Inside Cape Cod’s First Shared Workspace: a Q&A with CapeSpace Founder Robbin Orbison
When Robbin Orbison moved from New York to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, she knew she wanted to start a business of some type, but she wasn’t sure what.
A former senior executive at a large commercial real estate development company, Orbison wasn’t ready to retire so she started working on business ideas from home. She soon realized she wanted to get out of the house and went looking for a shared office. When she couldn’t find one she decided to create CapeSpace, the area’s first shared workspace.
Located in Hyannis, CapeSpace is now just over a year old and thriving. I chatted with Orbison about the challenges of being the first space in her town, how CapeSpace fits into the local business ecosystem, and what advice she would offer new shared space operators.
Cat Johnson: What was your introduction to shared offices and coworking?
Robbin Orbison: When I was with the commercial real estate development company, we started putting business centers in all our buildings. We had a portfolio of commercial office buildings and we started setting aside 20,000 to 30,000 square feet in each one to do serviced office.
That’s how I got into the business. It was a business segment I ended up spending a lot of time on and, at some point, I got the bug for it.
How are things going in your own shared office, CapeSpace?
Great. We’re filling up. We have a waiting list for private offices, our virtual business is starting to grow, meeting room business is great. It’s terrific.
You offer a variety of services, from flexible workspace to private offices, meeting rooms and virtual offices. How did you decide on that model and which offerings are the most popular?
I wanted to be full-service from the beginning—I wanted to offer everything. A lot was driven by the space itself. It’s a 40,000 square foot, one-story building and I have 8,600 feet. A long time ago it was a manufacturing plant; then it was later converted to medical offices. It has fabulous transom windows that are 12 feet up, but they were completely obliterated by a drop ceiling and all these exam rooms. I wanted to bring the natural light into the space, so we built the flexible coworking space where the light was, then we built everything else around that.
The private offices sold out almost immediately so I reclaimed some of the coworking space and built six more offices about six months after we opened. Those went, and we have a waiting list for offices now. There was clearly some pent-up demand for furnished offices.
After that, I would say the most popular offering is the meeting space because there’s not a lot of good meeting space here. The virtual offices are following a pretty standard pattern—we’re probably signing up three to four virtuals a month without me doing much work on it. I think that’s industry standard to be expected at my stage of the game.
The flexible workspace is the hardest to fill up because it’s a big space, for one thing, and I have part time memberships, which are very popular, but you’ve got to have a lot of part-time members before your space starts to look really active. Even though I have a lot of revenue coming in from different products, I wish my coworking space looked busier than it does.
Who are your members? Who makes up the CapeSpace community?
I’ve got a little of everything. One-third of my clients are large corporates who use this as temporary space or as their solution because they have people everywhere; one third of my clients are local, very often home-based businesses or people who just want to get out of the house sometimes; and a third of my clients are off-Cape businesses that want to have a presence here. They may be based in the Boston area but they want to say they have a Hyannis office. They have virtual offices here, some have full-time offices and use it as a branch office, and some come here for meeting room space. Those are my three main clients.
Is there a tourism element to CapeSpace? Do people come in to work while they’re vacationing or there for a seasonal visit?
Oh yeah, they’re here now. We do a lot of business with them. Last year, I opened in June and I couldn’t believe how busy we were in our first month, because they were all vacationers.
The business definitely dies down in the winter. September and October are pretty busy. We call that the shoulder season when we’re still getting second home owners spending a lot of time here. The winter gets slower then it picks up again in the spring. I really haven’t been through a full cycle yet, so I don’t know how much of it picking up this spring is vacation people and how much of it is just that I’m ramping up.
How does CapeSpace fit into the extended Cape Cod community and business ecosystem?
There was a lot of interest—from the chambers of commerce, from some of the town managers here—in having this use on the Cape. There was interest in it and support for it because they perceived that there needed to be a place for people to work where they could be innovative and where solopreneurs could have collaborative space to work. They also saw it as an amenity for their summer tourists.
What are the benefits of being the first shared workspace on Cape Cod?
One is that I don’t have any competition. That’s good for me because people don’t have anywhere else to go. My competition is Starbucks or hotels, so that part has been good. The downside of being the first is that this is a market that is largely unaware of this industry. I’ve had to do a lot of educating this market on what this product is, and I’ve basically been doing that alone.
What have some of the challenges been this first year and how did you work around them?
IT challenges have been up high on the list. Originally, we set up with a different system—we weren’t on Satellite Deskworks from the beginning—and we had a lot of problems. We switched mid-stream. Plus, I also went through IT employees before I eventually found one that worked out. For the first six months, I really struggled with IT issues.
If I ever did this again, or if I was advising someone else, I’d tell them the number one thing I’d recommend is, if you’re not an IT person yourself, get an IT person on-board six months before you open. Don’t rely on vendors or consultants—you need someone who cares only about you.
The other challenge for me, personally, is marketing. It’s not my strong suit. It was my least favorite subject in business school and, through my career, I’ve had experience in just about every other aspect of running a business except the marketing.
And today, of course, most of it is digital, so I was thinking, “You mean I have to get on Facebook?” Getting up-to-speed on marketing and marketing channels and marketing strategy has been a challenge for me, personally.
When you made the switch to Satellite Deskworks, why did you choose it over other shared workspace software?
I did a lot of research. The first time around I relied on a consultant who did some kind of evaluation and said, “Here, use this.” I would never do that again.
The second time around, I did my own due-diligence. I saw a lot of demos, I got a lot of proposals and I talked to people who are using the other systems. I got a lot of information from Coworking Insights where Ryan Chatterton wrote a guide to these systems. He was very helpful in helping me compare and contrast software and figure out what was right for me.
What are some of the features of Satellite Deskworks that were must-haves for you?
At the time, the speed and ease with which we could get it up and running was a big deal for me.
I like that it is designed by space operators for space operators. When I talk to them about a question or a problem or a customization or a development issue, they get it. It’s very different than when you’re dealing with just engineers who are designing software without the real experience of being an operator. I appreciate that.
Also, they’re very, very available. When I call, I get somebody on the phone almost instantly every time. They’re really helpful. Their customer service is excellent.
Are there any features in Satellite Deskworks you were surprised to find yourself using?
With my experience with the previous vendor I was using, plus the vendor I was using in New York, and now Satellite Deskworks, I now have intimate knowledge of three systems. In terms of the features they have, they all have the features I want.
In Deskworks, it just works a lot nicer. The design is a lot cleaner and more logical. It’s easier for me to train people on than some of the systems that were probably born earlier in the industry, which has not been that long, but were designed by engineers as opposed to being designed by people who were actually using these things. The system is just more logical. The screens and processes to use it are just simpler.
For other space operators considering Satellite Deskworks, what advice would you give them?
Do your due diligence, and do it yourself—don’t farm it out. See the demos, get the proposals, ask the vendors questions and talk to some of their customers.