Planting a seed & watching it grow: The Ground as an example of “organic” business growth
On an unassuming side street in Värnhem, a neighborhood in Malmö, are two equally unassuming housing complexes located at Bredgatan 4 and 6. From the outside, the only thing that might strike people as odd is a black gate with leaves painted on it at the Bredgatan 4 entrance.
But what goes on inside these seemingly mundane houses is anything but ordinary. Through the black gate adorned with leaves is a co-working space called The Ground, where companies — usually start-ups — sit attempting to solve the world’s complex problems — like eScan , who created a platform for radiology doctors to get valuable diagnostic imagery training online rather than just clinics, or Flow Neuroscience, who devised a medication-free treatment for depression, or Add Gender, a consulting company that aims to educate about the value of gender and diversity in the workplace.
I’ve written about The Ground a lot, including when the tenants crowd-funded an espresso machine named Mario, and the lessons I learned about community building through a 50+ article series I embarked on called Humans of The Ground. A Lund University anthropology student even wrote a thesis about The Ground as an example for organizational design. In this sense, The Ground is a space ripe with equal amounts of problems and inspiration for solving said problems.
While The Ground is technically a co-working space, the story behind its founding and subsequent growth serves as a great example of organic business growth. While “organic” is generally an overhyped buzzword thrown around the start-up ecosystem to denote progressivism or innovation or I’m-raising-a-round-please-give-me-money, I use the term in the more traditional sense of the word. The Cambridge Dictionary defines “organic” as an adjective that describes “not using artificial chemicals in the growing of plants and animals for food and other products” or “being or coming from living plants and animals.” In many ways, The Ground’s history has functioned a lot like a plant.
The Ground started off as a little seedling. An idea really. In a seemingly vast landscape of start-up hubs, incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces, there did not seem to be a space for people to do things their way; to decorate and inhabit a rented space to truly suit their needs. Traditional landlord-tenant relationships are inherently authoritarian. Tenants normally can’t paint blue accent walls or bring their dogs to work or hang up Frida Kahlo door beads, unless one sits at The Ground, where all the aforementioned things actually exist.
The seedling for creating a democratic office space was planted originally in 2012, when a few people who made some money by solving complex problems wanted to sit together and solve new complex problems. Thus, The Jard was born, serving as a haven for a small group of ultra-curious designers, technologists, developers, and, most importantly, friends.
This group quickly outgrew The Jard, so the first house at Bredgatan 4 was bought in 2015. The seedling — with just a few tiny sprouts — was uprooted and planted to a more permanent home in The Ground, so to speak.
Much like novice gardeners, early Groundlings — the affectionate nickname given to tenants of The Ground — encountered a lot of growing pains. The house had very little structure, and there was no office manager to maintain order. It functioned as a pure democracy. If someone wanted office furniture, they had to take it upon themselves to get it. If the kitchen was dirty, they had to take the responsibility to clean it or let mold grow on the dirty dishes. Rent was cheap because service was a non-existent commodity back then. Do-It-Yourself is always cheaper, right?
While this purely democratic structure created some level of chaos, it also encouraged the freedom that companies needed to thrive. The Ground at Bredgatan 4 maxed out capacity. The companies that were busy solving complex problems were thriving and needed more space. The seedling was going through a growth spurt.
Tired of sitting on top of each other, the group of friends decided to buy the house next door at Bredgatan 6, which was, frankly, a dump. Thus, the first branch of the plant sprouted when a kick-ass-and-take-names, Australian water polo player named Chloe was hired as an office manager to oversee the renovation of the dump at Bredgatan 6.
While the renovation project was a laborious and complex problem in and of itself, the true growing pains were yet to come. Adding on another house and an employee meant adding on a lot of financial responsibility that The Ground wasn’t designed for originally. The house could not operate as a pure democracy anymore when it had a salary and bank loan to pay. But where some flowers began to wilt, others began to blossom. The fruit of Chloe’s labor bore a beautifully renovated house at Bredgatan 6 that saw The Ground’s tenant size triple.
New and growing companies brought on a whole new definition of what The Ground should be for its tenants. Financial accountability necessitated some tightening of the formerly loose, deeply democratic structure but also created much-needed stability. Chloe moved on from The Ground in the middle of 2018, handing off the metaphorical gardening gloves to me.
I admittedly hate gardening. But The Ground is a labor of love that sucks you in the way a plant sucks in water on a hot day. My job over the last 1,5 years has been to implement structure to The Ground while carefully maintaining the most important democratic elements of the original space. To say it’s been a difficult balancing act would be an understatement. My motto more or less has been to learn by failing. As I prepare to hand off The Ground to a new office manager, Josefine, I’d like to share the most important things I’ve taken away from the delicate balancing act that is running The Ground.
Atypical Work Environments Bring Aytpical Questions
I’ve been asked a lot of odd questions during my tenure at The Ground. Someone texted me last weekend asking if they could put a hole through their office door. Others have asked to bring their cats or kids or have their wife’s 40th birthday parties here. It’s not a conventional space that’s been funded by the government or private real estate, so I always ask ‘why the hell not?’ rather than saying ‘hell no.’
Say ‘Yes’ Unless Someone Can Get Hurt
I think one of the most undervalued aspects of The Ground is that tenants have the freedom to do whatever they want. Very rarely have I told people ‘no’ when they’ve asked if they’re allowed to do something. For example, there is, indeed, a hole in one of our office doors. Cats and dogs and kids have all coexisted in one space. People have smashed A LOT of glass on the floor for the sake of machine learning. Once, a male model walked around in nothing but a white speedo for a photoshoot. Describing The Ground as a “casual” workplace doesn’t cut it; it’s a place of freedom.
Tenants should be allowed to at least try things. Management should only intervene if said things become a problem or pose a risk to people. This “Yes Man” (or, rather, “Why The Hell Not Man”) approach isn’t problem-free, but I think it helps retain some level of democracy for the tenants.
Solving Problems Create New Ones
Allowing people to be free at The Ground may solve some problems, but creates others. There are two types of problems. Ones we can live with and ones that necessitate new rules or boundaries for peoples’ safety.
For example, we’ve always allowed both tenants and guests to bring their dogs to the office as long as the dogs are housebroken, friendly to strangers, and stay off the furniture. While having dogs in the house has been enjoyable for many tenants, the dogs shed, leaving the floors and stairwells less than pristine looking at times. This makes some tenants justifiably unhappy.
Dog hair in the stairwell is a problem that can be easily resolved with extra cleaning or one that people can live with. Other problems require learning to say “no” in the future to best serve the greater good. The aforementioned glass smashing for the sake of machine learning led to some people stepping on residual shards. The Ground is about making people comfortable, not uncomfortable or, in this case, bleeding from the foot. So, no more glass smashing, but at least they were able to try it in the first place.
Saying no isn’t always about the physical safety of the tenants, it’s also about making sure everyone feels The Ground is a safe space. We used to have board games out on display in our common room, including a game called Secret Hitler. Someone commented in an anonymous feedback survey that the game made them feel uncomfortable, so it was put away in a drawer as a happy compromise. Those who enjoyed the game still had access to it but those who were made uncomfortable by its public presence were now accounted for.
Nurture The Living Thing
Ultimately, The Ground is a living organism that is shaped by its environment, i.e. the companies and individuals who inhabit it. As companies fold or grow and tenants change, The Ground needs to change with it. It’s important to attend to the evolving needs of tenants, whether that’s nipping problems in the bud, cutting off dying branches or helping the branches that need a little more attention. As it continues to grow and change, the business approach must remain adaptable. In this sense, there’s no real business model behind The Ground beyond trying to treat people fairly and giving them the freedom to mold their companies as they see fit…so long as no glass-smashing is involved.
If you think you’d be a good fit as a Groundling, reach out to us at email@example.com! We’re always looking for new people and companies to help us tackle the world’s complex problems.