∙ Special Melbourne Edition ∙
Founder and CEO of OneRoof
In the last three cities that I’ve called home, one of the first activities I embark on is to do a bit of desk research to find local coworking spaces. As a newbie to the city, it’s a great way to get a sense of the city and it’s also a great way to start making some friends.
If Stockholm is a city where coworking is buzzing then Melbourne is on acid. There’s over 200 coworking spaces in Melbourne alone. It’s no surprise then that I was immediately intrigued by a coworking space called OneRoof, a space dedicated to women-led business. It’s also no surprise that I wanted to lunch with its founder, Sheree Rubinstein.
Finding your passion…after you get the degree and the job
We met at a cosy little cafe nestled amongst the giants on Southbank. In a block of towering skyscrapers, I was surprised to find that The Bond Store is like the antithesis of the polished eateries that surround it.
Sheree is the founder and CEO of OneRoof, Australia’s leading B-corporation certified coworking and events space dedicated to women-led businesses. They’ve got one location in Southbank with 87 resident businesses, events 5 to 6 days a week, and a lot of business support for all members.
“We’re really trying to be a one-stop-shop for women-led businesses and startups. I’m working on expanding and growing to have multiple locations and lots of ancillary services including childcare, an online portal and a whole lot of other things.” Sheree says with a grin.
If you’re left wondering what a B-corporation is, don’t worry. You’re not the only one. Sheree explains that’s a rigorous process to determine how ethical, sustainable and moral you are as a company. Not just in your product offering but right through the supply chain and how you govern yourself on a day to day basis. It’s everything from making sure recycling bins are used in the space to looking at what (and how) your members create business.
“It took us about 6 months to get that certification but once you’re certified, you’re part of a community of businesses that will only want to engage with and transact with other B-corp certified businesses that have a similar core purpose.”
I’m sure that the 10 second pitch about OneRoof is the result of a lot of fine-tuning and tweaking. Is that also representative of Sheree’s journey as its founder?
I started my career in corporate law and, very early on in my journey, became very well aware of the challenges that women face in this world.
“I started my career in corporate law and, very early on in my journey, became very well aware of the challenges that women face in this world. Everything from the gender pay gap, to the lack of women in positions of leadership, to the issues women face when they go on maternity leave, to the lack of confidence, to women not speaking up in meetings, and not being valued for their work. It was all new to me.”
“I didn’t appreciate the extent of those issues until I opened pandora’s box and realised what goes on out there. I did a lot of research, had a lot of conversations and meetings, and just became super passionate about making a difference in that space.”
Manifesting passion into change
How did that passion manifest into driving change? It’s almost too easy to be passionate about something. What’s seriously tricky is getting started…or even knowing where to start. Sheree recounts those early days as anything but strategic.
“I started by running networking events for women. That was a passion project. It made no money. I had no idea where it was going but I had a lot of fun and then through that realised that I wanted to do a lot more. Networking events were stressful and fun but not enough.” She says with a slight chuckle. I think many event organisers would recognise that chuckle.
Originally, Sheree had an American business partner and together the two came up with an idea; to create a physical hub that provides everything women need to succeed under one roof.
We tested it by running a pop-up coworking space in an airbnb home.
“We tested it by running a pop-up coworking space in an airbnb home. We took over this woman’s two-story mansion in Saint Kilda. One week later, 400 people had come to this house, engaged in this concept of coworking with lots of experts coming in and curated events. It was just hugely successful.”
After such a huge success, Sheree and her business parter had hopes of conquering the world – just like the rest of us. Her business partner moved back to California and the two kept working on their idea. Initially the model was short-term leasing in unique locations whereby they created hubs for women-led businesses in under-utilised spaces. But between flying between Melbourne and Sydney every week and across to the States every couple of months, it wasn’t something that could be sustained.
“I narrowed my focus on Melbourne instead, dissolving the business in the US, and went back to building from the ground up. It’s been three years in Southbank. It’s humming, it’s full, it’s a great space, it’s an amazing community – it’s been awesome.” She says with obvious pride and excitement.
Just get stuff out there
For someone that has made the shift from corporate law to coworking, the contrast must be stark. What has been the biggest change coming from corporate law?
Sheree knows the answer immediately. As a founder she has probably thought about it a lot. “The biggest change was not having the resources. Working in a top-tier law firm where you’ve got super smart people, money, time – you can call someone up for help with whatever you need. You’ve got teams on big projects to then being on my own with none of that and the realisation that I have to move fucking fast.”
“In the corporate world you can go slower. You can take your time. There’s perfectionism. There’s bureaucracy where nothing happens in a day. In the startup and entrepreneur world, it’s like do or die. You don’t have time to perfect things anymore in the way that I did in my legal career – just get it out.”
She goes on to share a story with the same vigour Sheree has learned to get things out; with haste and enthusiasm. “I remember a friend and mentor of mine saying to me, Sheree your emails can’t be perfect, your ideas can’t be perfect – just get them out there and test. Admit it if they suck and they failed and move on as fast as you can because you don’t have time to hold on to anything.”
There is this obsession that it needs to be perfect, that you can’t get the website out or the content out until it’s 100% perfect...That’s all bullshit.
It’s a key skill that she now passes on to OneRoof members. “There is this obsession that it needs to be perfect, that you can’t get the website out or the content out until it’s 100% perfect. For example, I can’t start selling my product until I have a brand and a name and a logo and business cards. That’s all bullshit. Go and get customers and feedback and get the content out there. Get the feedback that it’s shit or that it’s good or that you do need a business card or now you need a website. It’s the reverse mindset. Put yourself out there. It’s a very vulnerable thing to do in the market before actually having all the backend stuff perfect and in order.”
If I had a bit more guts I probably would have stood up and just started slow clapping Sheree in the middle of lunch hour at this cafe. But I’ve been living in Sweden too long and instead, ask the all-important follow-up question; how long did it take to realise this? As someone that works in marketing, I know all too well the perfectionism that exists in product teams. I also fall into the trap sometimes and it takes conscious decision-making to get out of the perfectionist rut.
Reflecting for a moment, she answers that it probably didn’t take her too long to realise that she just had to get stuff out there. And that was due to two main influencers; her former business partner and being cash-poor.
“My former business partner already thought in that way so she was really good at doing those things. She built a basic website on Squarespace in 5 minutes and got her partner to design our logo. She had that mindset already which taught me a lot. That coupled with the fact that we didn’t have money. We didn’t have the option of becoming an official coworking operator and signing a 10 year lease. That just wasn’t an option. So for us we had no choice but to do things in a very lean way. We were forced to test and learn because there was no other way of doing it.”
People want to see scrappy. They also want to see professional.
One of the most important topics to cover with each Boss Lady is reflecting on the key skills that have helped propelled them to leadership roles. If we can identify those skills, perhaps we can accelerate the time to learn them and get more women into leadership positions. With an education in law, what foundation skills has Sheree found most valuable in her journey as founder of OneRoof?
“Obviously legal skills on the whole are very valuable. I don’t practice law anymore, I don’t write my own contracts but having the ability to understand the lingo and the agreements in detail is absolutely valuable.”
People want to be impressed and even though they want to see scrappy, they still want to be impressed.
“I think also learning a very strong level of professionalism with corporates. I understand their ways, what makes them tick, their bottom line and the way that they’re driven. It’s really helped in networking and opening doors. I think that even though you need to be scrappy in entrepreneurship, there has to be some level of balance of professionalism. People want to be impressed and even though they want to see scrappy, they still want to be impressed. My legal skills helped me understand that balance very well.”
It’s at this point that I spot the biggest trend break in comparison to most other (if not all) Boss Ladies I’ve lunched with. Sheree is the first Boss Lady to say the technical knowledge from her degree has been the most valuable in her career path. I mention this to her as I’m interested in hearing her thoughts.
“It’s interesting to see where the importance of university will be in the future. I have learned more in the last 4 years of building OneRoof than I have ever learned in my life. It’s not even every day – it’s every minute of every single day that I am learning something new; that I am doing something I’ve never done before. And that’s just the best way of learning.”
“I always wonder if I didn’t do law, what would I have done? I feel like I would have loved a management consulting role and that actually doing a commerce or business degree would have helped me more. At the end of the day you’ve got to get out there and do it. You can’t wait until you know how to do all these things. And yes, a lot of it is self-taught and making mistakes – like marketing and social media and accounting. You’re just thrown in and you’ve got to sink or swim. You have to kind of just work it out.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Without me needing to ask the next question, which relates to the kind of people Sheree surrounds herself with, she goes on to answer the question pre-emptively.
“My big thing is surrounding myself with people. Most people, when they don’t know the answer, will google it. I will find someone or call someone. Or meet with someone and say I need help. I am all about having the right people around me and seeking out advice.”
Reflectively, she says “I probably ask for a bit too much advice from too many people because that is definitely a trap.” But there are those that she can rely on for sound advice each and every time. “I have an investor group who are amazing. They offer a lot of advice around putting together a board who in turn offer a lot of advice. I talk to a lot of OneRoof members. I talk to a lot of business owners who I have built relationships with over the years.”
I can tell that it’s something Sheree has thought a lot about, probably as she analyses what’s working and what isn’t as she works towards her vision for OneRoof. “I build relationships with people and in the end it becomes so much more than that. I love peer-to-peer mentoring as much as someone who’s 10-20 years older than me who’s a lot more experienced than me or even people who are younger than me. I have so many different mentors that people don’t know are my mentors because it’s not official but I have so many different people I call on.”
She goes on to name a few which include the CEO of an ASX-listed company, her former business partner, and The Ambitious Women’s Tribe. This kind of moving mentorship is a premise of Eat 52 Lunches and it’s a tool that I’ve found to be invaluable for my own professional development. It sounds like Sheree does too.
It has built this network that’s held me in such great stead
“When I left my law career I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work with women and I literally did what you’re doing now but I didn’t document it. I just met with whoever I could. I went to events, I put myself into a hackathon and a pitching competition, I absorbed whatever knowledge I could from people.”
“It has built this network that’s held me in such great stead and opened so many doors for me and become my greatest mentors and supporters and advocates. At the time I struggled because I was meeting all these people but didn’t understand where I was going and what I was doing but it evolved and it was the best thing I ever did.”
It takes time to clarify and articulate your vision to others
Did Sheree ever have any naysayers? For many that branch out onto their own, especially those that leave the field they’ve gained experience in, it’s not uncommon to be met with doubt from those around them. For Sheree, this wasn’t her experience. Even former colleagues at her law firm were supportive.
“They simply understood. It was pretty clear by my personality and where and why I thrive. I was so much more about relationship building and stakeholders than I ever was about the technical and legal side. My partners were very supportive and said go out there Sheree, go run a start up, go work in human-rights law or some other area.”
“There’s been naysayers – just not from my legal career. There are people that are confused at the idea and concept of a coworking space for women. It took me time to clarify what I meant and over time I realised I didn’t want it to be a women-only space. Initially it was women-led businesses so they (members) had to have a female co-founder, founder or CEO. Then over I time I realised if a guy runs a business and wants to be at OneRoof, why would I ever say no to that? As long as he aligns with our values and wants to be there, then great!”
When those that say she is discriminating she explains that this isn’t the case – all are welcome. “Over time I worked out how to articulate it and what the vision was but it did take me a while to get there and I did have people that were like, I don’t get it.”
“I’ve been running OneRoof for 4 years and I still feel like I’m in the testing phase. It evolves all the time. OneRoof is coworking and events and business support but I want it to be all these other things down the track.”
You don’t need the answer right now, you don’t need to be clear on what the next 10 years looks like, you just need to keep evolving and tweaking.
On reigning in that enthusiasm in exchange for patience, Sheree shares the advice she received when first starting OneRoof. “One of my mentors said to me very early that my role is to observe and ask lots of questions and gather as much feedback as possible. You don’t need the answer right now, you don’t need to be clear on what the next 10 years looks like, you just need to keep evolving and tweaking. And yes, you’ll have hypotheses but I keep getting reminded that the process is so much slower than I want it to be and I have to just sit with it because it’s for a reason.”
If founders are continuously trying to teach themselves patience, whilst also trying to run fast, why is it that stories of success are always framed as overnight work? Is that just a money-making ploy for media or is it part of the human condition to simply forget the long, long in-between? It’s something that even Sheree needs to remind herself from time to time.
“The best realisation for me and for others is that it is hard. No-one really has the answer and everyone is still trying to work it out. The shiny face on social media and in the papers – it is bullshit. And you forget it. And then I have a conversation with a founder and all the issues they’re going through and I’m reminded Sheree, you’re not the only one going through the hard questions and hard decisions, everyone is. Even when you grow, it doesn’t get easier, you just get used to the fact that it’s so hard. You just accept it more.”
Don’t be at the whim of your inbox
Armed with her 4-year long journey and the future horizon of time, things only look positive for OneRoof. But what skills does Sheree wish that she’d learned sooner, or simply faster? The first is basic in principle but harder to practice. “Don’t be at the whim of your inbox.”
The second is about not just understanding but taking the time to focus on the high-level business model, finances, and strategy.
When you make these big decisions, you need space in order to analyse it and the information around it.
“I feel so challenged now and I always have. I am so part of the business; there’s so much going on on a day-to-day level. To create space to be able to work on the high-level business model, and forecasting and planning, I wish that I put more focus on it at the start and that I created more space for it now. I create the space for it now, I have to do it, I just feel so pressured for time and rushed. When you make these big decisions, you need space in order to analyse it and the information around it.”
Is there a skill now that Sheree would like to accelerate? After all, we should never stop learning. Based on her current to do list, that desired skill is to better understand the commercial property market. “Understanding that market is very important for me. I’d love to understand it more. That’s such a big part of the business. Corporate sponsorship is also something I’m really trying to understand. Tech is a component that I believe is going to be crucial to OneRoof down the track since coworking is always capped by a bricks and mortar space. And skills as an investor.”
But in learning these new skills, Sheree takes the advice that she gives to OneRoof members. “I always tell women you’ve got to delve in and fail and be nervous and freak out. We need to take a little bit more risks. They don’t have to be calculated and informed, just little steps of discomfort and fear and pushing yourself because it goes such a long way.”
In comparison, what skills weren’t critical for OneRoof’s journey? Her answer is pretty common amongst founders and owners alike; marketing your business.
“Social media and marketing was always something that was beyond me and I was like how am I ever going to learn all this stuff? But as you said before, you kind of learn and work it out and test and get people around you to give you some advice. It hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be.”
She goes on to explain why it’s been easier to learn than she first expected. “I think at the start I thought I needed to have everything in operational order. I realised very quickly that that stuff comes with time. The more rigour and structure you create around things, the less likely your team are willing to test and learn and fail and be entrepreneurial. I give myself a hard time about not having more structure and manuals around everything but I actually don’t want that.”
So while she goes through that conflict herself, Sheree has people around her that remind her that it’s simply not always needed.
Finding a niche amongst competitors
With a professional network that seems pretty iron clad, what’s Sheree’s personal network like? It seems just as iron clad, likely even more so.
“I have the most supportive partner in the world. It’s helped me so much to have him there. We both left corporate at the same time. We’ve always supported each other, financially and emotionally.”
Sheree explains that her partner, Rod, is also in coworking. But rather than viewing each other as competitors, they see each other as resources. “He also runs a coworking space with his brother and another partner and it’s become such an amazing benefit to share resources and ideas and conversations. We’re different in brand and identity and entity and vision.”
She reminisces about the early days of OneRoof and the support offered by her loved ones. “When I first set up OneRoof in Southbank it was Rod, my dad and I painting the space, getting the furniture etc. It was everything.”
As someone that has seen the landscape as a founder for the past 4 years, what changes have impacted the ecosystem, and by knock-on effect, Sheree’s plan?
There’s this idea that coworking is synonymous with community which is not true. We work our asses off to make that real for people.
“There’s been massive exponential growth in the past 4 to 5 years. It’s gone gang-busters. There’s over 200 spaces in Melbourne alone. There’s small local players but a lot of international players like WeWork and Asian players.”
So how has that affected her product vision and plan for OneRoof? “Having a niche and clear value proposition helps. Every coworking space says they’re about community but nobody gives a shit – what does that even mean? There’s this idea that coworking is synonymous with community which is not true. We work our asses off to make that real for people. I still wanna do more – there’s never enough in mind.”
“The traditional players are also trying to model the new coworking spaces so capturing the essence of who you are gets more and more important. It’s a hard market, it’s a tight market. There’s not a lot of commercial spaces available at the moment. It’s more expensive.”
“There’s going to be interesting consolidation of the market. It’s interesting to watch the mammoth companies loose money every day. It will change, it will evolve. I don’t wanna compete with the WeWorks of the world. I don’t wanna get drowned out by international players. At the end of the day, I don’t even see OneRoof as a coworking space. We’re so much more than that. That’s just the foundation and I’ve gotta work really hard at building that.
Self doubt does not equal competency
With the benefit of experience and a good deal of hindsight, what’s Sheree’s advice to her 10 year younger self?
“There’s so many things I would say. Having self-doubt and not knowing the answer and not having the skills and being scared and not sure is not a sign that you’re incapable and that you can’t be successful. I think that for a very long time, I equated fear and self-doubt with an inability to be successful. I just thought successful people were like robots and never doubted themselves. I wish I knew that a lot earlier.”
I just thought successful people were like robots and never doubted themselves. I wish I knew that a lot earlier.
“I think I put a lot of pressure myself. I am telling myself even now that the pressure is good up until a point and then it’s just detrimental. I am one person; I can only do the best that I can do and I give myself a hard time for not being able to do more and achieve more. I’d say just be nice and good to yourself. Don’t talk to yourself in a way you’d never talk to anybody else.”
“I wish that I communicated that fear and self-doubt much sooner. The real shit going on. As in, oh I’m not crazy, I’m not the only one, I’m just a normal human. I put so much emphasis now on being honest. I just want people to know how hard it is, how much self-doubt I have, and the mistakes I’ve made.
It’s an endearing note to end our lunch on and I make the promise to practice more self-kindness. Will you join me?
These beautiful chapter images were found on The Bond Store’s website.