Written By Briana Loëb
Photos by Leslie Hodge
Nestled snugly on Brazos and 7th in the heart of downtown Austin, next door to the historic Driskill Hotel, is Austin's first shared space that exists purely to serve the community's creative entrepreneurs. Each aesthetic feature, from the sleek white brick, the smallest copper touches, to the beautifully-lit, wide-open expanses, has been thoughtfully designed with a mission in mind.
The Refinery isn't just another immaculate coworking space, it's a workspace that fosters a connection between Austinites who are turning their dreams into reality. Resources like a photography studio available for public use, a catering kitchen, a fulfillment station, a coffee/juice bar, and a shared retail space to showcase the members' goods are piled on top of the usual office perks.
And this was all born out of the needs of one creative entrepreneur.
Hayley Swindell, founder of The Refinery, crafted the space for people just like her. We begin The Refinery's story in 2014 in a dimly-lit apartment with cheap laminate countertops and beerstained carpets. Hayley's own business, the Hip Humanitarian, was a luxe subscription box service filled each month with fair trade, natural, sustainable, or philanthropic items.
Surrounded by cardboard boxes and packing materials, Hayley spent her days alone in her pajamas, trying to create content to build her e-commerce brand. Knowing she would thrive in an environment surrounded by people and thinking it could solve her problem, she started looking at coworking spaces available at that time. However, none of the local options seemed to have what she needed. "I was looking for a space that had a beautiful, clean aesthetic perfect for all of my wildest Instagram-centric dreams and that just didn't exist yet," says Hayley. "The spaces were all really cool, but I couldn't justify the cost unless it was exactly what I wanted. Lastly, since I was in e-Commerce, photography was crucial. Being in a space that allowed me to bring in my products and take good photos with a lot of natural light would have been ideal. I had a nice camera, but no lighting equipment, no backdrops, or anything like that."
Besides Instagram-worthy product photography being a huge challenge, it can be hard to build a brand in an environment that doesn't foster creativity or stimulate the imagination. Without good lighting or a community of entrepreneurs to go to, she eventually had to shut the doors on the Hip Humanitarian. "It was my most beautiful failure yet," says Hayley as she recalls having to fold the business. "It opened my eyes. I was scared to fail, and the failure was like a blow to my soul. But I knew that my dabble in entrepreneurship wasn't over. Now I look back and see that it was completely necessary."
After closing Hip Humanitarian, Hayley got a full-time job working in philanthropy for Dan Graham at BuildASign. com and shortly after worked for Graham at Notley. Notley's mission is to support and fund businesses, non-profit, and programs dedicated to making social impact and positive change in the world. "I loved my job at BuildASign and Notley but Hip Humanitarian was always in the back of my mind. What could I have done to make it work?" The genesis of an idea was forming. "I had lunch with Dan, and I was sweating because I was so nervous about sharing the concept since I valued his opinion so much. I typed up a one-pager and showed it to him. I told him that I saw this gap in the coworking market that I had discovered through the failure of Hip Humanitarian. Also, planning all of the events for Notley, I noticed a lot of the venues around town are so empty during the day, so I was like, light bulb, what if we combined event venue and coworking space into one delicious building of possibility?"
Dan loved the idea. “I was just hoping for his advice, but he told me to send him all the research I had, so I shared my Google Drive folder with him.”
After that, everything clicked into place. "I was obsessed with this building on the corner of 7th and Brazos," recalls Hayley. "It's the old Pet Relocation building. After being empty and under construction for so long it was an eyesore with so much potential. I had the leasing brochure in a Google Doc, and Dan knew the owner, so we met him. Turns out, he had always visualized the space be some sort of creative concept. It was perfect."
Dan and Hayley partnered together, and in February of 2017, she signed the lease. "Notley is all about community building, so it fits in perfectly that they are the investor in The Refinery, and on top of that, they're creating an amazing space in East Austin as well called the Center for Social Innovation. I love how it all just flowed together." But the relationship goes so much deeper. "Each step of this journey has been amazing. Hip Humanitarian was ultimately a success, just not in the traditional way that one might define success. That dream job at Notley is what led to this."
She adds, "I've always known I wanted to be in the realm of social impact, I've always loved the idea of owning my own business, I love retail, I love marketing and making things pretty, and I love to make people feel good. Now I get that all in one place," says Hayley. "Now I have this space with other likeminded people, where I can just be a part of it, every day."
Among its long list of unique amenities, the ability to have shelf space is particularly appealing to any members that produce a physical product. Ashley Green, the Owner and Creative Director of Frankie Jean, partnered with The Refinery to curate the member's products that are showcased in the storefront. Frankie Jean is an online store that supports local Austin artists and makers, which aligns perfectly with The Refinery's vision. "I want to be mindful that the space serves our members effectively, so Ashley works one-on-one with each member in order to deliberately select items that will sell, and she'll be dedicated to making sure it sells. We take more of a consulting approach."
The photography studio is another aspect that was born out of the challenges Hayley faced when running the Hip Humanitarian. "Our space has a photography studio that comes equipped with backdrops, different surfaces to take photos on, lighting equipment, cameras available for lease, unique props, etc.," Hayley says. "That speckled yellow laminate countertop from my apartment years ago has never left my mind, which is why ours are marble! I want our members to use this countertop for a beautiful workspace, a surface for flat lay photos, and of course for entertaining!"
The Refinery might have opened its doors to creatives in Austin, but it's also opening doors for those creatives. "My hope for The Refinery is that it will provide individuals
and companies with the workspace, the resources, and the community that allows them to succeed in ways they never imagined were possible."
Hayley has learned so much from her journey. As a young Austin entrepreneur, she has learned to embrace her fear. "The biggest thing holding you back is yourself. Just go for it! Know that if you have to work three jobs to make it happen that's okay," says Hayley. "One of the best pieces of advice I got from my mentors at Notley was 'it doesn't have to be perfect to launch, just go for it.' And, of course, don't be afraid to ask questions. It just took me admitting to myself that I can't do this alone, and that's okay.''
Fear of failure can be crippling to anyone, but Hayley Swindell has utilized it to her advantage. You could even say she has refined her successes with everything she learned along the way from having to close shop with the Hip Humanitarian, to the hands-on experience she had at Notley.
Her advice to everyone out there who has faced challenges -from beer-stained carpets and laminate countertops, to the fear of making mistakes, or even just the struggle to find resources needed to thrive-is to use those challenges to propel your growth and refine your success.
If you're a maker or a doer in Austin, TX, and you're interested in joining Hayley's community, check out therefineryatx.com and learn about the benefits available to members. Stay tuned to @therefineryatx to keep up to date with the events and workshops that will take place at The Refinery.