July 18, 2013

Makeshift Society’s Founder Rena Tom on Coworking, Community, and Creativity

Update, 9-30-2013: Back Rena Tom’s Kickstarter project to extend coworking and community with establishing Makeshift Society in Brooklyn, New York.

Logo from Kickstarter Style Guide

Photograph by Bonnie Tsang

Rena Tom highly enjoys making human connections(1) and nurturing communities of creative practitioners. These interests culminated into her finding and establishing Makeshift Society, a coworking space and clubhouse for freelancers and startups in San Francisco. Here she expands on the advancing trend of coworking and more:

Where are you from?
I’m a California girl, born and bred in Sacramento. My family has been here 4 or 5 generations. We’re a part of the landscape, literally.

Coworking spaces are becoming more popular.
What does coworking mean to you?
Besides the obvious, coworking, as a mindset and a practice, is really about taking charge of your own career, learning and growing and becoming “better”, whatever that means for different people. It’s sharing—resources, successes, problems—with your community.

Interior of Makeshift Society. Photograph by Victoria Smith

Interior of Makeshift Society. Photograph by Christina Bohn

Why is coworking relevant?
I think it’s relevant because it developed as a response to a need, instead of someone in charge of “workplace innovation,” creating the need, and then selling it to people. That makes it much more grassroots and beloved by people who cowork. As the field matures, it is already splintering off into more and less corporate factions, but that just provides more variety for everybody along the spectrum.

Interior of Makeshift Society. Photograph by Christina Bohn

What sparked the idea of finding your 
coworking space Makeshift Society?
Personal requirements, as always, and two things in particular. First, I missed buying the design books for Rare Device. I missed having them around. Second, I missed being around others during the day. I rented space at a business that only held classes at night, which was great, but found myself wandering over to the café across the street to work anyway, just to have people around.

What is the meaning of the name Makeshift Society?
“Makeshift”—because I love puns. The original meaning refers to something hasty and ad-hoc, again, responding to a need. You can also split it up into Make and Shift, and those are activities I wanted to happen at the clubhouse. “Society” is pretty obvious; the organization is really about and for the people.

What were some of the major steps 
to make Makeshift Society a reality?
Finding the right space, convincing landlords that it was the right space, and getting a community loan, which meant writing my first-ever business plan. The actual design and build of the space, while also major, was the fun part.

Collage workshop at Makeshift Society. Photograph by Christina Bohn

What makes Makeshift Society awesome?
I think it’s comfortable and un-office-like, and that’s why people stop to try it out. Beyond that, it’s the friendships and relationships you develop as you spend more time within the Society.

Congratulations on establishing a Makeshift Society 
in Brooklyn, New York! Who/what influenced this decision?
Oh, it isn’t a done deal yet, but soon I hope! Since we opened, we’ve received many requests for Makeshift to open all over the country. Brooklyn is our top request. Also, I used to live there, so my network is pretty strong. Even though it’s the other side of the country, we feel like it makes sense, from the point of view of the community, and also the opportunities to spread the gospel about what we do. New York is just such a big factor from a media and innovation perspective.

Photograph by Victoria Smith

I like the visual branding of Makeshift Society.
Who designed it?
Suzanne Shade did the branding and Victoria Smith did our interiors. They are both independent creatives themselves. We all sat around Victoria’s dining table and set guidelines on what Makeshift was and wasn’t going to represent. It was a lot of fun to work out. Pantone chips everywhere!

Writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called
“Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?” Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Building/Strategy at?
Well, a lot of them are in the clubhouse :) We aren’t entirely a ladies’ club here, nor do we want to be. But we’re a very safe place for them to work from, possibly because the founders are all women.

I think women compromise a little more than men. That is a *very* sweeping statement, I know, and isn’t meant to be negative. I think it can manifest in the workplace, however, as someone who just wants to get things done, and is willing to let someone else take the spotlight or pipe up a little louder, if they need it. And that someone else is often male.

How does time factor into your work?
I fight time. I’m very impatient :) and when I'm not able to move things forward (because I’m waiting on things beyond my control), I get very anxious and start to doubt. Too much time gives me room to doubt, which is the worst. I do best when there is a certain amount a time, a deadline to move towards. I can focus my attention much better.

How do you handle disagreements
while you're working?
There honestly haven’t been that many, because I’m a benevolent dictator :) Freelancers are lucky in that they can avoid disagreements because they work for themselves. How Makeshift keeps people sharp, though, is we surround you with others, so that you can still practice having basic manners.

Was there a part of your work that was 
particularly trying, and how did you deal with it?
Opening a physical space is very chicken and egg. For example, you can’t get a loan to get a lease without estimating costs, and you can’t estimate costs unless you know how much you’ll be paying, which means landing the space. There was a lot of juggling of schedules and making up of numbers. The latter always scares me, because it’s not how I operate, but I’m learning to be more comfortable with it.

Lecture about illustration with Lisa Congdon at Makeshift Society.
Photograph by Christina Bohn

What tools do you use and recommend to work on 
ideas and make them grow, to collaborate 
and get things done?
My tools are all in my computer, but the most valuable thing I do is talk to people face to face. Seriously, it’s what I spend the most time doing! All kinds of things are possible after I meet somebody.

But besides that: all the Google offerings (Gmail, Hangouts, Docs), Apple Pages and Numbers, Liveplan.com for my business plan, Orchestra for my to-do list, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. These are the things I refer to every day.

How do you stay creative? What are some 
of your sources of motivation/inspiration?
I read, I listen to what my members have to say, I watch my son learn about the world. I’m like an amplifier; if someone is enthusiastic about what they do, I blow that up tenfold.
What is your advice to people who aspire 
to be a creative practitioner?
Write. Practice. Try. Do the work. Talk to everybody. Make it up. Have fun.

What is your advice to people who aspire 
to make a coworking space?
Same advice, really! Also, build your community first to create loyalty.

Interior of Makeshift Society. Photograph by Christina Bohn

How does San Francisco contribute to your work?
And what makes it special for 
I love San Francisco. It’s always been a place for weirdos and visionaries, and has a relatively permissive environment. It also is small, physically, so the chance for collisions is high. It’s a beautiful place to live, and so people, who think visually and creatively, come to live here.

(1) Rena Tom’s love of realizing human connections was demonstrated when she reached out to me by Twitter, during her attendance of the 99U Conference. This was unexpected, but it was a kind gesture, a memorable one, because she made it necessary. Related: Read my reimagined take of 99U Conference 2013.

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Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Rena Tom, Christina Bohn, Victoria Smith, Bonnie Tsang.

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Typeface of quotations is Futura designed by Paul Renner in 1927.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews

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Now available! BROKEN: Navigating the ups and downs of the circus called work – With a Foreword by Rena Tom, Founder of coworking space Makeshift Society (San Francisco and Brooklyn). Buy now.

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