Making space better.
A re-introduction, an update, and what we’re building at the intersection of brand, culture and physical space.
Every year during the holiday break, in between all the family gatherings, and catching up on my Netflix ‘watch later’ list, I get a chance to analyze the year that was and update the roadmap ahead.
A refresher: my new company Makespace was born after joining forces with my partners Dennis Lenarduzzi and Joe Johnson who had built a successful design studio behind multiple award-winning advertising campaigns, brand identities and restaurant spaces; and Tim Hengel, who led Booster Juice’s retail growth from 99 stores to 350 stores worldwide.
I describe Makespace as part product studio, hospitality operator and real estate developer. We partner with brands and building owners, designing and operating spaces for modern creators and consumers.
The power of people plus space
Makespace is the latest in a continued exploration into how physical spaces can be used as anchors for gathering community, inspiring creativity and delivering engaging experiences.
My university years were spent working at cultural spaces including the Royal Alberta Museum. I started as a volunteer gallery interpreter which then evolved into getting hired to coordinate education and public programs like Night at the Museum-esque overnight events. I’d later turn that experience into a games venture to explore the convergence of digital storytelling and physical spaces. One of the games we built was a mobile spy game for kids that took them on secret missions into real museums and science centres around the U.S. and Canada (pre Pokemon Go and Foursquare).
My time at the Banff New Media Institute was also hugely formative. The Banff Centre is an innovation campus in every sense of the word — an inspiring environment in the Rocky Mountains, complete with all the hospitality services and amenities you need. As both as a participant and faculty member, it was a first hand glimpse into how place and space could be used to inspire leading minds to gather and create. In fact, much of my global network of friends and colleagues today came from my time at the Centre.
My first tech companies were built at community incubators, where I saw how entrepreneurs and business owners learned from each other in a physical space. Seeing how different types of companies co-located together in a building, some who used their spaces as storefronts and others as studios and offices. How community space versus company space versus public space was configured, and how collisions would (or wouldn’t) happen. How amenities and services were offered to tenants, and how property managers differed from community managers in these spaces.
All of this would ultimately shape what we created with Startup Edmonton and the Mercer Warehouse a number of years ago.
How the real estate world is changing
By 2050, more than 2.5 billion people will be added to the global urban population, many of who belong to a rising “entrepreneur generation” of big dreamers and community builders. This generation is driving a shift toward more flexible, entrepreneurial and collaborative work styles — transforming the way we work, build and live together in our fast-growing cities.
Much of this activity is grounded in real estate.
In the world of real estate — the largest asset class in the world — much of the conversation focuses on buildings and infrastructure, competing for tenants and portfolio values. But two major shifts are shaking up how landlords and property owners are investing in their portfolios:
1. The shift from fixed lease models to ones built around access and flexibility (space-as-a-service). Today’s companies are changing the way they use and grow through space based on what their people and talent need. This is leading to the commoditization of real estate and the rise of co-working and office-as-a-service platforms from companies like WeWork, Breather, Knotel, Convene, and in retail with companies like B8ta and Uppercase who provide turnkey space with flexibility.
2. The shift from a shared economy to an experience economy. The shared economy has changed the way we access places to stay (Airbnb), places to work (WeWork) and ways to move (Uber). But now, access and convenience isn’t enough. More hospitality, design and personalized service is what now drives the tenant/guest/customer experience. Hello Alfred puts a face to their staff who buy your groceries and clean your home over faceless TaskRabbits. Sonder’s network of hotel-like apartments goes beyond the uncertainty of Airbnbs. Nordstrom goes beyond the discount department store, offering service bars, in-store cafes and inventory-free service hubs in local communities.
Square feet as a platform for city building
We are living in an era for cities where talent density and connectivity matters to company building. Talent needs places to build, to create, to advance, to grow and to share. But the old metrics for local economic growth like headcount, leased space, and capital raised aren’t as relevant as today’s companies have distributed teams, need less space, and can access capital and customers anywhere.
For city leaders, working with, and not competing with, private developers will create more flexible space options, along with better amenities and services, with market-driven operating models. This would move the needle more than trying to over-strategize on more ‘innovation ecosystem’ initiatives. The world is moving at such a fast pace that we can’t afford to let the old rules of city planning and economic development stifle what infrastructure we need to build today for future generations of talent and companies of all sizes.
When we developed the Mercer Warehouse in Edmonton, our approach was to build a 48,000 square foot living product. A place where we could experience, curate, explore and establish a small centre of gravity in our neighborhood. Like a tech startup, we needed to be iterative, tenant focused, customer success driven. We needed to be great hosts (even when the roof was leaking). We took an old building and turned it into a home base for founders, launching multiple startups, and showed how to blend tech, creative and food into a full building experience.
We used private real estate to build a place that mattered to the people.
For our landlord, we increased the value of their asset 5x.
Now, imagine what could be done with 480,000 square feet of space. Think about the millions of square feet that tower above the heart of our cities and define our skylines.
As private developers, builders, and architects, we can attack this at scale, combining portfolios of square feet towards talent attraction and city building. As cities build public projects like new libraries, promenades and parks that are crucial to vibrancy downtown, we need the same scale of investment and innovation around commercial towers and retail podiums where companies are building.
It will require different thinking about real estate ‘assets’:
- We can reactivate towers from the bottom up, transforming storefronts, lobbies and lower floors into spaces buzzing with visible activity.
- We can invest in curating tenant experience as much as investing in amenity upgrades, flex spaces and nicer interiors.
- We can change how we design, construct and maintain the built world, adapting old buildings and building smarter ones from the ground up.
- We can better integrate office and retail, creating more all-day experiences from 9–5 and 5–9 to engage talent already concentrating downtown.
- We can think more about building momentum at a neighbourhood or block level, and not just about competing for tenants to fill buildings.
This approach can drive higher performing buildings over time. The opportunities for increased occupancy, diversified tenant mix, better retention, lifting NOI, and appreciating portfolio values will be there.
Along the way, we can play a more active role in city building — making spaces better for people a few thousand square feet at a time.