The Fetch Blog

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Coffee talk: Rena Tom, passionate connector and master curator — October 22, 2015

Coffee talk: Rena Tom, passionate connector and master curator

Two years ago, we talked to San Francisco local Rena Tom who had just cofounded the Makeshift Society, a coworking clubhouse for creatives. Today, we caught up with Rena to talk about how the community has grown, where she’s found new inspiration, and why she continues to put people at the center of her work.

We chatted back in 2013, but would love to get your early story on the record. How did you get to where you are today?

Circuitously yet fortuitously! I wandered from web design to print work and jewelry design, to owning a store and finally to coworking. I really have no idea what’s next for me, though I am looking for work if anyone still wants a generalist/community builder/event planner. 🙂

The Makeshift society has grown so much since we last talked. But tell us: when did you first develop the idea of a place ‘for creatives, by creatives’?

I sold my business in early 2011 and was ramping up my consulting business. I found myself working at cafes, trying to find a quiet place to call clients on Skype, and a bit lonely. Basically, I need a place to work and socialize so I invented it with the help of Victoria Smith and Suzanne Shade.

We wanted to provide a safe, creative space for people to be their best selves. 

What has been the most rewarding part of running the Makeshift Society?

It’s been great finding the best way to explain to people what we do — basically fine-tuning our mission statement every time we talk to prospective members.

Photo by Sarah Deragon

The members have truly shaped our results, and I’m proud of that. I’m also super proud that they continue to do so, to find ways to collaborate and enjoy their own work while supporting others’ work too.

How have you continued to find freelancers, creatives and teams to fill the beautiful space?

We have great word of mouth and because we are friendly to all freelance fields who touch the creative industry, it’s a nice diverse mix of people and professions. We’ve learned to use social media a lot to showcase the space and the members and that brings in new people all the time for our classes and events. We’re indie and very “human” and it shows with our words and images.

How do you describe the vibe and people at Makeshift Society today? What kind of person is drawn to the mission and the space?

San Francisco has come to reflect the West coast well — the vibe is very casual, DIY, and a little bit bohemian. The community started at the maker/blogger/photographer end of the creative spectrum but now includes more design studios and programmers.

Makeshift Society: A clubhouse for creatives

When the Brooklyn location was open, we had more writers, architects, and the like — they loved the more polished, industrial and modern feel of the space. It’s not surprising that the SF space was a little more like me, while the NY space a little more like my business partner there, Bryan Boyer.

Last time we spoke, you told us about the business side of owning Rare Device, a design-led shop in New York City and San Francisco. We’re passionate about curation, so we’d love to know: how did you curate the acclaimed in-store selection?

Rare Device really came from searching the Internet as I initially scoured the web to find products from small designers and international makers who were not represented in the US. Eventually, I attended the trade shows — but doing as much independent research as possible made Rare Device quite unique.

I’m a fan of minimalism, so simple, functional shapes in a limited black and white palette was my signature, as well as incorporating textures like wood and felt to warm things up.

When I partnered with artist Lisa Congdon for our second shop, her vintage sensibilities meant more great graphics, patterns, and bright colors, while still hewing to the Rare Device look.

Which designers, curators, shops, and museums are your favorites?

For influences, I’m currently a fan of MOMA, Canoe, and the ladies at Sight Unseen.

What events and classes do you love and recommend in Brooklyn or San Francisco?

In San Francisco, I like Workshop Residence and the artists they choose for their residencies. They make work for sale but also hold workshops so you can learn techniques, too. Brooklyn (and NYC in general) has a great design festival, NYCxDESIGN, and I read http://whrw.hn/ for a curated view at cool events.

Which Makeshift Society classes have been most valuable to you in the last couple of years? Why?

I liked taking our calligraphy class and a ceramics class. The hands-on classes let me get out of my head and let my hands do the thinking.

Where can we find you online today?

Mostly I’m on Twitter and Instagram, but you can also find me at renatom.net and makeshiftsociety.com.

Last, how do you like your coffee?

I used to drink it with a little cream and no sugar, but lately I’ve switched over to chai. My stomach thanks me!

Interview: SF Local, Rena Tom of Makeshift Society — May 12, 2013

Interview: SF Local, Rena Tom of Makeshift Society

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

Rena
Rena

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.

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