When one door closes, another door opens. Cliché? Sure, but for Texas-based entrepreneur Hayley Swindell, the adage rings true. The closure of her first business, an ethical subscription box service called The Hip Humanitarian, has led Swindell straight to the opening of her next one: The Refinery, a coworking space for creatives, freelancers and makers seeking community.
Taylor Prinsen Photography
When Swindell launched The Hip Humanitarian in 2014, she was a first-time business owner, and she worked from home. In her dimly lit apartment surrounded by product samples and cardboard boxes, she also spent her days alone, packing orders and creating content to keep her baby brand alive. Without an entrepreneurial community to lean on or the resources to purchase the equipment she needed to scale, she eventually folded The Hip Humanitarian to take a job in philanthropy.
Now three years later, Swindell’s on a mission to make sure other emerging business owners don’t fall victim to similar barriers and burnout. Her new venture, The Refinery, will feature all of the standard coworking perks (open work desks, dedicated spaces, Wi-Fi, coffee, you name it), plus the stuff of many creative entrepreneur’s dreams: a photography studio, styling closet, fulfillment center, shared retail shop and catering kitchen. I chatted with Swindell about the manifestation of the space, how design-thinking has influenced her approach and the experience we (often unknowingly) gather when experiencing failure.
Jane Claire Hervey: Let’s start at the beginning—with your first business. What were some of your biggest barriers?
Hayley Swindell: [When I first started The Hip Humanitarian], I didn’t really know what I was doing, but subscription box companies were starting to become really big, so I thought that would be cool if I could introduce people to ethical lifestyle products through the subscription model. So I bulk-ordered a ton of boxes—my whole apartment was filled with boxes—and I started talking to makers, people who made physical products, cared about where the materials came from and were paying their workers fair wages. The subscription box company was called The Hip Humanitarian, and I was able to grow Hip to where I jumped straight from a job in the nonprofit world into running my own company. I loved the idea of just figuring it out as I went and having no clue what I was doing, but that got old really quickly. At the time, I was living with my boyfriend and his friend, and we were all in this tiny little apartment with stained carpet and laminate counters. We never had natural light and all of our furniture was pleather (because it was the guy’s stuff), but working only from home on an ecommerce store, trying to take Instagram photos or just product photography was never going to happen. I didn’t have lighting equipment; I couldn’t afford it, and I just got kind of stuck. I was wearing pajamas all of the time, which is fine, but it’s easy to stop wanting to see people and just put “Parenthood” on in the background; no one is around to tell you to stop.
I had a lot of questions, too. I was using Shopify, which was great, but I had nobody to ask. I think I was too scared to ask. I was like, ‘I’m young. I just quit my job. My family thinks I’m crazy.’ And I’m female. I was also taught growing up that I shouldn’t ask those kinds of questions, and that I should just know [about things like business and finances]. So, I started looking at coworking spaces, but I couldn’t find one that spoke to my needs; they were all pretty corporate and bro-y. I gave up after searching and went back to working from home, and my now investor reached out on LinkedIn to ask me how things are going with The Hip Humanitarian. I got on the phone with him, and he told me that he had a position coming up in one of his programs. By this point, I didn’t feel like I was making enough money to continue just doing Hip, and I had no idea how to scale. So, I took the full-time job and fell in love my with position, but I let Hip Humanitarian subside. I was so sad, even though I loved the job, because I loved running my own company and loved working with makers.
Hervey: And you really think coworking could have prevented that? How did you end up coming up with The Refinery as the solution?
Swindell: I had been with Dan [Swindell’s former employer] for about a year and a half and we were chatting one day over lunch. I was like, “Hey, I wish Hip Humanitarian would have worked out and I think this whole coworking thing could have solved it.” And I had this one-pager on what The Refinery would look like, and I started sketching it for him, like “There will be desks here, a photography studio here, a retail store here etc.” And then he said, “Yeah, that sounds good. We should do that.” And I, of course, said, “Yeah we should, let’s do it.” I had honestly just wanted his opinion on it, but he told me to come back and chat about the business model. We met to discuss a cash flow analysis and then we went 50/50 on it. I started working for myself and quit working for him.
And that was one of the major changes. With Hip Humanitarian, I was too scared to tell people I was doing it. I wasn’t proud to say I’m an entrepreneur; a lot of people are scared to say that and be taken seriously. A lot of people, especially women, have a hard time owning that. That’s how I felt working alone all of the time, and that’s why, at The Refinery, I want to create a community that shares ideas. I want people to feel comfortable sharing ideas with each other, so I’m carving out a niche community where people will be feeling the same things and have the same questions. An environment where you can ask your neighbor “What is a cash-flow analysis?” without feeling dumb for asking that question. Also, when you’re working from home alone, too, or you’re a freelancer, if you don’t have anybody to celebrate those good times with, that’s a big thing, too.
Photo via The Refinery
Hervey: That’s a significant shift from a role in nonprofit management to running your own coworking space. As you’ve been building The Refinery and prepping to open, what does your workday like?
Swindell: I joke about wearing all the hats, but I literally wear all the hats, both figuratively and physically. So, my day usually starts out with a baseball cap, because my hair is so nuts (I don’t have time to shower—I don’t know what my hair looks like blown out anymore). So, I start out with my hat on because my hair is kind of funky from where I slept on it wet the night before, and then I go down to The Refinery’s construction site and have my hard hat on. And while I have my hard hat on, I am construction manager, I am salesperson, I am tour guide and then occasionally accountant, but I never take off that hat. Then, I have to be social at night, to make sure I’m networking and bringing in the right people, so I put my floppy hat on. So, who am I? I am the wearer of hats; that is the best description I can come up with.
Hervey: How does the physical design of The Refinery speak to a more creative customer base; how does it provide value to emerging entrepreneurs who might also be wearing many hats?
Swindell: The space is two stories (technically three, because there’s an underground speakeasy). The first floor is casual coworking by day, coffee-shop-style, with a bunch of open tables. I want to encourage people to move those tables around; it’s a very fluid space. At night, it will be open for events. Most coworking spaces allow that, but we’re hoping to really transform our 4,000 feet first floor. Part of this community mission is events; it’s important to me that we have this big events space where we can gather and do all sorts of things.
Downstairs, there will also be a photography studio, with natural light, blackout curtains, lighting equipment and styling props. For example, if you’re a blogger and just starting out, we’ll have different surfaces to photograph things on, because I understand that you need little coffee cups and little plants to make your photos look better when you’re first telling the story of your business. We’ll also have a retail store at The Refinery, too, for members who make physical products. The purpose of that is to give people the experience of having a store where they don’t have to stand with their products and we’ll write our members a check every month based on what they’ve sold. The other physical thing downstairs is the catering kitchen; my vision for that is that we can do supper clubs, host intimate dinners, invite chefs in, etc. and give people this blank canvas space where they can really experiment. We’re even going to give people the option to rent the space for a month.
Taylor Prinsen Photography
Hervey: Why is this space different from other coworking spaces? How are you ensuring it won’t become as “corporate” as the spaces you explored when running Hip Humanitarian?
Swindell: Freelancers and creatives are typically dedicated to their home studios; that’s why they don’t work for a corporate company. At the Refinery, we’re trying to offer a community, without having the corporate vibe. We’re designing it in a way that’s inspiring and pretty, so people can come and connect. Everybody’s nervous about sharing their ideas—it’s scary—but this coworking concept is so great because when you do share ideas with people you sometimes improve upon them. I find myself having conversations all day and writing everything down. And I think that’s so important as a freelancer; you need to be able to talk to people. You have to put yourself in a position where you’re out of the house and there’s people around and you’re opening yourself up to begin inspired.
Because we’re crafting this very niche community, we’re also coming up with specific programming. We have a collective that serves as a board and hosts office hours for people (the people in our collective are hand-picked to help our members), and having that event space downstairs will allow us to have an event every night or allow members to host their own events, their own classes, etc. Obviously, people from the community will be able to come in and use the space, too. I will consider the Refinery a success if people leave feeling like “I’m so glad I put on jeans and left my apartment today.” I hope their businesses thrive and that members can hold people accountable.
Taylor Prinsen Photography
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Categories: Money Matters