Prologue: This is the second part of a series of posts about closing down our business, Workshop Chicago. I have a lot of hope right now, and I feel compelled to share what I consider a summary of the meta-narrative of the Workshop story. It's helping me process this season, and since so many of you are a part of the story, I thought you might be interested in reading my thoughts. Cheers.
PART II: Business is Booming? Business is Booming.
While community was happening, this other thing started to happen: business. But not in the way we expected. Our room was cozy and aesthetically pleasing, enhanced by skyline views and free parking. So people, some of whom I knew and some I did not, started asking to rent our room to host their gatherings. They even offered to pay for it occasionally. That arrangement seemed like a great strategy to supplement our less-than-ideal revenue intake, so we tried it.
And we got better at it, growing a small team to help build a business around event rental. With some incredible people, hard work, and strategic decisions, Workshop became a company that was mildly profitable. It felt strange, and unlike the business we meant to start, but one of the goals was to make a profit, so it appeared we were heading in the right direction. In business they call that a "pivot."
Even though the focus of the business transferred from co-working to event rental, we still had a great community. The people who continued to use the space as their office, along with others who came along mostly to support the event system, were of the highest caliber and helped us grow in a different way.
But there was a shift; some adjustments to the core of what we were doing. It was a big change that I didn't totally grasp until much later.
Since there were always good people around, we were still in the same room, and we wanted the business part to work so badly, we moved forward with this new model. After all, how often does a small business start from scratch and become profitable this quickly? Something was working.
It didn't take long -- not nearly as long as I would have thought -- before we were receiving inquiries and hosting events, meetings, and productions for some clients with household names. Early on in the business, I wrote down a few organizations that were my "dream partners;" the brands and communities I aspired for Workshop to be like or work with somehow. In a matter of a year or so, we had worked with everyone on that list. I was left dumbfounded and almost without a vision for what was next, since we had already become profitable beyond my most audacious projections and rubbed shoulders with some of my heroes.
We built a reputation; I met people around town who had heard of Workshop and had no connection to me personally. We had great reviews, carved a little niche in the market, and it seemed like continued growth was inevitable. Over the course of the business, we hosted over 20,000 people in our little venue; groups of 15, 50, 100 people at a time. Workshop became a backdrop for TV shows, commercials, photo shoots for major brands, and welcomed a few notable public figures. It was more successful than I had dreamed possible, in a sense.
But there's often another sense. And in that proverbial other sense, I was never comfortable.
An unexpected result of operating an event venue is that you, consciously or not, expend your energy to facilitate other people's communities. Our space was no longer just a place for us to share and grow and celebrate -- people from all over the city, then the country, then the world came to gather at Workshop for their purposes. Which, among other things, can be heart-warming, eye-opening, inspirational, and unexpectedly lucrative. It can also be really challenging, and certainly time-consuming. Sustaining a profitable business over time is not simple -- logistics, competition, staffing, and strategic direction were all major hurdles we encountered more than once.
I told myself over and over that Workshop was still a community because we had a team, a room where we hosted community, and a business that, at times, thrived while focusing on celebrating and facilitating community gatherings. And that was all true.
But it wasn't our community, and it wasn't about our conversation anymore. We spent a lot of energy entertaining other communities' conversations, and though entertaining did pay the bills, energy is a limited resource. At the end of most days, it was all we could do to keep the doors open on a business that did little to support our movement -- the one about figuring out life and work and adulthood together.
In many ways I went back to having that conversation in my head, about how we're all struggling to figure out our path; often wondering about life, etc. and occasionally speaking of it, but doing less and less to connect, share, or help those of us who were brought together by those big questions in the first place. I was fortunate to have a few friends to share that dialogue with, but spent a lot of time thinking about who we were missing, who really needed this and didn't have my great friends to talk to.
I know I'm not alone in grappling with "meaning" these days. I also know there's more to living than participating in meaningful community, like paying your bills and other responsibilities. But we each have our own path, and mine doesn't continue without refocusing energy on something that matters to me deeply.
It's about navigating life in this future.
Next Post: Part III: A Conversation Without an Ending