After working as a journalist for close to a decade, Luke Baumgarten decided to start a non-profit organization in Spokane, Washington, to support young and emerging artists. Once the opportunity arose to launch Fellow Coworking with one of his friends, Luke moved his current venture—a creative firm—to the shared workspace, where his team is now stationed. Learn more about the community at Fellow Coworking and how they navigated the challenges of COVID-19 in our latest founder feature below.
How did you discover coworking?
I wrote about the earliest efforts to start a space in Spokane probably in 2010 or 2011. I loved the idea but I worked out of an office. When it became clear I wasn’t going to have a day job forever, I checked in to see if they’d ever gotten that original space off the ground and they had, but it had failed somewhat quickly.
How would you describe the community at Fellow Coworking?
We grew really slow and intentionally. We barely did any advertising because we really wanted the people who landed in our desks to be a good fit for the community we were building. We figured if we let that happen organically and on its own time, whatever community grew would be really close and really resilient.
We made a lot of mistakes as a startup space, but that’s one idea we had that was totally correct: the community is super tight-knit and people love coming, they tell their friends to join, they make new members feel welcome, and it’s pretty cool.
What other unique elements make your coworking space stand out from all the rest??
We’re in one of the oldest buildings in Spokane — a 125-year-old former cracker factory. It still has most of its blue-collar bones (Fellow’s bathrooms are literally inside the old cracker oven) and honestly that’s perfect for Spokane.
Spokane was a blue-collar boomtown mostly built with silver and timber and insofar as a bunch of our members are developers and designers and product developers, it’s still a space where things are made, those things are mostly just digital now. But there’s also a winery, art gallery, restaurant, and whiskey bar in the basement, so it’s a little microcosm of everything you need to lead a happy life in one weird building downtown.
Do you host any special member events to bring the community together?
The community is honestly so cohesive that we’ve moved away from producing our own events. We love to be a showcase for our members, though, and they program a pretty robust schedule of things from marketing happy hours to a recurring B Corp ‘ask-me-anything’ type meet up.
What are some of the consequences of COVID-19 that your space has faced? How did you navigate these challenges?
We shut down early. It seemed like the only ethical thing to do. We made a plan to do a mail-scanning service for folks so they could get their mail without coming in. We also made special arrangements with a couple of members who absolutely couldn’t work remotely, but we basically went into hibernation.
We told our members that we understood every single one of them might be in for unprecedented health and financial turmoil so we’d understand if they needed to quit their membership. But we asked people, if they were able, to stick with us and we’d do everything we could to stick around, too.
One of our members organized a fund to help other members going through financial hardship. It was really, really incredible to be able to help folks with utilities here or buy a bag of groceries there. In the end — well who knows if this is the end, but for now — our landlord was great and we negotiated a deferment of part of our rent and most of our members stuck with us. So though we definitely lost some folks, we weathered the storm better than most people.
What are three key ingredients for operating a successful coworking space?
Community, community, and a team full of badass women.
What is your favorite thing about coworking?
I love that, at its best, coworking should feel like a day job where people can’t wait to come to the office. There’s so much stress in work, but insofar as most people work on different teams, your stress isn’t my stress, which allows for really great commiseration, knowledge-sharing, and camaraderie without any of the office politics.
What is the most challenging part of operating a coworking space?
In Spokane, it’s educating the community about what coworking even is. It’s still not super well-understood.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to start a coworking space?
I think WeWork should be a cautionary tale for us all. Coworking can be a good business if you grow the right way and focus on building a resilient community that cares about you.
How would you like people to remember your coworking space?
We want people to walk in and immediately feel welcome. We hope they leave wanting to immediately come back.