Gravitate Coworking founder Geoff Wood reflects on a decade in business

Many in Des Moines and Iowa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem will know of Gravitate Coworking and its founder Geoff Wood. But to understand how it started 10 years ago requires stepping back to some key developments in the early days of Des Moines’ startup community.

Although short-lived, StartupCity Des Moines, a startup incubator that ran from 2011-2014, provided momentum Des Moines hadn’t seen before for building a startup community.

Space was a top need for the startup companies involved in StartupCity after the initiative ended. When Gravitate opened in September 2014 in the Savings & Loan Building, Wood said people moving from StartupCity simply carried their desks and belongings down Sixth Street.

Wood’s connections and experience in Des Moines’ ecosystem poised him to step in and build this piece of infrastructure for startup founders and later a broader audience, including freelancers and remote workers.

The Cedar Rapids native moved to Des Moines in 2009 with his wife and newborn son after working in both Omaha and Indianapolis. While living out of state, he met the founders of Silicon Prairie News, a platform focused on covering Midwest startups. He said he started writing about Des Moines startups for them, first as a hobby, then a full-time employee.

“That probably directly connects back to Gravitate’s early success,” Wood said. “As I was talking about starting Gravitate, a lot of people knew me from Silicon Prairie News so I had a big email list and an audience for my personal blogging. … I think if I was brand new and just dropped in and said, ‘Hey, this is a new venture,’ we would have struggled longer to get started.”

Gravitate marked a decade of supporting startup founders and anyone looking for a workplace community in 2023. Its space in the heart of downtown has played host to the Techstars Iowa and BrokerTech Ventures accelerators as well as numerous community events like 1 Million Cups.

Wood said in his time in Des Moines, he’s been more comfortable on the “periphery” of the ecosystem, providing supports like space and news that others can use or build on to make moves in the startup community. 

Three new Gravitate locations have opened in the East Village, Windsor Heights and Jefferson, and Wood said he’s interested in more expansion in the right places.

“We have a pretty specific formula that we think works for us, so we’re slow to jump on new locations.”

Wood sat down with the Business Record following Gravitate’s anniversary celebrations to share more about how he thinks about growth and reflect on the company’s first 10 years and the evolution of its role in Des Moines’ startup community.

Photo above by Jami Milne.

This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Describe what you saw happening in Des Moines’ entrepreneurial ecosystem in 2013 after leaving Silicon Prairie News. How did you determine it would benefit from coworking space?
I was working from StartupCity at the time, which I always tell people — we’re getting far enough away that people may not remember StartupCity — but it was really key to get people to think about our startup community. They made big waves. I think the attention they drew from the state of Iowa, from the Greater Des Moines Partnership, from the established business community, that all came together, and I think more so than even any of the companies that participated, that initial hype, like this is important and we should focus on that all came from StartupCity.

I think it was April of 2014 when they announced they were going to go away. They had a funding window, the funding was done and they didn’t intend to move forward anymore. The two principals there had a couple different town hall-type things on what does Des Moines need next. I heard we need low-cost, high-density workspace, we need a platform for events and Startup Weekends and lunch and learns and then a front door, for people who want to get started, whether they are new to Des Moines and want to join the startup community, or if they’ve been here forever and they just want to do a startup. Like where do you go as a waypoint?

I wrote a blog post at that point that I called “What Des Moines needs next is an entrepreneurial center of gravity” and then that became the impetus to start Gravitate. I looked at that as just another problem to solve in Des Moines, like, this is something that could help out the community. What I didn’t know at the time was that this would become all-consuming, not just for me, but then people that we’ve hired, and it’s not a business that can be a side project, which was what I originally thought it would be. It’s really its own animal.

How has the makeup of Gravitate members evolved over time?
In the initial stages, I conceived of Gravitate as being very tech-startup focused. That’s the industry I cared about, that’s what I wanted to see grow. I think I had ambitious goals on how big I thought the community was at the time. Des Moines wasn’t big enough to sustain us. I love [the community]. We have a lot of startup companies that are with us, we have a lot of returning founders that have had exits and then come back and became Gravitate members as they’re starting on their next adventure, but we’ve definitely had to supplement that. We have people in every industry you can think of so long as the laptop is their primary tool. You know, there’s lots of scary statistics on two-thirds of all new small businesses fail or something like that. I think that’s even higher with startups because they’re trying to define a market and figure out does this solution I’ve created — does anybody want that? Long term, we had to broaden out and still want to be the home for startups and a lot of startup activity, but also bring in other people that are more stable. Gravitate today has members working for multinational Fortune 500-type companies at it. It still has freelancers that are doing side gigs and venture-backed companies — it’s anyone and everyone now. Over time, we also relaxed our tagline of the “entrepreneurial center of gravity.” We talk more about workplace community now, like that’s what we provide, so that does fit startups and entrepreneurs but all of these other people as well.

With Gravitate broadening its mission to focus on building workplace community, how do you view its role now in the entrepreneurial ecosystem?
Since we came back to Des Moines in 2009, I’ve always viewed myself as someone that tried to help the startup community grow, but not necessarily the person leading the startup community.
I don’t know that there is a leader in the startup community [and] I don’t know that there should be. I think it should ebb and flow with whichever startups are active at the time. I am much more comfortable being on the periphery of helping people. There have been others here that have tried to lead the startup community and usually to no great effect. There hasn’t been a real positive outlook of that. I think part of why I don’t want to advise people is that I don’t know their business. I will give people feedback all the time, but I also tell them like, take this for what it’s worth — it’s just my feedback. I don’t necessarily want to take on being your adviser telling you this is absolutely the way you should go. I think with Silicon Prairie News, with Clay & Milk, with these spaces, we’re providing the infrastructure that goes around having a healthy startup community, and then it’s up to the people to build.

What is Gravitate looking for when scouting potential new locations?
We’d like to be further out into the suburbs because I think in the downtown market, we’re really comfortable with our offerings here, the two locations, East Village and central business district downtown. Finding a space that’s 10,000 square feet in the suburbs is sometimes tricky just because we haven’t built out the office element of the suburbs, and a lot of the spaces that we’ve looked at that are that big have pretty high dollar amounts. One way to think of this is like office space as a service. We can’t necessarily put that big of a premium to get into some of these spaces out there. One of the things we’re always interested in is sublease opportunities and second-generation spaces. If somebody’s already done the hard work of putting in the bathrooms and walls, we’ll try to fit around that. That’s better for us than a blank box that we have to build everything from the ground just because that initial cost is a lot for us to absorb.

Is the interest in the suburbs in part driven by post-pandemic shifts in how people work?
Absolutely. We think our market will grow a lot based on people in the suburbs that want to kind of come to something local. If they’ve taken a remote job and don’t want to come downtown anymore, they’re probably not going to come downtown to Gravitate if they live in Ankeny or Waukee or further out than that. So if we are in Ankeny and Waukee, I think that we have a lot of chance to bring those people in and provide them the hospitality and value that we bring. But it’s one of those things. Are you going to drive across town to go to a coffee shop if you’ve got one in your neighborhood? No, you’re more likely to go to that neighborhood one or just make coffee at home. We want to be that neighborhood coworking space for people.

What are some milestones or lessons from Gravitate’s first 10 years that stand out to you?
It’s really interesting. To me, at least, we transitioned pretty quickly. I thought I was still going to be consulting and working on other projects in the community, but it can’t be a side business when all your customers sit next to you all day long. It’s hard to do other work when you need to change the toilet paper, or make coffee, or wash the dishes. It really is a consuming business, and something we’ve learned over time then is like we are not in real estate or office space even though that’s what people think about us. We’re really in hospitality because it’s bringing those people out, making sure they have a good experience while they’re here. Most of the time when we hire people, we look for people that have restaurant or hotel-type backgrounds, which I think is probably counter to what people would expect.

One of the things that we talk about a lot is that tether of going to the corporate office, only living close enough that you can drive in or commute into the office, I think that’s gone away for good. I know that there’s a big return-to-office push. We see that with some of our customers, our bigger companies that are here in our office, they want their employees. But I think as long as someone out there is willing to offer remote work, people are always going to have that option, so if you really like remote work, we’ll be able to take that versus going to work in a company that demands you be in the corporate headquarters. I think our market will just continue to grow with that and I really think that that’s a lot of the future of Iowa. I think we’ll start to see our economic development efforts over time will be less about attracting companies here and more about attracting people because they’ll work wherever and I feel like it’s probably going to be a lot easier to bring people here. We see that now, even if we’re not targeting them, we see boomerang people that move back. We see that anecdotally as our members join, but I think that’s the future of where we go.

Look for future coverage of our conversation with Wood in Business Record products.