District Hardware vs WeWork

District Hardware in black and white

After nearly fifty years in business, District Hardware & Bike closed last weekend.

Founded in 1971, this small business was where many Washingtonians bought their first bikes. For others, it was a convenient spot to pick up a hammer, a can of paint or a missing screw.

After the store moved to The Wharf in 2017, it became a neighborhood hotspot, adding a café that served coffee, snacks and a great selection of local beer.

The owners gave back to the community, by hosting local groups, including the monthly #BikeDC meetup that I was proud to attend. Velo Café also provided one of the few affordable places to have a drink in the upscale Wharf development.

#bIkedc happy hour at Velo Cafe

Last weekend, neighbors gathered to mourn the loss of the beloved institution, filling the store one last time. One last chance to pick up any hardware needs before the opportunity disappeared from Southwest.

District Hardware said that they didn’t get the foot traffic they expected. It’s a simple economic concept: not enough paying customers. Expenses exceeded revenues so they had to close. Couldn’t lose money forever.

Meanwhile, across the city, WeWork opened a new location at 1701 Rhode Island Avenue. This brand-new building, constructed where the old YMCA used to be, offers 104,000 square feet of space for coworking. In the past six months, WeWork also announced lease agreements for space at Dupont Circle, Midtown Center and K Street.

WeWork lost $1.25 billion in the last quarter alone. In response, CEO Adam Neumann was sacked. He’s walking away with a billion-dollar payout while WeWork employees face the prospect of layoffs.

I was taught that the market is rational. It is efficient. It is impersonal.

The market is ruthless when it comes to small business like District Hardware. Don’t make enough to cover your rent? You have to close.

But investor-funded behemoths like WeWork can lose money by the billions and skate on, forever, it seems with the only consequence being bad press.

The venture capitalists who fund WeWork believe in disruption. WeWork is more than just office space; it is reinventing the way we work, live and play. When they first came to DC, I fell for the hype too, longing for an escape from cubicle nation.

The lesson of the sharing economy is to be careful what you wish for – WeWork is little more than an open office with free beer and snacks.

WeWork Manhattan Laundry - interior

But why would investors pour money into a business that loses money, quarter after quarter, unless they believed in something beyond the balance sheet? They were sold a story by a new age snake oil salesman.

District Hardware, however, had to operate in the real world. They had no tale of disruption for investors. Grounded in the needs of customers, they offered real goods and services in an economy that values these things less and less.

WeWork and District Hardware were competitors. Both needed space in a city that lacks it. But one business was subsidized by dreamy venture capitalists content to lose money. The other had to make payroll.

The closing of District Hardware is a warning. How can small businesses in DC compete against lavishly subsidized fantasies like WeWork?

The market is not rational, efficient or impersonal. Our city is being overcome by coworking not due to a business need but because venture capitalists said that it’s next new thing.

Do you want a locally-owned shop where you can get your bike fixed, pick up a lightbulb and have a glass of wine? Or do you want a rebranded cubicle farm owned by a money-losing conglomerate?

We get to decide what the city looks like. The time to act is now, before we lose another District Hardware.

Smart Cities Summit: The Way We Work Now

Manhattan Laundry
WeWork coworking office at Manhattan Laundry, near U Street in Washington, DC.

Even by government standards, the office was a dump. A brutalist structure on the treeless expanse of L’Enfant Plaza, the building was awkward and uninviting from the outside – a concrete slab with windows encrusted in filth.

Once through the doors, there was the usual puzzle of obtaining entry, 1960s architecture and security theater combining to create an imponderable maze of hallways decorated with faded American flags and outdated office directories encased in plexiglass.

The interview was in a conference room. I followed my guide to a subterranean level, where he submitted a letter to a functionary behind a desk before he was given a key. We then went back upstairs to unlock the conference room.

After the interview, I was shown where I would work. I had been warned. “Make sure you show it to him,” the interviewer said.

For good reason. I’ve worked as a government contractor for ten years, primarily in environments that look straight out of Office Space. Fluorescent lights, beige furniture, chunky computers – depressing but doable. Windows are reserved for feds. Contractors get the worst space.

But I don’t need much. A little desk in a corner somewhere and I’m fine.

But what I was shown wasn’t even a cubicle – it was a worn formica table in a noisy hallway crammed with people, including consultants working elbow to elbow, the two of them sharing one desk. It was like working in a submarine, but one cluttered with broken office equipment and sagging cardboard boxes. I must’ve visibly recoiled because I did not the get the job.

I recently attended the Inclusive Smart Cities Summit, primarily because I was interested in the transportation session – Gabe Klein, who created the 15th St bike lane and bikesharing in DC was speaking – but before that panel, there was a discussion on workplaces of the future.

At first, it was the usual thing, a panel of buzzword-spewing experts describing the future of work as open and collaborative though everyone I know who works in an open office wants out. Those pushing the open space trend typically do so from executive suites, where they don’t have to listen to coworkers discussing medical conditions with their doctor.

What’s missing from the open office trend? Data. Listening to Randy Fiser, CEO of the American Society of Interior Designers, was a revelation. They selected and designed their office based on employee needs, choosing a downtown building with an abundance of green space, fresh food and walkable transportation. After moving into their new office, they then measured the results, with productivity and employee satisfaction both increased.

WeWork Manhattan Laundry - interior
WeWorkers at work at Manhattan Laundry

WeWork has been billed as the future of work. I certainly hope so. I’ve taken advantage of their DC locations through their Summer Mondays promotion.

While WeWork is open space, I love it because it doesn’t feel crowded or claustrophobic. There’s room to move around, plenty of seating options and lots of natural light. Plus, there are phone rooms for private conversations and a kitchen stocked with coffee, beer and snacks.

It’s about creating a narrative, according to Dave McLaughlin. The WeWork exec has a screenwriting background, a refreshing change from the MBA-educated consultant class. WeWork is for creators. With local artworks, low couches and millennials busily working on laptops, it provides a hip backdrop, as if you’re working in a Hollywood romcom.

WeWork wants you to do more than just create – they want you to accomplish your dreams through collaboration with other WeWorkers. Space is designed to facilitate chance encounters, with hallways that are a little too narrow, so that you have to look up from your iPhone and make eye contract with other people.

According to Randy Fiser, we spend 91% of our time indoors. We spend so much time at work that we should make it as pleasant as possible. Not every office can look like WeWork but design matters. Humans need space, natural light and privacy. Create offices that people want to work in – it’s that simple.