What I Learned in 2010: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Community, I Learned From My Mechanic
A few years ago, an expired lease gave my business partner and me the opportunity to explore the option of purchasing a new property for our company, Fathom Creative. For environmental sustainability (and general coolness), we looked to renovate an old building rather than contract new construction. After scouring DC, we set our sights on historic Logan Circle, a neighborhood just east of Dupont made more affordable by its reputation (at the time) as a still-developing area. We soon found our new home in the form of a perfectly beautiful, dilapidated brake shop sandwiched between a liquor store and a sex club. We had arrived.
I clearly remember the moment I first walked into Jensen’s Brake Service. A quick visual inventory revealed 6 or 7 cars in various states of repair, a few pieces of heavy old-school machinery, several witty hand-painted signs covering the walls and not an empty seat to be found. An elderly gentleman sporting a blue jumpsuit and a mile-wide grin soon appeared. He wiped off his hand, extended it and said “Lee Jensen. How may I be of service?” Little did I know that Lee Jensen would forever alter my approach to business.
After running his family-owned shop for over 50 years, Lee was contemplating retirement. Several commercial developers interested in his space had approached him, but the idea of passing the torch to another small business held great appeal. Lee’s decision to choose character over the highest bid was strikingly refreshing in a city often identified by ego and obsessed with the bottom line.
In addition to his commitment to small business owners, Lee wanted to hand over his building to someone who would continue the community responsibilities inherent to owning a piece of this special block. In our initial conversations, Lee asked about my long-term goals and although I didn’t realize it at the time, Lee was auditioning me for a much bigger role than I bargained for.
Up until then, my boisterous mix of designers and developers had built a fairly insular culture. Like many urban creative agencies our former office occupied an upper floor of a small building, so our doors were rarely open except for the occasional client visit or FedEx delivery. We enjoyed each other’s company and rarely engaged with our neighbors. To us the word “community” was most applicable to open source developers or the online community at large.
Conversely, all of Lee’s neighbors knew him and he had accumulated a great deal of respect. He was steadily engaged in local affairs and his storefront was always open and welcoming to friends and strangers alike. It was easy to see why there was always a long line of cars waiting for Lee. In addition to delivering quality work at a fair price, Lee had earned a reputation for offering expert, practical advice free of charge. He believed that if you gave away enough, eventually it would come back to you in spades.
That’s when it dawned on me. Lee’s “bricks and mortar” behavior was exactly what we tell our clients to do online: put out accessible content that’s valuable, establish yourself as a thought leader and contribute to the community!
The close parallels between our two companies suddenly became obvious. Whether repairing tired cars or sputtering websites, both revitalize something critical to clients. As our friendship grew I learned more about his business—how he managed to thrive for half a century through riots, recessions, and the change in administrations of 11 Presidents. Aside from standard business adjustments, he credited most of his stability and success to the carefully planned, strategic relationships he built and nourished over the years with his suppliers, partners, customers and neighbors. This brake shop owner had mastered the now familiar online/social media strategies decades ahead.
It became clear that the next step for my company was to apply the best of Lee’s world to ours. Moving into the brake shop wasn’t just about Fathom Creative finding a new physical office. It was an opportunity for us to reevaluate our company’s identity. We began to turn our offline focus outward and truly connect with our immediate community. It was a small step toward filling the very large shoes Lee left behind.
The vision began to take shape: what if we actually designed the interior of the building as flexible, heavily used, interactive space that fosters community interaction? We loved the idea of creating an offline setting that would act as a breeding ground for innovation and spark a continuance of these conversations and ideas online, via blogs, tweets, Facebook updates and so on.
Having won Lee’s blessing (as well as the bank’s), we closed the deal and finished renovations a little over a year ago. We worked with our architects to painstakingly preserve as much of the original character of the brake shop environment as possible. Like Lee, we wove in clever typographic statements reflecting our culture and personality throughout our space.
We even used a combination of wide and thin planks on the roof deck above the studio to spell our tagline in Morse code. The large retractable garage door in the front of the building was replaced with pivoting all-glass panels that communicate our expanded conversational mindset in an attempt to invite all those interested to enter.
Throughout 2010, our flex-use space has served as a supportive venue for a large number of community and industry-related functions such as creative panel discussions, emerging artist exhibits and technology forums, even a handful of gay weddings. Washington National Opera, AIGA-DC and PinkLineProject were among the several local creative organizations we’ve supported and next month, we are hosting a 2-week gallery event showcasing the artwork from N Street Village, the women’s homeless shelter at the end of our block.
And Lee was right, of course: the more you give, the more you get. For instance, donating our space each month to the local PHP and WordPress groups has allowed us to become active participants in helping further the success of open source technologies that are vital to our business.
For Fathom Creative, 2010 has been a year of community engagement and conversation. Although our business undoubtedly benefits from this better-rounded approach to communication, we also believe that in order to be relevant, we have a social responsibility to the community that we aim to engage. Lee Jensen was the example upon which this philosophy was built and for that, I am forever grateful.