Celebrating rad working communities all over the globe! In this edition of community shoutout we chat to Suzanne from Collingwood’s Jam Jar Cowork, a new class of professional shared office space in Melbourne, Australia who believe small business does better as part of an able business community, a community to contribute to and draw on for help, guidance and inspiration!

‍Tell us a bit about Jam Jar and how it began.

I went to the Coworking Unconference in Bali before I did anything — it just coincided with me quitting my job. Everyone there said “don’t open until you have a community”… we broke that rule! We had the building, we had the fit-out done. The fit-out took a long time to do so we were just kind of waiting for that to be finished and then we opened. 

I see us as a member-driven, local community coworking space. We’re in the back streets of Collingwood so we’ve got the local shops and a lot of medium-density residential properties nearby. We’re getting more and more apartments and we’re in striking distance of the city so I see us as something that is attractive to small businesses that are already here but aren’t in the ideal digs, or people working from home but battling with the usual issues of working from home as well as small spaces and family around and things like that, but who have commitments where they’re not necessarily wanting to be in the city. So not limited to family, but whatever it might be.

We’ve had interest from all different sorts, so despite the research, there’s always surprises on who you’re actually going to get. 

We’re two months in so we have a very small community but I’m quite happy with how it’s been going, given our marketing efforts — that’s a new thing for me! We’ve been getting member enquiries every week and a number of them converting which is great.

Where did the name come from?

I always used to joke that “if you want to start your own business, all you have to do is quit your job and think of a good name” which drove my partner nuts!

I came up with all of these awful names, daydreaming about what it could be with all the usual, predictable ones and then I must have just thought of Jam Jar and kept going back to it. 

The reason I really love it is because it’s an item that gets repurposed, it changes with what you put into it and you can use it for a whole lot of different things. It’s a bit of grassroots item that different people use for different things and it’s transparent. It’s about what’s inside it not the thing itself. So even though we’re Jam Jar, we’ve branded ourselves as Jam Jar and we’ll market ourselves as Jam Jar, we really want to hold up who is inside and know that that’s actually what makes us.

It’s also an industrial item — my Father in law who built this building, got really excited about tilt-up construction and concrete walls which actually made the renovation really inflexible and difficult, but to build it, it’s used industrial techniques and we’re in an industrial area. A jar is an industrial item and working is part of that industriousness so we really bought into the idea of this simple industrial item that has stood the test of time.

It’s one of those names that once we thought of a cute name actually resonated on a whole lot of fronts and represented what I really wanted the space to be about.

Why Coworking?‍

It’s largely to do with my background. I studied architecture straight out of school, I never practiced as an architect, I then did an arts degree and worked in offices doing whatever you can do with an arts degree. I went back to finish architecture but it was all too difficult so I took the easy option and studied law instead! I did that part time and worked as a public servant, then worked as a lawyer for 10 years.

Through all that, having studied architecture and being quite passionate about it, you notice what’s wanting in the spaces you work in, you wonder why we work as we work, do the hours we do and are treated the way that we are. I had the kind of career where I had a good range of experiences with the 20 hour days being out of control and noticing how people can’t control their spaces. I thought that it wouldn’t be too hard to allow people to create and control their own spaces.

My sister was working out of Hub in the city and talked a lot about coworking. It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard of so she showed me around and told me what it was all about.

This property is in my husband’s family — they developed it about 15 years ago and I was at a family dinner, I was really unhappy in my job and they were complaining that the building had only been 50% let for 3 years so it was a serendipitous thing. I said I’ll take it, renovate it and run a coworking space and even if that doesn’t work out, you’ll have a more lettable building.

It was something that I felt quite passionate about — the environments we work in and how we work, there’s a changing paradigm with technology so creating yet another space, and yet another type of space, where people can come and do that — I wanted to see where we could go from there and see what happened!

The first thing I did was quit my job and I went straight to the Coworking Unconference in Bali which was really good because I got that rich understanding from people who had been running spaces and running them since they began.

This fitout took a year when it should’ve taken four months, so there was a little hiatus which I used to do a lot of writing work and get established in that area. Now we’re just at a stage where we’re open and building a community so this GCUC on Friday is good timing for reconnecting with other people running coworking spaces and other community managers.

I feel like my background has led to something like this, but it was also about seizing an opportunity. We’ve got the building, I hate my job and I’m passionate about these things so let’s do it!

Who was your first resident and how did they come on board?

‍It was a business consultant who lives up in Clifton Hill and works from home. I’m not sure how he found us but somehow he did and he got in touch with me in November last year via our website. We were nowhere near ready to open and he was keen to at least be able to use the meeting rooms. So he became a member in February, long before we were open. I just gave him a set of keys when we were still a semi-building site!

The meeting rooms were leased for two weeks by some recruiters who wanted to conduct interviews for the Grand Prix, so that was an opportunity for me to push the builders out and say “I’ve got these people coming in for two weeks, you need to have the building looking like an office instead of a building site by early February.” At the same time, I let Rowan, our first resident, in. So he’s just kind of been here coming and going in the same way that I have, and it was nice to have one member before we even opened!

We also had some branding work done by an organisation called Good Business Matters who came with us on the journey and were really keen to become members and then just at the last minute, they got an offer from colleagues who they work with very closely to go and share their office, so we lost them which was really disappointing for us because they would have been great members and great ambassadors, but it’s actually really good for them!

Once we opened and had the listings up, we just sort of got this roll of people and enquiries.

Everything I’ve been told is, “you can’t build a community from space, you need to build a community from a community” which I think is true, but I think we’re lucky in having a nice space that suits a business. You see the meeting rooms and you can see yourself there and you can see yourself working here. We’ve been lucky that we have a really nice space to sell and people have taken a chance and come in. 

At the same time our community is building and we’re engaging so we should be able to sustain that. If we don’t, we’ll just need to find out why and change how we do things. The big risk we’ve taken is people coming in and thinking there’s no community yet which is a bit weird, but we’ve grown at a rate to hopefully avoid that. I also think the dog has helped!

Rose — the ultimate marketing strategy!

What have you been doing to recruit new members?

Flying Solo posted an article last night that was about putting off your marketing and I thought, “someone has heard me talking!” It’s a big part of my accountability meetings each week to focus me on marketing, because I think it’s one of those things where you think “how hard can it be” and then you get there.

The first thing we did was a mail drop around the neighborhood, and we have our banner there. We have a graphic designer working on our signage at the moment so we’ll have more of a presence there. We’ve listed with the usual suspects like Creative Spaces which has been the most successful one for us online, plus Gumtree, Spacely etc. We’re on Google My Business too.

People have literally seen the banner walking past and come in to find out more about what it is.

We’ve got a website that’s okay, but needs to be more nimble and have more images. It was the first thing that we did so that we were on there and had the basic information, but it needs to do a lot more than that. So then it will be working with the website and our social media. 

On Instagram we sort of have this “here we go! Here are the building works and we’re getting close to opening!” and then I got a massive writing job so there was a huge hiatus over Christmas. Once that was over I took a holiday and then came in and worked really hard to furnish and make it presentable so that we could bring people in and poor old social media just died! So I’m picking up on that now. 

One of the things that I’m hoping to get out of GCUC on Friday is some ideas and actions on what other spaces have done that have been effective.

I’m really happy with our local efforts and how they have paid off in getting the word out to the community. Another thing that I’m keen to do is maybe a couple of small ads in local papers, because we are very much in the local space.

Our customers so far have come from passers by, Creative Spaces and word of mouth.

Doing the circuit of networking events is important — I’ve been to a lot of business meetings which has been great for researching what businesses are in the area and who they’re servicing. Also, when you go out into business on your own, you’ve got to go out and find other peers, so it’s not just networking, it’s finding a new tribe and people who understand what you’re up to and the challenges and successes you’re experiencing. We’re building that here as well, but for me, starting it on my own, it was a matter of building those relationships and that’s been important from a marketing perspective.

In your mind, what makes a great community member?

This is something I think a lot about, because I talk to people who say things like “you’ve got to be careful” and “you’ve got to vett people.” I was pretty influenced by a book called Reinventing Organizations, and I suppose that resonated with me — I like the idea of taking whole people as they come and being fairly open to that, so I don’t actually like the idea of vetting people. I don’t like the idea of getting people who are like me. If someone came in and they were a pain in the arse, I’d rather deal with that problem when it arises and have that difficult conversation than exclude someone at the outset. I don’t like that idea, so contrary to what a lot of people have advised me, I don’t feel like I have an ideal person, personality or type.

What I would love though, is established small businesses. The lawyer who joined us, he is an ex-top-tier lawyer who knows what he’s doing and what he’s about. It’s not as difficult as a startup where you’re developing something and you’ve got all the stress of funding and so on, so I suppose it’s those kinds of businesses. And it’s businesses from single people to 4–6 people so I think our setup with the desks downstairs works really well for bringing a team working remotely together a few times a week to work together around the same table and either do that full time or go your separate ways.

At the moment we have all individuals, we haven’t recruited any businesses like that but that’s the ideal of what we’d like at the moment.

Do you operate this space by yourself?‍

At the moment it’s just me — I would love another person!

I’m really conscious of the areas that aren’t a good use of my time, or that I’m not at great at, so I’d love to get someone who is passionate about coworking or how we work who is good or interested in those things, or wants to gain experience in certain things that I don’t need to gain experience in. We’ll see what happens, but for now it’s just me.

Suzanne’s partner in crime — Rose!
Everyone says you can’t do it on your own, and that’s true but you can when you’re kicking off.

What do you plan on doing with your community?

‍So far we haven’t done anything, because we haven’t had the membership. We’re just at a point now where it would be really good to just have a casual evening drink or a lunch when people are around. I’m probably right at the point where I should be encouraging the members to do that if they want to and that would be the first step.

Then I think we would be very much member driven by what kind of things they would like to see. Do people want a casual barbeque and a way to get to know each other and network, or would they like some kind of business presentation or would they like us to do something to do with wine or work with externals etc. I think that’s how we’ll approach that.

Doing this on my own, events are down the list. If we recruit someone or someone comes in as a partner and that’s their thing, that would be great, but it’s not high on the list.

I think you can read the points at which you need to start communicating with your community and and you need to bring them together because that’s a big benefit of coworking.

One thing I particularly want to be cautious about is that it’s not my space and my rules. So my focus is on, now that we have people here, how do we get them to communicate on what would be good and how do we govern that and make those things happen when they’re good or not make them happen when they’re not; how do we balance that? So that’s where the focus is and events will fall into that.

That said, we’ve got an external coming in and running a wellbeing seminar on Monday which we’re super excited about! That kind of thing I’d love to partner with more.

The other thing we’ve been doing is allowing community groups to use the space after hours free of charge — we have one group that is doing that regularly — and that’s something I’d love to increase and start to be more active as a social enterprise space.

‍What is the space itself like?

A lot of coworking spaces are curated and come out of the tech world, so it’s great to have something that appeals to me and people like me. Having a professional environment where you can bring people in to meet, where you’re here to work but you also have the benefit of a coworking community and being open plan, it doesn’t feel like my old environment of a refined law firm — you’re in much more of a casual-feeling workspace, but it’s still professional. That’s what we’re going for.

‍The First Floor

‍We think of our ground floor as a client level — it has two meeting rooms and the entry area. We also have a board room which is usually set up in a traditional board room format, but can be reconfigured for workshops. We have a recruiter who comes in and runs workshops of about 20 people, and we have a wellbeing workshop on Monday so I can offer this workshop setup for things like that.

We get a lot of enquiries and go “well, we’ve never done that before, but I’m pretty sure we could!”

The meeting rooms have actually carried us while we build our memberships because we have had a lot of bookings from local and city businesses. One of our first customers was a team of acoustic engineers who came here and did a week-long workshop to work through some problem solving together. We’ve also had a fashion label come in who were doing a shoot around here and used these rooms to store their clothes and dress their models. It’s great having that diversity of customers.

Meeting rooms are a good in for people, and I think people really value being able to get off-site and leave the office and really focus on something. Its definitely in our plan to market more to those people. 

We did all these things in the building to bring natural light into the perimetres and the working areas and worked really hard on the design to do that, and then the builders thought “oh, wouldn’t you want privacy in your meeting rooms? We’ll put opaque glass in!” So we’re in the process of getting that all changed to clear glass.

The Second Floor‍

‍The second floor will be our main working area. We haven’t opened it yet because it’s a large space to heat, cool and light, and if you only have one or two workers down here, it’s not very environmentally responsible. But it will become the main area and probably a quieter area than upstairs which is where we’ve got people at the moment. 

The second floor space

‍This floor has two more meeting rooms, which have been booked externally for interviews and things, but the intention is to use them internally where people can pop into them for a quick meeting or book them for more formal things.

We also have a utility area which was planned to centralise all the areas that don’t need as much natural light. We just got lockers in here last week and we also have the printing facilities, bathrooms, showers and coffee station in this central area. 

‍The Third Floor

The top floor is the main coworking area that we’ve been using to date with a full kitchen and in spring we’ll get a barbeque on the balcony so that we can host events which will be nice on summer afternoons!

The balcony at Jam Jar — perfect for summer barbeques!

So how much space will you have?

 At the moment we have 26 desks set up and I think a really sweet spot would be 26–40 desks. We’ve actually had two enquiries for 60 desks from local businesses so we did do a furniture plan for 60 and you can do it but you lose a lot of amenity. We could do a really nice furniture plan for 52 but I definitely think the sweet spot would be about 40. 

Upstairs there’s a graphic designer who has been a tenant for a number of years so the other thing we did is design the building so that if they or the landscape architect next door decide to move on, we could expand into those spaces if they became available. 

But we can function at this size, and we’re probably the minimum size to be viable but there is the opportunity to scale in due course. 

‍We’re completely open plan, apart from the meeting rooms. To deal with that, we’ve got a phone booth and a little working pod so you can have a meeting, skype or podcast recording in there. They’re multi-purpose rooms that allow you to get some privacy or really knuckle down and work on something.

‍Are there any other spaces that inspire you?

I really admire Electron Workshop — everything they do and put out, I love. I love their look and feel and their attitude and that it’s about trusting people, trusting your coworkers, making them part of what you do and giving them an ownership of the space and expecting people to be honest, considerate and all the things you need to be to work together. 

Another one is Cowork Niagra, they were on Alex Hillman’s podcast a while ago, and they have a lot of remote workers. He talked a lot about because they have a lot of remote workers who are all quite into their work, they’re a little less buzzy than some other coworking spaces. They want to have the right amount of events, not too many, not none. I think we’re probably a market like that too. We’re very much more people who are established in what they’re working on. I’ve got a lawyer, a graphic designer and a CGI guy who have their practices up and running, I do business writing in addition to this so its not that bustling, startup thing. 

‍What’s Collingwood like as a suburb?

‍It’s a gentrified, industrial and working class residential suburb historically. North of Melbourne has been gentrified in North and South streets working out from Melbourne Uni. Melbourne Uni is to the West of us, then you have Swanson Street coming straight from the city, and Lygon street in the Italian precinct which was gentrified in the early 90s. Then you come down to Fitzroy and you have Brunswick Street, and then Smith Street was the next one and that is our closest shopping street. Smith Street is still quite grungy with a big creative and student presence, good bars and good music venues. Johnson Street is a main road  that heads out to the suburbs and just on the corner of Wellington street which is the next street along there is a music venue called the Tote which is one of Melbourne’s music venues that’s been around forever and is still surviving. 

So we’re kind of squarely in that creative, grungy precinct with a lot of businesses around using the old, industrial spaces. There are a lot of fashion businesses, graphic designers, architects and that sort of thing. It’s similar to Fitzroy, Richmond and Carlton — we sit within that set of suburbs. 

It’s a great spot and it’s had a lot of quite good quality apartment development. There’s a big push in Melbourne to increase the housing density, and most stuff done in Collingwood so far has pushed the boundaries of height but there’s nothing too crazy and there’s a couple of developers doing some nicer quality projects that people will actually want to live in. 

Our target markets are Abbotsford, Clifton Hill and very locally. 

There’s kind of this North vs South thing in Melbourne. The North kind of has this grungy, hip, down-to-earth thing going on and the South is often seen as more brand-conscious, showy and posh but still very cool.

Do you feel like a lot of the coworking operators in Melbourne work together?‍

‍I don’t know — I think it’s probably pretty patchy. My view is that we’re not really in competition. I think that coworking space is such a personal thing that yes there will be people who choose the space down the road over us, or us instead of them, but the competition isn’t hugely fierce at the moment. It’s about connection, it’s about who is here, it’s about what space suits you, it’s about lifestyle, it’s about an offering and a look and feel and so on. I think a lot of coworkers have that attitude, and some are a bit worried about another coworking space on their turf, so it’s probably a bit of a mix. 

The majority of people that I’ve come across have been supportive and helpful. I visited a lot of coworking spaces 12–15 months ago before I’d done a lot, I’d be open and honest and tell them that I am thinking of starting a space and I might have got 20% that didn’t react well but the rest said that’s awesome and offered their help. Generally people are pretty happy and want to help. 

Coworking is very much a new thing so the more coworking spaces that succeed in different areas and can be given a chance to breathe and grow and see what they become, the better it is for coworking across the board. 

As much as I admire the big players, a bit like McDonalds co-opting food, I think it would be a shame to see just the bigger players co-opt coworking. I think it’s important to have that granularity and have small spaces like this that can survive too. I like to think we’re the fresh fruit market garden of the coworking world.

What has been the most difficult thing about starting so far?

First of all was just getting the fit-out done, and making some of the decisions about that too. I never actually did practice as an architect but I did gain the love of my life from uni and he had the power of veto and he encouraged me to just trust my instincts and keep going. So that was the first thing, just getting to a point where you can start. 

After that, it really has been making those decisions — so taking on board the really good content that I got from the Coworking Unconference in Bali, but also being able to sift it and disobey it and not take it as gospel. That was how other people in other countries like Singapore and America succeeded so I had to be bold enough to open without a community even though everyone says that’s death. And not putting energy into things that I couldn’t imagine this community going for. 

And marketing — I’ve been a public servant, a lawyer and a writer so you think, “oh it’s just words and images, I like those,” but it’s not just that. I am finding that things get easier when you get to them if you don’t panic. At the moment I find it difficult to pay my rent knowing that it’s a loss, but then if I look ahead and forecast, everyone tells you it will be 12 or 18 months, you’re doing a good job if you break even then. So I think it’s also not panicking about that sort of stuff and just staying on a steady course and looking at things objectively. But they are hard things to discipline yourself on too.

I think also reaching out — even though I probably seem like a confident, talkative person, there’s kind of a weird shyness or sometimes a bit of a worry about not doing everything you should’ve and not wanting anyone to see that, so it can actually be really difficult to ask for help or advice and put yourself into someone else’s busy life and ask for some time and feel like you’ve earnt that time. All of those things are quite difficult but conferences and the networking and community events make that a bit easier.

All those things are challenges, and in part it’s opening a coworking space, and the other part of that is going from working in big businesses and organisations to working for yourself. 

I think the next challenge for me will be making the decision to get some in-house help and I’m hoping that I’ll see a way to do it with members and I think I will. And then knowing what and who that is and how that works.

Things that I thought would be difficult just became easy because when you get there you just trust your instinct and it works. Other times you trust your instinct and it doesn’t work but then you can be humble and open-minded and iterate.

We also got to meet Brittany who was at Jam Jar Cowork for her first day coworking ever to work on her own business, Ministry of Socks, designing and selling custom socks!

‍Tell us what you do!

Basically I design socks and sell them. They’re quirky socks with simple designs and I run the whole business from my iPad — that’s designing, the Instagram, marketing and everything.

Brittany’s Ministry of Socks products

‍How long have you been working on it?

Probably a few months. I’ve had the idea for quite a while and it wasn’t until I got back from Europe that I decided I really wanted to do this or at least give it a try. 

How did you hear about this space?

My Aunty — she comes here and she always sends me snapchats. She runs two businesses out of Darwin but she’s from Melbourne originally so when she’s here she works from Jam Jar. Her and Suzanne have weekly accountability meetings together. She was telling me about it and I was pretty interested. 

‍What was it that got you interested?

Because I’d never heard of it before — my Mum works from home and between working she’ll put on a load of washing and I thought that she doesn’t do anything when she works from home. I remember my Aunty telling me that this is a thing — people come together in these coworking spaces and I just thought it was awesome!

‍What are you hoping to get out of coworking?

‍This is obviously my first time but it’s definitely something different. I feel like it’s very relaxing — for example if I’m studying at uni in the library, it’s very quiet and no one can make a noise, but here it’s relaxing and I’ve found it pretty chill.

‍How would you describe coworking to some of your uni friends who have never heard of it?

It’s definitely a modern way of coming together and getting work done. I’ve really enjoyed it so far. 

We want to say a huge thank you to Suzanne for sharing the Jam Jar story and showing us around her beautiful new space! We had a great time seeing the space, meeting the residents and of course, hanging out with Rose! 

Check out Jam Jar’s website to find out more, and give them a well-deserved follow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook — let’s grow Melbourne’s coworking community together! 

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