Tony Bacigalupo & New Work City : Coworking Space Entrepreneur : 053 : Transcript

Tony Bacigalupo Transcript

Please enjoy the transcript of Episode 053 with the co-founder of New Work CityTony Bacigalupo:

After college Tony (@tonybgoode) got a job and he worked at an office.

He did not like this.

Soon after Tony was working from home.

He did not like this either.

Tony is now the co-founder New Work City – the first dedicated coworking space in New York, which opened its doors in 2008 and in 2010 raised over $17,000 on Kickstarter to help fund their current space at 412 Broadway.

You’ll hear Tony discuss his journey into the world of co-working, the power of community and that if you’re onto something you care about, your biggest job is to keep going:

“There is no greater force that I know of than a person who is on a mission.” – Tony Bacigalupo

Tony: Hi, this is Tony Bacigalupo. I’m a coworking space entrepreneur, and you’re listening to Prologue Profiles.

[Intro Music]

Tony: To celebrate the graduating from middle school I had taken a photo of my middle school and, ‘Independence Day’, the movie, was a big deal at the time…

Dan: [Laughs] Huge.

Tony …So I photoshopped the ‘Independence Day’, city destroyer, you know, alien ship over my middle school, blowing up the middle school, and printed it out and put it on iron-on transfers and sold them as t-shirts. [Laughs]

Dan: Dude I would want one like right now.   

Tony: Yeah, I know.  I’ve got to find one, I’ve got one back at home.

Dan: So, Tony, let’s talk about what you’re doing now.  How would you introduce yourself? 

Tony: I would say that I’m the mayor of New Work City, which is a coworking space. And then depending on who I would be talking to I would probably say, “Do you know what coworking is?”  And, usually I would explain what coworking is, and I’d say, “It’s this new thing that’s happening.  More people are working from home.  Instead of sitting at home by yourselves, stuck alone, more and more people are getting out of their homes and gathering together in communities of likeminded people and that has constituted this movement that’s gravitated around the word ‘coworking’, which started in 2005.”

Dan: ’05 is when you started or when coworking started? 

Tony: ’05 is when Brad Neuberg used the term ‘coworking’ to organize the first coworking community of the modern time.

Dan: So we are in New Work City, so where is New Work City located?  Where are we right now?

Tony: New Work City occupies a space on 412 Broadway, on the second floor, here in Manhattan.

It’s just south of Canal Street, so it’s very central, downtown.

And we’re in a big, 100 year-old industrial building, with high ceilings and brick walls and creaky wood floors.

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Dan: And so who are the kind of people that come to and work at New Work City?

Tony: Very loosely put, the people who come to New Work City are people who can come to New Work City.

If you found somebody here and you ask them, “What do you do?”  They might say, “Well, I’m primarily a freelancer, but I’m also working on a product on the side and I’m also helping my friend build a start-up, from scratch, and I also like painting things and selling them on Etsy as a hobby.”

And that constant fluidity of work and what people are doing is a big part of why we’re here.

Dan: And so how would you describe like the New Work City community, like what sets it apart or what makes it unique? That kind of thing… 

Tony: What really makes us unique, more than anything, is the fact that we originated from the efforts to get a coworking space into New York City when there were no dedicated coworking communities.

There were people doing coworking back in 2007, when New Work City was first forming and then in 2008, when we opened, but there was no coworking space.

And so one of the things that’s so powerful about New Work City is that it was born of a shared need to have a place like this for us to have.

It wasn’t something that we set out to build as a business.  It was something that we built because we needed it together.

And so baked into the DNA of New Work City is the fact that it is something that was built by us and for us. And so that spirit is something that feeds through into everything we do.

New Work City

Dan: So Tony, let’s talk about you got here.  What was the path you took to get to this point?  Where did it all start for you? 

Tony: It started when I was working for a web development firm, just after graduating college.

I went to the University of Delaware.  Graduated with a degree in Computer Science. And after that, really came to understand that what I didn’t want to do was code for a living, but I did want to work in technology.  I wanted to work with people who worked in technology.

And so I became a project manager at a small web consultancy based out on Long Island.  And it was owned by a middle-class dad. And so there was one day, not too long after I started there full-time, when he came into the bullpen that we were working in.  And he said, “The lease on the office was coming due.” And he wanted to know what we thought about staying in that office or moving to a different office.

And I said, and I was half-joking when I said this, it was one of those things when the thought popped into my head and I didn’t even know if I was serious or not when I was saying it.  I said, “Well, we’ve got VPNs in our houses.  Why don’t we just get rid of the office and work from home?”

And he had this kind of…like he cocked his head to the side and kind of looked up for a moment and he said, “Huh… All right, let’s do that!” [Laughs]

Dan: And VPN meaning? 

Tony: We had a secure connection to our server from our home computers. So we could work from home.

And it just so happened that it worked better for him and it worked better for the other folks in the office.

And that was a fairly radical concept at the time.  This was 2005, and then we really went virtual 2006.

Dan: And how did coworking enter the picture?

Tony: Now I’m working at home and working at home is awesome.  You know, like being in your bathrobe and not having anybody watching you.  You’re just kind of hanging out and you can do your work and turn up the music.

But I was living with my parents in Long Island and I was 23 years old. And that can be a pretty lonely place to be, when you don’t have somewhere to go, when there isn’t somebody next to you to talk to.

And it was the following winter, it was in 2007, when I had probably not left the house in a couple of days and I just felt crappy.

And I was wondering, you know like, “What is the problem here?”  I got rid of the office, I’m working from home, I thought I was living the dream, but I’m miserable. So what’s the problem here?

If the office isn’t the answer but working from home isn’t the answer, then what the hell is the answer, you know?  What’s the thing that has the best elements of both?

And I was talking with my parents about this and we were talking about this challenge, and we said like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was kind of a place that was kind of like a cafe but for people who worked from home? Where you could hang out and do your work, and it was a nice environment.”

And so I started Googling around and that was when I discovered coworking.

And at the time coworking was already a global movement.  Very small compared to what it is today, but growing quickly at the time.

Dan: So what did that do to discover this concept? 

Tony: Honestly my first reaction was kind of disappointment ’cause I thought I was onto something that no one had thought of before.

Like the first thing I thought was, “Ah crap, there’s already a global movement for this!” [Laughs]

Dan: So where’d you go from there?

Tony: I found that the community that I could find in New York was not a coworking space but it was an event that happened once every two weeks, called Jelly. And it was basically a very casual thing that was started by a couple of guys who used to work in a big loft apartment in midtown and they worked from home and they felt the same way that I did.

And they said you know, “Hey, we work from home.  If you work from home, too, come work at our place next Thursday.  Bring a laptop and some work to do and a friendly disposition and come have a nice time with us.”

And I thought that was so cool. And I was a little freaked out too ’cause I’m like, “I don’t know these people and they’re inviting me to come to their home and in New York”, you know? So I remember emailing…

Dan: And it’s called ‘Jelly’. 

Tony: Yeah, so I emailed one of the founders, Amit Gupta, who was organizing it, and I said, “I don’t know you.  Is it really okay for me to come to your house and work in your living room?”

And he said, “Yeah, that’s the point.  Come on over.”

And so I went to Jelly.  And I walked into this guy’s apartment and I setup on his couch and I started doing my work and a bunch of other people showed up who were doing the same, and what followed was one of the most incredible days of my life.

jelly4

Dan: Really?

Tony: For the first time I was exposed to a world of people who were working on their own terms.

I was around people who were running their own businesses, people who were freelancing, people who were doing work on their terms, who were happy, who loved the work they were doing, who were excited to be doing the work they were doing.

And that was just such an eye-opening experience for me.  I wanted more of it.  I wanted that every day.  I wanted to be around those kinds of people every day.

Tony: Okay, so this is 23 year-old Tony, living in Long Island with his parents post-college, right?

Dan: Same hair?

Tony: Way less hair.

I didn’t have a lot of friends.  I had a couple of friends from high school, who were still in town that I really got along well with, but I didn’t really have like a good, social network.

And I wanted to go to the city, you know?  I wanted to enjoy New York.

And I remember going to bars, walking in and seeing people talking to each other and having no idea how to engage with anybody.

So I was a big user of Digg.com and there was a link to the first Diggnation Meetup in New York.  And I thought this was so cool because I read Digg and you’re saying that there’s going to be a bunch of other nerds like me hanging out in a bar talking about what they read on the internet the previous day?!

And so I went to that meetup group and we had some drinks afterward, and some of us went to another bar after that, and before I knew it was one in the morning and I was delirious on my train going home, and I had friends in New York City!

Dan: And you soon became the host of Jelly events and through the NY Tech Meetup you got involved with the cafe coworking group, called Cooper Bricolage.  But you wanted to create a coworking space of your own.  

Tony: So we had Cooper Bricolage going in a cafe, and we had Jelly going in my apartment. And that was cool, but what we really wanted was our own space.

We wanted a coworking space in New York and, for goodness sakes, there are coworking spaces in other cities and if other cities can have a coworking space, damn it New York should have 10 coworking spaces and they should be better! You know?

Dan: Hell yeah.

Tony: New York is always supposed to be the best at everything, as far as I’m concerned, and if it’s not the best yet it’s because it’s going to be the best eventually, you know?

Dan: All right man, I get it. [Tony laughs] I’m with you!  I love New York! [Laughter]

Tony: I’ll take my hands off of you now.

Dan: Haha yeah ok, thank you.

Tony: And so what that led to was a conversation about, “Well, how do we build a coworking space?  How do we get this going?”

And what I realized was that we needed to sort of plant the flag and say, “We are going to build a coworking space. And we’re going to do it together.” And New Work City was that thing.

Dan: So why coworking?  Why are you so committed to building it up in New York?

Tony: Having that sense of support, having that sense of togetherness, while you are celebrating pursuing work that you actually want to do and like. And there’s so much about that that you just don’t see anywhere else.

And I just wanted so, so much to be part of something that supported that feeling in me, and others like me.

You know, I just, I grew up with this feeling like people think of work as something that sucks.

And you think about like, when is happy? when is ‘happy time’?  There’s happy hour, there’s weekends, there’s vacations, there’s retirement, like the happy times are thought of as the times you’re not working.

And I just hated that.

I hated growing up thinking that one day I would graduate and I’d start working and that life would be miserable because work is miserable and that’s the way it is.

And I feel like I was far from the only person growing up in that culture.  I saw so many people around me who had that attitude with work. And it just killed me because I didn’t want to be feeling like we were all sentenced to 30-to-life in a cubicle after we graduated college.

And so in coworking I saw an opportunity to build infrastructure to support a different way of looking at it and that to me was just so resonant with something that I felt very deeply that I was going to sink my teeth into it and not let go.

Dan: And in 2008 you established the first version of New Work City, within another startup space.  So what was the next phase for you? 

Tony: The startup that was hosting us told us that they were leaving and we were faced with having to leave as well.

And we had an opportunity to take over the lease in that space, but it was really too small to be able to sustain it.  And so what we decided was that we were going to need to move to a bigger space.  We had been wanting to for forever, but this was the kick in the pants that we needed to make it happen.

This was April 1st of 2010. And we discussed, “Do we try to go virtual?  Do we go to like occupying cafes again?  Or do we try to like hang out in someone else’s space for a while?  Or do we shut it down for a while until we get a new space up?”

I also published a blog post around the same time about what was happening and making like a call to action, to help us find anywhere to end up.

And the next day one of the founders of another coworking space that had been coming up recently, she emailed me the next day and said, “Hey, I saw your blog post.  We just opened up a new space and we have more space than we need.  Maybe you guys can share our space while you are looking for your permanent space?”

Dan: And who was this?

Tony: This was Jennie Nevin and she’s one of the founders of Green Spaces, which continues to occupy the space that we shared with them, one block south of us here on Broadway.

So sure enough, this problem that we only had four weeks to solve that was impossible in my mind on April 1st, was on its way to being solved on April 2nd.

Dan: And during that summer while looking for a bigger space, you decided to work on New Work City full-time.  Were you making money from that yet?

Tony: Nooo, hell no. [Laughs]

I mean, I didn’t know how we were going to finance anything.

To sign a lease on a space, this space is 4,700 square feet, and we got a great rate on it, but to sign this lease, just to put the ink on the line, we had to have thirty grand in cash, at least.  I mean, we had to have a lot more than that. And again, we don’t have investors.

And so, leaving my salary behind was really scary in that moment when everything was scary financially.  But it was also completely necessary.

And at that point I’d said, “Look, this is going to succeed.  There is no other way.  Failure is not an option.  New Work City must live.  We must get a space.  We must figure out how to finance it. And I must figure out how to pay my bills. And so it will be.”

And honestly, I mean if there’s something, probably, maybe the biggest thing I’ve learned in this whole crazy experience is that there is no greater force that I know of than a person who is on a mission.

Dan: And to help fund the current space you launched a Kickstarter campaign

Tony: I had said for a long time that my experience with New Work City didn’t really result in a lot of financial capital to me.  But it resulted in a tremendous amount of social capital. The people that I met, the people that New Work City helped.

And I always wondered what it would be like to try to convert social capital into financial capital.  And what better way to test that than a Kickstarter campaign?

And so what I Tweeted right before I announced the campaign was “I’m going to attempt to turn social capital into financial capital; I’m going to attempt a magic trick.  Here’s how I’m going to do it.”

And then I Tweeted out the link to the Kickstarter campaign and there was this tremendous response and so many people were so excited about it.

And in the end, after five weeks of campaigning, we had 256 backers, we had raised $18,911, which exceeded our $15,000 goal, and we had a whole lot of people who felt like they had helped to make this thing possible, and they had! You know? We needed every penny of that and more.

And by galvanizing people behind what we were trying to do, we made them part of what we were trying to do, it was what we were trying to do.

And we had people come in and help make the place, we had people come in and help paint the place, and we had people donate furniture, and we had people introduce us to their friends who were going to help us make the place happen.  The people who did the construction were introduced to us by a member.  So much of the furniture was donated, so much of everything that happened.

Dan: So Tony, what’s next for you and your career?

Tony: I have a really strong desire to engage in a larger conversation around the coworking movement.

No one’s making it their job to go out and sell coworking as a thing.  No one’s going out and saying, “Hey, there is a movement out there that you need to know about.  It’s called coworking.  There’s a space that’s close to you and it’s important for the future, and here’s why you need to be aware of this.”

So, what I’m curious about is what it would look like to have like a Got Milk campaign for coworking?  And there are other people who feel the same way and so my latest thinking is focused on that.

Dan: You’re like the Mayor of Mayors.  [Tony laughs] That’s what you’re trying to do here. 

So Tony, what advice would you give to someone who wants to do their own thing but they’re not sure if they can do it? 

Tony: You have to work with what you got. And it can be hard, it can be real hard, you know? Especially if you’ve got a family, you know, and you have a full-time job and you’re working long hours.  Like there is not a lot of room left for your energy there and there’s no joke about that, for sure.

But there is always a way.

And if you are seeking what you believe and what you care about…it’s almost like a little bit of a chaos theory, you know? Like nature finds a way like, if you are onto something that you care about and you don’t let go of it, you will find a way.

[Outro Music]

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