Knowing When It’s Time To Walk Away: Closing The Doors For The Last Time

Why saying no to something means saying yes to something else (you just might not know what it is yet)

Carlos Saba
Nov 18, 2017 · 7 min read

For over three years now, amongst other things, we’ve been running a coworking space in Brighton, a seaside town on the South coast of the UK with more than its fair share of visionaries – and characters.

The once home of our previous company was opened up to our growing membership base and renamed The Happy Startup Clubhouse (or more recently Treehouse).

Just a year before we took the plunge and went all-in to realise our vision for The Happy Startup School and shut down Spook Studio, the digital agency we’d been running for close to 10 years.

We’d seen from our annual Summercamp – where 150 changemakers gather on a farm in the UK countryside – that when you create a safe space for purpose-driven people to connect, real magic happens.

Every September we’d get a glimpse of how the world could be and so we wanted to create that Summercamp feeling on a daily basis.

Engineering serendipity

Laurence and I had always dreamt of having a space that inspired us to come to work each day, but felt like home.

We wanted it for ourselves and believed others wanted it too.

And so the Clubhouse was born and for 3 good years it thrived and grew. At its height we had 30 members sharing the space with us – startup founders, social entrepreneurs, creatives and freelancers that all believed in a better way of doing business.

We got signals that it was working. We hosted regular meetups and classes, and allowed others to use it as a space to launch their ideas and businesses. It became a laboratory for purpose-driven people and teams.

We even saw this as a possible blueprint for other happy startup chapters around the world. In the hope that we this could be the first of many hubs , connected through our online community and camps.

Whilst we still believe in this vision, we’d been telling ourselves a lie.

Ryan was right.

On the days when we were running our Lean Coffee events the place would be buzzing – 40 people would arrive as complete strangers but leave as friends. They’d come with deep challenges and questions and depart with answers they’d never thought about, feeling energised and optimistic.

This felt good.

However, on other days it could be completely dead. On some occasions it felt good, as it meant our team could get on with all the other work we were doing for the community. But looking back it didn’t really fit the vision, that idea of recreating the Summercamp feeling every day.

All this made us realise that for as long as we’re running a local community ourselves, we’ll think too small. For us to be able to create a powerful global community we need to think bigger, becoming the central support system for those like Kai in the Amsterdam Treehouse, that have the energy to build and nurture their community day-to-day.

From an essential to a should

Every time we returned from one of our big events we’d ask ourselves the same question: “Why are we doing this?”

Our global reach has been growing fast and our other initiatives have been getting ever more popular. This year we’ve hosted 3 retreats on 3 different continents as well as produced our biggest Summercamp ever, plus have happy startup communities in more than a dozen cities worldwide.

However we knew we were trying to do too much, that as a team we were over stretching and something needed to give.

We kept coming back from our retreats full of life and energy, excited to plan the next one and to keep the vibe going from the last. And the coworking space was weirdly standing in the way of that.

It became a should.

The last line on this manifesto from People Who Do always stuck with me

Sometimes when something isn’t working, it tells you.

If you find yourself mysteriously without the strength to face a challenge that keeps cropping up it might be because, in a subtle sort of way, this actually isn’t working for you.

This was happening with the Clubhouse.

We were steadily churning through members and we hadn’t been able to grow the membership to make the space self-sustaining. It was still making a loss and no matter how many times we tried to fix this we still couldn’t get it to work.

Here’s why I believe it didn’t work in the end:

  • It wasn’t the main thing. As Stephen Covey says ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’. If it was our main thing and we were just focused on Brighton, I have no doubt that we’d have made it work.
  • It was 24–7. We loved having a permanent home, we didn’t like the work that went with it. Having to sort out dripping taps, lights that aren’t working or having to let people in (or out) that lost their key isn’t fun.
  • We were too available. Whilst it was great to hang out with our members, this actually became a burden for myself and Laurence. We found ourselves coming in less and less as we just didn’t get any work done. As nice as chats by the coffee machine are, if we did that all day we’d be out of business pretty sharp.
  • The coworking model is a challenging one. It’s really hard to not just have a ‘bums on seats’ business model when your costs are high. Many spaces claim to be all about community, but many end up taking the money from members and cramming the space with desks, with community taking a backseat. We deliberately had more breakout areas than desks to put serendipity first, but that meant we took a hit financially.
  • Being in an office (however nice) isn’t what we’re about. All the best things we’ve been part of, and breakthroughs we’ve had as a business, have all come about outside the city. Whether on a 300 acre farm in Sussex, the spellbinding mountains of the Alps or Oregon, or the crazy towns of India, real change happens on the inside, outside.
Kids taking part in a one-day alternative school at the clubhouse

Calling it a day

And so recently we met with some of our members to talk about ways of making the space work, and we and they quickly realised that there was already an answer we were hoping to hear:

After Alptitude last June, I had laid out all the things we do on post-its on a table. “Okay, what can’t we do without? What needs to stay in if we’re to exist as The Happy Startup School?”

Piece by piece we moved the various initiatives of the company into the totally defines us column, until one thing was left in the pile. One thing that was just a ‘nice to have’ rather than ‘essential to our essence’.

Closing the clubhouse now made sense. Even still, like anything that impacts other people, letting it go has not been an easy decision to make.

We’re hard-wired to see stopping and giving up as failing, instead of refining or letting go. But the reality is, some things drains you and others build you up – you just won’t always know which is which right away.

After a while, the draining projects start to eat at the life-giving projects and so you need to make the tough decision about ‘what to drop’.

But every time you say no to something it frees you up to say yes to something else.

The good news has been that we’ve been invited by another coworking space to make our home there. We look forward to this new leg of our journey and hope you’ll come and visit us in our new home at Platf9rm.

NB. Whilst the Brighton space is closing, our Amsterdam Treehouse is alive and well, headed up by Kai Brouwer and his team. If you find yourself in Amsterdam get along to visit their awesome space or head to one of their upcoming events. Letting go of the Brighton space means we have more capacity to help Kai and our other chapter leaders build their communities.

The Happy Startup School

Build a life and business rich with purpose

Carlos Saba

Written by

Co–founder of The Happy Startup School. Lover of learning and using that learning to help others.

The Happy Startup School

Build a life and business rich with purpose

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