Celebrating rad working communities all over the globe! In this edition of community shoutout we chat to Liana at The Idea Collective, a coworking hub based in Melbourne, Australia.

Founded in 2013, The Idea Collective is home to many businesses and entrepreneurs including Kill Your Darlings, The Mac Mechanic, freelance writers, talent agents and Liana’s own design business, Hello Idea.

How did The Idea Collective come about?

I am a designer—it came about because I wanted a place to work in but it’s really expensive setting up your own office. A guy I know in an advertising agency rented one of his desks to me but I was in a dodgy spot next to the photocopier. It always felt like it was just his space and I was a bit in the way.

“I wanted to create a space that had it’s own identity where we all work independently as equals within the space.” 

Then I thought, “I can design it the way I like and have it quirky, creative and interesting, but also safe for corporate clients.” I have a lot of very corporate clients and they expect designers to be creative but they also want to know that you can deliver the goods and be really professional. So I tried to strike that balance between somewhere where a creative person will enjoy being but that your client would feel safe in the space as well. 

I also collect a lot of propaganda art, advertising and packaging design and now I can actually put it up somewhere!

When you started, did you already have a group of people to bring into your space?

“If you build it they will come”

No — basically I was the first coworking space in the west. I thought “if you build it, they will come.” It took a bit longer than I thought it was going to but things are up and running now. 

My husband was unemployed at the time, and I had no money at all. I found this space and it was in terrible condition. I really like quirky old buildings and their connection to history and I was walking down the street and saw this building. I looked up, we came in and it was skanky as but we had nothing to do so I asked my husband “do you reckon we could do this? Can you fix it?” 

So there were no labour costs and we did everything as cheap as we could so it was an opportunity. I could get this good space for a reasonable price because it was in terrible condition so I wasn’t that frightened. I thought, “I can go for a couple of months and I’ll be okay” and then I started getting members and it was fine.

Who was your first member?

Kill your darlings has been with me since the beginning, which I love because I’m a reader. It’s great having writers around. There’s been lots of different kinds of people coming and going, like photographers and writers, designers, illustrators. We seem to get a lot of writers, I think because it’s a quiet space. It’s not one of those beehive bustling places. 

What is your community like?

I try to target it towards people in creative professions, or at least relevant industries. But basically like-minded people. So I curate it and I use the analogy of a sharehouse. It’s really like a sharehouse. What works and doesn’t work in a sharehouse is very similar to what works and doesn’t work in a coworking space. 

“Community is super super important to me so it was always about building a community.”

Sometimes you collaborate — if you bring like-minded people together then there’s the opportunity for collaboration to happen, which is not something I engineer with intent, but is certainly something that happens if you do put thought and care into how your curate the people in the space. We have a really really nice community and we’re all different people but we’re all from the Footscray or surrounding suburb area, it’s just nice to be able to do things like go out for lunch together.

As a designer, I really like being able to stick stuff up and say to these guys “what do you think? which logo do you think works better?” or if I have something wrong with my email I can just ask the person next to me. It’s just nice having people around.

Do you organise things that your community does together?

Not really — I just make sure that everybody meets each other. This is absolutely not the sort of space where some random will come in and they will have no idea who you are and not even look at you. That goes back to the sharehouse example — no one likes the housemate who just walks down the hallway, locks themselves in their room, doesn’t introduce any of their friends to you. 

I also stick pictures up in the kitchen, little headshots with names of all our regulars so that if you’ve met someone and you can’t remember their name, it’s really embarrassing to ask again. And sometimes people are in on different days so they never see each other but at least they can see in the kitchen, “oh there’s Kerry-Ann who’s always in on a Wednesday” and then if Kerry-Ann comes in one Tuesday, they can say hi. 

I don’t engineer any other kind of stuff. I tried to do regular Friday lunches but it was just impossible. Now if everyone’s here, we’ll just go for lunch then. 

What would you tell yourself if you went back in time to The Idea Collective day one?

When I started, I really wanted the space to be accessible for lots of people and so I had the meeting room at $10 an hour, which I thought was quite reasonable and I was trying to make sure that it would be accessible to people who were starting out and didn’t have much money. Then I realised that it was really draining on me.

I would have to find the time to talk to the person, invoice them and be here when they arrive which was crazy. You have to be careful about that and make sure that when you’re pricing you’re considering not just the time that they’re there, but how much work you have to put in to supporting them or helping them. 

I didn’t realise how much time was going to be involved in managing people, and doing all the admin and invoicing. I already have a job that I’m doing and my billable hours as a designer are much better than doing this admin. 

Be aware of how time-consuming it is to manage people and consider hiring someone to do this job. Minimise how much time is involved by streamline your processes and try and automate as much as possible. It takes longer than you think and is more expensive than you think!

Approach it not just as a business, but as a way to build the community, then you’ll enjoy it so much more. 

What influenced the design of your space?

The design was influenced by the building. When you come up the stairs, it’s so film noir with all the dark wood and the era of the building. It was built in 1913 but the top floors were taken over by a law firm in the 1940s who put in the glass doors that are so “detective agency” in style. 

The design of the space and the identity were done as a response to the space itself. I’m not a believer in trying to fight your environment and pretending to be something else — you should just work with it harmoniously. Also because I like all of the propaganda art and vintage packaging, it all fits together. 

I also like the history of the building, it’s super interesting. Mechanics Institutes were started by industrialists in the late 1800s and they were philanthropists who believed that if the working classes had a better quality of life and were educated, then it would benefit the whole of society. So they set up these institutes which always had a pool room and this used to be the pool room! They always had a library and they would have classes and give talks which were all free so that the working man had something else to do other than go to the pub. They took off and went all across Australia — every country town in Australia has a Mechanics Institute but most of them aren’t used for that purpose anymore and most of them don’t even have their libraries anymore. So the Footscray library downstairs is one of the only surviving libraries and it’s gorgeous. I liked that idea — it was about community and believing in supporting the people around you, so philosophically that appealed to me as well about the building.

 

Why Footscray?

Footscray is so freaking awesome! I discovered it about 10 years ago when we left St Kilda. When we moved into St Kilda, it was this crazy quirky place where musicians, artists and junkies lived because it was one of the cheapest places in Melbourne and I was immediately attracted to that and Footscray feels a bit like that too. 

It’s a really interesting area because Footscray is a migrant base being close to the docks and the city, and affordable. Before the post-war migrants arrived, it was a working-class area with lots of factories so it has this kind of gritty, interesting vibe and there’s something about having come from hardship that bonds people. Because it’s not ever really been a privileged area, there’s this beautiful sense of an underdog feeling, and locals are really passionate about Footscray. And because the rest of Melbourne has always seen Footscray as too gritty and far away, there’s a strong sense of solidarity. 

But the reality is, Footscray is very close to the city, and Melbourne’s prices have gone bezerk, and so now people have realised that here’s this culturally super interesting place where the food is amazing two stops from the city. It takes literally 10 minutes from me stepping out of my door to be in the CBD and the property prices have been super low for a long time because nobody really knew, but now everyone has got it and is rushing to Footscray. I wish I’d bought something when I moved here 10 years ago — I just thought it would be cheap for ages.

It’s a really really cool place to live, and it’s a really exciting time. We’re all going, “we told you!” So much is happening and there’s so many cool places opening.

Are there a lot of art-related things like the projection festival happening in Footscray?

Yes, because the artists always know where the good places are. The artists figured it out before anybody else. This place is amazing and it’s cheap and interesting. The arts community started about 25 years ago and it’s amazing. There’s so many good things — there’s two festivals on at the moment: the projection festival, and there’s also an immersive arts festival. There’s interesting people all over the place, doing really interesting stuff. And then you’ve got the whole cultural diversity as well.

My partner and I opened a bar called Littlefoot down the road — Footscray’s first wine bar — two and half years ago, and now there’s 7 bars in Footscray. There’s just stuff happening all the time, which is slightly scary in terms of, you don’t really want it to change that much. Change is inevitable, but you don’t want to lose what you love about it. But it is exciting to see what happens and because the locals have so much passion and love for the area, I really think it will be okay, we’ll protect it.

Liana recommends visiting The Footscray Community Arts Centre while you’re in Footscray. It’s a really cool space in a beautiful spot overlooking the river, and then the docks and then the city in the background which is quite a uniquely Footscray viewpoint!

Having been doing this since 2013, you’ve seen how  coworking and the way that people work has developed — how do you see it changing in the future?

People know more about it, so more people are doing it. It makes so much economic sense because it is super expensive to open something up, and people are getting that. It used to be considered quite a weird thing, and even four years ago I was having to explain a lot more to people what it meant. But I’m still explaining that to people — most people still don’t know. I guess it’s just become more acceptable. We should just keep going. 

Do you have plans for the Idea Collective?

My goals are just to be happy and pay the bills, I’m not trying to take over the world.

I’m always open to possibilities. I’ve always got my eyes and ears open so I can go with the flow and respond to the things happening around me.

A massive thank you to Liana for showing us around her beautiful space, telling us her story and introducing us to the magic that is Footscray! To find out more about the Idea Collective, be sure to like them on Facebook or check out the wonderful website!

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