BY ANGELA K. ROBERTS
Sporting stained concrete floors, exposed brick, glass-walled conference rooms, and a mixture of bar stools and table seating, MatchBOX Coworking Studio is, as its website says, a “coffee shop mashed up with an office park in an old garage.” It’s also a cross between an open office rental space, a maker studio and a business incubator, all designed to grow Greater Lafayette’s entrepreneurial economy.
Launched in 2014 in an old car repair shop west of downtown Lafayette’s Tippecanoe County Public Library, MBX boasts 11,000 square feet with reserved and open office spaces, conference rooms and a lot of support for its members, including training and networking opportunities.
“MBX offers a pretty unique vibe and environment for our members,” says Amanda Findlay, MatchBOX managing director. “We also offer members access to the MBX Maker LAB, with laser cutters, 3D printers, and tools and kits for making, prototyping and small-scale manufacturing.”
MatchBOX has evolved over the last six years, says Jason Tennenhouse, executive director. “When we opened the doors, we didn’t know if anyone would come, so at the beginning we were just trying to cast a wide net and educate and survive — classic startup style,” Tennenhouse says. “We have been increasing our acceleration work and productivity steadily since then, and doing some pretty amazing things I think a lot of people don’t realize are happening in Lafayette.”
Making key connections
MBX may still be a best-kept secret among some locals, but not Kirsten Serrano, who co-owns La Scala Italian Restaurant in downtown Lafayette and joined the studio three years ago. “I needed to have a place where I could concentrate on finishing school – nutrition – and do some political advocacy work,” says Serrano, who was pursuing a degree from Bauman College at the time.
As part of her internship, Serrano conducted a series of nutrition workshops in MatchBOX conference rooms. After graduation, she began seeing clients in the facility. Since then, her nutrition business, Small Wonder Food, has expanded beyond consultations. In 2018, she launched the Food Smarts podcast with local marketing strategist Amie Mullikin. In mid-2020, she published the book “Eat to Your Advantage.”
MBX has been instrumental in that growth, Serrano says.
“I have made many key connections at MatchBOX, from my podcast partner to my book publisher and even the person who built my new membership site. I have also attended many great workshops and learning events,” she says. “The staff is just incredible. Every one of them has inspired me or connected me in some way or another.”
A place for quirky misfits
Seasoned entrepreneur Mikel Berger says that MatchBOX is the kind of place that he wished had existed when he started his first company, DelMar Software Development. “I worked from home at first, and it felt like a big leap to sign a one-year or multi-year lease, especially when I occasionally needed another office,” says Berger, a co-founder of MBX.
Berger’s latest project is Little Engine Ventures, a private investment partnership he started in 2016 with fellow MBX member Daryl Starr.
Starr, the founder and former CEO of an agricultural company, joined the coworking studio before it officially opened. While Little Engine Ventures has a private office a few blocks away, both men retain memberships at MBX.
“My membership at MatchBOX has secured several partnerships during the founding phase of Little Engine Ventures. As many members can attest, an invite to meet a prospective person at MatchBOX has a cool factor that makes working with a scrappy startup somewhat less crazy, and more fun,” he says.
Starr describes MBX members as “quirky and great.” Berger echoes those thoughts, adding, “We at MatchBOX like to think of ourselves as the right kind of misfits. We’re like the junk drawer of economic development projects. Isn’t all the cool stuff that you don’t exactly know where to put in your junk drawer?”
Integrating into Greater Lafayette
Indianapolis transplant Polly Barks says that MatchBOX helped her integrate into Greater Lafayette when she moved here in 2017. Barks, who had launched the website PollyBarks.com while living in Indy, was in the early stages of developing a zero-waste education and consulting business. After taking a five-week course for new and pivoting entrepreneurs, she joined the studio. She now supplements her freelance income as part-time marketing manager for MBX.
“Doing 100 percent freelance work meant I was constantly at home — too often that meant I was unfocused, and to be honest, probably watching YouTube videos. It was really nice to have a space so I could separate my work life from my home life,” Barks says. “I also really enjoyed the workshops since I could learn — for free — from other members or outside speakers.”
Two other newcomers to Lafayette, Tyler Knochel and Steven Sauder, participated in the first iteration of MBX’s Acceleration Program. Now, they use their MatchBOX membership for meeting with clients of their web development and digital strategy business, HustleFish.
“The ability to meet with clients in a professional space instead of at a coffee shop or our living room — we wouldn’t do that — is invaluable to us. Beyond that, the community has been huge,” Knochel says. “We’ve been able to do better work thanks to MatchBOX, we’ve gotten new clients thanks to MatchBOX, we’ve clarified our business model thanks to MatchBOX, we’ve been more creative and had better ideas thanks to MatchBOX, we’ve drunk gallons and gallons of coffee thanks to MatchBOX. We have benefited from MatchBOX in so many ways, but ultimately the most important thing MatchBOX provides is community.”
Supporting businesses in what’s next
Much like the Great Recession of 2008, which sparked the coworking movement in the United States, the first half of 2020 has already been a time of economic upheaval. Findlay notes that some MBX members have been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including restaurateurs and professionals who rely on in-person instruction. To respond, MatchBOX staff have added educational programs on concepts such as pivoting and product expansion.
They’ve also shifted to online instructional models. In early March, when cities and states began issuing stay-at-home orders, MBX staff decided to take their Entrepreneur Development Acceleration program online and open applications to participants across the state. The program yielded a record number of applicants, which Findlay attributes to layoffs, furloughs and uncertainty in the job market. The 12-week Venture Development summer acceleration program also was offered online this year.
“Times of crisis and uncertainty are ripe for innovation. When 9 to 5 jobs are threatened by furloughs, or the future of certain industries are unknown, or consumer behaviors shift significantly, people tend to embrace their entrepreneurial ideas or freelancing talents a bit more,” Findlay says.
“Greater Lafayette will need coworking communities, workshops and acceleration programming now more than ever. Small businesses will need community support, new founders will need guidance. I think MatchBOX is positioned to be a valuable resource for our members and our community businesses as we move forward. We’re really focused on being there for them, for supporting them in what’s next.”