SMALL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR 2011/12 - The Grove

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groveFrom The Grove flows a ‘river’ of innovation and collaboration

The times certainly are a-changin’, and the way we view and conduct business is, too.

Whether it’s the evolving outlook of newer generations, rapidly expanding technologies, or the effects of an ongoing economic slump, people are looking for new ways to work, thrive and succeed without relying on old models that for many have failed.

Photo: The Grove’s Ballard (left) and Janke: Leveraging a ‘new way’ of working independently — but cooperatively.

Meanwhile, social networking is a pervasive aspect of the culture and has extended itself beyond simply staying in touch with friends to an effective business tool.

A system of sharing information and knowledge, tapping others for input and finding creative processes is the new way.

At that nexus grows The Grove.

Founders Ken Janke and Slate Ballard started The Grove in autumn 2010 in a space roughly the third of the size of its current home, before swelling membership moved them next door to 71 Orange Street last August. Both are soft-spoken and cool, and carry an altruistic pride in their city.

“We were looking to create change in some way, and we stumbled on this idea of co-working,” Ballard says. “People need resources, the need support, they need community to move their ideas forward, and needed to do so in the context of a space where they could find that support, and in a place that promoted collaboration, creativity, innovation, and new ideas.”

The Grove provides a sleek new front to Orange Street, and inside it’s a clean, modern layout replete with open common workspaces, private offices and conference rooms of varying sizes.

A full range of professional amenities — high-speed Internet, a mailing address, storage, printing, faxing and copying, coffee and shared kitchen space — seals the deal. One might need to show up with little more than a laptop and be ready to go.

The members who use The Grove then can tap into the excitement and possibilities of working independently yet in the presence of other professionals from a broad range of disciplines.

It’s a scenario perfect for freelancers, “solopreneurs” running their own business or startup company, employees of bigger companies that might take space in The Grove rather than commute to New York City every day, or telecommuters who would prefer to work somewhere other than home.

Janke laughs and says going to Starbucks is always an option, but outside buying your “guilty cup of coffee,” there is a major drawback.

“The next time you go back to Starbucks, nobody’s going to know you,” he says.

“And when you’re there, you’re probably not going to talk to anybody, just sit there and work,” Ballard adds.

They say the diversity of the members — which encompass food and environmental concerns, education, technology, editorial, and design — is the biggest asset to a collaborative workspace.

“We envisioned a space where a diverse group of people can share ideas and learn from one another and work together,” explains Ballard. “We’re lucky that it actually worked the way we thought it was going to work.”

Janke uses The Grove’s mix of for-profit and non-profit organization membership as an example.

“You have the for-profits helping our non-profits think about market principles and brand identity, and then the non-profits challenge and encourage our for-profits to think about social responsibility as a business and as a person making money in this city.”

He says members regularly tap into each other’s unique skill sets for help with projects, and sometimes spin off and form other ventures together as a result of collaborating.

“What's formed is a community of people who support each other, who know each other, they know what projects they're working on,” Janke says. “So you’re being a solopreneur, but at the same time you have an entire team of people you can tap for help. [Our members] are cross-pollinating across sectors, and so are much more productive and knowledgeable.”

For example, Janke points to a social-media developer who gained 90 percent of her client portfolio through connections made since joining The Grove. And word must be spreading, too, since prospective clients find themselves referred to The Grove and come in looking for copywriters or developers for projects.

Ballard says co-working spaces have been booming across the country over the past year. This is reflected through various online listings, and exemplified by the presence of another co-working space, La Bourse, which opened at roughly the same time around the corner at 839 Chapel Street. Ballard notes that members often travel from as far as Hartford, New London or Norwalk to work at The Grove.

Janke also believes that the bottoming out of the economy in 2008 helped give rise to a new mode of thought that has forced workers to reinvent themselves creatively, especially as some those who lost their jobs now find their industries or positions non-existent.

“Now as we start to imagine our economy dawning on a new day, the reality is that nobody wants to go back to how it was,” Janke says. “This isn't something that's going away — it's actually now the new way.”

 

Today The Grove boasts more than 80 members, enrolled through one of three membership plans: two part-time options offer 50 and 100 hours of access per month, respectively, while a full-time membership grants unlimited access. There are even five private office tenants with permanent locations there.

Kyle Hamilton is a member at The Grove, and while running her own accounting business also oversees the financial affairs of the place. In the collaborative spirit, she also offers assistance to the entrepreneurs and startups there.

“So many people here are startups, and with that comes the onus of having to set up an accounting system and keep track of the books,” Hamilton explains. “That’s the last thing most people want to do; they want to come in and be creative, and do what they do. Most of them are literally just starting out, and don’t have the resources or budget to throw at professional services. I’m hoping to support people in that way.”

But what The Grove offers isn't exclusively for its members; it hosts regular workshops and seminars open to the public, and last fall even hosted New Haven’s Startup Weekend, which invited budding tech innovators to create their own startup companies over a single weekend. The Grove’s meeting room spaces are also available for hourly or daily rental.

“It's been a year and a half, and we've just blown up,” Slate says. “Every month we're adding two or three members, sometimes five. Within a year we tripled our space, and brought on five private office tenants. We could have gotten ten; there were people knocking down our doors trying to get offices here. But we couldn't facilitate it because we needed to create the space for the co-workers.”

“These small businesses want to be a part of The Grove, they want to be in here and be a part of the community because there's access to all of these people doing all these things,” he continues. “They'll tell you how valuable it is to be officing out of The Grove, way more than it is to be out of your own private office.”

Amy Romano is associate director of the maternity-care group Childbirth Connection, which has its offices in New York, and works out of The Grove part-time. She had been looking for co-working space and came upon The Grove just as it was opening

“This is a model for working that makes so much sense,” says Romano, who adds that hours earlier a fellow co-worker offered her a new tip as she worked on a project. “I haven’t worked in a typical office in a long time, but you miss out on things that can just happen serendipitously.”

Romano says her husband, Sean O’Brien, recently joined The Grove after being laid off from his previous job in hopes of optimizing the networking opportunities.

“He’s in a position where he can rethink what he wants to do from square one, and this seems like the perfect environment for that,” Romano says.

“Even if I work at home some days, just to be in an environment surrounded by other professional people and not in my house all the time is really helpful,” says Tagan Engel, a chef who also chairs of the New Haven Food Policy Council, a fiduciary of which is the CitySeed Farmers Market. Engel says interacting with others with regard to food, environmental or social justice on a regular basis expands her network and knowledge base.

“There is certainly overlap both in terms of wanting to work together on events as well as talking about organizational tactics,” she says. “In the food world, I could end up knowing just the food people, but [here] I meet all these other people who are natural allies.”

“From the minute you walk in the front door, there’s an energy that starts flowing in this place that’s just out of this world,” says Web developer George Vasilopoulos. “You’re surrounded by people doing such amazing things and to some extent it drives you to succeed. It really ups your game.”

Vasilopoulos also lauds the collective group’s predilection for giving back — food drives, coat drives and community outreach and giving are a norm, aided in no small part by the community organizers and advocates who are Grove members.

Janke and Ballard say they anticipate The Grove to continue growing over the coming year, and both conceive of the prospect of expanding even further in the near future.

“From its inception New Haven has been a place of innovation,” Janke says. “There has been a drought in the past, where the pump needed to be primed a bit. Now there is a thriving ecosystem of entrepreneurialism that we find ourselves at the center of.

“We're starting to see this river of innovation flowing through the streets again, and it's an exciting time.”


 
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