L'Atelier Vancouver: the budding community brand in a Brix & Mortar
When climbing the few stories to L'Atelier Vancouver Coworking space, you have no sense of what the studio will look or feel like. Will it be influenced by its heritage building? Will it feel super contemporary or influenced by the many startup hubs? The anticipation keeps mounting until finally, you walk in and see a contemporary-chic sign to welcome you as soon as you step foot into the airy space.
L'Atelier Vancouver may not have heritage design inclinations, but certainly allows the building to shine her old natural beauty. From the refurbished hardwood floors, arching window frames and clean design, this studio feels more like a home loft inspired by one of those offices you dream about when flipping through House & Home.
So naturally, we were interested in the person behind this thoughtful facade of branding. What was the source of inspiration? What is their education? What are their business goals? And our favourite...well, that's the last question, so you'll have to just keep reading!
Meet Sabrina Chammas, Owner/Founder/Handy Woman to the L'Atelier brand. She tells us how her incredible coworking space came into fruition as well, the juicy bits on the ups and downs on the physical and financial demands on running a brix and mortar. When you meet her, she has a soft demeanor and is incredibly welcoming. And as she begins to speak about her business, you meet her other side; the determined and tenacious woman who desires to build a strong community.
1. What made you want to open this type of business?
I first became introduced to the idea of coworking when I lived in LA and worked out of a coworking space. I was working as Executive Assistant for a documentary film called “The Square” about the Egyptian revolution and since I was the only one on the team who had to work in an office, the production company put me up in a coworking space in Venice Beach. I really appreciated it because I was working form home otherwise. Just being in a real office made me like my job a lot more and take it really seriously. I liked being around people. They had happy hour every Thursday, which I implemented in my own space. Even if I didn’t attend, I liked knowing it was happening because there was a community I could join. At the time, I didn’t necessarily think “Oh, I’m now going to open one myself”. It started evolving slowly. There were a lot of tech people in the coworking space and I thought it was missing a lot of creatives. I wondered “Why there wasn’t a similar space for designers, photographers, writers, etc.?” I liked the idea, but the space itself wasn’t overly inspiring. I started imagining my own home studio with a loft feeling. But I didn’t want to feel lonely. I realised that what was more important than the aesthetics was the strong community.
2. But this space is so beautiful! Was design a priority as well?
Yes, I thought if I also designed a beautiful space, it would bring in the right people. I’m still building the community. The ones who’ve been with me from the beginning feel like family. It’s also the members’ responsibility to get involved with our activities. People have to take the initiative to join in happy hour for example to have that strong sense of community as well.
Even if you’re not a member, you can join in on our events too. It’s a nice to way to reach out to people in the larger community of Vancouver. I like having cross over and it’s supporting others who have full time jobs, but want a place to come too .
3. So tell us more about your past experience that has shaped you?
I have a Degree in Communications and a Masters in Film Production. I studied in Boston and then went to LA. I started working in film and realized that it wasn’t the lifestyle that I wanted. When you work in film, most often you don’t have a normal life. You have crazy hours and inconsistent work. If you’re working on set, it’s very physically demanding. You’re outside all day in heat, rain, cold…Sometimes, I’d start work at 3pm and end at 5am. Even when it’s nice out, it’s still exhausting. This wasn’t the life for me. I’d work intensely on a project and then need 3 months to recover from the physical and mental stress. Everything is urgent all the time. Eg. Chasing the sunrise.
4. I guess when you started L’Atelier Vancouver Coworking, it felt like a nice change?
I like normal hours and to have my own business. I can hang out with members and friends after work .
5. What is your extended goals? 5, 10 years?
It’s still too early to make definite decisions. One possibility is to add in a floor with private offices and an event space. Those are in demand right now. A lot of people ask for privacy and this is mostly open space. I also want to start another business. I’m not sure if I’d open another location of the same business entirely. I like to physically be in this location. I like having personal contact with the members, which is why this space is more boutique-style. There’s only one of me and I don’t want to split myself between other locations.
I think I opened my coworking space at the right time. Because now, there are many popping up. And with these many spaces, they’re all giving good options and making an effort, aesthetically. So in the future if I wanted to open another, it would be harder to stand out and make ends meet.
6. When you said you want to open another business, what would it be?
I’m not sure yet. I’ve been thinking of different ideas. Because I have an office already, I’d want it to be something I can work on from here and not have to move around. One idea I have is to have a referral agency to refer clients to freelancers to clients and vice versa. I must think more as there are other businesses that already do that.
7. How would you describe your brand? Anything else you want people to know?
The goal now would be to make it easier for members to connect without me having to make the introduction. I am working on building a system where it’s easier for people to get help and meet one another. Online and in person. Because when people arrive in the space, they’re sometimes too shy and don’t want to interrupt others. People are so used to being online now. But when they’re physically across from one another, they shy away from introducing themselves. I have to facilitate introductions because I know that they’d like to meet.
8. What’s an average day like for you?
A lot of people don’t realize that I do everything. I take out the trash, empty the dishwasher, rearrange the furniture!
I get up at 7:30am and then I’m here at 9am. It takes me a lot of time to get out of the house because I’m not a morning person. So, having an official opening hour at 9am is good to get me going. Ideally, I then check if there’s any new tour bookings or if I have any collaboration meetings. I check emails for any requests or anything urgent. I always check the space to make sure all is in order. I have to do a lot of cleaning because there’s a lot of upkeep in the space. For example, little things like, find a ladder to fix a lightbulb. There’s always something that needs to be fixed in the space. But the members are helpful in giving me a hand. Other than the upkeep, a big part of my work is strategizing, marketing, bookkeeping, and managing different membership and space rental terms.
I get a lot of requests to use the space for events for free. I rarely accept because it takes a lot of my time too and I’m not yet paying myself for my business. So, it really hurts my business to give away space for free. I want to help people at the same time and try to give discounts. But some don’t realize that the business is only 5 months old and needs to generate revenue.
Because there’s official branding in place, people don’t realize that I’m still doing everything myself. Like if someone doesn’t put the furniture back, I have to myself.
9. How do you deal with the financial pressure of opening a brix and mortar?
It’s the toughest part. There’s a huge financial weight and I have hard costs that I must pay every month. One thing I didn’t expect is that it’s seasonal. For example, in December, lots of people didn’t want to sign up because of the holidays. A lot of people cancelled by end of November and didn’t renew. December was a difficult month, but thankfully there was a big group that came in who was relocating their office. It was a miracle! I could pay rent and make ends meet. Otherwise, I would have suffered a loss, which I didn’t expect. I have to pay rent and utilities even if the space is empty. Also, there’s a lot of unexpected things like, repairs and temperature control by buying extra heaters. These are costs that I didn’t foresee. Because of this, I have to have a little extra in my budget for “just in case”. But I try to not stress about all of these things and believe it’ll be okay and that it’ll all work out. When starting your own business, I feel like you have to have a bit of an emotional detachment, so you don’t go on an emotional roller coaster.
The day we opened, nobody showed up and it was a shock for me! I expected people to start walking in for some reason and all I did was announce it on Instagram. I had to change my marketing strategy and invite people to come see the space for free. I organised a couple open house events as a free trial. I picked a specific date and called it “Free Work and Mingle Day” and did some paid promotions on Facebook. And that worked because some people who came that day are Members now, who are like family.
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Photographer credit: Deanna Flinn, Alexa Mazzarello and Lucy Gregory