How two competitive Alberta businesses acted like partners instead of rivals and ended up better off
By ATB Financial 19 February 2021 8 min read
The global pandemic has created a tremendously challenging environment for business of all sizes in Alberta. As many businesses work diligently to stay afloat, keep employees and find creative solutions, it might be surprising to hear that collaborating with a direct competitor is an option worth considering.
But that’s just what Alex Putici, Zach Lyster and Erynn Lyster did. Putici is the founder and member of Work Nicer Coworking, Alberta’s number one coworking community, and the founder of the Calgary Coworking Alliance.
The Lyster siblings, meanwhile, founded The Commons. It began as one of Calgary’s earliest coworking spaces and evolved into an event experience company thanks, in part, to these entrepreneurs’ focus on collaboration over competition.
In 2020, the Lysters sold the coworking side of The Commons to, as they put it in an Instagram post, “should-be-competitor but actual long time ally and friend, Alex Putici.”
The Lysters and Putici’s choice to focus on collaboration had opportunities for both companies that would have been difficult—if not impossible—to find without each other. Their story has lessons for companies of all sizes looking for new approaches to solve business challenges.
Evolution of The Commons
Erynn purchased Calgary’s first coworking space, Cowork YYC, in 2013 and rebranded it as The Commons. Zach had just returned from a year-long sojourn in Thailand where he had studied meditation and natural healing practices. He used the cowork space as the landing pad for his real estate practice. But the two siblings quickly decided to become partners based on their mutual belief in the potential of coworking in Calgary. Zach focused on business development and operations, which complemented Erynn’s penchant for design and administration.
“We started at around 1,600 square feet [at the Ramsay Design Centre] and after seven years we ended up with close to 20,000 square feet of cowork and event space and hundreds of members,” says Zach.
In their second year, Erynn and Zach saw the chance to use their space beyond just coworking and started hosting events in the evenings and weekends.
“We started running essentially two businesses at the same time—a coworking company and an events company,” recalls Zach. Within a few years Erynn and Zach would connect with Putici and find not only a coworking kindred spirit, but also the person who would ultimately buy their cowork business.
Work Nicer’s collaborative beginnings
Before founding Work Nicer, Putici had started and grew a successful security company that spanned multiple provinces. While he was proud of his business, he had a nagging feeling it wasn’t what he was truly passionate about.
“I think a lot of us confuse belief in something with a passion for that thing,” he says. “When I was really honest with myself I knew I believed in [the business] but it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do. The problem was, I didn’t know what that thing was.”
In 2015, while continuing to run his security business, Putici founded 100 Men Who Give a Damn, a grassroots organization that brings together men four times a year to make donations to a charity of the group’s choosing. He enjoyed community organizing and found himself wondering, “How can I do this every day of the year instead of just for four days?”
That passion for community drove Putici to dedicate his efforts to build Work Nicer Coworking.
“I was part of a business group at the time and we spent a lot of time together talking through the struggles and the wins of business. I went to them and said ‘We spend a whole bunch of time together already, so why don’t we try [coworking].’ And that’s how Work Nicer started,” he recalls. “It’s rooted in the idea that no one succeeds alone and that bringing people together for something greater than themselves is important.”
A history of collaboration
Shortly after Work Nicer opened, the Lysters and Putici started bringing their communities together.
“We would do things with our communities like celebrate National Coworking Day and ice cream day at Village Ice Cream,” says Zach. “We started inviting the Work Nicer members to our Christmas parties and we’d go to theirs. We would both try to start initiatives to help each other to ultimately move coworking forward and to fill everyone's space so we could watch everyone succeed.”
In 2017, the two companies founded The Calgary Coworking Alliance to bring together local coworking communities and amplify coworking’s presence in Alberta.
Zach says that he would even recommend Work Nicer as another option for potential members who would tour The Commons.
“Different people were attracted to different environments and, ultimately, we are in the business to help other small businesses succeed so if we felt a potential member would be happier in a different space—maybe because it was closer to their house or we knew there were members there that may benefit their business)—we’d facilitate that,” he says. “We had a very good road paved between us in terms of partnership without having to work too hard to create that. It was a natural fit and we saw things very similarly.”
Putici says the connection with The Commons was due to their true openness, dedication and honest commitment to the business model and community.
“You’ve got to be truly dedicated in order to make something like this meaningful and impactful,” he says. “We were both very dedicated to that and together we were able to rally our teams to buy into it too. It was culture setting for both teams.”
Putici’s approach to collaboration with The Commons and other coworking spaces is inspired in part by local breweries, he says. “They are extremely collaborative and watch out for each other. If you don’t have each other, how do you stand up against the big guys,” he says.
When collaboration leads to new opportunities
By 2019, Erynn and Zach were looking to evolve their business model, pivoting the focus to events curation and business support.
“We had been running two businesses—coworking and events—to the best of our ability but it was challenging to focus on both. We made the conscious decision to double down on the events business. That’s what drove the conversation with Alex because what better partner for us to take over the cowork wing of our business,” says Lyster.
Conversations between the Lysters and Putici began in late 2019 but before a deal could be finalized the pandemic hit. It wasn’t until the summer of 2020 that Putici officially purchased the coworking side of The Commons.
The Commons pivoted to events and is now the exclusive event provider for all Work Nicer outposts.
“The collaboration gets really exciting now around how we can drive revenue for each other in these challenging times. We are able to provide revenue generation from an event point of view for Work Nicer after their members leave at 5pm,” says Zach. “We've got two people pulling the rope in the same direction as opposed to against each other.”
Six ways to embrace collaboration over competition
Lyster and Putici both agree that finding a collaborative partner for your business isn’t about following a roadmap or step-by-step playbook.
“It's not like I was on the hunt for a strategic collaborative partner,” says Putici.
However, they still identify six best practices that can increase your chances for finding a like-minded business owner who is open to a different approach:
- Trust is key. Trust laid the groundwork for the acquisition of The Commons, says Putici. “Trust is earned through actions. It is continually earned,” he says. Zach agrees. “We built trust over time. It was the ability to help each other continually,” he says.
- Add value to the collaboration. “Make sure you can add value [to the collaboration],” says Putici, so you contribute to the partnership. He recommends having open and honest conversations with your potential partner about what your strengths are and what you bring to the table.
- Embrace an abundance mindset. Approach your days with the belief that there are countless opportunities available to you in business and in life, which is known as having an abundance mindset.
- Recognize that collaboration is harder than competition. “It’s harder. It’s more work. It’s more commitment to collaborate,” says Zach. “You have to be vulnerable in order to see any results. You have to be willing to come back to the table and say, here’s a challenge, how do we work through it? You need to commit to each other and be able to build something that's going to be bigger than you are apart.”
- Identify your business’ values and write them down. Whether collaborating or not, in business it is important to identify your values. Putici developed Work Nicer’s values—”Do what's hard because growth comes from struggle. Do what's right because character is all we really have”—after realizing he needed a way to measure choices for the business that align with the company. “We measure decisions against these guiding principles all the time and that included the deal with Zach and Erynn,” says Putici. “It helps us explain decisions to people and really figure out what is the value behind [a choice] rather than simply trying to make a spreadsheet based decision.”
- Find others aligned with your values. With your values defined, you will have an easier time recognizing other companies and entrepreneurs who share your approach to business. That will make talking about collaboration, building trust and exploring partnership options more comfortable and natural.
Putici and Zach both say that the future of both of their organizations look stronger than ever, thanks to collaboration.
“Once we realized that we had a lot more in common than we have separated it helped us see there is so much room to grow by doing things together,” says Putici. Work Nicer has opened two new locations in 2020 and has more planned for its highly engaged community in 2021.
The Commons is poised for the return of a robust and lively events industry post-pandemic and is actively taking on more event space. “The events industry is really in need of support. We’re now able to serve our community and help businesses drive revenue with unused space, as well as support them to thrive,” says Zach, who adds that he is incredibly grateful for his seven years at The Commons. It’s the relationships he built there with Putici and so many others that will connect him with opportunities for the next decade.