This week Eliza interviews retail strategist and Makeshift Society founder, Rena Tom. Follow Rena on Twitter via @rena_tom.


Last year you founded the Makeshift Society, a coworking space located in the beautiful Hayes Valley. What goes into the day-to-day of running a coworking space ?

There are far more details when managing a coworking space than you’d think! Besides making sure the place is clean and stocked with supplies, you also need to make sure the social and emotional needs of people are met. Even if most folks are on their laptops, they are here because they are craving a certain level of interaction and connection with others. Monitoring the space is important, as the vibe differs every single day.

Besides this, there is the usual administrative support, and lots of blogging and social media, which is our marketing strategy right now. Word of mouth and familiarizing potential members with Makeshift through images of the space and current members has worked wonders.

Calling the Makeshift Society “a clubhouse for creatives” calls upon vestiges of childhood creativity while also eliciting the notion of exclusivity. What inspired you to describe the Makeshift Society this way?  

From the get-go, we wanted to emphasize play. Play is such an important component of creativity, as is permission to act. Creating a place where members feel like they have ownership to experiment, talk to people and get feedback is what we’re all about.

We figure that people already know how to work! We just try to make them feel comfortable enough to make mistakes. They might *not* make mistakes but they won’t know until they try.

As far as exclusivity goes, we aren’t, actually; we don’t maintain a waiting list and we don’t “curate” the membership mix. However, people who believe in and embrace our mission tend to get what we’re all about very quickly. We’ve been lucky that the Society membership largely self-selects and yet is still quite diverse. Our main difference from other coworking spaces is that the activities are geared toward freelancers. This is partly because we are a small space with all flex seating which works better for freelancers rather than teams, and partly because those are the people I’ve worked with in the past, so I understand their needs the best.

Rena at Makeshift Society
Rena at Makeshift Society

You founded Rare Device in New York City in 2005.  What lessons from that experience would you share with aspiring business owners? 

That was a great time to open a store, and NYC is just the place to get great exposure and learn fast. I would just say that if you have a great idea, just do it. I mitigated risk by taking on an extremely small space and giving myself a deadline to “make it”. Slow and steady growth is also not a bad thing to aspire to, especially if you are new to the business.

For a seasoned veteran, you can take on more risk, but if you are entering a field that you have no experience in, you don’t need to shoot for the moon – you need to learn the ropes. When you feel comfortable with that, *then* you can go big.

When you opened the San Francisco location in 2007 did you notice any drastic differences between starting a business on the West Coast vs. the East Coast? 

The main thing I learned is that it’s harder to get traditional press outside of New York. However, blogs and social media have started to become much more of a factor for successful retail, and that definitely helps level the playing field. I also learned that New York is far more trend-driven and less price point conscious, and that California was even more story-driven and concerned about the provenance of a product – but that also reflects the shift in values overall over the years. The recession really threw a wrench into the works but the recovery seems to be moving retail along nicely again.

Rena at Rare Device
Rena at Rare Device

Word in the Twitter-sphere is that you’re looking to open a Makeshift Society in Brooklyn. What influenced that decision?   

Demand and momentum. I think the time is right to bring our kind of coworking to Brooklyn, which is just so creative and has a great work ethic as well. It also makes sense because of real estate. Most people are in tiny apartments and can’t afford studio space or office space, and yet trying to meet and network at bars or similar places is loud and unsatisfying. The people I’ve talked to want a low-pressure environment where you can work or have a conversation or take a class. There are a lot of people who fly back and forth between SF and NYC, also, and expanding the network and having reciprocal membership will be awesome. We’re actively pursuing a space right now, and need to start fundraising. So far everyone I’ve spoken to has been very positive about the idea.

What was the last thing that inspired you on the streets of San Francisco? 

Let’s see. I have a fondness for survey marks.  You’ll find them sprinkled throughout my Instagram feed; I can’t stop myself from photographing them. I like that they are a secret language in plain sight. They offer clues about major, impactful things happening to our streets and sidewalks, but most people don’t even see them anymore. The online world is important but I am obviously a proponent of the built, offline world as well 🙂

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About our contributor // Eliza Dropkin is a lover of live music, good food, and beautiful places. Connect with her on Twitter via @elizadropkin.