CoMotion on King is one of the largest coworking spaces in Southern Ontario. It’s a 10,000 square foot space located in the heart of Downtown Hamilton at 115 King Street East. CoMotion is a coworking community of entrepreneurs, freelancers, professionals, startups, and small businesses working under one roof in their own flexible workspaces.
The Influence Magazine team met up with Ryan Moran, one of CoMotion’s founders to talk coworking, innovation and what it was like to be part of the move to make King East the hippest place in town.
I know you created CoMotion with other adventurous souls – who are they and what was the crazy idea that kicked it all off?
Well, it kind of came from a couple of different places. We had all known each other in various capacities: Tammy, Joe and I specifically met through just the young professional community in Hamilton, we had been involved in Hamilton Hive and dabbled in a couple of different things. We'd known each other for a while. I'd known Chad since McMaster University, Tammy I'd known through startup week, and things like that. So it kind of all came together. Joe being the serial entrepreneur that he is and the idea man who just kind of blazes ahead with things, I guess approached Tammy first about this property and ideas he had for the different spaces inside. And I think actually Serve Ping Pong, the business downstairs was already kind of bubbling up a bit too.
And so they began to think, and then they talked to me and I was like, oh, I know a guy who would also be very interested and brought Chad on, and then we just kept snowballing through the idea. Initially, the idea was to work towards a coworking space of some sort, but just the how, and what will it be, was not yet with the why. So that was really what we wanted to work out – just what is CoMotion, and what does CoMotion mean in the context of coworking spaces in Hamilton? The city already had Platform 302 and Seedworks, so what would it mean to have CoMotion on the scene? And would it be just another coworking space, or would we be able to do something different with it?
What did you come up with after all those questions were posed?
A lot of what we began to think about was the creation of CoMotion Group with CoMotion on King being our first project. And basically what we wanted to do was start a business that was focused on better ways of working, and better ways of working in a collaborative environment. Whether that is creating a coworking space, or a shared workspace within specific industries or working directly with a Fortune 500 company, we were open to all those possibilities.
So CoMotion on King is just the first of that?
Exactly, yes. One of the big things too is that we're all – well, three of us are from Hamilton; Joe is a transplant to Hamilton, but obviously very, very much bought-in. So a lot of what we were building came from the desire to really build the community, and particularly the downtown community.
So what made Hamilton fertile ground for something as innovative as CoMotion on King? Could you have done this in any city, or is Hamilton different?
Hamilton is a big city, but you can still create a very close and supportive community. That was something we'd been familiar with since our days around the professional community. You can start something and, if you're doing it right, and you invite people to express their own interest and their own participation in it, you'd find a great community emerge out of that, people who are willing to support and build something with it. In terms of building CoMotion in another city, I think we absolutely could but it would have a very distinct and unique character.
Entrepreneurs can work from home, a coffee shop or rent a single office in a tower. What’s the upside of putting business roots down here at CoMotion? Is it all about avoiding entrepreneur isolation?
I think it's the ability to, on one hand simply just talk to people and understand what they're doing, be able to consult and work with people on different ideas, bounce ideas off people. I mean, there are obviously very many different types of coworking spaces and many different types of shared office spaces, and uniquely and truly coworking spaces do produce that sort of environment. Whereas if you're just renting an office, you don't get that, you get shut away from other perspectives. I think it's that ability to be able to bounce ideas off people and be able to see different perspectives, and also capability through different skills and expertise, that helps build your own ideas and thoughts on your idea.
Tell me about Ryan Moran, what kind of guy are you?
I'm the guy who says “yes” to too many things. So if something interests me, I jump onboard and then I deal with it later, along with a couple of grey hairs. I've always been interested in starting things. My background is Arts at Mac for undergrad and then I did an MBA, but I was involved with the student union, which was sort of a crash course in business, before I did the MBA. I was working in marketing for a local agency; I actually currently work for Niagara Parks. But I was also one of the founding members of Hamilton Hive and really interested in, from my perspective, growing the Hamilton community. Spending a lot of time downtown, ever since I was a little kid, I saw the dip in Hamilton’s vibrancy.
So you’re excited about playing a role in revitalizing the city?
Yes, being able to play a role in that is something that's very important to me. As we look forward, I think something that's actually deeply embedded in our brand is the desire to, whether it's in Hamilton or say, Brantford or St. Catharine's, is the idea that we can be a community catalyst for the revival of an economic strategy.
Is the plan to hone the brand in mid-level cities and then move on to the big ones like Toronto and Vancouver?
If we were to think about expansion or expansion projects, something like Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal would probably rank relatively low on our list, versus a city or a community that actually could use a new type of launching pad for small businesses.
I get pretty excited about the energy in the Bay Area. Is change and innovation hitting the masses or just the 200 of us who are always talking about it?
I think it's growing. I think Hamilton's character is very optimistic. So I think it is a growing movement and it’s maybe far from a tipping point, but it's definitely emerging.
My older son is finished his schooling in Ottawa and I never thought he would come back to Hamilton – I just assumed he would go straight to Toronto. Ends up Hamilton is on his list. When I asked him about it, he says, “Are you kidding, Hamilton is so hip, there's so much stuff going on there, I can't wait.”
Yeah. You kind of touched on it in regards to your son, I like to think to myself, I don't know how good it will be yet, but it's going to be great. So it's the sort of thing where you read a lot of great articles coming out of places around Canada or the U.S., about how good Hamilton is for creative industries, how good it is for investment, how good this and that – it's good. But we still have a lot to do.
Are we getting comfortable with all this change?
It’s always better to be uncomfortable than to be comfortable. So let's be uncomfortable with the way things are right now, and just keep working and pushing forward. Things are good now, but as the saying goes, “good is the enemy of great.”
If you could direct the city over the next five years, where would you steer it to go from good to great?
Good question. I think, on the one hand creating more robust diverse economies, really working on boosting the development of different industries in the city is important.
I love clothing and things like that, so when I see something like O's Clothes, it's fascinating. I'd like to see the development of the independent retail scene, because then that also spawns the development of a lot of design industries, and design industries related to those spawn other industries within a city.
It is about introducing catalysts that spawn industries around them. A new, big headquarters in the city creates an ecosystem of spin-off small-mid sized businesses around it, in the same way that independent businesses do on a grassroots/ground-up level. The city needs to be better practiced at both of those approaches.
We celebrate the Canada Bread plant’s arrival, which, though it is great for jobs in the city, it is not the sort of economic win that will necessarily create the same sort of spin-off business ecosystem. At the same time, in the broader economic landscape of Ontario, that plant came from Kitchener, and what Kitchener-Waterloo got was Google. So, from an economic development perspective, in looking at innovation in the city, we need to also look at how we potentially attract Fortune 500s here, because the real big win in that situation went to Kitchener-Waterloo, not Hamilton.
For instance, IBM going to Stelco Tower: very important. Not that I want to work for IBM, not that a lot of people I know would ever want to work for IBM, but having IBM next door to whoever might be in this space is very important.
It’s a halo.
Hamilton has a great variety of coworking spaces. Are they all cousins with different flavours but a similar foundation? Or are they all distinctly different from each other?
I'd say they're close to being cousins.
Is CoMotion an island or are you part of the King Street East community?
One of my priorities with CoMotion on King is how we can, as a community, help to revitalize King East and work with local businesses in that respect. We can act as an army of communicators talking about reasons to visit and spend money on King East and in the downtown Hamilton square mile.
You speak passionately about this area of Hamilton. What’s your connection to it?
I think about being this skateboarding kid downtown when I was younger, and there were a lot of viable businesses at that point. Somewhere in the mid-early 2000s that definitely dropped.
Talk to me about King Street East a bit and your ideas for how it can grow into its own unique brand and attitude.
Well, think about Queen West in Toronto. Fifteen years ago it was Spadina and Queen. But now, Queen West goes all the way down to Parkdale – and that's a huge distance to go in 15 years. So imagine if we are able to collectively build the persona of King East, and that many kilometres between Spadina and Parkdale, in Hamilton translation is pretty much here to Parkdale in Hamilton. So that would be an incredible development.
What was the space like when you guys first walked in?
Did it frighten you?
It was a little bit thinking just like, I don't even want to know how this is going to be done and I don't want any details, let's just get this done.
It must have been overwhelming.
Yeah. I mean, there were walls in the middle of spaces. This room was divided into two parts and it was like a separate room there, wires hanging down, and there was a fireplace behind there. [Gestures.]
Was it dirty-dirty?
Very dirty, yeah.
When was the last time someone was in here?
I'm thinking as recently as 2004. So it's a good 12 years or so, yeah.
And when was it the Hamilton Spectator building? So what's that history?
I'm not actually sure on the dates specifically, but it probably would have been up until the mid-1970s. Mid-1970s to early-1980s. So there would have been no lag between the two.
How old is the building?
It depends actually on the sections. We're in the older section right now and that is about potentially 1870s or ‘80s. So it would have been part of the original street face and that's why you have things like the fireplace there. But then as you go back and you see it, particularly in some of the spaces as you're going back, the bricks change – that's because they kept building out on the back.
When you stand here in CoMotion on King tonight it looks beautiful. Like something you’d see in SoHo. Before the renovation, did you ever stand in this very spot and think, What have I done?
I think every other week. Even still.
Even still? [Laughs].
Yeah, there are always concerns and, especially leading up to our opening, we did push that back a couple of times – we originally wanted to be open in summer, but then we were able to get there for September 1. So that was kind of a time where tensions were a bit higher. But otherwise it's that sort of thing where you're just seeing it every day, so you never really see the good, but then you need someone with you to see them be amazed, and you think like oh, yes, it's not bad.
The first time I came to this space, the entry off King Street East was shabby and I thought, Ugh and then when I walked up to the third floor and saw the actual workspace “ugh” changed to “wow!”
Later when I rented space here, I brought our designer Richelle up for a meeting and she had the same reaction coming up the stairs and then when she arrived in the actual space, she said, “Oh my gosh, this is just like the kind of space all my friends in Toronto work in.”
What are the next steps for CoMotion on King Street East?
So there's a couple of big priorities. The two biggest are the elevator and the patio. The elevator obviously is the top priority in terms of, not just for the convenience of the current clientele, but also for accessibility, because it's very important to us that we want to be a fully accessible space.
I’m liking this patio idea. What are the plans ?
So the patio will be directly above us. At the moment the way we're looking at it, it will basically be just a space for the members and for social events to begin with.
The view would be incredible.
It's incredible, yeah.
Any thoughts on improving the entranceway off King Street East?
Yes, the hallway is an obvious area we’re improving. Right now we are working on a couple options, one of them was actually a partnership with the Spectator for them to come in and do an installation, we’re still looking into it though.
The entranceway is a bit rough.
It’s actually a fantastic security deterrent because no-one thinks that anything good is in here. [Laughs.]
I know what your plans were for CoMotion on King, but what’s the community reaction been?
We have over 70 businesses and 100 members within the CoMotion network, which is pretty impressive. It's exciting because I remember when we were only ten companies last September. This is just the the first year, so we are seeing that natural attrition that's coming out from just basic career developments in different people’s lives. I'd say the best news story we've had out of this project has been the fact that we've met all the business goals. And we've made sure to keep them conservative and basically what we need, and we've obviously exceeded that, so that's been really important. Obviously we're always wanting to do better, but being able to just do that is very important.
Well, 70 to 80% and you've been open six months.
Soon enough there'll be a wait list.
Wow. And you see companies coming in here and then leapfrogging into ? as a transition, or do you see them then renting another office and growing within CoMotion Group?
Kind of both; when we were actually structuring our business plan, we defined four target audiences and one of those were startups in entrepreneur businesses where we were recognising that their turnover might be actually relatively quick. So we were fine with that. So it was between freelancers, start-ups, existing tech firms and professional service entities, and trying to get them all into a space to create a small business ecosystem. And recognizing that we will see turnover and treating that less like turnover and attrition and more like success stories, that they're able to grow and develop and want their own space.
I think that's such a positive way of looking at it, that when someone says, You know what? I need a bigger space. It's a transition, it's a gateway that's not, I don't like you guys are moving on, sort of thing.
There's a huge difference in how you look at that.
Talk to me about collaboration and what that looks like in the Ambitious City.
What's important is the collaborative environment both within the space and within the downtown core. So we do see a lot of participation, a lot of sharing, a lot of working together with different groups. Whether it's the Chamber of Commerce members of this space, or Gifted down the street or Thrifty Designer, we'll do things with them and we'll speak to them and everyone's very open to working on that, and wanting to do things downtown and wanting to build things. So it's very important, and I think it's very important that it continues. I think one really interesting thing that I'd really like to see also, is even just the superficial development of this section of the city, and the street specifically. So from future developments, so the patio and the elevator are two of our foremost priorities.
What do you think is going to happen when the new Royal Connaught condos open and fill with hundreds of affluent citizens? What effect is this going to have on King Street East and the city as a whole?
A couple of years ago the Lister Block was seen as the game-changer for downtown. When the Royal Connaught opens day and night, it will just be insane.
Is there a proven recipe for innovation? And what do you think innovators need in terms of space to reach their goals?
I think it really comes down to personal risk tolerance and being ready, willing and able to take those chances. I think what really helps, from a coworking community perspective, is that you have the grounds on which you're being encouraged and supported to go forward and take those chances. So I think what we need to see is the development of that community, continually working with other spaces, other businesses, other stakeholders and partners in the community, to find those opportunities, and also looking at businesses that do exist that also want to push things forward. We had Pearson Dunn, for example, at the last CoMotion assembly, and they're a fantastic example – I mean you really can't think of any business more stodgy or old-school than insurance, yet their business is very fascinating, they have a very forward-thinking mindset in terms of businesses in Hamilton and in this area. So it's also just partners and people who exist in the community who are willing to push things forward and help things grow.
Where can we expect to see you in a few years?
The objective is to grow this and to grow what we do and create that community. So especially with things like the Co-Exchange program that we just started rolling out, if we continue to grow, to create the sort of model where there is access for a member in Penticton, for example, and one in Hamilton to provide joint services to each other at discounted rates. And when we look at expansion, it's either we replicate, say, like a knowledge-worker space in different cities or different areas, or we potentially explore how CoMotion can become a leader in developing shared workspace among different industries. So whether it is a knowledge space or whether it is a maker space or a retail space, and how are we going to shape that, and how do we work with others in the Canadian startup scene? So it might be CoMotion potentially reaching out to shops to find retail space and how to combine that digital and physical presence.
You're getting there.
I'm fascinated by the idea of the CoMotion Group, so I could see it being, instead of CoMotion on King, it would be CoMotion Brantford or CoMotion Cornwall. That’s very ambitious.
It's just keeping our mind open to things. So even though – the one thing I like to think about, and probably I didn't say this before, I see it as something less likely happening, but I love beaches and I love surfing, and in Toronto there's a great example where you have the Toronto Wind Surfing Club on Cherry Beach and it's just a shared-economy model. So they don't have to even necessarily be based in economic development or industry, how do you also just create recreational shared models, and could CoMotion be in that space? I think it absolutely could.
When are we going to have the residential collaborative model?
You see that in the States, which is so much more ahead of us in terms of the coworking innovation and innovative business. You see just fantastic examples, and not just the States, also overseas, from the hospitality perspective, coworking hotel spaces and things like that, and it's just really super-interesting.
Ryan, I think we’ll leave it right there, on a note of what’s to come.
Thank you very much.
Update since the interview was completed in Spring 2016:
Ryan, along with his partners purchased Platform 302, another Hamilton co-working space, and brought it into the CoMotion Group as CoMotion 302The much anticipated rooftop patio at CoMotion on King will be complete and they will be celebrating their first anniversary on it on September 8th.CoMotion Group is rolling out a health and dental insurance benefits program for all CoMotion Members.