much bigger market. Now she has a mix of professions, which makes for a better “eco-system” in the space. It’s full of early adopters, innovators and influencers, all thriving in their Link community, carefully nurtured by Elam and her staff.
Link Coworking has 3,000 square feet, accommodates 50 and is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Elam runs both spaces: Link Coworking and Link Too, with her fleet-footed community manager, Lavanna Martin, and up to four interns. Two are Linkterns (members are known as Linksters), who can be hired by members on a project basis.
“It works well,” she says. “People are always saying they need help. Hiring one of the Linkterns is the solution.”
Have you tried working at a Starbucks or the like lately? As an outside sales rep relocated to Atlanta by Dell, Elam soon found the coffeeshop scene unacceptable. She’d been casually mulling the possible solutions to the challenges faced by a home-based employee like herself for a while. Then came a briefing with a Dell executive who’d flown to Atlanta for an important meeting. With Elam being a telecommuter, there was no cozy office for the pair to powwow prior to heading to meet their client, so they found themselves at a crowded coffee shop. Seeing the executive’s frustration as they struggled to prepare their negotiations for a multi-million-dollar deal was an epiphany for Elam. There had to be a better way to serve telecommuters like herself, she thought.
Fast-forward, and with nine telecommuting years under her belt, Elam left Dell in 2008 when “the job became unfun.” The woman who’d been one of Dell’s top-ranked sales reps tried chilling in Italy, but soon learned she was too type A for the Italian lifestyle and decidedly too type A not to be working. So, she headed back to Austin, happy to be closer to family, ready to be back among the business vibe she’d always loved about the city and eager to make the idea she’d long been mulling over a reality.
Two years later, with 20 visits to other co-working spaces and 15 revisions to her business plan behind her, she opened Link Coworking in September 2010. It’s everything she’d thought about for years, tweaked by her diligent reality-check research. Elam’s hallmark attention to detail surfaced in her search for the perfect location for her new business. “I looked at real estate with Liz for six months,” says Celia Bell, Elam’s trusted SCORE Austin advisor. (SCORE is a national organization of retired executives who provide free business advice to small-business owners. It is funded in part by the Small Business Administration.)
The wannabe entrepreneur developed a list of five criteria for her new business premises, including being less than a mile off a major thoroughfare. She also wanted plenty of parking, which precluded downtown and helped her refine her search to Northwest Austin. “I wanted first-floor space because getting in an elevator when you’re schlepping your stuff is annoying, as is having your phone cut out when the doors close,” she says.
She also stipulated proximity to retail and restaurants, as well as access to covered outdoor seating. With all that in mind, “Celia and I looked at hundreds of spaces in Austin,” Elam recalls. Finally, she signed her lease. The end result is a well-equipped, impeccably clean, thoughtfully planned, stylishly designed space that will send your productivity soaring, compared with working from home with the distractions of pets, kids, UPS deliveries, to-do lists and more, or jammed in a grubby corner fighting for the lone outlet at the local coffee shop.
Elam’s success speaks for itself: Her business doubled in size just two short years after opening. Along with an extraordinary eye for detail, Elam has a great eye for design. Her style hits the mark somewhere between hip loft and contemporary gallery. Industrial heating ducts traverse the ceiling at Link Coworking, splashes of color and pattern stimulate the eye without jarring and the clean lines of the furniture look modern yet also practical and comfortable. The office furniture is by Turnstone, which uses the space as its Austin showroom.
“People come through all the time. They look at the furniture and we show them the space,” Elam says. There’s no artwork on the walls—a deliberate choice by Elam. “People frequently come and set up at least three devices, and they have enough distraction with computer, iPhone and iPad. You don’t need to add distraction in the workplace,” she says.
Despite having opened more than two years ago, the Link Coworking space is as pristine as if it opened yesterday. “We’re going to keep it that way,” Elam says, pointing to the smallest mark on the wall as evidence that it’s time to paint again. Little wonder Link Coworking was recently named one of the top co-working spaces in the United States.
The downside of building a vibrant co-working community is that, however valuable and professional the interactions are, in an open office environment, it can get loud. Elam’s total tear-out renovation of the leased space (there was only one wall she didn’t tear down) gave her the chance to design for differing noise levels and styles of working. At one end, the space has the spacious feel of a downtown Manhattan loft with its double-height ceiling—that’s the chattier end, Elam explains, where conversations bubble up all day long. Midway along, the ceiling height changes to single story—and that’s where the quiet, heads-down work tends to take place.
“We have white noise on, and if people sit down there, then they don’t want to be interrupted,” she says.
A row of vividly colored handsets wait, draped across a partition, looking for all the world like an art installation, ready for Linksters to plug them into their smart phones. It helps reduce volume, Elam explains. Something about speaking in to a traditional handset causes us to lower our voices compared with our “Can you hear me now?” habit of shouting in to iPhones and the like.
Anyone is welcome to try out the space for free for a day. “They can get over any anxieties they have about working in a co-working space, because it is a new concept,” Elam says.
For the times that members need to have a private conversation, maybe interview staff or make a presentation, there are five meeting rooms available for rent by members, plus a boardroom-style conference room. Then there’s the step-in, step-out privacy of an iconic red British telephone box.
As Celia Bell notes, “Liz Elam is very talented, with energy, drive and an eye for creativity and perfection.” Elam says she “famously” revised her business plan 15 times—something she now regards as a positive, as it helped her nail down her vision, business model and market.
“It was all such a huge unknown,” she explains, recalling the early days. Reality and experience have modified her original business model.
“When I first opened, I was out to prove I could make an open co-working space work. No dedicated desk space, no offices.” Then, as she visited more co-working spaces both in the United States and overseas, she realized she was missing an opportunity. She was losing revenue from clients who were expanding and looking for offices with 24-hour access. Her solution lies across the courtyard, which Elam also leases, giving her access to outdoor seating and a large patio for events.
Link Too opened in September 2012, just as some of her members began outgrowing Link Coworking. With its 3,500 square feet of dedicated desk and office space, and 24-hour access, Link Too was at 60 percent capacity within three months of opening. As she moves toward opening her newest location, in South Austin, Elam’s taking the opportunity to tweak her business model to create a hybrid of Link Coworking and Link Too, combining open co-working space, dedicated desk space and office space under one roof. Link Too has the same aesthetic as Link Coworking, albeit it in a different color palette.
Elam has taken a lot of pleasure in her first commercial design project, and has now launched a design consulting business in collaboration with one of her members, who is an architect. Yes, Liz Elam is a serial entrepreneur, she admits with a smile. Stepping out from the corporate world has allowed her innovative talents to flourish. Being an entrepreneur in her swirling, evolving co-working industry draws on her competitive and her collaborative genes.
Now, with the boundless energy of someone who loves what they are doing, Elam is not only running multiple co-working spaces and kicking off a design consultancy, she also heads up the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC ) and is president of a pioneering nationwide network of co-working spaces named, with typical Elam flourish, “The League of Extraordinary Coworking Spaces” (mercifully called LEXC for short).
She’s also travelled to Paris and Berlin to speak at European co-working conferences, and in 2014, plans to travel to the Australian co-working conference. Yes, she admits, she loves to travel as much as she loves her coworking business.
“To be able to be an entrepreneur, do what I love, make a little bit of money and still get to travel the world—awesome,” she says. Conferences play a big part in the industry, as owners and others interested in co-working meet to learn and exchange ideas. “It is a very young, evolving industry. We need to come together, to help each other and to collaborate,” Elam explains.
She is vocal about the help and collaboration she’s received from others in the co-working industry.
“I had burning questions when I started. Thank goodness people took my calls, talked to me and gave me advice.” Now she’s ready to pay it forward—literally. The curtain on yet another of Elam’s innovations will go up at this year’s GCUC in Austin, now the biggest co-working conference in the world, largely thanks to Elam.
“There’ll be a whole wall,” she explains, her excitement brimming over. “People will sign up with what they can do and what they need to have done. We’ll hook them up and all this serendipitous goodness will flow out of it.”
Serendipity may well have played a part in Elam’s success, but it is really her tenacity and talent that have driven a business she has literally built from the ground up. She’s kept an unwavering focus on excellence, and deserves every recognition as a pioneering leader in the co-working industry. Just as she did at Dell, where she became a top-ranked sales executive, she continues to put her customer first, creating and nurturing an entire community. Stay tuned—there is much more to come from Liz Elam.