Although he didn’t invent the coworking concept, Serendipity Labs Founder and CEO John Arenas has become something of the de facto face of the phenomenon via interviews with the likes of The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, CNBC and of course the Business Journal.
Since starting Serendipity Labs in his hometown of Rye, New York, in 2011, Arenas has seen his business grow to encompass an ever-increasing number of locations — 13 to date, with several due to open later this year, including a second operation in both Denver and the Dallas-Fort Worth area scheduled to open in September and a second Los Angeles locale set to roll out in November.
And nearly a year ago the company announced a joint venture with Chinese coworking titan UrWork, which includes a 34,000-square-foot office in the Manhattan Financial District. The two companies also are connecting their networks to allow their members to use any of their locations throughout the U.S. and China.
But is it all (co)work and no play for this entrepreneur, whose regional reach also includes a recently expanded office in Stamford? Business Journal reporter Kevin Zimmerman recently spoke with Arenas to find out.
It seems like whenever we talk there’s another new Serendipity Labs opening somewhere. Are you surprised at all by your growth, or by that of the coworking sector at large?
“When you’ve been evangelizing for something for so long, you’re surprised when it finally happens. You can always be right if you say something for long enough!”
In addition to what’s already open and what’s been announced, what else is in the works for Serendipity Labs?
“Right now we have five in design, five or six under construction, and we’ve signed letters of intent for leases in another five or six locations. One of those is for White Plains, but it’s still too early to talk about the details there. But that will be great for us and for White Plains.”
“As with any of our locations, it helps with the whole live-work-play environment that everyone’s talking about. And we want to have a presence in the suburbs as well as urban centers like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and so on. We also plan to add another in Connecticut at a location that’s still to be determined.”
I think a lot of people wonder how someone gets into the coworking business, but for you it was sort of a natural progression, wasn’t it?
“My dad was an urban planner, so I’ve had ideas about how transportation and employment can affect each other for as long as I can remember. After college I became a civil engineer and then started getting interested in creating a network of places for people to work — people I called by the futuristic-sounding term ‘urbanauts.’
“My first real brand was Stratis Business Centers, which grew to be an 11-state network of suburban office centers around the country that offered people an opportunity to improve the quality of their working life. After the acquisition by Regus (the international workspace provider now known as IWG), I stayed on for a few years before going off and creating (online reservation system for sourcing office space, meeting space and other workspace) Worktopia, which as the name indicates was meant to provide a utopian way of working — the next generation of how to work that wasn’t constrained by time, place and a physical location.
“(When Worktopia was acquired by SignUp4 in 2011 — itself acquired by CVent for $22.4 million in 2015) I still felt the concept was right, it was just that the market wasn’t quite ready yet. Now with Serendipity Labs, it feels like we’re at the right place at the right time — finally!”
What’s your biggest challenge today?
“Knowing that the world is cyclical and that economies can be cyclical. Unexpected things can happen. Having been through three or four economic cycles in this area has taught me a lot. Today we try to plan and cover ourselves for those possibilities — we built this business to withstand those changes. As a result, we’re not going to go out at a blistering pace of expansion.”
Has there been a particular mentor during your career?
“I worked for a real estate developer, and the CEO there was an amazingly experienced guy. He’s really the one who taught me that there are two categories of everything: What to do and what not to do. He’s now deceased, but he helped me to figure out what to focus on and what to avoid — it’s still something I use today, and I encourage my employees to take the same approach.”
Was there a major influencer on your personal life as you were growing up?
“No. I grew up as a latchkey kid like a lot of kids did in the ’70s and ’80s. When you’re in that kind of situation you look to each other to kind of find your way. It was like ‘Stand By Me’ or ‘The Wonder Years.’ The kids knew their parents were around somewhere — we just didn’t know where they were.
“That kind of experience guides you in terms of your self-reliance and your agility in relationships, and it really helps make you who you are.”
Have there been any business books you’ve found to be particularly valuable?
“I’ve stopped reading those (laughs). I’m in the business of doing business with people, and those sorts of relationships don’t really change — even with millennials it’s not that different. I’m more likely to go to the Old Testament or the Gospels for advice. With business books, anything I’ve ever read, it seems like it’s all been captured. It’s not that I know everything, but that everything is known.”
What do you do in your spare time — assuming there is such a thing for you?
“It’s important to have spare time. If you’re not taking time off, you’re missing out on something essential, both in terms of your own needs and the needs of others. It’s easy to tell yourself that your vocation is your avocation — especially when things are going well — but it’s important to have those other outlets.
I do a lot of volunteering — it’s really rewarding to help others, who in turn can end up helping others themselves. I volunteered at the Jay Heritage Center (in Rye) and have helped with the restoration of the Peter Augustus Jay House there. I’ve helped the Rye Arts Center work on their strategy to point it in the right direction for growth.
Most recently I’ve gotten involved with the building of a new church in Purchase (New York), which will be the first in over 300 years. (Trinity Presbyterian Church, which owns three plots of land there, wants to build a 26,000-square-foot facility with 130 parking spaces to accommodate its growing congregation; some residents have objected to the plan.) They’re going through an appeals process now, which is something I know how to do.
I also love to be on the water power-boating. I’m at that stage of my life — my youngest girl is in high school and I have no grandkids to play with yet.”
Who do you turn to for advice these days?
“My wife of 24 years, Kim. We really enjoy each other’s company. She’s seen me go through different cycles of my career, building companies up from nothing — and to her it’s not every impressive, which is nice. She’s my toughest but best critic.”