Then and now: Gravitate Coworking’s first decade

Founder Geoff Wood recounts Gravitate’s journey, early days of Des Moines startup ecosystem

To build a startup ecosystem, young companies and founders need infrastructure that allows them to start building and connects them with resources. Geoff Wood, who describes himself as an implementer, was poised to put structural pieces into place from the time he joined Des Moines’ startup ecosystem in some of its earliest days.

The Cedar Rapids native moved to Des Moines in 2009. He immediately jumped into learning about many of the active startups in Des Moines as a writer and then chief operating officer for Omaha-based news publisher Silicon Prairie News. 

Leaving the publication in 2013 to focus on helping Iowa’s ecosystem specifically was a step that would lead to the beginnings of Gravitate Coworking.

Around the same time, Wood said StartupCity Des Moines was another foundational support that provided momentum for a startup ecosystem not seen before in Des Moines. The startup incubator and event space was a starting point, ending in 2014 after three years in operation.

Several community meetings followed the announcement that it would close to discuss how to maintain momentum and fill entrepreneurs’ needs — one being space to welcome and house startups. Wood was bouncing around the idea of a space for entrepreneurs to get started, work and gather. The push to act on it came from Eric Engelmann of New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative.

“He was like, ‘This is important to the community, you should do it.’ Maybe he just meant someone should do it, but I don’t know that I would have done it had I not had that vote of confidence from him,” Wood said.

By the time StartupCity closed at the end of the summer in 2014, Wood had stood up Gravitate’s first location in the Savings & Loan Building in downtown Des Moines with about 40 people to join him. He said those moving from StartupCity paraded down Sixth Street carrying their desks and belongings.

Gravitate, both then and now, offers a workplace community and gathering place. Wood has seen its audience evolve from largely entrepreneurs and startups to freelancers and remote workers as coworking gained recognition, and more recently, the pandemic galvanized a new mindset about flexible work. 

Wood sat down with the Business Record to recount his path to starting Gravitate, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on coworking and the evolution of the company’s role in Des Moines’ startup community.

The Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Describe what you saw 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 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 Des Moines needed next. I heard we needed low-cost, high-density workspace. We needed a platform for events, Startup Weekends, and lunch and learns. And 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. 

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 – 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 people that we’ve hired. 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 came 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. There’s lots of scary statistics, like 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 anyone want this solution I’ve created? 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 who 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. That does fit startups and entrepreneurs but all of these other people as well.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic reshape Gravitate’s business and the use of coworking locally?

I 100% was not sure that this was going to survive the initial pandemic because all the federal health policy that we were reading was saying to not do the things that we specialize in. We talk a lot in coworking and the startup world about how density fuels startups, like people banging into each other and being like, “Oh, hey, are you still working on that thing? I’m also interested in that thing. We should have a coffee.” All of those things don’t work virtually. Those are physical things that need to happen. But we survived through that time, and once the vaccines came out I think people were pretty comfortable coming back in. 

Our business actually kind of took off. We’ve had bigger years most years since the pandemic started because all of a sudden the pool of independent workers in Des Moines got so much bigger, and that’s mostly remote employees. People may have been in jobs that kept them in corporate headquarters previous to the pandemic, went home and took different jobs, a lot of times for companies that weren’t here because there’s so many virtual and remote jobs. Even if you’re working from home or working remotely, there’s so many valuable things about being in a workplace. It’s just you’re not tethered to that corporate headquarters anymore. 

With Gravitate broadening its mission to focus on building a 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, “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.

Silicon Prairie News was another early piece of infrastructure in Des Moines’ entrepreneurial ecosystem. How did it start?

Working in Indianapolis, I did an MBA at Indiana University as an evening program. I realized during that MBA that I was always gravitating to the venture classes and the startup strategy classes, so I knew as I got into that program that I thought someday I would have my own business. I, traditionally, always felt like I was a really good No. 2 at an organization. I’m not the visionary person. I like the strategy, and I like the implementation piece. I had always aligned with people that had really strong vision, but were either struggling to get that vision out or were too busy. They were thinking about step 100 and I’m like, let’s do two, three, four. Silicon Prairie News was similar — the concept was out there, the founders were there. When I came back to Iowa, I knew I wanted to work with a small company, so I was really looking for who I should partner with. I had met the Silicon Prairie News founders in Omaha, and I asked, “Can I use your platform to write about the people I meet in Des Moines?” Over the course of our first six months in Des Moines, I just wrote constantly and probably did 60 articles on Des Moines startups.

I was enjoying writing there as a hobby, and then I was starting to see this is really a business and we could do a publication here. The two founders and the main editor of the publication, we all met at Mars Cafe by Drake one time to talk about the future and I was really pushing him like we should go for this. So I became not only the Des Moines writer but really the chief operating officer of the company that was running a lot of the day-to-day operations as we grew up until 2013. That also probably directly connects back to Gravitate’s early success. 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 people felt like they knew me and trusted me because I met them when I was either reporting on them or organizing events. 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.

What are the 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 is 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 along, making sure they have a good experience while they’re here.

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.