Are you Ready for a Communal Workspace?

We recently sat down with Works resident, Isaac Firestone, to find out what it’s like to operate his business from a communal workspace and how coworking is working for his wholefood importing and distribution startup, Whole Harry. Whole Harry imports food from around the world – namely Whole Harry maple syrup from Canada and the US – which Isaac and his team supply to 200 supermarkets, organic and other retail stores around New Zealand.

“In the infancy stages of my business,” Isaac says, “I was that stereotypical founder knocking on doors and then doing my admin in cafes. I had never really even heard about coworking at that point.” It was during a chance visit to an old friend at Saltworks that Isaac realised there might be another way to work. “He invited me to come in for lunch,I stayed and worked the afternoon and then I hung out for a couple more days before [Works Founder] Leon noticed I was here,” he laughs.

Isaac officially moved in to Saltworks in December of 2019 and has since built the Whole Harry head office up to 3 staff, with a further 2 operational staff working remotely from a warehouse in Wellington. In his pre-startup life, Isaac worked for both Fonterra and Villa Maria Estate where, he says, he got a lot out of working in large office environments. “I’d really missed that comradery of being in a space with co-workers, and I was surprised by how much coworking is like being in a large office full of colleagues. You still have that same interpersonal relationship with the person you’re working next to, the only difference being that they work for another company.”

This has been a big draw for Isaac, as he enjoys the ability to have open and unstructured conversations with the people around him, without the pressure of everyone working for the same organisation. “It’s really helpful to be able to talk through challenges with people who are outside of your business. I like not having to be the boss all the time and being able to get advice from people who aren’t involved or invested in my operations. I also love being able to have friendly interactions with the Works team without the pressure of them being my staff to manage, so I get to have a really positive interaction every day before I even get to my desk.”

Isaac has also enjoyed the easy access to a range of business professionals that he might not otherwise encounter, and has maximised opportunities to get product feedback from the other Saltworks residents. “It’s quite cool for us to be able to have taste-testers readily available and to get a whole bunch of people with no investment in the product to give us their honest opinions. We can directly poll our target market without even leaving the office… I can also just take a little mental break when I need one and go talk to someone about something totally different from my business to clear my mind. I find that really refreshing.”

Indeed, one of the biggest draws of working at Works is what Isaac describes as slow-burn networking. “It’s sort of the opposite of a speed networking function where everyone is nervously trying to give their elevator pitch. It’s much more relaxed because this is a long-term network that you wouldn’t meet or access anywhere else. It’s the kind of place where you can change companies from x to y but still stay at Works and keep all your workmates.”

Isaac is hugely appreciative of Works’ Founder, Leon, and his efforts to build the kind of community that residents want to stay in for the long haul. “Leon’s always making connections in his head about who should talk to each other about some shared question or interest. He’s a great facilitator and he’ll often pull me away to meet someone who he knows I’ll connect with. It’s obvious he’s taken a lot of time to understand me and my business and what I want to achieve. You won’t get that anywhere else.”

This personal connection transcends the Works working environment, Isaac says, with a collective of Dads with young families who cowork during the week and then take their kids out at the weekend. “That was another Leon initiative. He realised there were a few of us who had kids under 5 and he pulled it together for us to do stuff at the weekend like go to the Zoo or to Willowbank. It’s so much better to spend that time with people who are in the same space and have our kids run around together, rather than letting them run around and destroy the house at the weekend.”

Whole Harry has big plans, Isaac says, starting with the recent acquisition of Well & Truly Artisan Pantry. “They’ve got an amazing New Zealand product which we’ll now be making with Whole Harry maple syrup. I expect that this is just one of a number of acquisitions we’ll be making over the next 5 years. New Zealand is great at ideas and products but not always great at taking them to market. The boring business part that makes great products successful is what I’m best at.”

In the meantime, Isaac is happy with his head office team of 3 and his fan-favourite dog, Maple, at Saltworks, and is enjoying working with the friend who brought him in by chance years ago. “I’ve known Brendan since 4th form and we’ve been close friends since we were 14. We didn’t used to see each other that much but now we get to be workmates even though we don’t work for the same company. How cool is that?”