The next move from Benjamin’s Desk involves stepping a bit outside its comfort zone. About 20 miles outside the coworking network’s Center City stomping ground, to be precise.
See, the bootstrapped Benjamin’s Desk is slated to open a 3,500-square-foot space in Ambler, Pa. The Montgomery County location will be a slice of a larger development called the Ambler Yards.
Why the big whoop about a space much smaller than the company’s other hubs? (See the recently-announced 11,700-square-foot location at 1608 Walnut St., or that massive one the company is running for Pennovation at 58,000 square feet.)
The newsy element here is that the Ambler location, estimated to open in April 2017, will become the first-ever licensing deal for Benjamin’s Desk: developers Marc Policarpo and Matt Sigel will be using the Powered by Benjamin’s Desk brand but they’ll hold down the fort on their own for the projected 80-100 members.
“We’ll be running this ourself,” said Sigel. “It’s almost like a franchise agreement.”
Ambler Yards is a 250,000-square-foot industrial complex with 14 buildings scattered across 25 acres. About 100,000 square feet of that campus is being redeveloped into what Sigel calls “cool, loft-style offices,” including the coworking space we’re talking about.
“This space has so much potential,” said Benjamin’s Desk co-CEO Anthony Maher. “We love Marc and Matt’s vision for Ambler Yards, not only to reach out to entrepreneurs in that area but also to showcase what connectivity to Philadelphia can provide to other hubs.”
According to Maher, the modest-sized space in Ambler marks a new path in the company’s regional strategy, which seeks to place six to 10 locations under the “Powered by” model over the next two years.
Here are a few other targets the brand is looking to hit with this formula: South Jersey, Scranton, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., (heads up, Technical.ly Delaware).
“We’re licensing out our brand and providing our playbook, but more than anything else we’re connecting them to our regional network,” said Maher.
That’s right: Ambler’s coworking members will have access to other sites in the network. “So if someone is going into town for a meeting in town, they can just pop into one of our other locations,” said Ed O’Brien, head of real estate at Benjamin’s Desk.
O’ Brien also mentioned there’s no definitive word yet on which party will be staffing the space. One option being discussed is having a property manager/community manager care after the site.
Since things like culture, community and programming mark a key element of coworking spaces — just ask Indy Hall’s Alex Hillman — one concern could be raised: how will the company ensure quality to members of “Powered by” spaces? In other words: could the licensee model mean just smaller replicas of the original Benjamin’s Desk experience?
In response to this, Maher said Benjamin’s Desk will not be imposing culture elements but rather help shape them, according to who the members are. And as for quality, O’ Brien mentioned there will likely be some form of review process.
In a sense, this is Benjamin’s Desk backtalk to the national (and international) growth strategy being carried out by VC-backed mammoths like WeWork and Industrious: namely, going from state to state and opening up spaces in force.
The thought here is that if the local coworking crew manages to leverage their knowledge of the Greater Philadelphia region, they’ll be able to test their model in other markets. With the Ambler space, Benjamin’s Desk seems to be dipping its toe into new waters.
“This [move] means working the regional approach,” said Maher. “We feel that real connectivity, introductions and connections happen at a local level. Before a company scales, they have to nail the local level, and we believe in that.”
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