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When IKEA arrived in the province of Tarragona, many furniture stores had to close their doors. One such business belonged to Laia Benaiges’ grandfather in Valls. The former premises of that furniture store, a fairly large spot in the center of town, was left vacated. Laia remembers that feeling of promise:
“When I walked into the shop I knew I wanted to do something there, although I didn’t know what.”
One day Laia’s neighbor, a photographer, told her that “whenever I walk past the closed shop I imagine those spaces in New York with people working.” Laia’s curiosity took it from there.
“I started looking for information and the word coworking appeared, and by coincidence, the second edition of the CWSC was about to be held in Barcelona.” That was the moment that the story of coworking at Las Benaiges began. “I loved the atmosphere and everything I thought it could generate in Valls, but at that moment, I was already very aware of how difficult it was going to be to do it in a town where nobody knew what coworking was, not even myself.”
La Magrana required very little investment upfront, and the premises were family property, so she took the plunge. The first few years were a real roller coaster. Despite her excitement for the project, she also knew that it was very difficult to get it right. “The beginning was very hard, I was alone in the space and I didn't even want to go to the inauguration.” The event was a success, but for her, it was a point of no return: “now all that remained was to move forward.”
Fortunately, a few months later people started coming in to work, although the people who arrived were not the people you would typically expect in a coworking space.
Eventually, someone began to work from the space who matched Laia’s community vision, a documentary filmmaker working on a film called Pastores, hierbas y otros (Shepherds, herbs and others) that talked about different professionals in the field. The documentary won a small festival award and was shown at the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica in Barcelona. The important thing about the documentary, beyond the fact that Laia found herself reflected in the “others” mentioned, is that she offered a free membership to the person who was making it.
This sort of offer can help to channel a situation in which you want to shape the character of your community. And it worked. After a positive start, another coworker Maica ended up becoming Laia’s partner in a joint project that still continues today. Laia’s experience in rural spaces and Maica’s training as a lawyer led them to create Leco, a coworking consultancy that specializes in legal issues facing coworking spaces in Spain.
In these interviews I like to try and capture managers’ initial strategies and how they changed over time. Laia shared a strategy common to many first-time managers, she said yes to everything to keep her space as busy as possible. She hosted events of all kinds, some requests for the space came from events not related to the work environment but rather to natural therapies, relaxation, etc. Back then, Laia was trying to recruit members and thought that this was the best strategy. But then in a conversation with a potential member, she realized she had been unaware of something else that had been slowly happening–this person did not want to join the space because she believed that the activities happening in the space could undermine her professionalism. From that moment on Laia started to carefully choose what activities were allowed in the space to make sure that they were aligned with the image she wanted to convey and with her membership base.
Programming “anything” can counterintuitively drive people away, and although in the short term it means bringing in some money, it can often be detrimental long term.
The space continued to grow in membership until the arrival of the pandemic. During this time the space not only started to become profitable but also helped boost Laia’s own professional profile in the area. “La Magrana is a brand that has helped me a lot. Without La Magrana I wouldn’t have Leco or my communication business.” However, this success brings with it a problem not often discussed in coworking publications: founder burnout. “Being a founder and manager burns you out. In the long term, you have to focus on day-to-day operations and start to lose the creativity that originally drove people like me to create a coworking space. You see that your other business is more profitable and you start to think about how to change things.”
The truth is that a space with few members in a rural environment offers a limited return on investment. Mangers I speak with in a similar situation often emphasize this right from the beginning. It is also true that many founders of coworking spaces may gravitate toward a freelancer/entrepreneurial mindset rather than an office manager. As Laia discovered, when the monotony of operations overcomes the excitement of creating something new, they may find their interest drifting unless they are able to delegate operations so that they are able to maintain a focus on the parts they love about managing a workspace.
So what does that mean for her passion project moving forward?
“I already share management duties with a coworker but I have to continue to find ways for the space to keep evolving along with the rest of my professional activities. La Magrana will continue to live. For me it is very important to know that I gave life to a project born from the work my grandfather did, in fact, we are having this conversation in the room where my grandfather once worked. The story of my grandfather’s shop also serves as a guiding principle, situations change and you have to adapt to new realities so that what we’re doing continues to make sense.”