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Coworking in Fort Worth, Texas: How Ensemble Supports and Grows the Local Entrepreneurial Community
“If you’re serious about running your coworking space as a business…and having a robust management software, Satellite Deskworks is it.” —Tamara Payne, Ensemble Coworking
Ensemble Coworking was the first traditional coworking space in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s also the first woman-owned coworking space in North Texas. Cofounded by “Chief Connector,” Tamara Payne and “Chief Activator,” Dawn Shannon, Ensemble is home to freelancers, remote workers, independent professionals, small business owners and teams.
With a strong focus on supporting entrepreneurs, providing business development resources and building community, Ensemble Coworking is one of the standout shared workspaces in Texas. I chatted with Payne and Shannon about their decision to open a coworking space in Fort Worth, the collaborative environment they’ve created at Ensemble, and how Satellite Deskworks has transformed how they run their business. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Cat Johnson: Let’s start with some background. How did Ensemble Coworking come about? What was the inspiration for the space?
Tamara Payne: I had my own business for 17 years and I’ve gone through every iteration of a workspace. I started off working at home in a spare bedroom; as I got a little bit bigger, I moved into an office that I subleased from another company; I grew into a bigger space because I have equipment for printing; I got in over my head, nearly bankrupted my business, sold all my equipment and moved back home; then I lost my extra bedroom to my children; I made a makeshift office in the garage, which doesn’t bode very well in Texas when it gets hot, so I found myself working at the kitchen table, working in the bedroom, working in coffee shops, working just about anywhere I could.
I have a marketing and communications company and one of my contractors had taken me to a place called Creative Consortium in Dallas which is now called The Foundry Club. I fell in love with the concept of having everybody in one space working. I’ve been running networking groups since 2002 and saw that coworking is like having a big networking group. That was seven years ago.
About four years ago, a professional colleague said something about opening a coworking space. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be a small business owner, but we went to look at the building. She realized it was a big risk that she wasn’t willing to take on. I, on the other hand, knew it was something I wanted to go with, so I started researching it to make sure it was a viable concept and not just a fad.
Dawn and I have known each other for 15 years. She’s a certified professional coach so she was coaching me and I was doing marketing for her. I told her what I was working on and she immediately said, “Hold on, let me take off my coaching hat and put on my friend hat.”
Dawn, what was your response when Tamara brought up launching a coworking space?
Dawn Shannon: I had been working at an architecture firm for many years at that time. The firm owned the building it was in and I was involved in leasing out the additional space we had. I had done executive suite management in California and continued it for a year or two when I moved back to Texas, so I’m familiar with the leasing aspect of these spaces. I knew what coworking was and was trying to get the guys who owned the building to do it because we had space that sat empty for so long. But they couldn’t wrap their brains around it.
Through all of that, I knew it was a great concept and I was on-board when Tamara told me about it. Tamara and I are opposites, as far as our work style. She’s the big visionary, I’m the baby visionary. I’m the numbers person. With her vision and drive, and me making sure it’s viable, we got together and said we were going to do it together and we started making a plan. That was 2015 and we opened Ensemble in April of 2016.
Texas has a vibrant, and growing, coworking scene. It also has a long history in the movement, with the first coworking meetup in Austin way back in 2010. What is the coworking ecosystem like in Fort Worth?
TP: Austin is very tech-forward. They’re much more ahead of the curve of new trending things. It goes Austin, then Dallas. Dallas is way ahead of us, as far as trending goes, as well. That was good for us because we could do a lot of research over in Dallas. When we started working on this in Fort Worth, there weren’t any traditional coworking spaces here. There was one, but they were much more office space than anything else. They didn’t have anyone running their location, so when you went in to cowork, there was nobody to talk to.
Then there was Craftwork, which is a coffee shop/coworking space that opened three months before us. Their coworking space was 10 private offices, one small conference room, and one table called open coworking. But their primary driver was their coffee shop.
We opened a more traditional coworking business model. Ensemble is a good mixture of open coworking, 12 private offices, dedicated desks and three conference rooms. One conference room is a large event space, as well, that can hold 50 people seated and can expand out to the open coworking area. We’ve had 100 people here for a networking event.
So you can lay claim to being the first coworking space in Fort Worth?
TP: We’re the first traditional coworking model here, and we were the only woman-owned coworking space in North Texas.
DS: We’re also bootstrapped. We got an SBA loan and did it all on our own.
How are things going at Ensemble now that you’re almost two years in?
TP: They’re good. We have a great, vibrant space. We’re at the point now where we need to take it to the next level. We have some private offices that are available—we also have some competition coming in, so that’s one of our challenges. In October, Common Desk opened their fifth location in Texas, here in Fort Worth. And WeWork announced they’re coming, so they’re doing their best to saturate the market with all of their marketing dollars and deep discounts they can do. We can’t offer the discounts they can offer on private offices, so that’s a bit of a challenge for us right now.
The thing that sets us apart is that Dawn and I are deeply embedded in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Fort Worth area. When you get some of these bigger dogs in, that’s the least important thing for them, but it’s huge for Dawn and I. We host 1 Million Cups, we’re both on the committee for Startup Weekend Fort Worth, and we’re coaching for that event. We have a variety of things we’ve involved with. We interject ourselves, as much as we possibly can, into the entrepreneurial ecosystem here.
From a female perspective, it’s been tough for us to break into the small business world in the Fort Worth area. But Dawn and I are extremely proud that we just won the Fort Worth Inc.’s 2018 Supporter of Entrepreneurship Award. We were the only women out of 11 awards.
Congratulations! Who makes up the Ensemble community? What type of entrepreneurs and professionals find their way to the space, and who would you like to attract?
We’re proud to boast that we have varied industries—we’re not industry-specific. We have post-launch businesses, all the way up to a 40 year-old PR company. We have members who barely get $30,000 a year to a 10-year-old IT company doing $1.2 million.
As far as workers, we have solopreneurs and freelancers, and companies that have upwards of four employees. Then we’re satellite offices for two major companies based out of Houston. We’d love to get more of those remote workers from larger, stable companies that can give their employees a workspace that’s inspiring, as opposed to coffee shops.
The Ensemble tagline is “collaborative business community” and you have a strong focus on the community in your space. Will you tell me more about your approach to community at Ensemble?
TP: Community is a huge part of Ensemble. Some businesses can scale to a million dollars and still only be you. The reality is that, as a solopreneur, the people you talk to the most in a day are your clients or your family members. You don’t have other people to collaborate with and bounce ideas off of. You’re sometimes making more mistakes than you need to. You can get stuck and make a lot of costly mistakes.
Being inside Ensemble, we’ve connected you with other people who actually want to collaborate and be part of your work life, without you having to employ them. For example, we have a monthly AMPlify your Business session that’s for members only. At these AMP sessions, we either do a roundtable mastermind on a particular topic or a mastermind session for a specific member on a challenge they’re dealing with. We just did an AMP session for a brand new attorney who’s trying to figure out who and what he is. He doesn’t know how to network or how to market himself. He’s sitting in a room full of people, all different ages and industries, helping him define his target marketing, encouraging him to niche down—which is scary for all businesses—and how that can lead to additional business.
That seems to fit right into your vision for community and in-house networking at Ensemble.
TP: Our mission is to grow businesses and invest in people. The key is the community and creating intentional, purposeful times for our members to connect with each other and to collaborate on private and work challenges. We have fun events too, like our Wine Down Wednesday. Then Dawn and I are great about just bringing people together, making sure people meet when there may be some synergy there.
Dawn’s really good at action. She’s great at working with our members on creating actionable plans to move forward within their business. That’s what she does for Ensemble, as a whole, and how she pours into our people, as well. For me, it’s about connection to people and resources within the space and outside of the space.
Dawn, what’s your experience of community and collaboration at Ensemble?
DS: When I was ready to go out on my own, I wish I had a place like Ensemble where I could actually get mentoring and collaborate with other people who had been there before me, and gone through the hard times, and learn from them. You want that—you want to be around the people who’ve come before you and made the mistakes so you don’t have to waste time and money.
It’s refreshing that there’s none of that dog-eat-dog world here, even if people are in the same industry. We have a lot of people in cooperating industries, and we have a lot of people who team up. That way, they can really serve their clients well. That’s the beauty of what we have here: it’s truly about collaboration and connection and community.
When you were looking for workspace software for Ensemble, what brought you to Satellite Deskworks?
TP: We were with Cobot initially. While it’s a good system, it’s missing the ability to lease our own conference rooms, which is one of our income streams. A lot of software we looked at didn’t have a robust way of leasing your conference room—they just had the ability for you to manage your conference rooms for your members. Before switching to Deskworks, we were using LiquidSpace, which was not working for us.
The best part about Satellite Deskworks is that someone who has never been to our space can look at the pictures of the conference room and click “Book Now.” It books the room immediately, it goes right to the payment processing, and they pre-pay. Before, we would book a conference room, block it out on the calendar, then have people not show up. Now, if they don’t show up, they’ve already prepaid and there’s no return policy on that. We love that “Book Now” feature.
We like the back-end on the member management side, as well, as far as managing the multiple plans we have. The ease of adding those plans and customizing the plans was wonderful. Those were the two things, from the beginning, that drew us to Deskworks. We also loved talking with [Deskworks founder and CEO] Barbara and [Outreach Director] Kathi. We love the fact that they’re women; we love that the company is in the United States so there was no communication barrier; and they were very willing and open to our ideas, as far as where they could make improvements. When we’ve made suggestions, Barbara will go, as she says, ‘play in the sandbox,’ and test it out and see if it works.
DS: Another thing is that they’re coworking owners themselves. They’re not a software company that created software but didn’t actually use it. They have seven spaces so we knew they had their stuff together. We’ve really challenged them with functionalities we’d like to see and they’re very responsive. There’s a quick turnaround. It’s great to have them very close and get a quick response.
TP: This software is about running a business. A lot of other coworking software is about the community aspect. For us, community is built face to face, eyeball to eyeball. We have a Facebook group and a Slack group. For us, the social online tool was less important.
The functionality of this software, and management of it, is from a business perspective. We can run reports and see what’s working and what’s not working. That was huge for us. I’d caution any coworking space looking at software that’s heavy on the social side. There are other ways of doing that and it’s not the most important part of your software.
How would you advise another space operator considering Satellite Deskworks?
TP: If you’re serious about running your coworking space as a business—if you’re a business-minded person that wants ease in entering your members, tracking them, running reports, and having a robust management software, this is it. As a business owner, you have to run your business. Satellite Deskworks helps you run your business.