Bridge Space will be more than a coworking office, Ben Rao said. He hopes it will be the heart of Lee’s Summit’s blossoming entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Velocity Lee’s Summit is planning a Pitch Crawl event 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 14, starting at Brick’s Pub and Grub in Lee’s Summit. Nine entrepreneurs from across Kansas City and Jackson County will compete, with three pitching at each crawl location before the three winning finalists advance to a fourth spot in Lee’s Summit.
“My No. 1 goal is to accelerate entrepreneurs’ success,” said Rao, Bridge Space founder and a serial entrepreneur himself. “It’s an opportunity for me to build something that would make our community better, and would provide services to entrepreneurs, and help to incubate those businesses from startup to hopefully being successful, hiring more people and improving the quality of life and economy of Lee’s Summit.”
Expected to open in the spring, Bridge Space is planned as a 13,000-square-foot downtown coworking hub with common areas for members, an event space for about 150 people and 40 offices, Rao said. The project previously was known as Cowork Lee’s Summit.
The site won’t focus on any one particular type of startup, he said, noting early interest from companies working on new apps, services and products, as well as inquiries from makers. That generalist approach also means attacking a long list of entrepreneur needs, Rao added.
“Startups need a broad array of education: What they need to do to take an idea and bring it to fruition,” he said. “They maybe don’t know how to do marketing. They’re not sure how to set up an LLC or the finance piece. Or they don’t know how to scale a business to where they can maximize the best and highest use of their time. As an entrepreneur or visionary, you can get caught up in so much of the day-to-day.”
Education is only part of the equation, Rao said.
“It’s about building an ecosystem for entrepreneurs — to get connections, resources, to meet the people they need to meet,” he said. “There’s also a layer that’s about building a culture within the community.”
At Rao’s previous business, Community Buying Group, which he sold in September to Think Reality/Affinity Worldwide, 18 employees were connected and engaged through the company’s culture.
“It was a big part of why people wanted to work there,” he said. “We were serious, but we were also serious about having fun. We were serious about making sure we were taking care of each other and our families. I see the opportunity to do a lot of the same things that we did with Community Buying Group, and build that up 10 or 15 times with the 200 or 300 people that we’ll have involved with this facility.”
Rao hopes efforts to build character into the Lee’s Summit facility will help translate into an experience for coworking members, rather than just a place to work. The building itself — a mid-century former U.S. Post Office at 210 S.W. Market St. — boasts a combination of preserved and modern elements, he said.
An old safe vault, for example, is being converted into a recording studio for podcasts, Rao said.
“A lot of what I’m doing revolves around restoration, repurpose, recycle,” he said. “And we’re doing solar power, which will power a significant portion of the building.”
Work to bring alternative energy to Bridge Space came from Lee’s Summit-based MC Power Companies, one of several partners making the project possible, Rao said. The coworking community concept isn’t feasible without other players stepping up, he said.
“Having started a couple different businesses myself and bootstrapping those, as you would any entrepreneur business, I have pushed all my chips to the middle of the table on this venture by leveraging some cash, some personal debt, construction loans and there’s a significant amount of sponsorship that we have to raise to make this work,” Rao said. “People in the community who want to support entrepreneurship and see it flourish — we need their help, both financially and products and services in kind. I can’t do this without it.”
“We’re talking about raising $400,000 is sponsorship,” Rao added. “People like MC Power, Schefers Roofing and JAKES Industrial are already involved, but we need a whole tribe to make this work.”