We all have our COVID-19 survival stories. And, let’s be honest, many are still right in the midst of a survival mode.
I want to share my story with the intention of offering a glimmer of hope and motivation to other women, and particularly founders out there, who have or are trying to launch or pivot their businesses.
I am the founder of One Roof and Oneline. We design virtual and physical spaces with a mission to reshape the world of work for women. That has really taken on new meaning in the wake of this global pandemic.
I founded One Roof by accident six years ago. Coming from a corporate law background, I never knew or intended to start my own business. But here I am, six years later.
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. I literally grew up in a business. My parents ran their own business from home. Our living room became an office with seven or so staff, Monday to Friday, 7am to 7pm.
I think I was born with an entrepreneurial spirit. It just took me a while to find it.
This is despite the endless challenges. The tears. The fears. The self-doubt. The ridiculously late nights and long working weekends. The countless mistakes. The rock-bottom moments. And the realisation that what you thought was the lowest actually just got lower.
But, honestly, I wouldn’t change it.
A bustling and thriving space for women
My proudest achievement to date has been turning an old and empty building on City Road, Southbank into a bustling and thriving co-working space for women.
I remember the day I moved into that building in early-2016. The building was earmarked for redevelopment. The landlord warned me I would have about 18 months before their permits would come in and I would need to vacate.
Grateful to property developers Central Equity for the opportunity, I knew I just had to get cracking. Thanks to my very handy father and partner, most of the fit-out was DIY. We painted the walls, sourced furniture and set up what very quickly became “Australia’s leading co-working space for women”.
All of a sudden, people began pouring in. We had to keep moving things around as we kept running out of meeting rooms. The loft became an office. And we added and removed walls to accommodate growing teams. At times it felt frustratingly scrappy, and yet, for the most part, it just worked.
We had at least 150 tenants in and out of the building every day and hosted, on average, five events per week in our 200-person event space.
I don’t quite know what the turning point was, but it quickly became clear that One Roof was a fully-fledged co-working and event operation supporting hundreds, even thousands, of women every year.
But I always knew my time was limited.
I was waiting for that call and that day when we would need to vacate.
It wasn’t until nearly four years later in November 2019 when we officially vacated the building. It’s hard to put into words the feeling that washed over me on the very last day I was in there.
This was a site I had literally laboured over for four years. And then, in an instant, it became an empty space with no people, no buzz and all of the furniture sold.
The next chapter
I walked away with a heavy heart and the fondness of memories. Though, of course, not before an epic ‘goodbye Southbank party’ with everyone who had been involved, supported and touched by One Roof over the years.
I knew I had two options and had to move quickly:
- Find a landlord who could offer me a similar below-market deal or;
- Raise capital and go all in on a commercial lease.
I pursued both options at the same time and became obsessed with finding the perfect flagship site — one we could truly call “the home for women”.
As I dug deeper into the world of capital raising, I became laser focused on finding my ideal investors. And I can say I absolutely achieved my goal.
I raised capital with a group of investors who believed as strongly in the One Roof brand and mission as I did. A group of predominantly female investors, which is a very rare achievement, but not surprising given One Roof’s vision and values.
They were excited to support me in bringing my vision to life.
In fact, all my investors — both male and female — gave me great support, advice and encouragement along the way.
An Australian version of The Wing
We set out to create a permanent flagship home. A space for women to work, retreat, connect and thrive.
Designed by and for women, the space would have a business lounge, break-out areas, an event space, private studios, a meditation area, a breastfeeding room and meeting rooms named after trailblazing women.
The Wing was my inspiration. It was having huge success, and I was completely inspired and motivated to create an Australian version.
But what came with setting up co-working spaces meant becoming an expert in commercial property. This was a fairly new arena for me and I am definitely not an expert.
With support from a small team of advisors, I literally pounded the pavement to secure a site that matched the perfect vision I had in my head.
But as commercial rents continued to rise, I found myself in a very difficult position.
I felt I had run out of time. We had become a co-working operator without a co-working space and a dispersed community.
But finally, when I had reached the point of feeling like I had completely failed at my mission, a unique opportunity presented itself. A site in Cremorne. The ideal size, location, layout and amenities.
It was expensive. It was a risk. But it was a reasonable and calculated risk and it matched my vision. I was going all-in.
It was game on. I was running on adrenalin and lots of coffee. I was seven months pregnant and positively distracted with the new chapter of One Roof.
I signed a heads of agreement, hired staff, engaged architects and a builder, and was so excited to receive the first round of concept drawings.
It was all finally coming to life.
And then COVID-19 happened
But then everything grounded to a complete halt. The world stood still.
I was meant to moderate a large event at The Rialto for International Women’s Day. When I received the news that the event had been cancelled due to COVID-19, I sensed that this was really serious.
Among all of this, and one week into the first lockdown in Melbourne, I became a mum. Goldie was born, and I was busy.
As I came out of those first couple of months of motherhood I began talking to investors and realised a big shift was taking place.
Initially I kept saying to them, to myself and to everyone I spoke to, that this was good for the co-working industry, and that more people would work from home, and as such, seek out co-working, particularly in local areas.
We just had to ‘weather the storm’, I said.
I still believe this to be the case, but I also couldn’t help but turn my attention to the rising unemployment rate, a seemingly never-ending lockdown and a lot of fear and uncertainty in the air.
The world had changed and for the short term so had I.
Making a very difficult but prudent decision
I made one of the most difficult decisions in my entrepreneurial journey to date.
I made the call to return all capital to my investors. It felt painfully hard.
It takes so damn long for women to raise capital and many never actually get there. I was one of the very few.
Globally, less than 3% of venture capital goes to women.
While it took me seven months to raise the capital, once I had decided to return it, it didn’t feel like I had thrown it all in. I have learnt so much and have maintained a very strong relationship with my investors.
I didn’t want to admit it at first, but the truth was, returning the capital felt right.
I could no longer put my hand on my heart and tell my investors I was confident about the future of One Roof as it currently stood. And I was in a unique position as I wasn’t operating a space yet.
I needed time to observe, test and rework the business model.
But hey were supportive and encouraging of my decision. For them, it wasn’t about growth for the sake of growth.
They wanted me to take the time to revisit my vision and mission and ensure I felt clear on the next iteration. They are excited and interested to see where I take One Roof in the coming months and years.
Pivoting One Roof online
At the same time as returning the capital, I also made the very swift call to pivot One Roof.
The obvious next move for me was to take everything online and offer a virtual membership for women. Everything we provided at One Roof is now all offered through Oneline.
In five months, we have hosted over 80 virtual workshops, onboarded 200 members, and hosted, in partnership with Startup Vic, one of the largest virtual pitch nights this year with 500 registrations and 100 applications from female founders.
Our guest speakers have included Sheryl Thai of The League of Extroardinary Women, Jess Ruhfus of Collabosaurus, Penny Locaso of Hacking Happy, Lucinda Hartley of Neighbourlytics and Alex Andrews of Verve Super, to name just a few.
We have helped members get into accelerator programs, launch crowdfunding campaigns, and pivot their business models.
Most importantly, our members have access to a team and community obsessing over their success.
Our members now span across Australia and globally with members based in NZ and even Japan.
In many ways, this is just the beginning. A new beginning.
I am excited for what is to come for One Roof and Oneline. We have plans to merge our virtual community with a physical presence and launch an offering for corporates.
But for now, it’s just one step at a time. One foot in front of the other.
This is an edited version of an article first published by Women’s Agenda.