by George McLaughlin
In 2012 I had my first foray into the startup world when I joined BlueTree Network. We had a confident, visionary CEO who gave zero fucks about pragmatism, so when we grew we moved into an office much bigger than we needed. One of my first tasks was to find a co-tenant to split rent with.
I immediately sent emails to the few coworking spaces operating in Madison. I was vaguely familiar with the movement and was excited about the prospect of bringing a community of talented individuals into our space. The marketing and potential business advantages of having talent in the same space were obvious, but I was also selfishly excited about developing new relationships with interesting people.
The aptly named coworking space Caboose Coworking was working out of a train car nearby and had around 20 active members. It was obvious after our first meeting that our goals for the space and excitement about coworking’s potential benefits for Madison were in line. We made an offer: BlueTree Network would give Caboose access to half its office space if Caboose could increase membership and revenue such that both parties could split rent and facility costs 50/50.
Caboose quickly re-branded to become the coworking space 100State and hit the ground running. Starting with a core membership of about 10 people in the office every day, things started growing slowly but surely. In the space you’d find a freelance photographer, a PHD student working on a data visualization startup, a team of developers working on a live music scheduling software platform, an undergraduate working on a medical device startup, and so on. I was incredibly impressed by each person and amazed at how this space was dropping valuable connections, both personal and business, into my lap. Quickly, our shared office space was a buzzing hub of smart, interesting people working and collaborating on more projects than I could keep up with.
BlueTree Network, which pivoted and became a me-too consulting company, benefited immensely from having 100State in the same room. Each day, people giving a tour of the space would stop by our office and exclaim, “This is BlueTree Network—they’re a consulting firm that places former Epic employees at health systems for obscene amounts of money. You should check them out!” It was easily the best marketing we ever did.
As our business grew, we looked directly to the coworking space to source our next hires for project based work (thank you readily available graphic designers and SEO specialists) and critical management positions. Looking back, the talent available was overwhelming.
Within the space, members began collaborating on projects, running educational sessions, connecting with the community, and showing visitors what this “coworking thing” could be. What began as ten people in a train car—literally a train car—became an epicenter of business, community, and civic leaders connecting with one another to create abundance. It was honestly the most beautiful example of humanity I’ve ever witnessed and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have been there from its inception.
So what did I do? I left.
Here I was, in the middle of everything. Surrounded by every connection I could ever want or need. Inspired daily by those around me. Driven to reach heights of success I wouldn’t have believed possible if it weren’t for the fact that some dude I see every day is doing it, living it, showing me the way.
You know that relationship you had when you were young, the one with the beautiful, smart, kind, loyal partner? The one you threw away because you hadn’t yet had the life experience to be capable of realizing how rare and amazing that person was? Ah, youthful ignorance, and the belief that of course everything will always be this good. Hell, things will only get better! I was spoiled and instead of acknowledging this bizarre, unique situation as the blessing it was, I took it for granted and treated it like some divine entitlement.
What led to my exit from the amazing community I had fallen ass-backward into? It all started when the relationship between BlueTree Network and 100State shifted.
Both companies became so successful that they began stepping on one another’s toes. The space was crowded and loud. I personally loved it, but as we grew our team to include sales folks and recruiters who needed to be on the phone all day, the novelty of entire teams squished into a room wore off.
People needed offices with walls. People needed parking. It was no longer a startup; BlueTree had officially grown up. It wanted to be in bed by 10pm after watching its favorite show on Netflix—gone were the days chasing the sunrise, powered by tequila and bummed cigarettes. BlueTree dominated most of the prime private offices due to its initial position of power in the relationship. As 100State expanded its business they wanted to rent those offices to startups and hold educational sessions in the nice conference room that had long served as BlueTree’s bullpen. It was decided that BlueTree would move out and 100State would take over the entire space.
It was the best thing for everyone. Except for me.
There was a joke on our team that I would get a nervous tic if I ever left the isthmus of downtown Madison. If you’ve never been to Madison, the downtown area falls on a narrow strip of land—a geographic anomaly that has played an enormous role in Madison becoming the beautiful, quirky city it is today. When you’re on the isthmus, you’re in this beautiful bubble. There are no big box stores. Bike lanes dominate and people walk everywhere. Our state capitol building sits in the middle of everything; it’s a truly majestic structure that forces people to stop and think about things like virtue and beauty. The restaurants are fantastic, the bars are great, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison ensures a constant stream of beautiful young people mulling about. It’s one of the nicest places in the world, when the weather cooperates. Off the isthmus though is Anywhere, USA. National chain stores dominate along with shitty malls, subdivisions, an astounding lack of diversity, and other suburban things that city people hate. All of a sudden you’re snapped out of this dream state where Madison feels like some secret cosmopolitan gem and reminded that you’re in the middle of Wisconsin. I hate it. With my employer moving off the isthmus, the writing was on the wall for me.
BlueTree Network no longer needed someone like me. It didn’t need young dreamers willing to dig in when nothing made sense and work their ass off to make it real. It already was real. My final task was to find my replacement to ensure the operations kept running smoothly. I hired a lovely young woman smarter and more diligent than myself, and made a clean break with the company that gave me my first shot.
What I should have done was throw myself into the 100State community and start working on my own endeavor. What I did instead was get a job working at a local clothing store working three days a week. I spent the summer riding my motorcycle as much as possible and drinking entirely too much whiskey.
While my “sabbatical” was fantastic, something unfortunate happened. I became disconnected from the community. My rich network of talented people dried up, replaced with… nothing. All of a sudden, all the advantages that were served to me on a silver platter, all the people who knew me or at least had an idea of who I was, were gone. I went from being able to join an interesting startup, or land a job solely on connections and reputation, to being another 20-something college graduate lost in the abyss of job seekers.
I was shocked to receive no reply from job applications sent out to businesses for positions I felt extremely qualified for. Zendesk, Huckberry, some Mary Kay of custom men’s shirting that I honestly can’t remember the name of—all straight up ignored me. Forget an interview, I didn’t even garner a response. That’s a pretty rude awakening for someone who recently held a management position at a company he helped build that was grossing $15m in revenue.
I learned two things. One, I had grown entitled and the world decided it was time to wake me from my illusion. I was lucky and blessed, not overwhelmingly gifted. Everything I had taken for granted could be taken away in an instant. If I didn’t watch it, I’d wake up one day another of capitalism’s castoffs, drifting between underwhelming soul-sucking jobs for a below-market wage.
The other thing I learned was that I needed community. I was nothing without those talented people around me. They were what brought new ideas and opportunities into my life. They were what gave me the means to build a reputation. They were the reason anyone had a clue as to who I was and what I was capable of.
After dusting myself off, my ego beaten down to a manageable size, I set out to re-engage. As luck would have it – and I chalk a lot of this up to luck and blessings these days – my re-entry into 100state and the coworking community came swiftly.
Apparently, even with my best efforts to fall completely off the face of the Earth, I wasn’t completely forgotten by those I used to work with every day.
One of the startup companies founded by members of 100State had reached a point where they were looking to bring on someone like me. Why me? Proximity. Familiarity. The simple fact that they saw what I did at BlueTree, how I interacted with everyone, and they had a developed a sense of how I would fit into their company. You know those resumes I sent off? The companies who responded to me with absolute silence? They didn’t have any idea who I was. They hadn’t seen me work. They didn’t know what I was like to joke with or drink with. I was just another resume.
That’s why coworking is beautiful. That’s why community is everything. Without it, you’re alone. You’d need to be truly exceptional and truly lucky to achieve much on your own. Alone, we fall prey to second-guessing and self-doubt. Even when the talent, ability, and will is there, the means to connect and find opportunities is not.
That’s not how success works; it doesn’t happen alone. At 100State, at coworking spaces around the world, all of a sudden the path is clear. All you need to do is show up, be present, engage, work hard, and court serendipity. I don’t know what your path will be. I don’t know what new opportunity or relationship you will derive from the community, but I do know you will gain something. You will be given the ability to build your reputation and sooner than later, someone is going to come to you because they know you. They have a feel for you, and they want to work with you.
Today I am working on Townsquare to ensure these coworking communities continue to thrive and offer others the chance to benefit the way I have. We’re young and still have a lot to figure out but our cause is worthwhile and that’s enough for me. I don’t know where this next chapter will take me but I do know one thing. I will never take this community for granted again. If you are out there feeling lost and under appreciated, I urge you, find a community to join. Get involved, engage, and see what happens. I had it, lost it, but, with luck, I found it again.