I’m An Independent Coworking Center Operator Thriving In A City With 9 WeWorks

  • Without the high-visibility marketing and branding support that comes with some of the largest coworking franchises in the industry, it can be a tough road for smaller and niche coworking spaces. 
  • Allwork.Space spoke with the owner of Alkaloid Networks, an independent and locally owned coworking center on the east side of Atlanta. 
  • Alkaloid Networks’ owner Katharine Chestnut shares how she bootstrapped her coworking business, the importance of networking, differentiation, and how to offer a personalized experience. 

In a sprawling city like Atlanta, coworking centers seem to be everywhere within its centralized business areas.  

Without the high-visibility marketing and branding support that comes with some of the largest coworking franchises in the industry — especially those whose meteoric rise and public offering catastrophe became a television series — it can be a tough road for smaller and niche coworking spaces trying to break into these locations.   

Some independent spaces, however, have carved out a presence for themselves and managed to not only succeed but thrive despite (or perhaps because of) the pandemic, recession, and the high visibility of large, iconic brands in the coworking and flexspace industry.  

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Allwork.Space recently spoke with Katharine Chestnut, the owner of the independent Atlanta coworking space Alkaloid Networks to get a sense of her journey. She shared about her substantial business challenges and the competitive climate in a city with nine WeWork locations (although that may soon change after WeWork’s weak 2022 performance resulted in discouraging news for investors.) —  and all the other coworking brands with a presence there.

In a Q&A, Chestnut explained how independent operators can be successful within competitive spaces. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Allwork.Space: Can you share a little about what led to you wanting to open a coworking center? 

Katharine Chestnut: Honestly, it was an accident. I needed an office space, found one I liked and it was WAY bigger than what I needed. I decided to kinda do coworking. I filled the space in 2 months, created a brand, expanded from 4,000 to 14,000 [square feet] in two years, and have been loving it all along the way.   

Allwork.Space: What are some of the main challenges you’ve faced operating this business? 

Katharine Chestnut: I bootstrapped when I started. So, until I stopped expanding, cash reserves were tight. Being a part of several global coworking groups has helped me navigate some of the typical issues we all face and make better decisions … like being prepared to buy forks all the time. 

Allwork.Space: There are about nine WeWork coworking centers in Atlanta. That could change with recent news of dwindling cash reserves. How has WeWork’s significant presence in the city affected your business? 

Katharine Chestnut: None. In fact, I have benefited by getting new members looking for a more personal experience. Of course, that environment is perfect and exactly what some people want and I respect that choice. 

Allwork.Space: What are some ways independent operators can thrive in this competitive space with larger companies like WeWork and Industrious trying to dominate the scene? 

Katharine Chestnut: Independent operators just need to be themselves. Stick to your original mission. I certainly would never compare myself to WeWork as my community is very different with different values. 

The members that are looking for a more comfortable, less corporate experience are happy here. I’m a big believer that there are as many flavors of coworking as there are spaces. There is something for everyone and more than enough business for us all.  

Allwork.Space: Can you give us an idea of your typical customer?  

Katharine Chestnut: It took me a couple of years to get clarity about which audiences were best suited for Alkaloid Networks.  

For the past 4-5 years, I have specifically marketed to remote workers, solopreneurs, and micro-businesses.  I’m located in a 93% walkable urban area and there are loads of people who like walking/biking to work. I make that easy and encourage that with the right amenities — lots of indoor bike parking, and showers.  

And it’s been rewarding to watch some of my long-term members grow over time (one gentleman started here seven years ago at a dedicated desk and now has a private office with six employees). The members that stay are as grateful for me as I am for them. We helped each other get through the challenges of Covid.  

I do get other audiences like non-profits and startups, but there are other spaces in town that offer more support in terms of bookkeeping, legal, etc. I don’t offer those services so when I do get startups, they usually already have those operations in place. 

Allwork.Space: What are some of the real estate technologies that enable your coworking space to work effectively? 

Katharine Chestnut: Since I don’t rent my space for events or meetings to non-members, I charge a flat rate for everything (and I mean everything). It’s been nice to keep things simple. The members appreciate not getting surprise invoices at the end of the month and I appreciate having less bookkeeping to do.  

I use a homegrown CRM system that I created (after my years working with Fortune 100 companies), QBO (Quickbooks Online), UniFi (to manage the networks and security systems), CDVI access control, and several open-source systems that I can easily manage. Because I’m a single location, it makes sense and allows me to keep costs down so I can spend more on creating member experiences. 

Allwork.Space: What inspired you to start the Atlanta Coworking Alliance? 

Katharine Chestnut: Several things. First, I was referring potential members to other locations that offered services that I didn’t that would suit their needs better. Second, I was … and still am … a part of several global coworking groups that help each other like Cat Johnson’s Lab, and GCUC and I thought, why should I only have coworking friends on the other side of the globe?  

Lastly, I heard about the KC Coworking Alliance and wanted to learn more. I researched other alliances around the globe and loved the very cowork-y concept of local knowledge sharing and support.  

I actually called Melissa Saubers, the founder of the KC Alliance, and she gave me a few tips on starting up. After that, I started calling local independent operators and invited them to join me. 

Allwork.Space:  WeWork was losing up to $1 Billion per quarter at one point, according to Bloomberg. Do you think WeWork gives coworking a bad rap? 

Katharine Chestnut: I’ve said that I must be doing something wrong because I actually make money, while they lose it hand-over-fist and are still open. Of course, their losses will continue to reflect badly on the industry as a whole and make investors skittish. The good news is the IWG has been around a lot longer, and, while not as sexy, IWG is a better reflection of the viability of the industry.  

Allwork.Space: In our conversation earlier, you mentioned the importance of providing an experience and not just a space to work. What are some experiences you want your members to have? 

Katharine Chestnut: From the moment people call or walk in for a tour, I want them to feel wanted and welcome. I always ask what they do, not just to reinforce that warmth but because I’m genuinely interested.  

You can’t fake that.  

Of course, you have to meet people where they are. At first, I was disappointed when a lot of members didn’t join an event. Then I got over myself and realized that it wasn’t about me or the community at large. People have lives and worries and concerns outside of here.  

Some will want to participate, and some won’t. And that is okay. My job is to consistently create opportunities for connection. I’ve had plenty of members say that, even if they never come to an event, they love that I have regular events and know they can join anytime.

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