A visit to Convene HQ
Amid the bustle of New York’s financial district, we gathered four business leaders to talk shop in the flagship location of Convene, an innovative co-working and meeting space provider. The roundtable discussion covered the changing nature of work, the value of human-centered design, and the challenges of leading a growing business.
Ryan Menke, SVP of Sales and Marketing for OFS, was joined by three influential leaders from Convene: Ryan Simonetti, co-founder and CEO; Chris Kelly, co-founder and vice-chairman; and Joyce Bromberg, chief strategy officer.
On the changing nature of work
Chris Kelly: There are fundamental assumptions that we’ve made around work—and the way that workplaces are constructed—that are changing underneath our feet right now. The world is still digesting the concept of work as a completely mobile activity. Workplaces are going from being collections of desks to being truly activity-based campuses that resemble the type of work that is done in universities. When we handed in our best work during college, the teacher never asked you where you got it done. That wasn’t part of the grade. You were just judged on the product alone.
Ryan Menke: (laughs) It’s interesting that you put it as trying to replicate what you’re used to at the university level. God knows I was finishing my paper at three in the morning. When we studied the coffee bar model and how that might be applied to work, it never really clicked with me until I reflected back on my university experience. I remember sitting in class, feverishly writing notes watching the professor, and my roommate is sitting over here, with no notebooks, no nothing, just kind of staring at the board, and I’m like, “You’re going to flunk out.” He gets an A, I barely pass, and that’s when I realize that there are different learning styles, right, so there’s got to be different work typologies for each of us to do our best work.
Chris Kelly: So we’ve seen the best in class tech companies—Apple, Google, Facebook and the like—realize that real estate and workplace, if done properly, can actually be a competitive advantage that allows them access to the best and brightest talent, which puts them ahead of everybody else in terms of innovation and then productivity. What we observed is that very few companies, other than those elite tech companies, have the scale, or wherewithal, to produce a workplace environment that really addresses the full range of human needs.
Ryan Menke: I travel a lot and get to see many different spaces, and you can tell there is a very intentional approach to design in your spaces. To me, space is just what it is. It’s when you put the people in there it becomes a place. I think you all have really kind of latched onto that and really struck a nerve there. Do you see that as kind of your strategic differentiator, to be focused less on the space and more on the human element there?
Chris Kelly: Thank you, and 100%. What we’ve observed is the importance in the relationship between design and service. So, we think about the relationship between design and service like the way Apple thinks about hardware and software. These are two integral parts of the experience, that need to be coordinated and aligned, to successfully produce whatever the end goal is of the experience. Other companies in this market seem to be only trying to harness the power of the built environment, but the hospitality and the hospitality culture and services are not very well attended to.
Ryan Menke: Right. It’s really kind of a “people first” approach to space.
On human-centered design
Joyce Bromberg: So I’d love to share something. I just came from working with my team upstairs and we’re opening up our London market. For us it’s really about—yes, getting in touch with our end users—but then being thoughtful about what they say to us and acting with intention. People talk about getting coffee in the morning, right? What we were just able to understand, particularly for London, is that there are two types of things that we want to satisfy now. In our coffee shops, we want every customer to feel like a regular, right? But then there’s also the coffee that you have upstairs and when you get to your office and the rituals that are attached to having that coffee. How does someone come in, start their day? How do we create the places within our workspace for those rituals to occur naturally? Then what are the postures and the places where they can engage in that ritual? So for me, it’s really satisfying to be able to see those things and then to be able to provide very specific places for those things to happen, because I think that’s going to differentiate us in the long run.
Ryan Menke: It’s interesting. So as you expand globally, from London to beyond, what are those core values and core experiences versus the local cultural nuances of that cup of coffee—or cup of tea—depending on where you are?
Ryan Simonetti: It’s something that Joyce’s team spends a lot of time on from a research perspective. There’s a formality to hospitality delivery in London that is very different than New York, right? Right now, we know for a fact that in the six US markets that we’re currently operating in, tastes and preferences are highly localized, right? The way that people cook food and eat in Washington D.C. and northern Virginia where we have a location is different than Philadelphia, which is very different than Chicago, which is very different than L.A. So we have to be empathetic to the fact that different people, different cultures have different expectations and desires.
Ryan Menke: So we have the same thing just on a much smaller scale with many fewer dimensions for our showrooms. Honestly, we learned it, a tough story here in New York by trying to apply an L.A. styling to the New York market. It bombed, right? Our values don’t change, what we do doesn’t change, but just the application of color and finishes was so significant. So, I know you’re talking about the hospitality side, but from the standpoint of the built environment, are you learning anything different in those international markets?
Ryan Simonetti: Yep, so “think global, act local.” The actual aesthetic is being dramatically driven by local, right? Because we found that from an aesthetic design perspective, different things resonate in different ways. So, Joyce, you want to talk a little bit about some of the stuff we’ve been doing?
Joyce Bromberg: So, as Ryan said, we had the design principle to “think global, act local.” No matter where you are in the world, there’ll be a set of experiences that we’re true to Convene and what you expect. But we always want to surprise and delight. So we don’t want to become like a Starbucks or a Marriott, where wherever you go, it’s exactly the same. We want to be very true to a local aesthetic, local look and feel. And frankly, also what’s hip and cool—and that starts to change. I know I age myself when they say what’s hip and cool. But that life cycle of design is getting much shorter as well.
On the pace of workplace change
Chris Kelly: We often reflect on how fast the world is moving, but we usually don’t remind ourselves that it will never move this slowly ever again. The future is only going to be moving faster. If a CEO can’t see more than, you know, 24 to 36 months into the future, how can you be making real estate commitments that are 10 or 15 years long? The more volatility and the more anticipated change that you have as a business, the more you will be adopting agile real estate and service solutions.
Ryan Menke: So this is a question we have all the time internally—how do interiors and furnishings iterate at the pace of client’s needs? We keep looking at how are we going to create a product portfolio that allows the user the ability to adapt a space to their needs. Do you think the interiors and furnishings industry is keeping up?
Chris Kelly: What really needs to happen is that the furniture industry is going to intersect with the construction industry. What we need is not just moveable tables and chairs; we need moveable and flexible spaces in their entirety. It’ll be very interesting to see how that evolves, as the expectation for the workplace becomes more fluid.
Joyce Bromberg: Right. We’re in a time of disruption guys and everybody needs to be questioning everything and reinventing it. The nature of the workplace itself is changing. And we’ve been talking a long time about the transposition of expectation. The whole notion of a shared desk posture is going away. What people want from the workplace is totally different than what they wanted before. And I think that’s just going to continue to change.
On scaling culture
Ryan Menke: So my next question is how do you scale at the rate that you want to scale and grow and stay core to your values and make sure every single employee is exuding that behavior day in and day out?
Ryan Simonetti: I'm sure you as a family have gone through this. When the business is small the ability to impact things in real-time is very different than when you have 600 people, right? I think the concern that you have is to create this DNA, this nucleus of a culture. It’s not written down on paper at that point in time, right? It's just understood, and known, embraced. And then as you start to get bigger—100 people, 200 people, 400 people—the risk becomes: how do I take what was so special, what was so core to us from a values perspective and make sure that it stays core at 1,000 people, 2000 people, 20,000 people?
Chris Kelly: One of the reasons why small businesses often have a really good culture is because every single person can understand what their specific impact is and how their work changes the aggregate performance of the business. As you scale, the mission of the company and how an individual perceives their purpose and impact really have to be separately defined. But why we do what we do is not the same as what we do. I feel that a lot of people have been able to create a personal and professional path for themselves because of the work that we do. And so long as we can always have people understand what their role is and what they're contributing to, I think people are very motivated to put their heart into the company.
Ryan Menke: They're buying into the why, right? That's the emotional connection.
Ryan Simonetti: Everything is why, just everything is why.
Joyce Bromberg: I think scaling is like one of the biggest things that we're gonna re-invent here at Convene. It's not easy to scale a culture. It doesn't come easy. I mean, Chris has been the embodiment of the culture at Convene and he meets with every single employee and has coffee with the new folks and everybody in the company knows who he is, and Ryan acts with integrity every single time. Those are rules that you don't break, but there was no rulebook to follow. And I think as a team, you're making these rules up.
On balancing passion
Ryan Simonetti: I wish I could say that there were days that I really struggled for motivation, but I haven't really had them. My passion is building—building companies, building things, building people, building teams and running a high-growth company. I think I'm actually having the opposite problem, which is—as now a father trying to be a good parent and husband—how do I turn it off?
The biggest struggle that I'm having right now, personally, is finding some sort of balance because I'm happiest when I'm fully engrossed when I'm all-in, but I don’t want the consequence of not being there for my kid or not being a good husband. I'd say where I'm more focused right now on being more present and trying to find a balance between motivation and the other things in life that are really, really important.
Ryan Menke: It’s interesting, I'm probably a generation ahead, because in a sense I was like your son, right? I watched my dad basically morph a 50-year-old business, pivot immediately to a totally different industry, remortgage the house twice. My grandfather did the same thing to pivot the business. If they knew what it was really gonna cost, they both would tell today they probably wouldn't have done it. But once they were in, there's no way they were gonna fail.
Ryan Simonetti: Well, failure is not an option.
Ryan Menke: Yeah, in a town of 5,000 people and we employ 1,900—failure’s really not an option, right? When you’ve got four generations on my grandfather's side and six generations on my grandmother, they're casting a long shadow, right? So, you wake up every day with a drive for the community and for your family. But, it can be a double-edged sword. Growing up, my dad was out building the business, so we took a desk in the back of every van and then on our way to Florida, we'd stop and peddle furniture just to get the business going. As a kid, you see that and you're like, "well, why isn't my dad at little league?" Then, you get into the business and you understand that there's that innate passion.
And I don't need anybody to get me motivated. But with a six, three, and two-year-old, it's the same thing, where I've had to rebalance my days. I'm getting up every morning between 4:45 am to 5:30 am, at the latest. I get all my stuff done before the kids get up. That way, I can take care of them. If I'm in town, I'm driving my daughter to school because those are the special moments she's going to remember. Then I work as effectively as I can and as hard as I can during the workday, then get home and try to create that space again, which is really hard. My wife comes from the industry, so she totally gets it, but she is such a great force in my life to rebalance me and force me to look in the mirror—that accountability mirror that Dave Goggins talks about.
Ryan Simonetti: Which is sometimes a painful mirror. It's amazing though, you talk about the importance of the people around you too and one of the things is about business is that it's the greatest team sport in the world, right? It takes a team at work, but it also takes a team at home.
I think the thing that my wife has done for me is to force that accountability and say, "You know your tombstone is not gonna say ‘You were a great businessman.’ It's gonna say, “Were you a great father? Were you a great husband? Where you a great son? A great brother? A great friend?,” and all those sorts of things.
You know, I'm running the same routine that you have—I get up very, very early, everything that I have to do including if I want to work out or I want to meditate, whatever I want to do has to happen then. I try to get that block of time in the morning. You know, I walk my kid to school as many days as I can. And then—I do what you do—I hit as hard as I can during the day and then I try and turn it off. One of the things I'm having trouble with is when you come out of that and then it's tough to just wind right down. I have my wife, who's making sure that I don't impact or sacrifice the time with my kids and the family. It's tough finding that balance.
Ryan Simonetti: I've had the chance to meet some amazing people, you know, folks like you who started businesses, generationally running businesses, CEOs of this, that, and the other thing. And I always ask the same question: “What would you do different?” I've asked that question so many times, and I can tell you right now, I've never heard: “I should have made an extra million bucks,” or “ I should have done that other deal,” “I wish I went on four more, ten more business trips a year.” It's always, "I wish I went to another game,” “I wish I went on one more family vacation,” “I wish I went to my daughter's recital,” It's never anything to do with the business.
Every day, I'm constantly having to remind myself of that because the easy thing to say is, "Oh, no, no. It's just going to be this year, or this month, or this week," or "it's just going to be the next three years and then..." But, I think the reality is now, and I know about myself that's probably not reality either. I just know who I am at this point in time, and so my wife's been amazing with this—but I think just every day how I say to myself is not, "How can I be 1% better today?" Or "What's going to motivate me today?" I say, "Ryan, stay present with your family. Ryan, make sure you go and turn your phone off." I'm having a completely different conversation with myself than, "Hey, I need to get motivated today."
Ryan Menke: Yeah. Shannon Rusch [former Navy SEAL and motivational speaker] made me pick, when we were going through this exercise, he goes, "pick three things and that's what you focus your entire life around." I said, "Family, health, and friendships." And that's the filter that you start to close your day off with, right?
Ryan Simonetti: I was having dinner with the CEO of the Americas for JLL. Great guy, Greg O'Brien, and he and I were talking about this. He's on the road all the time, but he's always there for his family. I said, "How do you do it? How do you find balance?"
And, he said something really interesting to me. He said, "Well, if you think about it, you have your family, your business and your hobbies, and you can only do two of the three." That really stuck with me, and so, ever since that dinner, unless my hobby happens to bleed with family or business, it’s not a hobby anymore. I have friends of mine, right or wrong, where the only thing that gets sacrificed really is the time with the family. I just made a commitment to myself that I didn't want to be that dad. I’m sure my kids will be in therapy for something, I just didn't want it to be for that.
Ryan Menke: [Laughs] Well, one of the things that came as we're talking, and I could see it in both you and Chris is, working through people, right? You've built great teams that you can rely on—that's the only way not to burn out too, right? To hire phenomenal people way smarter than you that can take that initiative, right?
Ryan Simonetti: It's tough—I think a big part of that founder to CEO transition is actually a “let go” transition. A lot of them make businesses successful when they're small as the “hands-on hands-in,” I call it. They're deep in and I think as the company scales, it's not your hands on and in anymore. It's your, hands on the shoulders of somebody whose hands are on and in it. And that's a tough transition because now you're a coach, now you're a leader. And it's not easy.
When you build a business like this, and I'm sure your family feels the same way, that's a part of the family. It’s like a child. I think it's really tough emotionally to say, "I trust you to go do this." Thankfully, you know you can hire really smart, passionate people with more expertise than you have in their domain and you let them go and they can do some special stuff quickly.
Ryan Menke: Absolutely.
Ryan Menke: Here's something I've really been wanting to get to. You guys both are big into sports and athletics. I actually married into a family of all golden glove boxers, so it's terrifying.
Ryan Simonetti: That is terrifying.
Ryan Menke: Yeah, a marine, SWAT team member, weapons instructor, and an undefeated pro boxer.
Ryan Simonetti: [Laughs] Oh god, did you have to fight your way into the family, or what?
Ryan Menke: [Laughs] It’s funny, but I wanted to get your perspective, just like you’re creating your own original content we're really starting to do so too, and one of the articles I just finished was about pushing myself physically is doing for me mentally. So I was curious, do you guys draw on the physical side of what you do as hobbies to sharpen the mind, your resolve, and your resilience?
Chris Kelly: I don't think it comes from that, nor do I think that the athletics side comes from the business. I just think that they're deeply correlated. It's the same mindset in two different things. Grit is Convene's core value. Grit as we define it is passion and perseverance in pursuit of long term goals. It's great if you're somebody who has fire and energy and you're explosive. But that in a moment gets you nowhere. It’s about passion and perseverance in pursuit of long term goals. For Ryan and me, we had a vision for the company that we would build when we were two 27-year-old kids sitting in front of a whiteboard trying to figure out how to change the world. Every single day when we wake up, we're chipping away at that vision. It's a marathon that lasts decades. There's enormous power when you put one foot in front of the other every single day—you can move yourself into unbelievable places.