Improving the Workforce-Workplace Interface
Serendipity Labs’ John Arenas is convinced that a flexible, empowering way of doing business is the future, starting now.
Photos by Ken GABRIELSEN
Entrepreneur John Arenas looked at an old car dealership in Rye and saw the future. His future — and possibly yours. He converted the building on Theodore Fremd Avenue, located a short walk from the heart of town, into Serendipity Labs, one of Westchester’s first coworking facilities, or basically an office for hire. Dispel images you may have of an army of Millennials huddled around laptops, however. Thanks to Arenas’ vision, the Rye space, which opened in 2013, offers sleek design and advanced technology specifically targeting the needs of the modern professional. “Think of it as coworking for grownups,” he explains, a notion that is gaining ground.
With seven US locations and more on the way, plus a recent deal signed with a counterpart in China, Serendipity Labs is expanding rapidly, along with the coworking industry at large. Analysts expect the participation to increase at a compounded-annual-growth rate of 41 percent into 2020.
While certainly pleased about such positive numbers, Arenas points out that his ambition transcends financial success. “Getting up in the morning to make more money really isn’t the big motivator,” he says. “It’s more about a creative process, to build an experience that fits people’s needs. Our facilities are really about improving lives through freedom and choice, enabling people to work how and when they want to.”
A pioneer in the field, 54-year-old Arenas began his foray into office alternatives some 20 years ago, before the term “coworking” had even been coined. Thanks no doubt to an undergrad education in civil engineering from Rutgers University, as well as an MBA from the University of Michigan, Arenas’ mind clearly thinks in terms of how the workforce-workspace interface can be improved. In fact, this mindset may have been instilled even earlier.
“My dad was an urban planner,” Arenas explains, “so I grew up considering how better cities and transportation systems could affect lives. My whole career has looked at real estate and the workplace through a lens of urban planning, or a social point of view.” His résumé certainly supports this notion and leads logically to Serendipity Labs, his third venture in what he refers to as the “workplace as service” category.
Arenas began his career in 1985, as an on-site project manager for Turner Construction in Washington, DC, later transitioning to commercial real estate investment and project finance for a firm that developed offices, hotels, and residential resorts. Recognizing the potential market for combining hospitality and office space, Arenas dedicated himself to this new hybrid, embarking on something of an entrepreneurial whirlwind tour.
While living in South Carolina, in 1996, Arenas launched Stratis Business Centers, which provided executive suites and meeting rooms for upper-level employees who needed to conduct off-site business. In 2001, Stratis was acquired in a $10 million deal by Regus Business Centers, a multinational executive-suite source. Arenas stayed on to help grow the company, relocating to Westchester while Regus was operating out of Purchase. “My wife and I drew a circle around Purchase on the map,” says Arenas, who settled in Mamaroneck but now lives in Rye.
By 2005, Arenas had launched Worktopia, an online network that helped businesses book and equip meeting spaces worldwide, selling it to SignUp4 six years later.
Arenas was ready to synthesize everything he’d learned into a new brand of alternative workplace, offering much more than just desks and outlets. He envisioned an ergonomically designed environment intended not only to enable workers to “escape a home office or avoid a commute” but also to “encourage interaction and collaboration.” The plan was to “put together the best part of hospitality, which is about delivering great experiences,” Arenas explains, “and doing more than just offering a space — focusing instead on how you make a guest feel.” The grand plan was to sell memberships to the coworking facilities, much like at gyms.
And so Serendipity Labs launched in Rye in 2014, with additional locations coming onboard soon after, including Chicago, Stamford, Bethesda, and Columbus, Ohio. The name, Arenas points out, is meant to suggest the potential “happy accidents” or “creative collisions” that might occur when a group of highly motivated people are brought together. Real-life actual examples of such serendipity, both professional and social, abound, he adds. Cycling, yoga, and triathlon-training groups have formed, and spontaneous networking has led to new accounts and clients for many Serendipity Labs members. Such synergy would certainly be less likely if those involved were working alone, Arenas points out.
Arenas’ corporate philosophy clearly relies on the careful analysis of as much data as can be gathered. This rigorous approach has made him an attractive business partner to many, including Andy Gottesman, CEO of Gottesman Real Estate and joint-venture partner in Serendipity Labs Stamford.
Arenas is “very passionate about the [coworking] industry,” Gottesman says, “but extremely thoughtful, as well. He is both a visionary and an academic.” Involved in the “genesis of coworking,” Arenas has been “kind of drawing it, filling in the blanks and the colors, figuring out how things should look and how they should work,” Gottesman adds, “but always basing decisions on solid research.”
Arenas admits that preparation and precision are key to his process. “One of the things I learned a long time ago is that if you do your homework and plan, you are doing more than most people, and you are usually doing more than your competitors,” he says. “Attention to detail is key in the hospitality business, as even small things affect how your guests feel, so you must anticipate needs, which requires analysis.” But breaking new ground in the hospitality sector demands a creative spark that goes beyond facts and figures. “You have to make it tick, but you also have to make it sizzle,” he says.
Despite all the meticulous groundwork, Arenas and his team, like many innovators, did experience a bit of a supply-before-demand hiccup. “When we first opened, there was a metaphorical tumbleweed rolling through the place,” Arenas admits. “We were all dressed up and doing our marketing, but people really didn’t get what we were talking about. We were offering what we thought people would need, though they never asked for it, because they didn’t know to ask for it,” he says. This speculation has apparently paid off, because, Arenas says, in the last two years, “people come to us.”
“Fifty percent of our members work for established companies, and they are largely in their 40s — we are focused on corporate customers and enterprise,” Arenas adds.
“And everything here — the sound attenuation, the music we play, the food we serve, the cultural events we host —all of it is branded around that group of people.” Serendipity Labs looks much like a company HQ the characters on HBO's Silicon Valley might visit to pitch an app. Its corporate-mod ambience includes a variety of "settings," accommodating both group interactions an the need for personal space and confidentiality. The technology platforms are state-of-the-art and, above all, secure, Arenas explains. Companies such as American Express, Pepsi, and Heineken USA are usually happy to pay membership fees for employees in an effort to "support flexibility and help recruit and retain the best talent," Arenas explains, adding that commuters can, for example, "finish the day close to home and attend their kids' activities or be there to help with homework. It's really about quality of life."
These are benefits Arenas can attest to personally. "I've always opened a location of my businesses near my home, to finish work at a reasonable hour and really be involved in family life." (He and his wife have raised two children in Rye who are now young adults.) Leisure time, however, is scarce for this driven enetrepreneur. While he occasionally may be found out on his boat, enjoying the Long Island Sound, Arenas is most likely to be working hard at the ongoing expansion of Serendipity Labs.
With many new US locations on the horizon, Serendipity Labs went global last summer, when Arenas penned a deal with a Chinese coworking partner that boasts some 80 locations worldwide. The two companies have launched a joint location in Manhattan's financial district and teamed up to extend their respective networks. Through this partnership, members will have access to "trusted locations" in both countries — a real asset for executives navigating the global economy, he says.
Arenas is committed to developing telecommuting to its fullest potential, convinced that a flexible, empowering way of doing business is the future, starting now.
“I’ve been working in this category for two decades,” Arenas says, “and the future is finally here. I work a mile from my house, and I aspire to take advantage of what that affords me — to participate in the community, my family and church, to volunteer. Those are the goals that transcend the bigger, empire-building thoughts you have when you’re 30.”
Gale Ritterhoff is a freelance writer based in Katonah who is a frequent contributor to 914INC. and Westchester Magazine.