Most entrepreneurs aren't afraid to push the boundaries. They routinely step out of their comfort zone and won't hesitate to go in a completely different direction if a new opportunity presents itself. They also take risks and understand the importance of flexibility, optimism and resourcefulness. Even though Kate Lake, founder and owner of My Office & More, started her entrepreneurial journey later than most, she always exhibited the classic signs of a budding entrepreneur. Lake shared the story behind her journey and how her past experiences have laid the foundation for My Office & More.
"While finishing up my last secretarial class at Robert Morris University, I had a professor who felt that secretaries weren't supposed to think," Lake shared. "Instead, according to her, they were only supposed to do. This really aggravated me. The teacher was expecting so little of people that she was holding them back. Anyway, that experience is what motivated me to get my bachelors degree. After I graduated with a degree in Accounting and Business Information Systems, I took a programming position with a consulting company. It was a great experience and I got to work with some high profile clients, including Westinghouse and Bethlehem Steel, but the technology was changing so fast and I no longer had the desire to keep up with it. I was also better working with the end-users that needed accounting reports. I was good at translating those reports into specs needed on the computer side."
Lake recognized that she was more of a people person and completely switched gears. Still with the same company, she joined the sales team and quickly made her mark. After a few years, she left and joined a software company in a sales role with a remote territory. Unfortunately, even though she was successful, she still wasn't happy. She'd met all her quotas, but her boss didn't know how to properly treat his employees. With comments like, 'What have you done for me today, because I might fire you tomorrow', Lake knew she had to move on.
"I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do next, but I knew I wanted to work for a company I believed in," she said. "That's when I set my sights on Walt Disney World. At the time, it was hard to get a job there. You had to live in Florida for Disney to even look at your resume. I took a shot and moved down to Florida at the end of 1991. I ended up getting one of twenty one available positions after a year and a half hiring freeze. My time at Disney was special. I got to work for a Finance Manager when they were figuring out what to do with Animal Kingdom. After my manager was fired, I worked in the VP of Sales' office. I got some great exposure for a few months when Disney was deciding on getting into the cruise business. I came in as an entry-level secretary and eventually reached the highest level you could go in the secretarial world. I worked as Assistant to the President of Disney Cruise Line."
Lake left Disney and spent four years doing Contract Administration and directed an accounting team for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority. After identifying a potential problem with an accounting system related to a major project, Lake expressed her concern to the CFO. He, rather bluntly, told her to fix it. As you might expect, Lake jumped in and, after pushing through a six month learning curve, realized that the reason she got an accounting degree was to, "bring order to chaos". After four years with the Expressway Authority, she took an Accounting Manager position with a small family-owned payroll business in Avon Park. She reached the position of CFO, but a couple years after the company fell victim to fraud on a workers' compensation policy, the cash ran out and Lake was, once again, looking for a new opportunity. She spent the next year and a half as CFO for a citrus grower. When that company was bought out by an even bigger publicly-traded company, Lake had a decision to make.
"I didn't want to do accounting for a publicly traded company," she said. "I wasn't sure what to do, so I reached out to tax professor I had while getting my MBA at Florida Southern College. I explained my situation and the first thing he said was, 'Why haven't you started your own business yet?'. I didn't really have a good response, but I took some time to think about it. I also took a class on how to start a business. From the coaching and guidance I received from that class and based on my past experiences, I came up with the idea to open a shared working space."
Lake shared that her exposure with how senior executives work for major corporations significantly influenced her decision to start My Office & More. According to Lake, small businesses don't get the type of attention and assistance they deserve and need. "Many of the people coming into our office today are entrepreneurial, but they're also executives of their business."
Lake identified the perfect location in downtown Lakeland. She bought the building in April 2015 and, after a remarkably fast renovation of less than 75 days, celebrated her grand opening that August. With the help of a friend, who is also an architect, Lake was able to conceptualize and design her ideal space. Lake shared some of her early challenges and explained her decision to buy as opposed to renting the space.
"In the beginning, the key area I was lacking was the need to pre-sell and market the business before we opened," she said. "I'd see people do it all the time, but I didn't think to do it myself. Through a networking group I belonged to, I worked with other professionals to get the website up and running and put together videos and other ways to market the space. My decision to buy a building was influenced by my time at Disney. I worked closely with the cruise line executives and was privy to many of their conversations. Before Disney had their own cruise line, they licensed out their characters to the Big Red Boat. When they started getting complaints from people about their experiences, something they had no control over, they knew that in order to maintain control and consistency that they needed to own the ship and control the guest experience. I too wanted to control my space. I also wanted to ensure my members had a consistent location they could count on."
My Office & More can be described as a hybrid between a traditional office space and a coworking space with a focus on helping businesses establish a presence. Understanding that everyone's needs are different, Lake designed the space and the business model to accommodate everyone. Virtual Office memberships, that allow a member to have a Google-searchable mailing address and use of the space for four days per month, are available for $100/month. For those who prefer to come in daily, open desk and private office plans are available. A large meeting space is also available for networking groups or team meetings.
Lake shared what she enjoys most about My Office & More and why she's such a big believer in bringing people, with different professions and backgrounds, together under one roof. "When I was doing my research, I remember seeing a co-working space in Phoenix being used by developers that belonged to a major insurance company," she said. "Once each week, instead of having them work out of the insurance company's office, they saw the value in having them work at the coworking space. People get very comfortable in their familiar surroundings. As an entrepreneur you have to live an uncomfortable life if you want to grow. When you're surrounded by other people doing different things, good things will happen. My title is 'Chief Connections Officer'. In the beginning, I saw my role to be the conduit to help members with various needs and interests meet other members. Over the past year, the members have been doing that on their own. The 'machine', as I like to call it, has taken on a life of its own."
Looking ahead, Lake, who the SBA describes as an "encore entrepreneur", has goals that are different than other entrepreneurs. She's more focused on the immediate and ensuring that My Office & More becomes the go-to meeting place for small businesses, entrepreneurs and corporate teams looking to come together under one roof.
What advice does Lake have for aspiring entrepreneurs? "Get good advisors," she said. "It made a world of difference to have a former banker to help build my business plan and to review it. So much of my business depended on getting financing to buy the building. I had no idea how to do any of that. Along the way, I learned about loans and how to properly structure payments. Surround yourself with smart people and learn who to listen to. You'll have a much broader perspective with advisors. It's the Reagan Model."
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