by Cat Johnson
When Audrey Morton Hoyt and Chris Hoyt opened the Pioneer Collective in May of 2015, they admittedly “knew little about coworking.” The two had simply set out to create an attractive space they would like to work in and thought that if they liked it, maybe 50 other people would like it too.
Audrey and Chris quickly learned, however, that if 50 people are all working in the same space, running the space becomes a project of its own. It was then, says Audrey, that they realized what the coworking industry was.
“The plan was that I would run the space while Chris was working a remote job from the space,” she says. “Then the space cannibalized everything.”
Shortly after they opened the Pioneer Collective, Audrey got pregnant, so plans changed. Chris runs the space full-time for now and Audrey’s home with their two daughters part-time and works part-time in the space, which they recently expanded from 6500 square feet to 9000 square feet.
I chatted with Audrey about those hectic early days, the decision to move into the Pioneer Square neighborhood, and the example they’re setting for their daughters by doing work that inspires and engages them.
Cat Johnson: When you and Chris opened the Pioneer Collective in 2015, you never expected it to be a full-time job. Tell me more about your initial vision for the space.
Audrey Morton Hoyt: We originally anticipated that it would be a 1000-2000 square foot space, with a handful of other people with us. At the time, I was going through a career change. I’d been working in the financial industry and had done a summer program in architecture at the University of Washington and was in an interior design program.
Chris was working remotely and he didn’t love working from home. I was looking for a first portfolio project of redesigning a space. We began looking for a space. We told a good friend who was a commercial broker what we wanted and we somehow stumbled upon a space five times what we intended to get.
We fell in love with the space itself, the location, and the potential it had. The space was in disrepair and hadn’t been occupied for a long time so there was quite a bit of work to do getting it ready. That was appealing to us so we decided to give it a go.
Is the Pioneer Collective now set up like a traditional coworking space, with a community manager on-site?
Now it is. Chris and I were the community managers for the first year and a half. We hired our first part-time staff person in early 2017, and we’re shooting to have a full-time in early 2018.
When we first opened, it was Chris and myself and one other person in the space. Then it was two people, then it was three. So for that first year and a half, we didn’t need a community manager because we were just doing it ourselves. It was a small group where everyone knew each other. As we grew, community manager became more of a role.
In those early days, did you market the Pioneer Collective to the public or did you grow the community organically with people you already knew?
We built a website and that’s all we really did ahead of opening our doors to the public. We had the site up three months prior to our opening and we created some marketing materials and dropped off a few postcards here and there.
Chris has a background in SEO and marketing. He felt that once we had a web presence, he could drive traffic to our site. We didn’t have much of a budget for any traditional advertising or marketing and we didn’t intend to do that.
We were very naive in a way that’s fun to look back on. I remember thinking, ‘If we build it, they will come. We’re in Pioneer Square and people can see us in the window, so we’ll put up a sign saying what we do, and that’s all we have to do.’
That’s how our first few members found us, but we did not go about it in a professional way, as far as advertising and marketing, from the get-go. As time went on, we did a few advertising campaigns, but it’s been fairly organic. It’s been word of mouth and making sure we had an online presence, so anyone interested in coworking in Pioneer Square could find us. We do get passersby. Because of our physical presence and location, people see it and come in, then learn about the product before ever having any idea what coworking is.
How did you choose the location? Were you looking only in the Pioneer Square neighborhood?
At the time, we were also looking at renting an apartment in Pioneer Square. Pioneer Square was still sleepy in 2012 when we were looking at apartments. It was quiet, but we loved the charm and the history and the character of the neighborhood. There were a lot of architecture firms and art and design firms that were already down here.
We weren’t only looking at Pioneer Square, but we really liked that neighborhood, so when we saw this space it was a great fit.
Now you’ve expanded from your original 6500 square feet to 9000 square feet. What inspired that and what has that process been like?
We just completed the build-out. We added 2500 square feet in the same building on the fifth floor. Chris did most of the build-out himself and it’s now being used.
The new space lends itself well to being private during the day. It’s more of an event space and overflow coworking space. We’re adding two private offices to it that will be ready to go in January.
What are the most popular offerings in the original space?
It’s evenly split between dedicated desks and communal space. Those two are the focus. We didn’t set out to do events or rent out our conference rooms, but that’s something people wanted, so we added that. Now, it’s become another revenue stream. It’s been a good way to supplement the growth of the membership base.
What kind of events do you host at the Pioneer Collective?
We’ve hosted so many different events. It’s been really fun to vicariously participate in them. We’ve had everything from wedding receptions to launch parties and workshops, trainings, happy hours and nonprofit fundraisers.
Those things happen in the evening. We don’t do events in our main space during the day because we have members working in the space. That was part of the impetus for adding the fifth floor space—to have a space we could have those things going on in the day and not disrupt members.
You’ve said you have a wide variety of industries, hometowns and ages represented by your members. Is there a thread that runs through everyone?
The thread that runs through everyone is the diversity. There have been times where it leans a little bit toward people working in design-related industries. But that’s very general. That includes having architects, graphic designers, UX designers, artists and card makers.
A lot of the members have some tie to art, but we have everything from insurance brokers to lawyers to people in traditional sales roles, and we really value that. We also have a variety of ages. We didn’t want to be the place where people from one specific industry would go—we’ve tried to steer clear of that.
We never advertise any traditional networking or groups we wanted people to specifically join to be a part of. We wanted an organic community to develop where people were there because they had work to get done and, by way of being in a space that’s relatively small, they would get to know their fellow desk-mates and people they’re sharing a table with.
It’s almost the feel of being in a coffee shop where you have a variety of customers in there at any time, but people come back repeatedly and get to know one another.
There are a lot of coworking spaces out there now. What sets Pioneer Collective apart?
We are independently owned and operated. We truly set out to create a space we wanted to be in and work from. To us, the environment is a big part of it—design and a physical space is really important.
I wanted a space that creates the sense of a library-meets-coffee shop, where people are exploring ideas on their own but they all feel that same energy. That’s where we wanted to work. We’ve both worked in corporate jobs in traditional offices where we felt the office was not inspiring.
We’ve also both worked from home, so we’ve seen the two opposite ends. Home has the benefit of being able to customize it and make it cozy. The office has the benefit of the camaraderie of others around you but is not a space you would choose to be in, in terms of all the design considerations, such as lighting, ergonomics and how one feels moving through the space.
We wanted to bridge those two. Chris and I met in college and spent a lot of time studying in libraries together. We like the feeling of being around other people learning about things under one roof. We wanted to have people drawn to that same feel, with a physical experience and love of knowledge in one place.
It’s no small task to open a coworking space and start a family at the same time. What are the biggest challenges for you and Chris? How do you two juggle running a space and raising your daughters?
Our two and a half year old knows when we start talking about work and says, ‘No work, no work.’ She can follow the conversation enough to tell us to wait until she’s gone to bed. Anytime she sees brick buildings, in a photo of New York or something, she thinks it’s where we work. She’s really grown up in the space and, to her, it just looks like a bunch of bricks.
The fun of sharing something together and watching our daughters grow up in it has given us the energy we need. We have met so many people through this process. We have an incredible community of members and we’ve made so many great connections in the last two and a half years.
We look back at what we were doing previously in career, corporate jobs. My world was not dynamic, in the sense that I was constantly learning about new things through new people. That happens all day every day and we both love that. We really thrive on that and it’s fun to share those experiences.
What have you and Chris learned from this experience?
We’ve found that we love running a business and wearing many hats. We see a direct result with our work. We feel needed and we have a to-do list that’s constantly regenerating itself because it actually needs to get done. That’s invigorating and that sort of energy gives me energy in all areas of my life. The more productive I feel down here for the day, the more enthusiastic I am at home with our girls because I feel that invigoration from doing something productive.
This experience, and getting to meet so many wonderful, interesting people, has lifted our spirits in lots of ways. It’s kept us engaged and that translates to finding more energy reserves to keep that same energy raising children and a family.
My brother said to me, ‘It’s incredible for your daughters to see you so passionate about something. As hard as running a small business feels at times, the fact that you love what you’re doing is setting such a good example for your children that it’s probably something that has value later on, in terms of setting an example of the day-to-day.’
What’s your sense of the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance? What do you find the most valuable about it?
When I attend the Alliance meetings, I find them so valuable. I really enjoy the face-to-face interactions with people who are doing something similar and can relate. You can bounce ideas off of each other, you can recognize the same challenges of the industry and you can share in the same successes.
The personal connections from it, with other space operators and owners, is what is so valuable. Any time I go, I find it so rewarding.
Do you run a collaborative space in the Seattle area? Learn more about joining the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance.