How to thrive in the face of adversity

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In this interview, Kate Dezarnaulds shares the story of how she built WorkLife, and the challenges she has had to overcome to make it happen.

“Kate Dezarnaulds is the founder of WorkLife, a thriving network of co-working spaces on the NSW South Coast that continues to grow.  Like many businesses, WorkLife has had some serious challenges during 2020 and 2021.  Despite this, and with some major sacrifices on the way, Kate found the resilience and tenacity to not only stick it out, but to expand WorkLife during the crisis.

In this interview Kate share her story, which is raw, honest and inspiring. Enjoy.”

– James, Founder MentorConnex.

What is WorkLife?

WorkLife is a network of co-working spaces on the South Coast of New South Wales.

What inspired you to start WorkLife?

WorkLife was founded as a response to my own challenges in working out how to be productive on the days that I worked from home.

I would find myself going to a cafe in the morning and cranking out 2 1/2 hours of great work and then coming home and doing donuts around my dining table for the afternoon.

My husband built me a beautiful home office in our garden and I still wasn’t very productive.

So talking about this challenge with a few other people who were working from home, they cheered me on to establish our first coworking space in Berry (NSW) back in 2017, as a way of getting some productivity, routine and community into my life.

MentorConnex image of WorkLife Berry NSW
Source:  WorkLife Berry has all the charm or a rural cottage and all the amenities of an urban office.

What exactly are co-working spaces, and why are they so important for the communities they serve?

Coworking spaces are a simple idea, really. 

In the old parlance they’re serviced offices, but these days coworking spaces are an essential piece of economic infrastructure in regional towns. 

They’re a landing pad for new people moving to the place.

They’re a draw card for knowledge economy workers who are currently fleeing the cities in droves.

And they provide a fantastic place for people to come together to connect with each other, to share ideas and to benefit from the positive peer pressure that happens when you see everybody around you getting on with stuff.

It’s a fantastic way to reduce your own procrastination and just get on and get the things done you need to get done every day.

What were you doing before WorkLife?

I have had a career that has roamed the Arts, Festivals and not for profit landscapes.

I’ve always worked on the business side of those organisations, brokering partnerships and sponsorships and working in philanthropy.

When I looked back there was a common thread of building community and helping cultural things to be financially sustainable.

So for me WorkLife feels like a natural extension of everything that I’ve done before. And it’s fantastic to be able to operate a business like that in a regional setting.

It’s been great for meeting and connecting people and fantastic to see the growth in the community over the years that I’ve been there.

How has COVID impacted the business?

COVID was disastrous for anything that was about a shared space, to be honest.

We went from 60 members to 11 in two weeks and 12 months later we’re probably still only about 60% recovered for our existing businesses in Berry and Kiama.

Still a fair way to go, but we added a new site in Coledale which is well and truly meeting its business plan.

Until this second wave of lockdowns it was the success of Coledale that was keeping me going. Now it’s all just about hanging on as best as we can until we get to the other side. I think the future post-covid will be fantastic for the coworking industry. But it’s now an endurance act to hang on so we can make the most of the good times ahead. 

What did you do to mitigate the challenges COVID presented?

The first thing that we did when COVID arrived was to focus first and foremost on the physical safety and the urgent needs of our existing Members.

So we closed to all casual users and new members.

We put everybody’s memberships on pause if they needed to stay away and made the tough call to prioritise relationships over money by not billing people if they weren’t there.

And then we kept the doors open for those people who couldn’t work from home. If their Internet connection wasn’t good enough, or there were kids at home, people needed space and time to focus on desperately trying to save their own businesses.

So we made it through round 1 lockdowns by putting our Members needs first and raiding my husband and my superannuation accounts!

After we managed to take a breath and take stock we then set to work trying to problem solve what physical changes and design adaptations would be required for us to be able to continue to operate our spaces in a COVID safe way.

It’s been a year of enormous challenges, and it’s certainly not over yet.

MentorConnex Kate Dezarnaulds founder of WorkLife
Source: Kate Dezarnaulds, founder of WorkLife.

You continued to expand during COVID by opening a third location in Coledale. How on earth did you pull that off?

The honest answer to that is that we sold our House!

There was a big moment during the middle of COVID where you had to decide whether you were going to dig in or ditch your business.

We decided to invest in the business model to open another space and to be brave at a time when others were being cautious. This lockdown we are doing the same thing again and are busy expanding our Berry location to a second site – this time with a wine bar built in.

Only time will tell whether it was the right decision.

COVID aside, what has been the toughest lesson you've learned in business so far?

The toughest lesson that I have learned in business so far is that execution is everything.

I reckon I come up with ten ideas a day for new businesses and I’m really easily distracted.

I’m endlessly curious!

I’m always open to helping people with their ideas or their challenges or community events volunteering.

The biggest challenge that I’ve learned is to learn the discipline to dig into the detail, commit to executing, and to be patient, and wait for the results.

What advice would I give to other business owners tackling similar challenges?

I think the advice I’d give to other business owners is to seek out and pay for expert advice.

Being a business owner can be a really lonely thing at times and I am a very regular user of business coaching, business mentoring, expert consultants and advisors.

I think that asking the right people for the right advice at the right time is always worth the investment.

Do you love what you do? Why?

I absolutely love what I do because it’s a business model that’s designed to satisfy my curiosity’s, I get to dive into the tree change and sea change adventures of all our new members that land at WorkLife.

I get to hear about and get inspired by all of their businesses and their business challenges.

WorkLife is one of those businesses that keeps you abreast of all sorts of different industries.

It lets you meet lots of different people and connect them to each other, helping them out with a bit of an introduction here or a referral there, or introduction to somebody socially or some advice on a local restaurant or preschool.

All of those things are the little elements of every day that makes my job enjoyable.

You've got a young family and a husband who also has a successful business. What are your views on work life balance. Does it exist and what does it mean for you?

WorkLife balance for me is all about flexibility and autonomy.

So things are balanced when you can be where you need to be. When you can shuffle your day to make sure that you can be there when others need you there.

As long as you’ve got the autonomy to be able to make decisions on your priorities on a daily basis, then I think things are in balance.

The times when I feel like my work life balance is really out of whack is when somebody else kind of controls my daily agenda and I don’t have the ability to choose my priorities.

MentorConnex image of WorkLife Kiama NSW
Source: WorkLife spaces are contemporary and inviting and feature walls showcasing local artists.

A few months ago you connected with a mentor through MentorConnex. What made you get a mentor at that time?

MentorConnex is a fantastic opportunity for us to be able to seek really senior, really expert advice at a moment that was really crucial to our business.

We were assessing an opportunity to open a much larger space and I needed to make sure that I went into those negotiations confident in the numbers and confident of the value that I was representing to the other partner.

Any time spent on feasibility when you’re in an expanding business is never time wasted, and it’s really tempting to get caught up in negotiations and do a deal at any price. It was just great to have some wisdom on your team, somebody to sense check with was an absolute asset to us at this time.

I found that MentorConnex’s curatorial approach to finding the right person for you and your needs was really valuable. A great skill set at a very reasonable rate. It represents great value for the level of expertise that you’re getting.

And I love that it’s there on an as-needed basis rather than locking you into any expensive ongoing contracts, which is what can happen with business coaching.

Did you have any reservations before going ahead?

I had one hesitation when I looked at Michael’s MentorConnex profile and that was that my business was too small to be of interest to somebody of his seniority and stature.

And I couldn’t have been more wrong. Michael has really assuaged those fears of mine.

He’s genuinely curious about businesses at all stages. His view was that it’s the same decision making paradigms that you walk through whether you are a small regional outfit or a big listed company. And I really know now that he’s genuinely enthusiastic to help somebody at any stage of the business cycle- it makes absolutely no difference for him.

For him it’s the enjoyment of connecting with somebody who’s passionate about their business at a crucial moment in time where he can offer some help and some advice. It’s a win win.

So what does the future hold for WorkLife?

Look, our vision is to have a network of co-working spaces in tree change and sea change communities on the South Coast of New South Wales.

The right size and the right number of that network will depend on the sort of capital that we can bring into the business. The sort of deals that we can do, and ultimately how profitable the spaces are.

So I hope that over the next couple of years our network of three spaces will grow to at least six spaces, and I’ve definitely got my eyes on some great towns where I think that a regional co-working space will be an absolute a boost for the local economy and for the lives of people who live in and are moving to those areas.

And lastly, if you could go back to the day you conceived, WorkLife and give yourself some advice what would it be?

Oh, goodness me!

I would advise myself to be patient.

To always keep your principles as your guide.

And to not be afraid to make the tough decisions when you need to.

Dragging out the difficult choices only drags out the pain and the cost.

So yeah, that would be my advice to my younger self!

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