Common Stacks Episode 021: Frank Pennetti on the Creation Station Business Incubator

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It was a real pleasure getting to chat with Frank Pennetti, who I've seen active on all the socials, but never had a chance to really dig into what his Creation Station does! 

Check out their website here: https://www.broward.org/Library/Pages/CreationStation.aspx

And connect with Frank on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/franker

Rough Transcript: Episode 021: Frank Pennetti on the Library as Business Incubator

Heather (00:05):

Hello and welcome to the Common Stacks podcast. This is the show that brings together professionals from within the library world, as well as interesting experts from other professions to engage in discussions around the issues affecting libraries. Looking at the ways in which libraries are dispelling the myth of, well, this is how it's always been done. I'm your host, Heather Tesco. This is episode 21, an interview with Frank Pennetti, a startup business librarian at Broward County Library, talking about the creation station, co-working business incubator there. But first, your regular reminder that this podcast is brought to you by a library lever, a new kind of buying club. So, quick question, Do you know how much your library is paying in transaction fees when you purchase databases and resources through the buying clubs you're using now? Most buying clubs in consortia at a surcharge of anywhere from between four to even upwards of 10 to 12% to your price from the vendor. We have a different model and we don't do that. See how much you can save by checking out our savings calculator at LibraryLever.com/calculator. Put in your budget what you spend on resources each year, and you will see how much you can save with library lever over one year and three years. Now on Frank, he's going to start off by giving us a brief background of his experience and how he came to be managing a co-working space in a library.

Frank (01:36):

I'm what people kind of call a recovering lawyer. The litigation for years was totally stressed out for by, it moved on to a little part-time job in a law library courthouse for several years. Loved that there was no stress. Got my master's degree in library science and then in Broward County 2016 where I had grown up in and, and been raised, I learned of this job here down in the public library, the main library in Fort Lauderdale here. And when I got the job, or when I started going through the paperwork, I noticed that they were actually looking for something called the creation station business. And you know, my ears kind of perk when I saw that and first initially saw the space cuz I'd, I'd worked with a couple startups during that .com boom, during like 2000, 2001 when I actually worked across the street from here in a bank building where it was your classic startup where they got like $50 million.

Frank (02:27):

They blew through it in two years. They had the foosball tables, everything else. So I'd always had that memory, kind of like a romantic notion of startups in my mind also, so when I heard they were making a startup space and a public library here I was really intrigued with it and I was going to start working here anyway because my family's down here. So that's basically how I jumped into it, as they were just first starting it. As far as why the library, I think started developing it there was, there's several commercial coworking spaces that were developing around the, the area about that time. Even some even like a block or two away. So knowing what the library, the mission of most libraries are to present like a, you know, a free level of some sort of service to let the public have access to information, all sorts of different ways.

Frank (03:12):

I think they saw these, these coworking spaces popping up and they thought, well, you know, as I always kind of capture it, you know, maybe we'll develop like a freemium level of that where, you know, you don't pay for it, but you don't get the dedicated offices, you don't get a mailbox, you don't get the cater coffee food. I was going say the really great coffee, but you do get all the basics, the essentials, you know. So we start developing this little space and we had a, we, we built out like a, like a conference room, a couple small meeting rooms little video conference hub some meeting spaces and so forth. And so that was kind of, that was kind of the idea. And we put it, you know, we had a space in the seventh floor where, you know, it already had like a nice view of the city. I see the conference room kind of had like, what they call the corner office view, a great view of the city. So the elements were just kind of in place to, to just create that sort of like, vision of a free level of what the co-working spaces were. And, and that's how it initially came to be. And that's how I kind of walked into it. So <laugh>,

Heather (04:14):

How was the whole thing funded? How, how did, how did you get funding for it?

More...

Frank (04:20):

Well, as a public library, we're part of county government, so we basically share in, you know, the library's funding, whatever supplied through the county government. There's a strange little mix where we also have like a lot of libraries too, kind of like a, like a partner organization, a non-profit called the Friends of the Library. And so they would kind of be like a nice little fill in source of funding. Like, you know, we had a large, we had a large format printer, so they would, you know, occasionally pay for like ink supplies and that sort of thing. Some of their books that they would normally sell at book sales, if they related a business, they would bring those books up to the coworking space and sell them for like, you know, a quarter or 50 cents or something like that. So they would help us with a little bit of funding too.

Frank (05:01):

But basically it, it's, it's mostly just because it's in a library, we're there when the library's open, it's pretty much just part of the library. So it's, it's just part of library funding, public libraries. And it's an interesting thing because, you know, I, I've looked in, you know, there's other public libraries that do have some coworking spaces, but there's a wide variety of how they get their funding. I think there's, the Orlando Orange County in Florida has a system where it's basically more of a pay model where you pay for the conference rooms. I think you, you fill out an application, if you have catering, you pay a fee for that and everything. So there are different models that different libraries can use. But this is basically just, just our, our models, you know, like a very basic premium level.

Heather (05:42):

Yeah. So it's not on a separate line item, you're, you didn't have a, you don't have a separate budget just for this in it, it's just part of the overall library budget.

Frank (05:51):

Yeah, and in fact when, when we do things, if we, if we try to like, you know, if we, if if I really want to have like, like Facebook ads, I would either go through our general library marketing department, the county marketing, or sometimes even a friends of the library will pitch in. We've had on occasion, you know, Facebook ads, but mostly like, you know, as maybe you'll go on, Well one of the challenges basically doing grassroots marketing because most of what, you know, a lot of what I try to do is just try to market many free ways I can.

Heather (06:18):

Sure.

Frank (06:18):

So that, that's also a challenge because of that.

Heather (06:21):

Yeah. And that's interesting cuz you talked about county marketing and I'm thinking about other counties, types of organizations that help businesses and non-profits that help at like score and things like that. Do you do any kind of partnerships? Have you built any kind of partnerships with those sorts of organizations for this?

Frank (06:38):

Yeah, that's, those are very instrumental we're we try to hook ourselves into the local business ecosystem, especially score. We've had them do some of their seminars in our co-working space. And often if somebody comes in they say, you know, on ground floor, I want to start a business, I don't know what to do score their nationwide. And at least in our counties, you know, score a website anyway, they have a link where anyone can just ask for a one-on-one mentorship. So I say, you know, go to their website, click on the mentor button, you can, you can meet with them because they're, they're really good at like the retired business executives. So they're really good at like, you know the traditional aspects of starting a, you know, a business, how to set up a legal organization, that sort of thing. You know, because I'm technically alo, I know a little bit, but mostly my intriguing thing is just like the techy stuff, the new type of startups. So for more traditional type of st startup stuff, yeah, I always recommend score. But yeah, we, we definitely try to hook ourselves into the, the local business ecosystem. It's very important.

Heather (07:37):

And how did you get the word out? How did the community react to this? How did they find out about it? How, how did it go? Well, you said 2016, so how long have you actually been functioning and open for business as it were?

Frank (07:53):

Yeah, ever since then, we, you know, and we had, we, you know, just like everything else, Covid really hit us as far as like our, our memberships and our participation. We were really rolling along, you know, we had a lot of people, a lot of different workshops. But then when Covid hit, we had to go strictly to webinars and so forth. And, you know, our, our tenants dropped off a lot. So ever since then, we've been trying to get people back and just, just outreach any way we, any way we can do it. I dunno if you want to get to it now, but basically, as far as like our demographics, it's, it's always a challenge because the two demographics we seem to have, number one would be like the the solo kind of side hustle startup founder who'd ordinarily be working in Starbucks with their laptop. You know, that's one of the type of people we're always looking for. And they're hard to find because, you know, <laugh>, there's no,

Heather (08:43):

Starbucks doesn't want to advertise for you, right.

Frank (08:46):

They're making Yeah, exactly. You know, you know, we're not going to be able to put up all of our stuff in Starbucks and say, you know, Hey, hey, you guys were there, You know, come to our startup space instead. You know, or it's somebody, maybe they're like working their parents' house or something on their own little side hustle. So it's a different, it's a difficult market and demographic to, to reach. Initially I tried going to a lot of local Chamber of commerce meetings, but the dilemma there of course is that, you know, people that can afford to go to Chamber of Commerce meetings and have the memberships, they normally have their own offices already, their own staff. They don't need to go to necessarily to a public library, a free space. And, and use that. So that, that wasn't always the greatest fit.

Frank (09:26):

Yeah, I've tried everything from, you know, going on the sub the subreddit of Fort Lauderdale and basically saying, Hey, we're out there and I got some good response to that. We have a newsletter where we, you know, put out all of our webinars and so forth. We have a Google My Business profile where we get some people through that. Just whatever free means we have of marketing is, is, you know, is is something I, I try to do. But yeah, I've been, yeah, I've been here ever since we started in 2016, so,

Heather (09:54):

Yeah. And you, I wanted to ask what types of people there are. So you get like, the solopreneurs, sorts of Starbucks people and like solo founder kinds of people. What, what else?

Frank (10:06):

The other demographic I would say we would get is because we have a nice conference room with a, with a smart board and we have like, you know, the nice, the nice view. We also get local companies that basically, maybe they have people in different parts of the city or the county and they want to have a meeting downtown, but they don't want to pay like, you know, a hundred dollars for, you know, one of the virtual office spaces that charge for, you know, an office space or a conference room for an hour or so. And they hear about us and they're like, Oh, can we have like, you know, our, you know, our staff meeting here cuz we have people in various parts of South Florida and just do it, you know, for the, for the hour for the day. And, and they can reserve the room for that. Cause the conference room is really nice. But that's, I would say that's the other demographic that the companies, the small companies that just want to use it for a nice one-off meeting. So, you know, between that and the solo founders, I would say those are the two groups that have, that have used it the most.

Heather (11:02):

Yeah. And what sorts of have you, have you had any success stories yet so far?

Frank (11:10):

Yeah. All all sorts of different things. One of the ones I always like to point out is there was one year, I think it was like early on where we had, we actually had some sort of a hurricane or a big storm that took out most of the power downtown. And because we're downtown, there are a lot of, you know, obviously law offices. And what happened when the power went out and one of the buildings where the, where the law law firms were was they they kind of like found us and, and because our power happened still beyond, they kind of took over our conference room and used it sort of like their war room slash office for, for a couple of weeks actually. And so, you know, they would, they would come in like there was like their workplace and their suits and they would come in the conference room with all their laptops.

Frank (11:49):

They'd, have their bags of whatever fast food breakfast or little catered lunches or whatever, you know, people would come in with deliveries and it was like their, their virtual law office for a couple of weeks. And and, and they were nice enough when I, when I did post on, like I said, I'm on a the Fort Lauderdale subreddit, one of them, the members of law firm actually posted like, yeah, our law firm was in there for like two weeks. It was great. So <laugh> so that was pretty unique and, and, and nice to do. The other, the other recent kind of score that we've had, which, you know, I'm looking forward to, there is a like you were saying before, there's a group called Arrow, and basically it's all local business organizations and they have an expo once a year where they have presentations and all sorts of exhibitor tables.

Frank (12:33):

And about two weeks ago, their venue just pulled out on them for some reason. So we've been scrambling to try and, you know, use the library. So we've never done an event that big before in the library for, for businesses, but they're pretty much going to take over the whole first floor. Apparently they're going to use the auditorium for their presentations. They're going to use a big program room with the exhibit tables, they're going to use the lobby for networking so forth. So hopefully that'll be kind of like a good, you know, source of juice to get people back in here since, you know, we, we honestly haven't had a business event like that in our, in our downtown library. One of the other challenges, because we're downtown, there's no free parking. So, you know, we're, you know, we always have to caution people and say, Well, the whole place is free, but you still have to kind of pay to get here <laugh>. So that's always like a little, little, you know, a little disclaimer. I, i, I always have to give. But yeah, I mean, I'm hoping this, this, this conference will, will go well and be the the bump that we need to get people, you know, coming back to the co-working space again in greater numbers.

Heather (13:38):

Yeah, that's exciting. What kinds of, were there any kinds of issues that came up that you hadn't expected? What were you surprised by?

Frank (13:49):

The ongoing issue is probably because we are completely open, completely free in the middle of the library, and pretty much anyone can walk in. Obviously it's always a challenge. You know, we try to keep it dedicated to people that are working on businesses, but, you know, it's always a give and take because, you know, it's always a little bit subjective as to like, you know, what kind of, what kind of activity constitutes a business activity. So we have to go back and forth when people come in and sometimes, you know, they just see the open space and the nice chairs and the computers and they just want to do, you know, whatever, anything from, you know, sleeping to scribbling on the smart board or whatever. So it's always a little bit of a challenge to try and just, you know, nudge people and let them know, you know, it is just for business space, but in the end it is a public library and people can come in and, and, and, you know, explore it as they wish. But yeah, I would say that's, that's probably the challenge is just informally trying to keep it keep it limited to business activities. Yeah. Yeah.

Heather (14:48):

And so how does it work? Like I've worked in a co-working space and you would <laugh> sign up to have, not at the library though you would sign up to have like the conference room for up to five hours a week, like for an hour at a time or, you know, there were like phone boxes for when you wanted to do Zoom calls and Yeah. Had your desk, but it was always changing. How, like, do people reserve spaces? Like how does is are, are there always desks available if you just go, like, how does that work? Like the setup of it?

Frank (15:18):

Yeah, we've gone back and forth on our policies, depending on how busy it is or how prouder it is. We try not to let one person or one group monopolize it every day. It's for the conference room or the video conference room. So when it's been the case where there's a lot more demand then we'd set up more strict policies. As far as reservations now it's kind of like back to being sort of like, you know, you can just walk in and use it because we're not getting as much demand, like I said, after Covid mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. But there is, you know, my email and my LinkedIn's always available. I tell people if you want it, if you do want to reserve it for something where you know you're going to want to be here for a special meeting, then they can just email me and say, I want to use the conference room.

Frank (15:57):

They just, you know, let me know what your business is and, and who's the contact person and so forth. They can reserve the conference room, they can reserve a little video conference hub with the the webcam or one of the small meeting rooms. Interestingly enough, we've had, we've had one person who's a freelancer who's basically been just a constant denin of the space ever since pretty much it started. So he has a small meeting room that he kind of uses, like he's been using as like his virtual office for five years. So usually we try to save one little small meeting room for him just because he comes in every day and he he writes articles and he edits articles for I think a streaming sports site or something. So we know even if he's watching like soccer or something, we know him well enough that we know it's a business activity. So he just comes in and does his thing. And you know, that's the closest we have to like a dedicated office just because he just comes in every morning. We've been doing it for a year, so we're thankful to have one regular

Heather (16:54):

<Laugh>. So if somebody was go, if a library wanted to set this up, what advice would you give to them?

Frank (17:04):

Normally basically just to let the first make sure that you have a good conference room in space because that's, that's one of, like I said, that's about, you know, a lot of our usage of people wanting to use the conference room. And you know, as far as like the, the, just the basic tech of having the webcam, the smart board, whiteboard, something that they can, you know, all that sort of stuff yeah, it doesn't take, doesn't take too much. I mean, and, and obviously just, you know, one of our other issues is basically you, you need to have a dedicated staff person. We've had libraries that, you know, might have had some interest in it, but they just can't afford to have a dedicated staff person to, to watch over some of the stuff because if you do have a lot of tech equipment, you know, you gotta have a staff person in there to make sure it's running right and, you know, no one's really abusing it or anything like that. 

Heather (17:51):

And also you to know the resources, right? So you need to like be available for quite, you have to have a certain knowledge. If somebody asks you how to use analytics or something, you at least have to know how to answer them and, and where to guide them, right. I, I assume you people would have to have a certain level of that sort of knowledge.

Frank (18:09):

Yeah, and that's one of the reasons probably, you know, I, I've been here for like six or seven years cuz you know, I'm kind of like an info junkie as far as like a, you know, I go on the you know, the subres and find out what all the new resources are, you know, as far as like marketing and startups and, you know, and, and now one of my like pet things is, you know, the VR and the, and the, the metaverse and so forth. Cuz we also have a a maker space with VR headsets and so forth, so we can co-promote that. And also but yeah, I mean, and, and just marketing and basically like I said, locations an interesting dilemma because you want to have a place where people can in access pretty easily. And just, just figuring out how to market to them. I mean, it's something we're always working on. Marketing is a challenge.

Heather (18:56):

Yeah.

Frank (18:57):

And those are the two things that, that, that come to my mind.

Heather (19:01):

Okay. So having the equipment staff person who has knowledge of the subject as well as the marketing side of things,

Frank (19:10):

Because people are always going to want to know how to get customers, how to get leads, you know, usually have an idea in their mind. And we're also a patent resource center. They want to know, should I patent my idea? Should I not? How do I go about doing it? And, and then they've always had an experience where they've run into somebody who's tried to charge them a lot of money, somebody who's tried to like charge them, you know, a huge amount of money for patenting or for seo, for search engine type of services. And, you know, they're, they're kind of like discouraged because they've been charged so much and they might have been scammed and so forth. So they, they kind of tr you know, libraries kind of bring with it a certain trust level where they know we're not going to try to sell them on a service or so forth.

Frank (19:52):

So you know, it, it's good that I can start out on that level where they're, they're they're, you know, they, they, they trust a librarian a little more than if somebody was to just send them an email in their email box about a service or something from another country or so forth. So yeah, it's good, It's good to have someone and I'm glad I could, you know, I have, you know, some, some background in different fields where I can kind of extend that to different questions that people have. But yeah, they're always, they're always trying to figure out themselves how to market and do customers. And another great thing about the library is that we have certain databases that people wouldn't normally browse and look into to use them for different things. Like we just put on a webinar, there's a database called Data Excel, where you can set up a marketing list of people with different hobbies and interests where, let's say you want to find somebody who you sell dog products and you want to find people that have an interest in, in dogs that live in your, your zip code.

Frank (20:45):

You can create a marketing list with this database called Data Axle. And just from looking at it, you wouldn't think you could do that cuz it looks like just a, a database where you could just look up a business phone number. But then, you know, the more you get into it and if somebody explains it to you, you can do it, you can use it for a lot more than that. So we also try to like show people, you know, the value of the databases that we have, which is more than just checking out eBooks and looking up business phone numbers. So that's kind of another thing that I try to like to, to let people do. And, and there's just like, you know, so many different services. I mean, just, just patents for example, you can get free virtual appointments with a patent office to talk about your patent.

Frank (21:24):

There are law schools that have clinics where you can have law students supervised by IP lawyers to talk about your patent for free. There's a library in Seattle that actually has, you can book appointments with IP lawyers online for free. You know, there's a, there's a lot of different resources and so part of like the library's missions is to ch find these resources and just connect them with people. So that's, that's even when we don't have people physically in the library, I try to think that I can add value to people in their businesses by, you know, showing them what resources are available even if they don't physically come in the co-working space. So, Right. I look at that as a lot of my, my job too.

Heather (22:03):

That's awesome. It must be really rewarding.

Frank (22:07):

It's, it's fun and like I said, it's, it's ultimately so much less stressful than, than going to court every other day. So I hate wearing ties and button down shorts, so here I can wear like some form of a nice t-shirt every day too. So that's a huge plus for me, <laugh>.

Heather (22:22):

That's awesome. That's awesome. Well, I'll tell you what I am out of questions. I think I've pretty much covered everything and I want to be mindful of our time too. I said it wouldn't be longer than half an hour. So is there anything you want to add that I missed?

Frank (22:34):

Could I just drop a few of my contact links in case somebody wants to contact us? Our kind of longest, longest email address would be bra station business@broward.org. All together. I always just say to just Google the three words creation station business and we're about the only, you know, they're Google My business profile is there. My name is a long Italian name, so I, even though I encourage people to connect with me on LinkedIn, I understand if they can't spell it right. So just <laugh> I always just say, just put Creation station business into the search engine and you'll find our library pages and so forth. But yeah. Yeah. Thanks for that little quick promotion there. I appreciate it. And

Heather (23:16):

That's, I'll put everything in the show notes as well, so we'll get some SEO that way. Frank, I really appreciate having this chance to speak with you and you sharing your

Frank (23:24):

Experiencewise. Thank you, Heather. And thank you. Everyone else. Feel free to connect with me in a way, shape, or form. Have a good one. Thank you.

Heather (23:30):

All right. Bye bye. Thanks for listening everybody, and thanks to Frank Pinti for taking the time out of his day to share his experiences with us. Hop into our community to discuss your takeaways@community.librarylover.com. We have some exciting events going on in there in the next few weeks, including some free trainings on project management and agile framework trainings. And we hope to see you there. It's free to join. You don't have to be a member of Library Lever at all to hop in. We'll be back in a couple of weeks. You can check out the show notes for this episode@librarylever.com and just follow the links to the Commons Stacks podcast. And in the meantime, until we're back, we will see you online. Thanks for listening. Have a great couple of weeks.

About the author 

Heather Teysko

Heather Teysko is head of community and engagement for Library Lever, and she loves running the Common Stacks Podcast. She's been in Library Land for close to 20 years, with a career that has focused on technology and ebooks. She is also passionate about history, having built a website on Colonial American history in 1998 that got to #1 on Yahoo (when that was a thing) has been podcasting on Tudor England since 2009, and her podcast The Renaissance English History Podcast has a social following of over 50,000 people. She has published several books including Sideways and Backwards: a Novel of Time Travel and Self Discovery, which was negatively compared to Outlander in several Amazon reviews, despite the fact that it is set in a completely different time period, but the comparison still feels like an honor.
You can follow her on twitter @teysko.

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