by Cat Johnson
When Marnee Chua moved with her family to Seattle, she hoped to find a coworking space that offered childcare. When she didn’t find one, she decided to start her own. She partnered with Jessie Rymph to get the idea off the ground and, though their original idea of a space with onsite childcare didn’t take off, it led to the creation of Works Progress, a family-friendly coworking space focused on the triple bottom line of social good, the environment, and financial sustainability.
I chatted with Chua, who has a background in nonprofit fundraising, about her vision for the space and community, how she serves people who want a more flexible lifestyle, and the inspiration for the Works Progress name.
Cat Johnson: How did your move to Seattle lead to launching a coworking space?
Marnee Chua: I had been exposed to makerspaces and a couple of coworking spaces in California when we lived down there. We moved to Seattle to follow my husband who got job at Boeing and I had to leave everything behind. I was starting a new part-time job up here and continuing to work for my old job part-time. My youngest child was one year-old and it was really hard to work from home. I kept thinking, “Geez, there should be a coworking space closer to me.”
I reached out to the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance in 2011. Susan Dorsch and Jacob Sayles, who cofounded Office Nomads, got back to me and introduced me to Jessie, knowing that she was also looking into coworking with onsite childcare.
They invited me to come to the Alliance meetings and get a sense of everyone and what they were up to. At the meetings, everyone had advice and, in 2012, we opened Works Progress.
How did you choose the name Works Progress?
Jessie and I are both fascinated by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and that era. Ellie’s Coworking and Childcare, which was the name of the business Jessie was working on when we met, was named, in-part, after Eleanor Roosevelt who promoted and advocated for the first state-sponsored childcare programs in the nation.
I’m a product of the Conservation Corps Movement. The Civilian Conservation Corps was created by the WPA. We knew we wanted to keep the brand in that era as a nod to the whole concept of changing work and changing needs and helping each other.
We also like all the WPA-era art. The whole WPA package contained a lot of money to support the arts, and this was during the Great Depression. We’re just kind of fascinated by the whole thing.
A core part of what you’re doing at Works Progress is the triple bottom line, with a focus on social good, the environment, and financial sustainability. Did you know from the outset that you wanted to have that focus?
We didn’t go in with that kind of philosophy for Works Progress, because Works Progress was our second child—it was the piece we did even though we were disappointed about not getting further with the childcare.
I didn’t sit down and figure out what I really wanted to do with the brand until Jessie got her job and moved on. I wanted the brand to mean something to me personally. I had worked for a fundraising company that really focused on the triple bottom line and socially-responsible business. I loved it as a model and I wanted to emulate that.
How has your background in nonprofit informed or inspired Works Progress?
The whole focus on socially-responsible business is really important to me. My background includes working with community development for a community college in California. I really like the community focus—it’s huge for me. My degree is in environmental studies and all of those pieces carry along. I feel really strongly about community and changing the way we work in the modern era so that cities and suburbs work for us.
What makes Works Progress unique in the growing Seattle coworking scene?
All spaces reflect their owner. I’m very bookish and geeky and I love science fiction and fantasy. I’ve really incorporated that into the space. We have meeting rooms named after spaceships, and locations in the Harry Potter world, and you can find references to the Tartus in just about every nook and cranny in the space.
The people that like those things stay, and that really creates the community we are. People respond to the space that speaks most to them, so we get a lot of people who are very much like me: they’re bookish, and geeky, and love science fiction and fantasy. What sets spaces apart is their communities and who gels in that space.
For me, that’s a whole different kind of branding. Some people walk in the door and I can tell that they’re not going to like it here. I walk them around, and give them a tour, then tell them, “Here are three other spaces you might want to check out before you get bummed out about coworking.”
You have a space in Works Progress called the Burrow that’s a small room for parents and their children. How did that come about?
I have kids and I had to establish pretty early on that kids would be acceptable in the workplace—at least as acceptable as dogs. We are dog-friendly and family-friendly.
Some of the main points are, if you need to bring your child in, it’s going to be a hassle for everyone because that’s just the nature of children. If you can keep them next to you to sit quietly and color, that’s great. But usually when you have downtime, it’s with toddlers. We had a train table in the reception area and I would occasionally have a parent come and just try to get some work done right there in the reception area while their kid played with the train table. It was fine with me, but it seemed like it sucked for them.
When I remodeled one of my bigger meeting rooms, I put in a chalkboard wall, and the train table, and set up a smaller meeting room table for just one or two people. There are bean bags and big legos in there. You can close the door and sit in there for a couple of hours and maybe get a few things done.
What happens a lot of times is that you pick your kid up from preschool but you still need to get five more emails, or a Skype call, out of the way. You don’t want to go all the way home, so this works for a few hours in-between.
It also works for members who meet clients. We have a couple of lawyers and an insurance agent in the space and they might have a client who brings a child so it’s really convenient for them to go into that room.
Why is the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance important to you, and what’s your role in it these days?
The Alliance was there for me in the beginning and it was such a huge help to go to those meetings and have an additional community—especially early on when my community at Works Progress was really nascent and not fully formed.
To have another community of people who knew exactly what I was talking about and what I needed was huge. It was also really important for referrals. In the early days, we had a budget for Google AdWords, but a third or more of our referrals came from the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance website. That was really important.
Susan and Jacob established the Alliance and ran it and promoted it and took care of all of us for so long. I felt like, as their lives changed, it was a good idea to help them out and keep it going for other people. It’s important to me to keep it going. Whenever we get everyone together they’re so happy so I know it’s important to other people. We all just take on what we can, when we can.
Thanks, Marnee. Anything you’d like to add?
As a coworking space, it’s really hard to define your target market or your membership. Business coaches really push me to define the target market. I decided that I’m really trying to serve people who want a more flexible lifestyle. It doesn’t matter how they go about it. Whether they want a few hours a day to work, or they want to work 24/7, or they want to work closer to home, or travel more, or be closer to their kids. For whatever reason, they want a flexible life. That’s my target market.
You dream about doing something a little different. You don’t want to be stuck working 9, 10, 12-hour days and not have any flexibility to live a life as well. You have to think about sustainabilities in your lifestyle, and ongoing education. These are the people we serve.
To learn more about the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance or become a member, visit collaborativespaces.org