The Horror of 1871

- - posted in life

I’ve been working out of 1871, Chicago’s biggest startup incubator and co-working space, for about a year. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working for LendSquare, my current company where I toil daily as a software engineer, but I really have not enjoyed working out of 1871. I’d like to take a moment here to talk about 1871’s mission, how it fails its members by not accomplishing that mission, and what can possibly be done to improve what would otherwise be a shining positive force within Chicago’s startup community.

Let me also start out by pointing out that my company is moving out of 1871 very soon, and I won’t have to work there anymore, so I don’t really have a vested interest in it. I am just pointing these things out because I, too, was initially taken by 1871’s vision of Chicago as a tech hub, I feel like they’re utterly failing at that goal, and I’d like to point out my thoughts on that.

The ideal

1871 bills itself as “a place where you can share ideas, make mistakes, work hard, build your business and, with a little luck, change the world”. Sounds great, right? 1871 purports to be not just a co-working space but a free marketplace of ideas where you can befriend other entrepreneurs and gain valuable insight from them and also from 1871 “alums” who have “graduated” from 1871 to lead now-successful companies. By providing space not just for local startup incubators and accelerators, but shared space for aspiring entrepreneurs awaiting future incubation or acceleration, 1871 seems to think of itself as the thriving inner hub of all of Chicago’s nascent startups, Groupons, Bellys and SproutSocials just waiting to spring forth from 1871’s fertile womb.

It sounds awesome, and indeed I’ve never had anyone visit the space with me who didn’t come away somewhat awe-struck at the raw energy of the place. There is something special about seeing that many companies-in-waiting developing in the primordial mire of startup-land, while venture capitalists walk the halls in suits, touring the asylum to see which inmate they’d like to mold into their next profit-making venture. It is at once a thriving community of scrappy engineers and salespeople and entrepreneurs in general, and also a fishbowl from which startups are plucked for the further enrichment of already extremely wealthy people. It takes some time for that to sink in.

Then, reality quickly follows.

Space

Space is a huge issue in 1871. Like a low-budget airline’s one daily flight to San Francisco, 1871 is very seriously overbooked. There are a finite number of seats and power outlets and beanbags and things, yet there seems to be no limit 1871 holds itself to when signing up new members. Because of this, during the parts of the year when accelerators like TechStars and Impact Engine are using more of the space, the remaining shared areas are packed like sardines. Many times, I have traveled the 40 minutes or so that it takes for me to get from my home in Humboldt Park to 1871, only to find that there is nowhere for me to sit, nowhere for me to plug my laptop in. When I complained about this, I was told that 1871 does not over-sell their space. Well, if they don’t, then how do they account for the fact that 1871 is consistently pushed far beyond its natural capacity? Is their only limit the fire marshal’s safe occupancy limit? If so, it seems disingenuous at best to claim to me that the space isn’t over-sold, if they are packing literally the legal limit of folks in there. There is overflow space available in the so-called “auditorium” which isn’t really an auditorium at all, but sitting there you run the constant risk of being kicked out when there is an event in the space. Events are constantly going on and the schedule of when it is appropriate to sit in the auditorium is not well publicized.

In addition to the very basic problem of too little seating for the people who pay money for space in 1871, there are also the kitchen resources, the meeting rooms, the phone rooms, the restrooms, which are all similarly over-loaded with far too many people competing for very few resources. Having to wait a minute to use the printer or the fax machine is one thing, but it becomes pretty unacceptable for so many people to be competing for four stalls in the men’s room.

I should also point out that an expansion is in the works now that should accommodate more grown-up companies that would otherwise leave the space. To that, I have a few quick comments:

  • The expansion is too little, too late.
  • Like the “reserved” space in the middle of 1871, the expanded space costs more money to rent.
  • The expanded space will still somehow be sharing the same bathroom facilities that plagued the original space. More on that below.
  • Even though the experience of being in the shared space is terrible right now, 1871 is still charging the same rate while tacitly admitting, via the expansion, that the current space isn’t satisfying the needs of their members.
  • Though the expansion will take over the men’s room in the hall, the existing 1871 men’s room will be swallowed back up by the ladies' room (see below for more about this). The expansion men’s room will be much further away from the center of 1871 than the ladies' room is. That may be fine for the ladies but it leaves the male paying members of 1871 at a disadvantage, especially since that men’s room is already shared with Razorfish across the hall.

Tours

There are constant tours going through 1871, to the point where I had to complain on the main 1871 forum about it so loudly that rules were then put into place about them. I’m heartened that my complaints were heard, but it took a week and 1871 upper management tried to silence me at first rather than addressing my genuine concerns that I had brought up many times in good faith. While I understand 1871’s interest in getting people to see the space and in particular getting representatives from venture capital groups to look at the space and see what’s going on there, I resented both the constant interruption and invasion of my privacy that tours presented. It’s all well and good to bring a couple of people through the space once in a while for them to see it and decide if it’s something that their venture group or incubator or whatever would like to get involved in; it is an entirely different thing when I’m starring in news crew’s B-roll and unintentionally modeling in photographs of the space. This may surprise many higher-ups at 1871, but there are oftentimes real things that I am working on, on my laptop, that involve peoples' personal data, that I can’t allow to be photographed. I am often doing real work of real consequence and need focus and quiet, and the interruption of large tour groups and photography is not acceptable to me. When I brought this up I was told that 1871 is not a co-working space, which I found hard to believe because I was, at that very moment, sitting among several hundred other companies, all sitting in the same space, all working. If that’s not “co-working” I’m not sure what would qualify.

Facilities

I can’t speak for where ladies have to go, but the men’s room in 1871 is seriously one of the most disgusting places I’ve ever had to spend time. It is on par with a public restroom in back of a back country gas station but for the addition of a grimy and filthy Dyson Airblade hand dryer and some modern-looking fixtures. A quick glance beneath those fixtures will tell any astute observer of plumbing that the bathroom was hastily compiled. The lack of separate ventilation and the inclusion of little trash bins in the stalls (as well as the lack of urinals) indicates to me that it was clearly half of the ladies' room which then got cut off and repurposed as a men’s room. That in itself isn’t that terrible of a thing but the lack of ventilation means that every surface in the entire bathroom is slightly damp, and mold grows on basically any surface that isn’t regularly cleaned, which is a surprising number of them.

Howard Tullman’s Shitty Art Collection

I’m not usually a man to criticize another man’s collection of artwork, and I have to point out right at the outset here that Tullman has a couple of very enviable, beautiful pieces (two enormous canvasses from NYC artist Tim Okamura stand out, for me; I would be proud to display either one of them in my own home). Art is a very personal thing and I wouldn’t want anyone coming in here and criticizing me for my fractal paintings or my painting of Teddy Roosevelt gunning down Sasquatch in the middle of a raging forest fire. You know what, though? That’s why I hang them up in my own apartment, rather than filling up my workplace’s walls with them, so I’m not going to hold back here. The collection of artwork on the walls at 1871 since Howard Tullman took over as CEO is an ugly, disjointed, sometimes offensive mess. The paintings don’t go together in any sense of the word, many of them are just supremely ugly (the fetuses and angels one, as well as the creepy-as-FUCK midgets one, come immediately to mind).

Most of these paintings I don’t really have a problem with, per se, except for the fact that I find them to be completely inappropriate for a workplace. If I had an investor I wanted to meet with about something important and businessy, do I want to meet with them near the spooky midget painting where the midgets are staring through my very soul, or do I want to just park right down under the completely fucking depressing painting of a circus gorilla contemplating the mistakes its made in life? There is a reason why the artwork they hang up in hotel rooms and dentist offices is so boring: it’s because it’s meant to be completely inoffensive. When you’re at a dentist’s office, you’re not there to appreciate great artwork or to have a discussion about terrible artwork; you’re there to get your teeth cleaned and the artwork doesn’t really matter, but the room looks too sterile without it. Offices are mostly the same way, especially when shared among 500+ people all at once.

And really this is the worst of it, because by doing this, Howard Tullman has set himself up for a situation where many people are openly critical of his taste in artwork, and are forced to sit among it all the time, can’t escape it, and can’t really address this because he’s the CEO of 1871 and nobody wants to hurt his feelings. Well, I don’t care about his feelings, and I say that the artwork is inappropriate for a workplace for the simple reason that 1871 is a place where people work, and it is not the world’s shittiest art gallery. If Howard would like to sponsor a traveling exhibit of depressing oil paintings of circus animals, nobody is stopping him from doing that, but it is inappropriate for him to be forcing his terrible art taste on so many innocent entrepreneurs, their staffs, and their visitors. I just have this feeling that a lot of entrepreneurs don’t want to arrange a meeting with an important investor right below a gigantic painting of creepy twins with flying angel fetuses connected to their eyes with umbilical cords (not even joking, that is really an actual painting that is actually hanging in one corner of 1871). I don’t mind seeing something like that in an art gallery, but I do object to having to see it every day at work, and forcing my visitors or investors to look at it when they come visit me at my place of work.

Really, I’m not sure what to think about Howard Tullman’s bizarre decision to festoon the walls of 1871 with all his paintings that weren’t pretty enough for him to hang up in his own home. It is either incomparable hubris, an incredibly tone-deaf attitude, the insanity of a sheltered rich man’s ego, or perhaps a combination of all three. Whatever it is, it was definitely not the sound business decisions of the CEO of Chicago’s premier startup incubator. Whatever was going through his mind when he made that decision, I don’t think it was the feelings or the needs of 1871’s members at large.

And that brings us to…

My suggestions

Really the biggest problem with 1871 is that upper management is running 1871 like a profit-making business rather than a non-profit whose purpose is to support the startup community of Chicago. It really seems to me that 1871 fails at its missions specifically because it has a management team who are unaccustomed to non-profit work, don’t seem to know how it’s suppose to happen, and have entirely lost sight of the originating purpose of 1871, namely to provide the nutrient-rich soil in which startups may grow. Events and tours and visits from the governor may make 1871 a lot of money and may even help 1871 to support its mission in the long run, but they are also disruptions that should be minimized if 1871 is to truly help the startups that live within its walls. The response I’ve gotten from management, where they tell me they need the tours and events to keep the doors open, is insufficient, the conniving excuse of a failure who can’t even see that they’re failing.

To accomplish its mission and better serve the community it purportedly exists to serve, 1871 should put in place literally any means of democratically making decisions, with the input of all interested members. Since I am not at all convinced that 1871 even listens to their members at all, this is a definite need. The ship, piloted by Howard Tullman and his buddies, has run aground and I have felt this entire time like the shipmates down belowdecks have been vocally warning them all the while. This is simply unacceptable. How can 1871 presume to serve the needs of Chicago’s entrepreneurs when they don’t listen to them? It is a farcical notion that the best interests of Chicago’s nascent startup culture are being served there, if all the decisions about the space are determined by executive fiat.

In order to survive and to succeed in its mission, 1871 must learn to be responsive to its constituent members' genuine concerns. This means the next time someone like me has genuine concerns about the space, these concerns need to be met with compassion, not with attempts to silence. The most shameful chapter of my time at 1871 was 1871’s upper management trying to use my CEO to silence me and intimidate me. I feel like I shouldn’t have to point out what a terrible idea that is, between the ill-will it engenders among all participants and the backlash that was sure to occur when I inevitably broadcast the fact that it had happened. So I guess the other lesson 1871’s upper management should probably learn is do not fuck with Max Thom Stahl ever. Really, if they learn nothing else from this, that’s the lesson they should take away.