CTRL Collective, Old Pasadena’s newest collective workspace location, hopes to create a uniquely empowering environment for its members.
Story by: Cuyler Gibbons
Images: Courtesy of CTRL Collective
The rise of the collective, or co-operative workspace is one of the hottest trends in American commercial real estate today, affecting not only where we work, but even more profoundly, how we work. The co-operative space phenomenon is driven in part by the necessities of the burgeoning gig economy. With many businesses cutting payroll in favor of part-time or contract labor—studies show 40 percent of the work force will be freelancers, contractors, or temps by 2020—more and more individuals need a place to work outside the home where they can share the cost of infrastructure and facilities.
These spaces however have the ability to be far more than simply a place to work. They have the potential to leverage the creativity, experience and talent of their individual members to benefit businesses across the entire collective. Despite the fact that these “serendipitous connections” are supposedly the sine qua non of collective workspaces, and a core value they all seemingly promote, in David Bren’s experience, while the promise was grand the execution was poor, and the reality disappointing.
Bren is the co-founder, along with Taliea Mueller, of CTRL Collective, a co-operative workspace with locations in Playa Vista and Downtown LA, and with their newest location just opened in Old Pasadena. Bren says, “I was looking for something where community was actually real, not just centered around free beer. I wanted a place where people were passionate about what they were working on, so they would push me to work harder and better…When I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I decided to build it myself.”
Bren, a successful securities underwriter, who had been pursuing “passion projects” on the side, left his job in finance and went looking for a location. About nine months later he landed in Silicon Beach, signing the first lease for the Playa Vista location. The spirit of serendipitous co-operation paid off even before the business was launched when Bren met Taliea Mueller. Mueller, was in a bit of a personal existential crisis herself at the time, seeking a fulfilling outlet that would allow her to make an impact with her work. As a result she had just left a successful career in the film business six weeks earlier. As she says, “I really just wanted to do something different with my life. To be able to help people and push people forward.” When she heard Bren outline his vision she knew immediately this was the project for her. “I told him right away, ‘I would love to work with you. Let me know what I can do,’” She says.
At first Bren wasn’t necessarily sure exactly what that would be, but he was certain he wanted to work with Mueller as well. And so they simply dove in. As if to validate the value of the Collective’s proposition, their connection catalyzed the business, and since the June 2015 launch they have opened two more locations, including most recently in Pasadena. In a sense, by coming together as successfully as they have, Bren and Mueller created and launched their company while simultaneously acting as their own proof of concept. They are themselves a perfect example of the power of the serendipitous connection, cooperatively exploited.
This is the type of opportunity they want to create for others. As Mueller puts it, “[We] wanted not simply to enable, but to truly empower.” To this end they both agreed that a keen sense of the community, and an attention to design details that reflected that sense rather than some boilerplate brand image, were vital components of the environment they sought to foster. “Rather than impose ourselves on a local community, we want to become part of it,” says Bren.
The pair’s intention is always to curate a diverse community of members, while properly recognizing those attributes that are baked in to the essential character of the specific location.
Pasadena, as Mueller says, “is a super nerd Mecca. I just personally love all the science—JPL, Caltech—We want to really cater to that with a location where people can come and build, and prototype. We’ll have 3-D printers, a creation lab…helping people actually working on projects so they don’t have to outsource.”
That said, the fact that Pasadena also seems to be home to an inordinate number of writers and artists as well, is not lost on CTRLs founders. In fact it’s a significant selling point. It seems it’s a little bit like genetics. The healthiest, most productive co-operatives have a varied “gene-pool” of member businesses, and don’t simply cater to a single homogenous sector. “We don’t want all tech,” says Bren. “What we are looking for are the kinds of activations and ideas that come out of the random collisions of people that normally wouldn’t be next to each other talking.”
Though commercial diversity is a central goal, Bren and Mueller are looking for some conformity in other respects. Principally to the idea that members owe a debt to the community that supports them, and that by giving back they make the community and thus themselves stronger. They call it “The 80/20 rule”, and it represents the expectation that all members, while devoting 80 percent of their time to their own project, will also dedicate 20 percent of their time to giving back to someone else in the collective or by working externally in the community.
Though there is no “enforcement” mechanism, Bren and Mueller make no bones about the truly core nature of this value. In this sense Bren and Mueller take as much care curating the collective’s membership as they do the physical space and services the collective provides. “We’re looking for people with a particular ethos…of being a good person, wanting to give back, wanting to connect with other people. But,” says Bren, “it’s ultimately pretty self-selecting, because we talk about the importance of this stuff every tour. We’re very upfront about who we are. People who come in worried about how or if it’s tracked (the 80/20 rule) probably aren’t on board with the concept. It’s a mind set [that says] ‘Wow, this is what I’m looking for.’”
In keeping with their hyper local model, they focus the charitable efforts of each location on small grass roots organizations within the community that do not have national fundraising networks. Already CTRL Collective events have raised over $230,000 for small worthy causes.
When I meet Bren and Mueller at the coming Pasadena location, the beautiful old building is mostly just a shell, the inside gutted and awaiting the remodel. The Playa Vista location they tell me was built in just five weeks. Pasadena, they say, is four weeks out. If they stay on schedule, and neither Bren or Mueller display the slightest concern about delay, CTRL Collective will be open for business by the time of publication. You’ll know because the good works, and the creative hum of innovation and collaboration emanating from the corner of Green and Arroyo Parkway will be unavoidable. Just don’t expect free beer.