By GREGORY ZELLER //
From Albany’s corridors of power to the local co-working facility’s unassuming cubicle, there’s plenty of support for the little guy.
Entrepreneurs can leverage the overhead-cutting benefits of a shared-office environment, the tax-cutting delights of a Startup NY-type incentives program and a dozen other concerted efforts designed specifically to boost their startups.
But these socioeconomic engines largely stall when it comes to one fairly common truth about risk-taking business-starters: They’re often thirtysomething second-career types, and many have small children.
This reality revved up Michelle Smith, who had a lightbulb moment that could shine over the entire business-formation landscape – and will at least prove a godsend to the ambitious Long Island entrepreneur packing a diaper bag along with a briefcase.
Smith – who majored in entrepreneurship and marketing at Boston’s Northeastern University and is currently expecting her third child with husband Scott Smith – has dreamt up Kworks Inc., a unique co-working space combining various professional accommodations (a desk, an office if you need it, someday a shared conference room) with secured and supervised children’s play spaces.
Part LaunchPad, part Kiddie Academy, the idea is to give entrepreneurial moms and dads a few hours to take care of business while junior plays, naps and even learns some basic development skills, all under the watchful eye of a professional minder.
The so-simple-it’s-brilliant concept came clear to Smith during a young career spent working exclusively with startup-types.
“I always took internships with small businesses and worked for other entrepreneurs,” she told Innovate LI. “I worked in public relations for small companies in the music industry, I worked for a relationship guru … I’ve done a ton of different things and had a ton of different roles.
“But I never liked the whole concept of being corporate, of working crazy-long hours for somebody else and trying to climb a ladder,” Smith added. “I always knew I wanted to own my own business.”
After Northeastern University, she moved to San Diego and quickly followed through on those ambitions. Smith “started small,” she noted, launching Purely Social Media – providing social and digital media content services for lawyers, doctors, “metaphysical and New Age businesses” and other smaller enterprises – and bringing the company with her when she relocated to New York in 2015.
She’s “phasing out” Purely Social Media now, she noted, in favor of a second startup she launched that year: a Long Island- and Queens-focused franchise of Touching Hearts at Home, the Minnesota-based provider of nonmedical homecare services for seniors and people with disabilities.
While running her Touching Hearts at Home franchise, Smith – already a mother of two – also performed administrative duties for her in-laws’ company, Farmingdale-based Rebar Steel Corp. In addition to its Long Island headquarters, Rebar maintains a satellite office inside Green Desk, a Long Island City co-working facility, and soon Smith’s wheels were turning again.
“Scott and I have gotten to a place where we’ve figured out what works for us,” she said. “But as an entrepreneur myself, I know how difficult it can be to grow a successful business, and if you add the challenges of parenting, it can be quite stressful.
“I really wanted to create a community that would support other entrepreneurs in creating their own success.”
Along with Scott, who studied management and marketing at Pennsylvania’s University of Scranton and was also working for Rebar Steel Corp., Smith got busy. While she naturally investigated the do’s and don’ts of professional childcare, the entrepreneur especially boned up on co-working spaces – how they’re constructed, their typical leasing arrangements, other ancillary services that have become the norm.
The diligence, Smith noted, proved an eye-opener, particularly regarding supposedly “child-friendly” workspaces.
“Some places will say they’re ‘kid friendly,’ but then they send out emails saying ‘please keep your kids in your office’ or ‘please keep the noise down,’” she said. “Well, then, you’re not really ‘kid friendly,’ because kids are not quiet.
“And there’s nothing to entertain my kid while I’m there, so they wind up using the tablet or sitting at the computer,” Smith added. “Or I have to lug a large bag of arts and crafts to the office.”
With those lessons learned, the Smiths – she’s the Kworks CEO, Scott is COO – began establishing parameters.
For the parents: a stocked kitchen, complimentary WiFi, high-quality printers and scanners and other basic office supplies, plus comfortable workspaces ranging from a shared countertop to private offices.
For the kids: childcare professionals trained to watch, educate and entertain, keeping the children physically and mentally active while their parents get busy.
True to Smith’s history, Kworks is starting small. On Saturday, the startup will host an open house at what Smith calls her “test site,” a 1,300-square-foot Kworks office carved out of Rebar Steel Corp.’s Maplewood Avenue headquarters.
The facility will be staffed full-time by an office manager/IT specialist and a professional monitor for the indoor play area when it officially opens in January, Smith said, with accommodations enough for six professionals and six kids.
She plans to run the limited test site – which will be equipped for kids ages 6 months to 4 years – through the spring, then expand into a larger space with the wherewithal to provide for more entrepreneurs with a “much broader” age-range of kids.
“I know how I work, but I’m interested in learning how other working parents work,” Smith noted. “Once we’re confident in the model, we’ll know more about our ‘ideal location’ and the kind of space we want.”
The entrepreneur, who is due to deliver her third child in December, has already “started talking” to outside partners about a real estate search and said that next, larger Kworks facility – which will hopefully incorporate “enrichment classes” offering STEM-focused lessons for older kids – will “definitely” be on Long Island.
“This is my home,” she said. “And I think entrepreneurship is going to be a sustaining economic factor for Long Island.
“We’ve already started working on what the curriculum and activities would look like,” Smith added. “In the spring, we’ll start looking for potential investors.”
The Nov. 11 open house is slated to run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and entrepreneurs interested in securing Kworks space come January will be asked to fill out a short information-gathering survey. Smith, who’s been advertising the test site in Facebook mother’s groups, said she’s already received “quite a few” requests – a strong indication that she and Scott are onto something big.
“I’m just in it for the ride right now,” Smith noted. “There are many factors that play into creating a space like this.
“But I do think that unique mom-and-pop entrepreneurs have an opportunity to really grow and benefit their local communities and economies,” she added. “And I think this can be a big help with that.”
What’s It? A truly child-friendly co-working facility
Brought To You By: Entrepreneur Michelle Smith, who starts small and thinks big
All In: $40,000, self-funded, with a little help from the in-laws on physical renovations
Status: This is a test