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Collaboratory coworking: Where John Hughes meets Sheryl Sandberg

Posted by Chad O'Connor  June 11, 2013 11:00 AM

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By Melissa Massello

When Collaboratory founder Kit Murray Maloney moved back to Boston from New York and London last year, she called up her friend Devin Cole to ask for his top three local co-working spaces that supported women in business. He couldn't name one, because there weren't any. So Maloney turned to her parents, owners of 40 Berkeley in the South End, with a proposition to turn an under-utilized Internet cafe and reading room on the budget hotel's mezzanine level into a co-working space, supporting the numerous female entrepreneurs in Greater Boston as well as the innovators traveling to Boston on business and staying at 40 Berkeley. Less than a month later, Kit and I were working from the space daily, soon joined by more than a dozen other entrepreneurs, their teams, and interns.

By now, most people in business are familiar with the concept of co-working and shared office spaces and their benefits for startups: low overhead, flexibility, collaboration, and "accelerated serendipity." Over the past 5+ years, I've seen the benefits of co-working firsthand, while at two different Boston startups that shared office space with other companies, collaborating in ways that consistently proved invaluable, and by renting office space for my own company, Shoestring, in a few local incubators: Somerville Local First, WorkBar,'s Media Lab, and now Collaboratory.

Inc Magazine, in a February 2012 piece about the intangible benefits of co-working spaces for entrepreneurs, "Why Co-Working Spaces Help Businesses Succeed," identified the co-working movement notion of "accelerated serendipity" as a main driver of value. With accelerated success through collaboration, companies using co-working spaces like Collaboratory can achieve that prized "hockey stick growth" investors love while decreasing their burn rate and drain on resources, extending their roadmap and allowing them the agility to pivot, rebrand, or otherwise do whatever is needed through a built-in and constant support system (versus the isolation of working from home) from collaborative businesses, entrepreneurs, and executives with hugely varied backgrounds, industries, and perspectives.

Case in point: at Collaboratory, we're the founders of a disruptive adult entertainment startup, a community food sharing non-profit, a niche media & event planning company, a government relations firm, a vintage cookbook & cookwares store, a neighborhood juicery, and an educational resource for LGBTQ awareness, plus an entrepreneur in residence, a journalist, a seasoned mentor, and an angel investor.

Collaboratory is like the John Hughes movie of co-working spaces, and that's why it's so effective.

The major difference between Collaboratory and other Boston area co-working spaces is that all of our members are women or work for majority-women-owned companies -- making it one of only four such co-working spaces in the country, out of more than 800 total co-working spaces nationwide. In 2013, it shouldn't be that revolutionary, but it really is.

For business owners, founders, executives, and CEOs who also happen to be women, there's another intangible benefit to co-working captured by Sheryl Sandberg in her recent zeitgeist book: the notion of "leaning in."

Months before Sandberg published that now-required-reading tome, Maloney intuitively designed her Collaboratory for success by setting ground rules and putting systems in place that perfectly match Sandberg's three core Lean In principles, and her call to create Circles, allowing members of Collaboratory to be better poised for success in life and business:

Meet Together
Sandberg says that, "When you have the support and encouragement of a small trusted group, you can reach your goals with more confidence."

Collaboratory members who are founders or CEOs commit to twice-weekly 1-hour meetings, borrowed from the standing C-suite meetings many startups employ, called "Bookend Meetings," On Mondays, the group meets for an hour to "check in for the week": we talk about what gave us "Sunday Stomach" (kept us up over the weekend) and any other current challenges/obstacles to success, both personal and professional, as well as sharing our priorities and goals for the week -- helping each other get to solutions and/or connections faster. On Fridays, we "check out for the week," in an effort to maintain some work/life balance and alleviate the guilt of trying to leave work at the office over the weekend -- while simultaneously keeping each other accountable for Monday's stated goals/challenges/priorities and deconstructing reasons they might not have been met.

"You get the most out of these meetings and check-ins when you're brutally honest," Maloney said. "When I've been brutally honest about my personal life, it has only heped my professional life. I've exposed some of my biggest vulnerabilities to the Collaboratory group, knowing that there's not a boss in the room, there's not a colleague who I might be in competition with for a promotion in the future -- there's only a benefit to putting it out there."

Collaboratory member Abby Ruettgers, founder of Farm & Fable, calls the weekly Bookend Meetings a place to be "in the trust tree, with all the branches and the leaves," but also a valuable accountability tool.

"I consider this group to be my second set of investors," Ruettgers said. "These are investors of time, talent, energy and expertise. I'm just as accountable to the group as I would be to monetary investors. It's different than a networking group -- these women have put so much time in, I feel I owe them something."

Maloney and her Collaboratory interns also maintain a calendar of all the networking and startup events happening around Boston so members can "buddy up" for events at MassChallenge or other innovation centers, and organize monthly Collaborator outings to things like wine tastings at Urban Grape, helping members further connect on both personal and professional levels.

"Drill down past a networking group, even one that's stable, and there isn't that same level of commitment or investment just by nature of the frequency," says Collaboratory member and angel investor Barbara Clarke. "You can be more present because there isn't competition even by industry, you can just listen. There isn't the same connection as there would be in a niche group of networkers, and that's a good thing."

Share Together
Sandberg says that "Circles are all about encouraging each other and learning from each other's ideas and experiences. You'll benefit from everyone's best thinking."

One of the biggest problems that Maloney wanted to address was the fact that women are far less comfortable pitching their businesses than their male counterparts. Data shows that a man will feel confident when he's only 60% prepared, while a woman will only feel confident when she's 90% prepared. Local venture capitalists consistently correlate the low number of women coming through their doors to the low number of funded female-run companies. So Maloney created the tentatively named "Pajama Pitches," a cheeky, casual series of Saturday morning pitch events that encourages women to come, have a mimosa, and get feedback on their project no matter what stage they -- or their pitch -- is currently in, while giving constructive, positive feedback to other female founders and entrepreneurs.

At our first "Pajama Pitch" in May 2013, WomenLEAD founder Ilene Fischer came to hone her pitch before presenting at MassChallenge, allowing the group to help her reorganize slides and trim the fat for a more powerful presentation. She was later selected as a MassChallenge finalist.

The design of Collaboratory also creates a heightened facilitation of collaboration and support 24/7, with IdeaPaint-covered walls and glossy IKEA desks that allow to-do lists to be written tabletop, essentially covering the entire space in a shared stream of consciousness of dry erase marker.

"I love seeing what everyone is working on, even when they're not there," Maloney says. "It helps to check in throughout the week and offer help or advice."

That sort of inherent collaboration leads to opportunities to barter or share services, skills and talent in addition to sharing the overhead costs of an office. Last week alone, Collaboratory members bartered press release editing in exchange for legal advice, graphic design help for a pitch review, a social media marketing tutorial for partnership intros. Unless a member has their desktop "On Deadline" sign up, so they can focus on something mission critical, the assumption is that everyone is always open to lending an ear or helping each other out.

"The metaphor of the physical openness of the space," says Clarke, "means that there are no walls and it's very open -- and that's good because it leads to more collaboration."

Learn Together
Sandberg says, "You'll gain useful skills working through education topics as a group, from how to negotiate to how to advocate for your ideas."

There's a reason why the all-female professional networking events held by Collaboratory member Jeanne Dasaro, Wentworth's new entrepreneur in residence and Wonder Women of Boston founder, are so popular: Boston is full of baller ambitious women, they just need to be connected in a cohort with the right vibe so they can share their expertise.

It's easy to fill a room here with 20- and 30-something female founders, SheEOs, executives, startup community managers, and other influencers, as Collaboratory has done regularly in the last six months by hosting Wonder Women panels, Women 2.0 Founder Fridays, and a regular weekly series of Brown Bag Lunches each Wednesday from 12 to 1 pm (free for members, a select number of tickets are available to the greater startup community).

Recent entrepreneurs and experts who have come to share their knowledge and educate the group have included city council candidate Michelle Wu, Vsnap founder Dave McLaughlin, Weber-Shandwick chairperson Micho Spring, attorney Larry Gennari of Gennari Aronson LLP, Bow & Drape founder & CEO Aubrie Pagano, serial entrepreneur Parthenon Group senior advisor Frank O'Connell, and Local Pickins founder Annie Hurd. Panels at Collaboratory have focused on asking for what you're worth, negotiating contracts, accessing capital, choosing the right business partners, marketing & operations on a shoestring budget, and other educational opportunities.

"I went to an all-women's college and work in politics," said DeeDee Edmonson, government relations expert and founder of Edmonson Strategies. "I think this is the first time in my life that I've been around a group of women who don't have an agenda, work to lift each other up, and are genuinely interested and supportive and helpful in seeing each other succeed. It's an amazing space in that way."

Here's hoping we can get Sandberg herself to swing through the next time she's in town!

Melissa Massello is all things Shoestring Magazine and DIY Boston. Follow her on Twitter @stealfinder.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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