by Tracey Lindeman
Published in the Montreal Gazette on January 26, 2016
Statistics will tell you telecommuting has become a fashionable way to work in Canada — but have you ever tried finding a coffee shop willing to host you and your laptop for eight hours or more each day?
Freelancers and remote workers have a few options, including working from home, haunting a circuit of cafés or renting a desk in a co-working space, the latter of which abound in Montreal.
Crew, a young Montreal company now in its third year of operation, is in the preparatory stages of becoming yet another co-working space in the city.
However, its location — which will open to the public in April — is unique among its competitors: it is the former headquarters of the Royal Bank of Canada, built in 1928 down on St-Jacques St. in Old Montreal.
The space has sat empty since RBC abandoned the building in 2010 — a shame, considering the grand splendour it once possessed, with its 50-foot-high vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, intricate tiling and marble and bronze galore.
Montreal’s heritage guardians will surely be pleased to know Crew intends to keep most of its historical decor intact as it builds a combination café, co-working space and company headquarters.
“We’re taking this old building and moving it into a new era of work,” said Crew CEO and co-founder Mikael Cho.
Pina Messina, who is in charge of overseeing the transformation and management of Crew’s new space, explained how the bank’s old furnishings will be repurposed. The old deposit-slip counters, for example, will be used as spots to sip cappuccinos, while the bank teller counters will be used to divide the common coffee shop area from the members-only co-working space and Crew’s office.
Members will have access to their own dedicated desk 24/7 for a “competitive” rate — likely between $400 and $500 a month, Cho said. Other perks include super high-speed internet, free coffee, discounts on food, a concierge service and access to meeting rooms.
Members of the general public will also be welcomed, although they’ll have to stake out a workspace for the day in the general café area. Cho said patrons will be able order from the café online without ever having to line up — and, taking a cue from services like Uber, the tip is included in the price, too.
“You’re going to be able to come here, plug your computer in and have a good cup of coffee and a healthy snack,” Messina said. “You won’t be rushed out. We want people to come and stay.”
As a marketplace that matches clients with freelance designers and web developers, Crew is acclimatized to the needs of independent workers. At the same time, it’s also keenly attuned to its own.
Cho said what began as four founders working shoulder-to-shoulder has evolved into a business that this year will likely employ upwards of 50 people — a rate of expansion that means it will likely need more and more space in the years to come.
“We’ve done the math. We were expanding as a team — we tripled in the past year. We’ll probably double again this year,” he said.
Cho, now 29, began his career in design at an agency back home in Wisconsin before becoming a freelancer.
He arrived in Montreal nearly eight years ago after meeting a woman while on vacation in Mexico. He gambled on a one-way Greyhound bus ticket; they’re now married.
It’s here where the designer, immersed in a new city that values art and life experience, decided to try his hand at entrepreneurship.
“I was sort of like, what if you could take the good things of an agency — the quality of work, having someone you could talk to, building a feeling of trust — and turn it into software?” he said.
He and his co-founders Luke Chesser, Stephanie Liverani and Angus Woodman entered into the FounderFuel startup accelerator in 2012. The accelerator helps young entrepreneurs articulate and refine their business ideas into deliverable products.
“I didn’t know anybody at all in tech, so I thought, ‘Three months of this and we’ll know everyone,’ ” Cho said.
At the time, FounderFuel put up $25,000 for six per cent of the companies that it helped accelerate (now it typically kicks in $50,000 for software startups).
“I thought $25,000 was a lot. When we got that cheque, we couldn’t even cash it,” Cho said. “It’s a crazy thing to see it pop into a bank account.”
Since then, the company has gone on to raise more than $12 million, the bulk of which — $10 million — was raised last July with a Series A round led by an American venture-capital firm.
Funnily enough, Crew banks with — you guessed it — Royal Bank.
However, Cho does not appear to suffer from delusions of grandeur, even if his young company is moving into a 12,000-square-foot space to become the ground-floor anchor tenant of what was once the tallest building in the British Empire. He may be the CEO of a multimillion-dollar firm but, he said, the rent on the former RBC bank was actually a pretty great deal.
“I’ve been brought up to be cautious with money, not to overspend,” he said. “There’s still a balance. My wife is an actuary, so she balances out any crazy visions I might have.”
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