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How to create an entrepreneurial center of gravity like Gravitate

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Gravitate logoIt’s been less than a month since Des Moines’ newest community focal point, Gravitate, opened on the third floor of the Midland Building, located at the corner of Sixth and Mulberry Streets.

With more than 40 co-workers and all of the space’s private offices already filled with local startups, Gravitate beginnings might just seem like the successful opening of a new office space through a set fortuitous circumstances. But, in reality, the city’s newest community center grew out of months of planning and involvement from countless people across the central Iowa entrepreneurial community.

So what exactly does it take to create an “entrepreneurial center of gravity” within a community? We sat down with the space’s creator, Geoff Wood, to learn what went into the planning and execution of Gravitate.

Identifying a community need

When StartupCity Des Moines, the city’s previous community hub, was nearing the end of its funding, its organizers hosted a number of town hall style meetings to determine what needs the community had moving forward. Wood says that from those meetings he saw two key elements brought to the forefront of the startup community.

“What we saw emerge was the need for a low-cost, high-density co-working space to bring people together,” Wood told SPN. “The more collisions, the more running into other people in the space, the better it would be for the community.”Geoff Wood headshot

The second need was for a place to host events and come together as a community, Wood says. The third: a place for people who are new to or visiting town to be able to easily plug into the community.

“I was willing to be the agent in charge of creating (the space) but only if the community was there and behind it,” Wood (right) said.

After establishing a preliminary plan for the space, Wood says he was able to determine community interest in a space like Gravitate. When it came to determining pricing, Wood looked to other co-working spaces in the state—like Cedar Rapids’ Vault Coworking and Iowa City’s IC CoLab—as well as a number of spaces in Nebraska to determine what would work in Des Moines.

“We quickly hit the capacity to go ahead, which I think in part was because of a core group at StartupCity that was being displaced and wanted to stay together,” he said.

Without community support—from entrepreneurs’ commitment to the space to helping with painting—Gravitate never would have become a reality, Wood says.

Making it your own

As he began the early stages of planning, Wood says his experience with Gravitate’s predecessors—Impromptu Studio, Foundry Coworking and StartupCity Des Moines—helped him determine how to structure, design and position the new community space.

“I talked to all the people who did those experiments that have now all ended,” Wood said. “I asked them why they ended and what they learned along the way and tried to incorporate those experiences into what we were building with Gravitate.”

Wood says he also focused on getting the community involved first and, in fact, more than 25 members of the Des Moines community pitched in throughout the early stages of the project, from painting walls and laying new flooring to assembling furniture and even contributing the space’s interior design.

“We wouldn’t be open now if all of those people hadn’t helped,” Wood added.

Bloomsnap co-founder (and now Gravitate co-worker) Lyndsay Clark Horgen used her undergraduate degree in interior design to help plan and design the space as construction kicked off.

“There has to be a certain type of vibe for place like this,” Wood said. “The way this building was in May, no one would have moved in if we just brought in furniture and didn’t change anything.”

With an open co-working area, private offices, lounge and cafe areas, Gravitate offers different ways for its tenants and community members to work and interact. And for those who might not necessarily be working out of the space on a day-to-day basis, Wood established a “community membership” program that allows supporters to stay involved and enjoy discounts on Gravitate’s services as well as a T-shirt.

And the program has taken off—there are currently more than 60 Gravitate community members.

Finding a home & making it a reality

When it came to finding a physical space, Wood says the Midland Building was a logical choice. Located in the heart of downtown Des Moines, the Midland provided the proximity companies had enjoyed at the city’s previous spaces.

“Startups tend to crave density,” he said. “This is not something that probably would have been successful in the suburbs.”

Serendipitously, the 12-story building was also undergoing a transformation thanks to its new owner, Jeff Young. Young, who purchased the building in December 2013, has been working to attract new tenants to the building after a number of bigger groups moved out earlier this year.

“It would not have been possible to have this here if we didn’t have a building owner who wanted it,” Wood said of Young. “(Gravitate) isn’t something he would necessarily ever come work at, but he (understood) the energy behind it.

“He gave us a favorable lease rate and donated his labor to help build out the space. If we had to go to commercial contractors, I would have been surprised if we got the space done.”

Wood and a community steering committee approached a number of potential local sponsors to cover the rest.

“The idea was that we wanted to have people like entrepreneurs, startup employees and freelancers and bring all of them together,” Wood said. “But we want the be a space to have established tech as well.”

While those companies have helped fund the space, Wood says involvement from companies like Dwolla (formerly a Midland Building tenant) and Ames-based Workiva help solidify Gravitate as a space for more than just startups. In fact, big-name tech has even come into play with Google sponsoring Gravitate’s co-working bullpen.

Wood says sponsorships from larger companies like Google, Workiva and others prove that the city’s business leaders have an “interest in the future of Des Moines” and investment in the local startup community.

“Just as we’ve seen with the Des Moines Social Club being really important in showcasing Des Moines in many unexpected ways, Gravitate is a parallel to that. They’re a center of gravity for arts and culture here and we’re the tech component,” he said.”

Wood also said he sees Gravitate as a positive to those larger companies maybe looking to attract new talent to central Iowa.

“As a tech company hiring in central Iowa, it’s important that the talent understands there’s other places to go here,” he said. “If I hate that company I just started at but love Des Moines, there’s a better chance I’ll stay. And when there’s a cluster or community of people, they can go work somewhere else.

“It’s important for people to know there’s a cluster here they can be a part of, that they’re not going to be on an island.”

Interested in joining Gravitate?

The space has been open less than a month, but there’s still room to join the hub as a co-worker, team or community supporter.

Open co-working in Gravitate’s Google Bullpen is $150 a month while anyone looking for a little more permanent space can rent fixed desks for $250 a month. Only want to once in awhile? Gravitate offers a drop-in rate of $15 a day or a 10-day punch card for $100.

And for those who won’t actually be working from the space, but want to help support the community, a community membership costs $75.