"I wanted a job where I could continue to learn and be a mother at the same time"
ntrepreneur Jana Ehret, cofounder of CoWorkPlay in Frankfurt, has taken the concept of coworking up a notch. With the addition of daycare for children and onsite postnatal care, CoWorkPlay has created a more inclusive space for families, freelancers and startups alike. But this was not without its challenges.
For Jana Ehret, founding a company wasn’t always the plan. As a self-described creative, her background had nothing really to do with business. Jana first studied law and switched to literature after five semesters once she realized that legal life was not for her.
Having jobs in theatre and catering alongside her studies unearthed her desire to work with people and create a community, but the answer for the right kind of career to do this didn’t immediately present itself.
It was not until she was on holiday in Vietnam, meditating about whether to study, or get a job, or start a family, that her ideas came to fruition.
Jana didn’t want to have to choose between motherhood and entrepreneurship and wanted to create a space where these two worlds could combine. That’s where CoWorkPlay, the first family-friendly coworking space in Frankfurt, came to life.
Startup Guide had a chat with Jana to find out more about the story behind CoWorkPlay, the community that she has helped to build, and the challenges of being a female entrepreneur.
How did you fall into entrepreneurship?
My parents came to Germany from Russia in 1991, and both of them are entrepreneurs. I have it in my blood. My dad had a lot of different ideas – he was always like a big child – and my mom as well. They have their own company, and now their daughter is also an entrepreneur.
I came to Frankfurt eleven years ago from Bremen to study. Starting with law, I switched to literature after five semesters when I realized that law wasn’t something I wanted to do. I finished my studies in literature, and my parents asked me, “Where are you going, and what will you do in your life?” I told them I didn’t know yet, but that I’d find a way.
During my studies, I was working in theater and in a restaurant with catering jobs on the side. Here is where I figured out that I needed to do something where I could get in touch with people on a daily basis, help people and build a network.
When I was twenty-eight, I had the same questions from my parents as to when I was eighteen, but I also had “When will you be a mother?” I told them, “Don’t worry; children will come.”
I was on holidays in Vietnam, sitting at a bungalow in the sun and deciding what to do with my life. I asked myself, “Should I study and get a master’s, or get a job or start a family?” That’s where CoWorkPlay came from. I didn’t want to have to choose one or the other. I wanted a job where I could continue to learn and also be a mother at the same time.
What does CoWorkPlay do?
We are the very first family-friendly coworking space in Frankfurt. We have a special place for children between the ages of six months and three years. Their parents can work here just like a normal coworking space, and there are flying nannies who take care of the children.
The uniqueness here is that CoWorkPlay is not just for parents. We are for children, for parents and for professionals who are not parents as well. We have this unique connection for everyone. In addition to that, we have a big event space for external and internal events. It’s all about the members getting in touch with each other and fulfilling their purpose in life.
My parents asked me, 'Where are you going, and what will you do in your life?' I told them I didn’t know yet, but that I’d find a way.
I had the idea for this coworking space in 2016, and we founded CoWorkPlay at the end of the year. I started the company with a friend of mine using the business model canvas in my working room. My background really has nothing to do with business. My background is creative; I’m a writer and a painter.
The whole modus operandi behind CoWorkPlay was to think big. I wanted a place to host all of the activities I was planning to do. After not even a year, my business partner left, so I made a post on a well-known Facebook group. It said that a young founder is looking for a partner, and black chili came up as a player. At black chili, I met Yvonne. She became the second cofounder of CoWorkPlay.
Together, we started working on the business very intensively. We soft-launched the space in December 2016, and we had the official opening in January 2017. In August 2018, we opened the second floor at the Eastside location. In October 2018, we opened our second space at a famous Frankfurt shopping mall, MyZeil.
What is black chili?
Many people asked us if we were going to get an investor to support CoWorkPlay financially. In the end, we decided to go with black chili, a company builder, and they filled the holes we had in our business.
Yvonne was good at law and HR, I am creative, and black chili had the all-round support we needed. They help everywhere and answered my questions. Of course, I also went to different events in order to learn as much as I could about running a business.
In the beginning, I had many questions. Some of the common ones were, what is the right form you should use to found the company, or what are the most important things you should think about when signing a contract for a location? Black chili had the answers we needed.
They also have a lot of experience in marketing and sales – basically everything you need as a founder. I worked for black chili for about a year, and Yvonne still works for them. Now I’m with CoWorkPlay full time.
What was one of your early challenges when starting up? And how did you overcome it?
We had a lot of problems when starting out. It was two years before we were able to successfully found CoWorkPlay. There were a lot of problems we had in regards to time. What I mean by this is that it took a very long time to find a space for CoWorkPlay. Many landlords didn’t know or didn’t fully understand what coworking really meant, and when we started, WeWork wasn’t in Frankfurt yet.
Since WeWork entered the Frankfurt market, landlords now say, “Okay, we know a bit about coworking.” Before, no one could understand it. And then, when you combined coworking with children, absolutely no one could understand this. Then there were the credit checks, which took about two months. These were the two biggest difficulties in the beginning.
We signed the contract for our space at the beginning of November and moved in at the end of December. We had a small budget, because we initially planned for a much smaller space than we ended up with.
Many landlords didn’t know or fully understand what coworking really meant. When we started, WeWork wasn’t even in Frankfurt yet.
We had planned for 800 square meters but ended up having a 1,200 square meter space, so we had to think about how to create a wonderful, creative space without spending too much money. We had a lot of help from our families and friends to find the right furniture and decorate the space.
In the beginning, I was very blue-eyed and thought that I would open the doors to CoWorkPlay and everyone would show up. It took some time for us to become known and established in the Rhine Main region.
Getting people to think of CoWorkPlay when they thought about coworking took time. Lots of people also thought they had to be parents to work in our space, but that’s absolutely not true. We’re open for parents but also for people who don’t have children.
What was one of your best decisions?
One of my best decisions ever was founding CoWorkPlay. It was everything I ever wanted to do. In August, we had the gründerbericht, something like a founder’s report in English. Yvonne and I were doing a recap of the past two years and realized that founding the company was the best decision.
During the entire process of starting up, there were lots of highs and lows, but our partners were always behind us to support us on this journey. I would do it again in an instant. I can't imagine not being a founder!
If you could go back in time and do something differently, what would it be?
If I could go back in time, I would feel more comfortable in the founder role. For example, my first business partner was a man, and when we’d go for location visits, the building managers and landlords would only speak to him. I would think to myself, “Okay, but I’m the founder!”
We have a wonderful culture where failure isn’t failure anymore, and even if you do fail, you will learn a lot.
I think I’d also be a bit pushier and more confident. I’d definitely say to past Jana, “Be more self-confident, because what you’re doing is great! Many people love it. Don’t be shy, don’t be afraid; everything always turns into something good.” And I’d also try to get the right partners on board from the beginning.
What is one piece of professional advice you’d give to people who are just starting out?
Don’t be afraid, and just do it. Just jump. Even as cold as the water is, just do it. You can’t do anything wrong because in today’s society it’s totally okay to fail.
We have a wonderful culture where failure isn’t failure anymore, and even if you do fail, you will learn a lot. Even if CoWorkPlay didn’t work, it would still be the best thing I have done in my life.
What do you like about working in Frankfurt?
It’s so multicultural. I grew up next to Bremen, and I was the only one from a Russian family in this very German city. When I came to Frankfurt, there were so many cultures and people from all nationalities, and everyone was so open-minded! I love this.
From the founder's perspective, Frankfurt has a lot more to offer than just fintech. It’s very colorful and lively. It’s difficult, yes, because you don’t have the same entrepreneurial spirit as in Berlin, but it’s definitely on its way to getting there.
Main photo: Startup Guide
This interview was originally published in our Startup Guide Frankfurt book which can be pre-purchased online here.