The product doesn’t speak for itself. It’s not enough to have a great product. You have to invest in brand awareness, marketing strategy, pricing, and demand generation. As a CEO, it’s on you to have (at a minimum) a basic understanding of these things.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anish Michael, CEO of Firmspace, a private office space for discerning, achievement-driven professionals and executives.
Anish Michael is the CEO of Firmspace, a private office space for discerning, achievement-driven professionals and executives. After spending fifteen years as a legal advisor to public and private companies, Anish now manages company direction, growth, and strategy at Firmspace. With locations in Austin, Houston, Denver, and Atlanta, Firmspace offers secure and sound-masking offices, white-glove client service, five-star amenities, best-in-class technology, and professionally trained staff that members need to excel in their careers and grow their business.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a former transactional lawyer, I was lucky to be involved with many types of deals that positively impacted my clients’ businesses and personal lives. While I enjoyed playing an advisory role to my clients, I was curious how it would feel to be a CEO — making decisions that could have a lasting impact on your employees, your customers, and your investors.
When I saw my friends at Firmspace, who I’ve known for many years, were building the first coworking space for business professionals (what we call “proworking”), I immediately wanted to support their vision and help make it even more successful. And because they were also my clients at the time, I built up a sense of trust and confidence to help them believe I could get the job done as their next CEO. When they asked me to join the team, it felt like the time was right for me to finally make the big jump.
Becoming a CEO for the first time can create some self-doubt in your ability to run a company. But I feel my experience in law prepared me to take on many of the challenges that come with being in Firmspace’s executive management role.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When a new CEO comes in from the outside, he or she has to spend time learning the company culture and the personalities of everyone who works there. It’s important to get to know your colleagues and take the time to develop a relationship with each of them.
When I was transitioning to the new role at Firmspace, I hit the ground running on two market expansion projects even before my official first day on the job. I was very focused on fast growth from the onset, but my attention was needed in other areas, too, with employee relationship building being the most important.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
In my role as CEO, you must have a good grasp on everything that’s going on at the company. But again, it’s very important to get to know your colleagues and dedicate time to that.
To get through tougher times, I find motivation and satisfaction in achieving things as a team. Even though our management team has been working remote mostly due to COVID-19, I feel like we’ve all bonded because of the challenges we are trying to overcome together and have built closer relationships because of it.
COVID threw new challenges and obstacles at us, which we had to respond to very quickly using gut instincts about our members, our product, and the private office/coworking market. Our success in doing this has refreshed my drive and motivation to lead Firmspace into a post-COVID world.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Firmspace is doing very well today. We have private office spaces in four cities — Houston, Denver, Austin, and most recently opened an office in Atlanta in September 2020. Prior to the pandemic, our Austin location was especially popular — it was at 100 percent occupancy with a waiting list.
While we have experienced some challenges due to the pandemic, I’m proud of how our team has responded. I think our grit and resilience is what has brought us closer together, especially at a time when everything was uncertain. We’ve weathered the storm nicely so far, all while providing the best possible support to our members.
We as a company are at a pivotal point in our growth stage. While businesses determine how best to come back to working in an office, many of them are considering downsizing their real estate. So they’re looking to coworking (or in our case, proworking) spaces because we offer shorter term licenses. Our private office concept works well for professionals who don’t resonate with working from home, not to mention our private offices are pretty much built for social distancing.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, I’m not sure if any of my mistakes to date are laughable, but there are certainly a few mistakes where lessons can be learned. In particular, at the onset I made the mistake of trying to have my hands in everything that was going on instead of delegating and trusting the team to handle certain aspects of the business that they were hired to do. While it’s very important for the CEO to have a good pulse on all aspects of the business, I tend to take a more hands-on approach and try to do everything myself. As I grow in this role, it’s comforting to trust the talented team around us and be able to delegate more, freeing up time to focus on strategy and company direction.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When I started at Firmspace, one of my first challenges was figuring out how to separate Firmspace from the coworking competition.
Our members are achievement-oriented and usually in professional services fields, like finance, law, real estate, consulting, and more. They need a quiet, private, and secure space to get their work done. They’ve tried traditional co-working spaces, but it just didn’t work for them.
After hearing from our members that Firmspace is like co-working for adults, that’s when we came up with “proworking” to separate ourselves from the co-working spaces out there. Firmspace is where professionals go to accomplish deep work, and they can rest assured that their conversations, files, and everything else stay private.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
As a CEO, your mind turns nearly 24/7 about the business. So it’s important to figure out how to turn it off at times and do things that can take your mind away from the company.
To help me clear my mind and keep my sanity, I like to read and exercise.
Right now, I’m reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. It’s a great read to understand how to do cognitively demanding work without getting distracted, which is really difficult to do. Deep work is something that our members really value and something that Firmspace is built on. I want to understand it better so we can ensure we create an environment where they can achieve their goals.
In fact, we believe in deep work so much that we plan to provide a copy of Deep Work to all of our new members.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
When I was an associate attorney, a senior partner at the law firm where I started my legal career, Joe Cain, made a huge impact not only on my career but also on me as a person.
Joe was a great teacher and took me under his wing. He took the time to teach me the little things about the practice of law that would go a long way in my career, like the basics of drafting and formatting legal documents, discussing practical ways to achieve success for your client while establishing a strong relationship with your counterparts, and work-life balance.
By training me through different scenarios that I might encounter on the job, Joe was instrumental in honing my legal skills. I try to pass that same eagerness to help and teach down to the people I manage.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Through my work in my previous law practice, I was able to be a part of the Teach for America (TFA) Champions Circle in Colorado. We were a group of business professionals hand selected by the local TFA organization to bring public education awareness to the business community. It was a novel idea to join the two. As part of the Champions Circle, I:
- Spoke with members of the state legislature
- Got a primer on how public education funding works
- Met and interacted with TFA core members to understand how they are doing in the classroom
- Took tours of schools in the area and showed Denver public school students what skills they’d need when they enter the workforce
Because of my work in the Champions Circle, I was appointed to the board of the Colorado TFA Chapter. In this role, I advise our TFA Colorado staff on public school program implementation that guide TFA teacher members and bring awareness to today’s education climate.
At the end of the day, business leaders need to have a strong desire and stake in making sure our children have the education they need to be strong business leaders of tomorrow.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Be prepared for ups and down. The flexible office space industry changes all the time, especially during COVID, and members will come and go. Let’s face it — we are catering to a market that is looking for flexibility, not a long-term commitment. When times hit a rough spot or the world poses new challenges, some of our members may be forced to leave. We can only control what we can control and be ready to tackle new challenges as they come along. That said, if we can make a great product with excellent service and do a good job of generating awareness for our product, we know our members will be happy for a long time.
- Pick and choose your battles. As a trained lawyer, I am driven to dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘t’. However, as a company leader, you will drive yourself insane if you keep sweating the small stuff and not focus on the big picture. Make sure you are fighting the important, meaningful battles on a daily basis — those that are impactful to your company’s growth and stability.
- Your team takes priority. Make decisions in a way that brings confidence and support from your team. Making decisions is one thing, but communicating it in a way that builds confidence and support for your team members and rallies them around its execution will go a long way in the success of that decision.
- Your #1 job function is to sell. Plain and simple. At the end of the day, your eye has to be on the bottom line.
- The product doesn’t speak for itself. It’s not enough to have a great product. You have to invest in brand awareness, marketing strategy, pricing, and demand generation. As a CEO, it’s on you to have (at a minimum) a basic understanding of these things.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’m very passionate about education, so I’d want to find a way to make sure the country’s children have a reliable form of schooling during not only this pandemic, but any future crises. Teachers across the country are facing challenges that they’ve never encountered before as they try to create a safe environment for learning. I think we should reflect on what we can do to make sure no child is left behind. We must do our part to help the children in our communities, regardless of whether we’re a parent. Help out your community schools by volunteering when they need help, as those children are our future business leaders.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/anish-michael/.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!