Lightning struck at a Dell Company seminar, where Liz Elam had been enjoying a career as one of their top sales executives. As part of a series of “aha” moments, Liz realized she wanted to be somewhere else. Just two months after that seminar, she quit her job to become an entrepreneur. Liz is now the founder and owner of Link Coworking in Austin, Texas. She is also the leading U.S. coworking expert and executive producer of The Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC).
Liz had been working at Dell for 14 years and working out of her home for 9 of them. In that time, she was often forced to work at Starbucks, where expensive coffee, uncomfortable seats and unreliable Internet did not make a productive work environment. She realized she needed an inspiring, comfortable, and welcoming space to work and more importantly, she was not alone.
Read more about co-working, how Liz became a successful entrepreneur, overcame hardships, and successfully runs her co-working spaces.
Her Agenda: What is your personal motto?
Liz Elam: Fear is a liar and worry accomplishes nothing.
Her Agenda: Prior to founding Link you had a successful career at Dell. Could you talk about your journey into the co-working industry and how you knew you wanted to be in this space?
Liz Elam: As Oprah would say, it was a series of “aha” moments. I was working out of my home for nine years and I dreamed of this interactive space surrounded by other people who were super bright and inviting, and all the parts of the office that I really missed. But, they really didn’t exist when I was thinking about it and I was relegated to holding meetings in Starbucks. It was hard to find power, often times back then Internet service wasn’t reliable, and their seats are kind of set up uncomfortable so you’ll move on. I knew it really wasn’t the right environment for me or for conducting business.
One of my big “aha” moments was sitting at the Field Readiness Seminar for Dell and I was looking up at Michael Dell on stage talking, thinking to myself I want to be that person onstage. I looked down and saw I was in the seat watching Michael Dell and I really respect that man but I thought, “he would never sit in this seat.” I thought “oh my god, I have to leave” and I quit two months later.
Link came out of the way most businesses come about, because I saw a need that wasn’t being met. I knew I wanted it and I also kind of knew that this is where the industry was going. I knew technology was making this possible by getting smaller and denser and I was like “Hm, so if people continue to be sent home, their devices become incrementally denser and you’re not tethered to a line anymore, then why wouldn’t you choose a better place to work?” It just made a lot of sense to me.
Her Agenda: What have been the biggest keys to your success and how might you advise other female entrepreneurs?
Liz Elam: If you have this desire to go and strike out on your own, I find the best motivation is quitting your job. There’s nothing to fire you up like no money coming in. I always advise people who say, “I really, really want to do this,” to quit what you’re doing and go do that.
The other thing I’ve talked about before in the press is getting sober. I would not be where I am today if I were still drinking and I’ve been sober for over six years. It’s a game changer for me and something I’m really proud of.
The other thing is to get a mentor. When you’re trying to launch something by yourself you need somebody who has been down that road before helping you, guiding you, bouncing ideas, gut checking you and making sure you’re not making huge glacial mistakes. I’ve had the same mentor for seven years now. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her. I think your mentor should be someone who you aspire to be.
Her Agenda: How did you find your mentor?
Liz: Through the Score organization; they do free business consulting. It’s retired executives and is funded by the US government. They can help you write a business plan, review your finances, take your business to the next level or whatever and it’s FREE!
Also, in today’s day in age, everyone is accessible over the phone. I always say if I wanted to I can get Obama on the phone, but I just don’t have anything to talk to him about! I think if you want it, go get it. If you admire Sarah Blakely then drop her a line. I bet she would respond.
Her Agenda: What have been some of your biggest challenges along the way and how did you overcome them?
Liz: Biggest challenge is my own head, my own fears and self-doubt. I think that is what holds most people back. I think the way to get over that is by really getting to know what motivates you and continually going back to that. For instance, before I opened my business I sat down and looked at myself as a human and said “what makes me happy at my core” and “what drives me?” I figured out it was making other people happy and helping other people reach their goals and dreams. I actually get to do that with a co-working space. I get to greet people when they come in, I care for them, I bring them coffee, I bring them hot tea, and do simple things that make a big difference in their world. They inspire me and I inspire them and it’s just a magical little enclave.
I also think facing your fear is huge. A mistake I made in the beginning was that I knew I should test people out before they joined but then I got really scared and I let some people join Link who really didn’t make sense. They all eventually backfired because I was working out of a place of fear.
Lastly, putting away a nice big nest egg while you’re launching is huge. It was very stressful for me and I did it myself. People had told me to do that and I was like “I’m going to make it, I’m going to be fine.” In retrospect, it would’ve made my life a lot less stressful if I had a bigger cushion. Remember, it takes longer than you think to get to profitability and you have to pay yourself. I didn’t pay myself for quite a while and that was a mistake. No one will take you seriously unless you’re paying yourself.
Her Agenda: In many of your talks you say, “we don’t get enough connection.” What is your advice to millennials on connecting and what are some best practices?
Liz: Especially for millennials, being raised on devices and [they're] used to looking down communicating via a device, I would say first thing is if you’re in a meeting with another human being, it is rude to look at your phone. Don’t look at your phone and respect the person in front of you. Second of all, if you choose to be an independent worker, freelancer, consultant, etc, seek out a co-working space so that you do get those human interactions, connections and networking. You don’t get that at home.
That is what’s so important about co-working is that it is a face-to-face connection. If you’re already in a co-working space and are not talking to people, you’re missing the best part of it.
Her Agenda: What are important things to look for when choosing a coworking space?
Liz: There are lots and lots of flavors of coworking. Let’s say you go to a coworking space and it doesn’t resonate with you, it’s not what you were looking for or not the right energy, go look at the next one. Even in a place like Austin, which isn’t that big, has 26 co-working spaces. Don’t assume all co-working spaces are alike; they’re all radically different. If you don’t find it, keep looking, and if you don’t find it you should make one!
Her Agenda: What are some coworking space etiquette tips?
Liz: If you don’t want to be disturbed, bring your headset and put them on. That is your do not disturb sign in a co-working space. People using Bluetooth speakers tend to scream, so be aware of your volume. You don’t need to scream.
If you’re new to a co-working space, introduce yourself. Don’t wait for the curator or manager to do it. Take the initiate yourself to say “Hey, I’m new, what do you do?” Take that connecting thing and own it. Co-working space is like getting to sit in on LinkedIn but if you’re not linking, it’s not going to work.
At Link, I have lots of rules and people say their first favorite thing about Link is the people and second is the rules. People need boundaries in a shared workspace.
Her Agenda: Co-working has grown exponentially. How do you see it growing in the future?
Liz: Basically, because devices are getting smaller, companies are sending more and more people home to work, and people are choosing to work independently, co-working is going to do nothing but continue to boom. There are six thousand spaces right now and that will double over the next three years. According to Huffington Post, 4.5 spaces open every day.
There are a few interesting things happening right now. We are seeing lots of specializations, for example, co-working for fashion design, for lawyers, co-working for medical app development, etc. You name it, it’s either out there or in progress. I think we’ll continue to see that and a lot of growth. There’s a lot of money right now too so we are seeing a lot of co-working spaces get funded. I think we’ll see a proliferation of national chains as well.