As startup ecosystems germinate and blossom, they often do so around a single location. In some cases this epicenter is a late stage startup that spins off talent or even capital. In others it’s an incubator or dominant VC firm. In Los Angeles, at the earliest stages of the current tech renaissance three years ago, this focal point was the upstart co-working space CoLoft.
All it takes is a few minutes hanging out in the space to absorb the passion and collaboration that have become hallmarks of LA’s entrepreneurial community. Many of these very qualities can be traced back to the early influence of CoLoft and its husband and wife founders Avesta and Cam Rasouli. The co-working space is like the “Cheers” of the neighborhood, the place where everyone knows your name.
Today, former CoLoft residents litter the LA startup landscape, many in roles that arose out of late night conversations within the space. CoLoft remains a cornerstone of the local startup community, always adding significantly more value than it extracts.
The company’s latest announcement along these lines is today’s launch of CoLoft Academy.
CoLoft Academy will offer classes covering programming, business development, and even accounting in the context of early stage startups. The goal is to attract a mix of founders, current employees, and future employees of technology companies. The classes will be taught by leading local entrepreneurs and investors — or “gurus” and “rock stars” in startup speak.
Early classes include “Selling Through Social Media,” “Intro to Adwords,” and “Nailing the Pitch.” Attendance of each 90 minute class costs $20 for CoLoft community members and $30 for non-members.
CoLoft emerged on the scene in LA long before any of the now ubiquitous Westside incubators and accelerators. It also predated any appreciable of buzz around startups in LA or even the pseudo-brand “Silicon Beach.” As aspiring startup founders themselves, the Rasoulis conceived of CoLoft as a way to surround themselves with fellow entrepreneurs.
The first prototype they encountered for the space they wished to create was San Francisco’s Sandbox Suites. Recognizing that the then disjointed LA tech community needed a home base to foster relationships and innovation, the founders put up a dummy website and began collecting emails of interested resident entrepreneurs. With nearly one hundred people indicating they’d join should such a space open, the Razoulis took little more than their idea and a healthy dash of crazy and signed a one year lease on a 3,200 sq.ft. space (now double that size).
When they opened the doors, only six members joined. The business needed greater than 20 members to be break even. Along the way, the founders opened up their space to every meetup and organization they could entice to meet there: all for free. By month two, they were up only slightly to eight members, but in month three they fell back to six.
“Oh fuck!” Avesta recalls thinking to himself. “We were more than halfway through our six-month runway for this self-funded venture with little proof that the idea had any legs.”
Without any warning or change in strategy, CoLoft exploded to nearly 40 members in its fourth month, crossing a tipping point along the way that it has not since fallen below. Membership now hovers around 100. In the two years since, CoLoft brought a number of popular events to LA including hosting the city’s first Startup Weekend at its facility in 2010 — something it has done every year since.
“We took a bottom up approach,” says Avesta. “We built a community and a culture and let that attract the people.” One need only search the startup Q&A site Quora for mentions of CoLoft to get a sense of how well they succeeded. Dozens of responses to the question “Is Coloft in Santa Monica a good co-working space? Why or why not?” all fall within the category of “I love coloft. The people are amazing. It’s such an important part of the LA community.”
Notable alumni include Chill founders Brian Norgard and Dan Gould, Eventup’s Tony Adam, Zarly’s Ian Hunter, and Skweal founder and TechCrunch50 and Launch producer Tyler Crowley.
It’s also where several successful startups were formed including Google Ventures portfolio company Pocket Change, recent LivePerson acquisition Look.io, AOL acquisition Hipster, Marriage.com, Healthy Surprise, TestMax, and others. Today it’s the full time home of Uber LA and as a result has a steady stream of black Towncars and Escalades passing through.
Eventually most move on to more permanent accommodations, but they rarely cease to be members of the CoLoft family. CoLoft remains a regular destination for even those in town with offices elsewhere, including alumni and local investors. According to Avesta, he’s routinely shocked and flattered that locals tell out of town visitors that its a must stop destination whenever in the neighborhood: and stop in they do.
The key to CoLoft’s success has been its focus on community, rather than nickel and diming members hoping to maximize short term profits. The Rasoulis built a community that they would want to be a part of. The rewards have been a pleasant side effect.
“We were never in the business of renting out desks,” Avesta tells me. “We’ve always been in the business of building the local entrepreneurial community. It just happens that providing work spaces is an important part of that. I couldn’t be happier. I feel like a kid in kindergarten who gets dropped off every day to play with my friends.”