Monetizing your genius goes beyond just packaging your skills.
Shala Graham founded co-working space Creative Colony to provide a supportive environment and resource hub where independent creatives could nurture and develop their latest ideas. It’s since exceeded expectations, becoming a thriving, indispensable community that some members refer to as their “happy place.”
Here, Shala shares how she leverages her personality and 12 years’ experience as a brand strategist to keep Creative Colony growing and consistently evolving to match the needs of her community.
RM: What sparked the idea to start your company?
It was the summer of 2013, when a photographer stood up at a creative workshop and said, "There are a lot of independent creative professionals like myself who don't have a place to work." It sent me on a mission to see what the options were. That's how I learned about coworking spaces, and instantly knew that I wanted to open one as my graduation strategy from the incubator that housed my brand consultancy for five years.
RM: How have your personality and strengths shaped the way you've built Creative Colony?
SHALA: I knew that with almost a decade of experience running a creative business by the time Creative Colony launched, I had a wealth of information and resources to offer to my fellow creative professionals. People find me easy to talk to and very sincere, which I think helped potential new members feel comfortable. I'm a southern girl at heart, so I wanted to make sure that the environment and the leadership felt very hospitable and welcoming.
RM: Was it ever difficult to establish the value of what you do?
SHALA: I don't think it was difficult. For the right member, the value became very evident as soon as they did a trial day. People regularly say they were extremely productive. Some even describe Creative Colony as their happy place.
RM: What role did branding play in conveying that value?
SHALA: The [branding we developed] for the space definitely played a role. We [target] creative professionals in our positioning. We hired a professional architecture photographer to do vanity shots of the office for our marketing materials. And as professional web designers, we developed a great website presence.
RM: How has Creative Colony evolved since starting out?
SHALA: Since we started, we’ve developed a better understanding of our target audience, and adjusted our offerings and in-office perks.
RM: Nice! And how important has it been for you to lean into your personality and strengths to facilitate that evolution?
SHALA: [The members we attract] resonate with my personality and that of my community managers. People feel comfortable in the space as we set the tone for the office culture.
RM: In terms of marketing, what have been the most effective strategies for finding and converting new members?
SHALA: In the early days, we definitely relied on being a part of the local community and building relationships. People have expressed the desire to support a fellow small business owner who has invested in the community by bringing a coworking space to Silver Spring.
We also host monthly community workshops to bring foot traffic into the space and to raise awareness that we exist.
Good search engine optimization has been critical. We did run Google Ads for about a year or so, but when we stopped the ads, our organic SEO has kept us attracting new business.
RM: We all know that no business is perfect. But you're clearly rocking it out and enjoying every bit of it. What would you say has contributed most to your sense of satisfaction in business?
SHALA: Seeing people grow their businesses or advance their careers has been the most satisfying. It was definitely tough in the first year or two when we hadn’t reached sustainability yet, but knowing the [impact we were creating] for our members was rewarding.
RM: One of the things I hear my clients, who've been in the game for a while, say is they're ready for a “grown up” business. What does that mean for you?
SHALA: I suppose they mean they are ready for a business that does not rise or fall on them. It’s mature and can stand on its own two feet. For some, that means having a team, and for others, it may mean that they can still have financial and time freedom as an independent consultant.
RM: Do you feel you've reached that level yet?
SHALA: Yes, in my brand consulting business that started Creative Colony. I’ve been in business for 12 years and have seen it all grown up, both with a team and as an independent consultant.
Creative Colony is on its way, but its a different kind of business model. It’s not a business I started to be a major money maker. I started it to meet a need in the community, and as long as it has some profitability, I’m happy. I do have an amazing community manager that handles most of the day-to-day operations, so it doesn’t demand a lot of my energy, which is good.
RM: What specifically does this business make possible for you in supporting the kind of life you want?
SHALA: I’m still paying off my start-up funding, but once it is paid off, the business will provide me with a nice source of passive income. Aside from my businesses, I am also the Youth Director at The Bridge, and I look forward to being able to spend more time on that.
RM: Now that you've achieved this level of success, what's next for you and Creative Colony?
SHALA: I have a vision for growing Creative Colony into a larger space that can meet more of the needs of the Silver Spring community.
Shala W. Graham is a brand strategist and creative maverick, committed to helping organizations serve those in need. Her work covers a wide gamut of services, from designing campaigns to front-end web development, to support the growth of local small businesses and nonprofits. She's the founder of Creative Colony, a coworking space in downtown Silver Spring, MD, for creative professionals and entrepreneurs. She's also a Brand Academy-certified branding expert and the principal of Brand Calling, a brand consultancy for mission-driven organizations. When she isn't busy running two companies, Shala serves as the Youth Director at The Bridge church in downtown Silver Spring. Explore Creative Colony at creativecolonyspaces.com and connect with Shala on Twitter (@creativecolony).
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