How this Detroit co-working space transformed in a pandemic economy

All photos by Cybelle Codish.

Before the pandemic, shared workspaces were becoming the new normal, catering to independent writers, entrepreneurs, and other creatives in cities worldwide

In the Before Time, Karen Burton envisioned and then opened SpaceLab Detroit, a bustling boutique co-working space, for other real estate creatives to share workspace and resources. Burton, a freelance architect, wanted a spacious office with room to review designs, meet with clients in glassed-in conference rooms, and share equipment with like-minded others in her industry.

So she and her husband, Bobby, launched the company with 5,200 square feet in June 2017 and expanded the following year to 7,500 square feet on two floors. Smack in the center of downtown Detroit with views of the river, SpaceLab allows clients the opportunity to rent space in a shared environment where they can collaborate on design and construction projects. It’s a prime spot close to the TCF Convention Center with high-speed internet, a materials and design library, project display areas, and a communal kitchen, all amenities geared to developers, investors, and building professionals seeking growth and nurturing.

The fast-expanding co-working movement popularized by firms like WeWork has become increasingly attractive, not only for its cost savings to entrepreneurs but also for the innovative and collaborative environment it cultivates.  However, white-collar workers stopped commuting in March 2020, as COVID-19 has necessitated isolation and social distancing, creating challenges for firms like SpaceLab.

“The pandemic has had a dramatic effect on our business,”  said Bobby Burton, who as chief operating officer manages the accounting and IT side of the SpaceLab business.  “For a long time, we were not able to open” due to state-mandated shutdown orders.

Not only did COVID halt operations for several months and force a layoff for the team, but reopening has also required a shift. The Burtons have installed Plexiglass partitions in common areas and placed air purifiers in the space.  State restrictions have limited capacity in meeting rooms, and the furniture has had to be rearranged to promote social distancing. The couple has also cut back on renting space to non-members as capacity has been restricted. 

“Thank God our members have stayed with us,” said Karen, the company’s CEO, “but the daily traffic has dwindled quite a bit.”

Their second location, a neighborhood spot that the couple opened inside Detroit Cabinet Manufacturing‘s showroom on the city’s northwest side in August 2019, remains closed. The couple’s entrepreneurial spirit became vital after the pandemic hit, and they’ve learned to pivot fast. The greatest lesson? “Never be married to your business model,” Bobby says.

Networking has gone virtual, with events, introductions, and the sense of belonging that would normally happen in the common space downtown moving online.

On a bright and unanticipated note, SpaceLab’s virtual business and mail-handling services have flourished, allowing the couple to recently hire a high school intern part-time.

Without the virtual piece, I don’t know how we could have made it,” said Karen, who handles the marketing and creative side of the business. “Being able to pivot and make decisions quickly is something we’ve learned and are learning during this time.”

PPP loans and grants also have helped SpaceLab to stay afloat and fill in gaps, with an infusion of funding from TechTown Detroit, Invest Detroit, and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, among others. A $10,000 grant, for example, from DesignCore Detroit is helping SpaceLab reconfigure and digitize their materials library, and develop a podcast studio. 

“Don’t get frustrated applying for grants and [the Paycheck Protection Program]. You’re going to get some no’s but it’s crucial to keep trying,”  says Bobby, a former vice president at Comerica, advising other Black entrepreneurs. “For minority businesses, it is crucial to have a banking relationship.” A banker at Level One reached out to encourage the couple to apply for financial assistance as their resources stretched thin.

“Be ready when grant announcements come out,” Karen added. “We learned that so many business workers in our space did not have their paperwork in order to be in a position to apply for aid.”

Since the coronavirus upended all aspects of life, many Detroiters are working from home, and demand for office space has plummeted. But the Burtons remain optimistic about the sustainability of their business.

“We still feel that there is a place for shared offices and safe co-working,” Karen said. “Co-working spaces are ideal for using a whiteboard, networking, or collaborating. You can’t read facial expressions on Zoom. There’s nothing like being in the same room with people to get those ideas flowing.”

This article was made possible through a collaborative storytelling effort with the New Economy Initiative, a project by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to build an inclusive regional network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Monica Williams

Author: Monica Williams

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