Like the many enterprises that relied on in-person interaction, Make Lemonade, a Toronto-based, women-centric co-working space for entrepreneurs was suddenly squeezed dry by the pandemic and closed its doors in August 2020. It was the third closure in three years of a well-loved physical co-working space focusing on women — the others were Shecosystem and Women on the Move. LiisBeth talked to Rachel Kelly, the 30-year-old founder and sole owner of Make Lemonade to learn about the journey and where they are now–given the pandemic.
LiisBeth: Let’s rewind to get the full story. Why did you start Make Lemonade?
RK: It was 2015 and I had been freelancing for a couple years, bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop and working from home — way before it was cool. One day while travelling on a streetcar to yet another café, I realized I couldn’t keep lying to myself. I was trying to convince myself that this way of working, like a nomad, alone, was great and that the indie freelancing life was sustainable for me. It occurred to me in that moment the key thing lacking in my work life was a day-to-day community of colleagues.
Around this time, I signed a salaried contract with a company I was freelancing for and let go of all my freelance gigs. And even bought a couch! But shortly thereafter, they called to say the contract was cancelled. They never told me why but I suspect it had to do with their budget.
I reminded myself, I am only 26 years old. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.
The old dream I had of starting a co-working space for independent freelancers like me resurfaced. And I have to thank my parents for inspiration. They were also entrepreneurs and taught me to dream big and worry about the details later. Which is exactly what I did.
I started by creating an Instagram account called Make Lemonade to gauge interest about the idea and guess what … it generated traction! In fact some people already thought the space existed and actually emailed me saying “you might like this space” not realizing I was the one posting about it. Ha! With this validation, I got to work. I put together a business plan. Landlords required me to submit the plan along with an offer to lease the space because we were a startup. I looked for places that offered bright, natural light and a canvas that made shared work possible. Finding a space with a good landlord was also important. The commercial rental market was hot at the time. I found a beautiful 3,000 square foot space at 326 Adelaide Street West in the heart of downtown Toronto and quickly signed a five-year lease.
LiisBeth: Tell us about the Make Lemonade Community? Who showed up?
RK: At first, I thought the space would attract mostly 25 to 35-year-olds but we ended up with members from of all ages — all the way into their sixties. Members paid $500/month for a three-month plan with a fixed desk; $300/month for Monday to Friday access; $30/month for community membership. Make Lemonade offered a communal kitchen, phone booths, printing and mailboxes. About 80 per cent of the members — or our “lemons” as we affectionally referred to each other — were full-time self-employed creative types, writing or producing professionals and other artists. Other members included graduate students working on their thesis, a few salaried folks looking for an inspiring focus zone and people with full time jobs who needed space to work on their side-hustles.
One of our members, Breeyn McCarney, is wedding dressmaker who designed non-traditional wedding gowns. She lived in Hamilton but most of her clients were in Toronto so she regularly booked our meeting rooms for client fittings. When her customers came for their final fitting, she would host a champagne celebration in our “virtual” patio room, an indoor room that was decked out to look like an outdoor patio.
Breeyn hosted beading workshops for aspiring artists — they worked with their hoops and beads and used Make Lemonade as a production space. At its peak, we had over 200 members.
Many of our members have seriously grown their enterprises since joining the Make Lemonade community. For example, when newcomer to Canada Katy Prince joined, she could only afford to come on Mondays (half price days) at first she didn’t have many friends or a network. Katy significantly expanded her network while at Make Lemonade. Today, Katy works for herself as a full-time coach and has a handful of staff members. Katy’s experience is testament to the benefits that co-working spaces have to offer and we are proud to have helped play a role in their success.
LiisBeth: Did you ever participate in startup program or receive any startup or government grants to help finance or start your business?
RK: No. Truth be told I never applied! I didn’t really know what was available.
Liisbeth: What happened when the pandemic hit?
RK: In early March 2020, we started to hear all about the coronavirus I remember going to sleep one Sunday night knowing the next day I would have to close our doors. At first, we thought it would only be for a short time, but it soon became clear the closure would last for a while. When we made our announcement (a year and a half after our temporary closure) in August 2020 that the doors were closing, we received close to 300 comments on just one Instagram post. I still haven’t read through them all because it’s emotionally overwhelming. What’s important to note — and also bittersweet — is that our busiest time were the months leading up to the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic hit, we were not sure what to do but quitting was not an option. Our mantra was (and still is): when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. We had to try something new.
My staff member, Ashley Fulton, Director of Good Vibes, and I began brainstorming about how we could bring and keep the community together online. We started with free virtual co-working meet ups. Then added free daily support calls. Next, we added a short newsletter called “Your Daily Dose of Sunshine”. We later added online co-working sessions and work sprints and didn’t charge for any of it.
Once we were confident we had something worthwhile to offer, we invited people to start paying us for the services. And a good number of them did.
Over time, we added more features such as accountability calls and introduced The 4-Week Challenge that involved working on goals for four weeks in community. People loved it and paid to participate! We noticed multiple repeat participants for the program and eventually turned it into a new service called the Get Sh*t Done Club.
As time went on, we learned that while the physical space with tables and internet access was great, our real strength was supporting entrepreneurs through all the highs and the lows of business ownership. Lemonade became more like lemon aid.
Today, the Get Sh*t Done Club is still running strong as a 12-month online business foundations community that supports entrepreneurs to hustle less, grow more and have more fun. We do virtual kick-off brunches, offer workshops on goal setting, host work sprints, brainstorms and facilitate small groups within the program. We have an event called the Lemon Mixer—an open conversation where members ask for what they need and are able to give back by offering services or expertise. Members also get full access to our Business 101 online course. And of course, we have fun! We celebrate successes with an honour roll and give shoutouts and cheers when progress happens for someone.
LiisBeth: As a player in the women’s entrepreneurship ecosystem space, what would you like to see change or happen in the coming years to further strengthen the women’s enterprise space?
RK: It almost seems ridiculous with the kind of company that I created that I didn’t get a “Hey, welcome to the women’s entrepreneurship support world.” Or a “Did you know, these are the resources that are available?”
We build community for others, but where is OUR community support?
LiisBeth: What’s Next for Make Lemonade? You?
RK: Looking to the future, we have some new ideas percolating, including meeting up with our “lemons” in real life again.
Things have been tough, but the pandemic was the catalyst for creating something bigger than the physical space. It led us to creating an online community and a new way of providing members with the support they need. The pandemic was also a wake up call. Which means it’s time to start making lemonade again … whatever that looks like. Funny how things are kind of coming full circle.
Also, when I think about what’s next, I’m reminded of how my parents started out and where they are now. They founded an automotive manufacturing company. But like so many businesses, that’s not how the enterprise started. Believe it or not, their original business was selling fruitcakes. So whenever I worry about not knowing what the future holds, I remind myself, I’m still in my fruitcake, or perhaps lemon cake, phase. I’m experimenting with different ingredients, making up recipes to see what works best.
LiisBeth: Thank you for sharing your incredible and inspiring story
Closing up shop is a difficult and emotional business decision, but sometimes it’s written in the cards and trusting your gut is the healthiest thing you can do for new growth.