Late in September, tech entrepreneur Minna Van was at her co-working office space in downtown Vancouver when a convoy of more than 100 logging trucks began a slow journey past her windows, horns blaring continuously.
“I was really irritated, and then I thought, ‘What is this about?’ So, I looked them up,” says Ms. Van, who is also co-founder of the Network Hub, one of the oldest co-working-office-space businesses in Canada. The Hub is an independent business that launched its first location in 2006 at 422 Richards St., in downtown Vancouver. It has since expanded across the country.
Ms. Van discovered that the truckers were protesting the loss of jobs, making their outrage known to the elected officials who had gathered for an annual convention. She saw an opportunity to help.
Commercial space is what grounds community, it’s what grounds culture and the arts – it’s where creativity and innovation happens. Where else would people convene?— Minna Van, co-founder of The Network Hub
“I thought about my dad when he came here from Vietnam when he was in his 40s, and I remember what it was like for him to find another job. It’s very challenging, especially in an industry that is forever shifting – and not in a good way.”
With other Network Hub colleagues, she developed a virtual class to help people obtain employment. They reached out to former mill workers in remote locations such as Williams Lake, B.C., so that they could pick up a new tech-focused skillset.
It is one of several tech, arts and culture programs that she has helped develop as a non-profit arm of the business, West Coast Technology Innovation Foundation. The classes are free, and it is part of a business model that doesn’t just offer shared office space, but also an incubator for development, networking for entrepreneurs and a place for people to gather, whether it be for a crafts fair or a chef’s long table.
Building a business and a community
Ms. Van has a unique perspective on scaling her business because she sees commercial real estate as playing a key role within any community. It’s not just about renting space.
“Commercial space is what grounds community,” she says, seated inside her second Vancouver co-worker space, Chinatown House. “It’s what grounds culture and the arts – it’s where creativity and innovation happens. Where else would people convene?”
Their corporate culture is decidedly anti-corporate. There is no organizational chart. There is no C-Suite. One time, a person called and asked to speak to the chief executive and she responded: “No such person exists.”
The co-working spaces have an earthy vibe, with bikes in a corner, or a guitar on display. The system means lower rents for the workers, who can either rent long-term offices or temporary desk space. And businesses are vetted to ensure that they are a good fit with the culture.
First foray into business was intimidating, but attracted big names
Ms. Van says she developed the strong survivalist work ethic early on. She started her first tech business in high school. The co-working business was serendipitous: When she left university, she needed an office for her tech company.
She and her partners leased the 3,500-square-foot unfinished space and decided to rent the rest of the floor out to other businesses. The Network Hub was born. Capital costs were intimidating for the young owners. They poured $25,000 into new flooring alone.
And although the economic downturn of 2008 put many of their members out of business, the Network Hub survived because the owners had their tech jobs to carry them through. They also survived the arrival of major co-working companies such as Regus and WeWork, which swallowed up a lot of the smaller co-working spaces, she says.
“Everyone was scared. How could they not be? But it was a good thing they did come, because people who really know their market are the ones left standing,” Ms. Van says.
The beauty of the Network Hub is that it brings skilled people together, she says. They do not have to work in silos – although they can, if they want to. But if a worker were to walk by a class as another member is teaching it, they may just decide to sit in, even if it’s not their interest.
Ms. Van has seen individuals at the Hub start businesses. She’s seen others meet their spouses.
Some of the household names that have used the Hub include Google and Facebook. She believes that “digital fluency” is an empowering skill and is hoping that the Network Hub entrepreneurs will hire the students who graduate from the virtual programs, which take up most of her time these days.
Providing options is the ultimate goal
Ms. Van has no desire to teach, but she does a lot of the programming.
“We want to provide options for people,” Ms. Van says. Chinatown House is reflective of her mission as an entrepreneur: to create space in a holistic way, connecting small business, arts, education and non-profit opportunities.
At Chinatown House, the spaces are rented to non-profit groups with a focus on addressing the challenges of Chinatown residents, whose lives are increasingly being encroached upon by gentrification.
Scaling a community-based business is not easy, but Ms. Van says it is a necessary model for commercial real estate. The Network Hub has moved into other markets in the province, including Nanaimo, New Westminster and Whistler, as well as Calgary and Toronto.
Spaces must be a minimum of 2,500 square feet. She says that instead of merely “plunking down” and marketing the office spaces, they usually respond to invitations from developers, business people or elected officials who see a need in the neighbourhood. New Westminster, for example, was lacking co-working spaces.
“The community has to be there for me. That’s where I feel the confidence,” she says. “Now I feel that I want to give back. And I have some time to do it.”