Podcast

Jen Messier & Jonathan Soma

Soma&Jen_BKBrainery_ChapterBe_bw

The Brooklyn Braineryis an accessible, community-driven, crowdsourced education hub that hosts classes about all sorts of topics. Courses are dreamed up and suggested by the very people who teach them. Anyone can teach – they just need a passion for the topic and a desire to share it with others. Classes are shorter in length and reasonable in price, as they believe that “you shouldn’t have to spend a paycheck to learn something new.”

Jen Messier and Jonathan Soma are the dreamers and creators of the Brooklyn Brainery. Jen began her professional career working in fundraising at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, while Soma’s background in programming and coding has continued to be used in the business’ expansion. They started the Brooklyn Brainery in January 2010 based on the fact that they wanted it to exist, so they figured other people did, too. What started as a small book club now exists as a brick-and-mortar that hosts over 50 classes a month. They never imagined that it would turn into what it is now, but they have allowed themselves to ride the ever-growing wave.

On top of being able to create something of their own making, their creation has also allowed numerous other people to teach and share their passions as well as learn about something new and interesting. It has helped to further develop community within Brooklyn and gives people the chance and platform to try something new. Their Chapter Be story has in turn helped to promote and foster others.

I really like that you guys created something that allow people to pursue what they love outside of what they are maybe doing 9-5. I want to hear a little bit about your journey to creating Brooklyn Brainery and what that all entailed.

BKBrainery_ChapterBe_tagJen Messier: We were taking a lot of extra curricular classes. Soma took a welding class, and we were taking classes at FIT and they were long and expensive. We were going to a lot of lectures and we just wanted to learn things because we weren’t in college any more. This was about 4 or 5 years ago. Then at a certain point we started thinking that we could really do something like this.

Jonathan Soma: FIT wouldn’t let me into its fragrance class because I didn’t have like a Bachelor’s in Scent or something like that.

Who does have that?!

Soma: Right. I went to school and was willing to literally spend hundreds of dollars on this class but they said, “No.” I thought, “Fuck this! I can learn this stuff myself on the Internet.” So, the first genesis of the Brooklyn Brainery was kind of like a book club where we brought people together and said, “Hey, go research different facets of this topic and then come back.” If you have ever participated in a book club then you know that no one ever gets into it. They don’t do their homework.

We were trying to just get people to come. It didn’t matter if you knew a lot about the topic. It was just a type of class where they could share their perspective on what we were discussing. We got lucky in that a lot of the classes had people in them who were kind of experts in the field. For example, we had a fragrance class and one of the people who was in it was a bartender. He worked with liquor companies on the way in which all of their products smelled, and therefore taste. So, he knew the hardcore science behind it. There was also a woman who worked in the fragrance industry. So, we just kept having these classes where no one would do their homework, but we had people who would carry the class. Eventually we wondered, “Why don’t we just find these people who want to share their passion with all these other people, and just give them the opportunity to be instructors rather than trying to do a book club?”

So, in the beginning, how did you find teachers? Were they friends of friends or did you actively advertise to find random people that you didn’t know?

BKBrainery_class_ChapterBeJen: In the beginning we just decided we were going to do it! We decided on 4 classes, decided on a start date, and found a place to have them. We just decided that it was going to happen. Then we emailed every blog in New York City. We got really lucky because we got an article in Time Out New York. It resulted in a lot ofpeople signing up for our mailing list and then they signed up for classes. So, it was totally random, as we didn’t really know what we were doing!

But it seems like the grassroots approach worked because the want was there and people naturally gravitated to it.

Jen: We were lucky because Soma already had an LLC that he had formed for his freelance stuff, but we didn’t start it thinking that it was going to be a business. We didn’t want our own business. We had no idea that this would become our full-time job. It was just more something that we were doing on the side with no intention of anything going anywhere.

So, you started out doing this on the side just because it was something that you were interested in and it was something that you wanted to exist. What was the catalyst that made it turn into a business?

Soma: It was probably about 6 months in. We were doing these classes (or batches of classes) every other month and we decided that we should run a Kickstarter to raise some money to get a space. We were able to raise a bunch of money, but it was another 6 months before we found a space. It was a really long time before Jen quit her job, though.

Jen: Yeah, for us the pace was nice because it allowed us to ramp up very naturally. We went from renting space by the hour at an artist studio place on 7th Street near the Bell House – which I can’t believe everybody went there because it was kind of dark and scary – but we did that every other month for like a year. Then we were subleasing the space on Court Street, but just the one room. We were doing 6-8 classes a month and that was so much for us! Eventually we took over the room next door, so we had 2 classrooms there and then it just got to where more and more people wanted to teach. It just kept growing very naturally. I was working part time and it just became too much. So, maybe a year and a half or 2 years ago I moved in to this full time.

How did the Kickstarter work out for you?

Soma: It worked out awesome! We were lucky because Kickstarter was new enough at that point. There were not that many projects, so we were on the front page for probably 20 days.

Jen: Yeah, people ask us for advice on Kickstarter now, and I have no idea. It was a totally different game then.

Ah, yes – the timing of things. I’ve talked to a lot of people who say that if they tried to do what they did then now they don’t know if they could do it. So much of it seems to be being at the right place at the right time. How much research did you guys do while going through the process?

BKBrainery_supplies_ChapterBeSoma: When we were starting, all of this type of education wasn’t a big thing yet, especially community driven education. The first Brooklyn Skillshare just happened in 2009. Everything we found, when we were doing research on how to do collaborative education and community education was from anarchists. Everything was anti-establishment and preschool type stuff. We were like, we just want to learn and have fun!

That is clearly what other people wanted, too. To your earlier point, when you take a class in a more formal atmosphere, it can be so formal and take up so much time, that people who are working full time jobs just don’t do it. So, I think there is so much to be said about people just wanting to do something fun. They want something to add to their life that isn’t just another stressor.

Jen: Totally! I think that is where it kind of evolved for us. After realizing that people were not going to do homework, it was a matter of being low commitment in all respects. It’s something that you can do once and then not worry about. That is a huge part of it.

Did either of you ever envision yourself as a business owner? Was this something that you were striving for or did you envision yourself staying in a typical 9-5 job and this just happened?

Soma: It just happened. Me, coming from a web background, I am so steeped in start-up culture, and this isn’t a start up. It’s a small business in a very traditional way – we have a space and people come to it and they give us money. It’s the opposite of what I would have envisioned myself running. I had office jobs but not the traditional 9-5 type jobs.

Jen: I had one job for almost 5 years, but what I came to really dislike about working for a big institution was all of the bureaucracy and how slow everything is. Nothing gets done! It’s just slogging every day. I think that is what I like so much about this. If we want to do something, we just do it. We just put things into action to see if they work. If they don’t work then we know that, too.

What has the biggest struggle been in starting Brooklyn Brainery? And have you had any moments of big doubt when you were just ready to throw in the towel?

Jen: I think it’s nice that we took things really slowly. I think had we jumped right in and taken on a lot of debt, like getting a lease would have been really scary. We let it build up and did it incrementally and that was really helpful. We got lucky a lot, too. Most people, to get a space, have to put down a ton of money. We kind of fell backwards and into a really nice space.

How did that happen? I imagine that finding a nice space, especially in New York, would be very difficult. 

BKBrainery_space_ChapterBeSoma: We became addicted to Craigslist and LoopNet, which is a commercial real estate site. We found the Carroll Gardens space because the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation had a couple of extra store fronts that were connected to their store front. There was this younger guy working for them who wanted to fill the space with new organizations, so he reached out to us. Several months later there we were! They didn’t rent out the space that was next to ours, so once we grew big enough we were able to take over that one, too.

Jen: We found our space in Prospect Heights on Craigslist and our landlord just happens to be the nicest guy who paid for all the renovations on the space. This place was a mess and it is a landmark so there were all sorts of rules, and we could never have afforded to renovate and abide by those. It is good, though, we really like it.

I know that you provided co-working space for awhile, are you still doing that?

Soma: As it turns out, if you are co-working, you have to show up at like 8 o’clock in the morning and then we have classes until 10 o’clock. So, you work million hour days. We like to hang out and make a bunch of noise during the day. Our space isn’t that big. If we were to have a bunch of tables in here while also having classes, we couldn’t fit that many people in here and it would be prohibitively expensive. I don’t want to have a space that costs someone $400 a month to work here.

Jen: So, we just realized it probably wasn’t going to work in the end. Also, we like the flexibility to be able to have daytime classes, and in the end it is probably more effort to do co-working. For us, if we had all of the money to get a big warehouse and have it renovated and have like 60 people be able to work there…but we tried it and realized it just didn’t fit with our model.

That’s a really good example, though, of having a good idea, trying it and then having it not really fit what you ultimately want for the business. What is your vision going forward? Are there things you want to be eventually doing that you aren’t doing now?

BKBrainery_sign2_ChapterBeSoma: I think that because we have so many really neat people come in here and so many different things that happen here, we kind of have infinite variety to try things out and see how they work. It is really just doing a billion different things and seeing what people like and what sticks.

Jen: Yes, that is the fun of it – just seeing what people come up with. The random events that come our way are really fun. We can be the logistics behind it and then just let people come up with and do their own thing. We had this class yesterday on New York City and the American Revolution that I would have thought we could get 25 people to come to once, but the teacher is so great and he has sold this class out like 4-5 times. He is awesome. That is not something that I would have ever been able to plan for but it’s something really cool to see.

I would think that your background in fund raising (Jen) and your background in programming (Soma) is probably a really good combination. And one that saves you, as developing a website is a big expense!

Soma: Yeah, we talk to people that want to start up this kind of thing all of the time. They always ask what platform we use for the site, and I just tell them to use a WordPress blog, get Paypal plugins and you will be golden. If you don’t come from a web background and know about that stuff then you are like, “I’ve got to build a website and I need someone to build it for me!”

What does your day-to-day look like? What do you find yourself doing during a workday?

BKBrainery_supplies2_ChapterBeSoma: It is all very spread out because there is emailing people and then maybe a teacher has to come in and set up for a class. We might have to go to Chinatown to do some shopping. There are just so many different things going on all of the time. We do all of the shopping, so that if someone wants to teach something they can just walk in and teach the class and not have to really struggle with anything else.

Jen: We work to fill the classes, buy the materials, and take care of the entire overhead that comes with having a permanent space. That can be massive. Even if you find that your rent isn’t all of that much, there still are utilities, insurance, permits, paper towels, all of that.

Can you tell us a little bit about your business model?

Soma: It is hard when you go from a random book club in a shared studio space for like $20 per hour to the jump of making it a viable business. There is just more stuff to do. I guess there is a line to cross in doing it right versus just doing it. In theory, you could try to cut corners and not have insurance or only use volunteers for everything. But that is not how we are doing it.

Jen: Yeah, there are so many ways it could go. There are a lot of places that have education-based classes that are pop-up oriented. They are just nomadic and they want to do that and that is fine. For us, permanence is important. I’m sure you could do things a lot more cheaply if you were donated a space or something. We wanted a space because we were carrying our supplies every single night and it was horrible. There is something about being able to be permanent and it’s about being part of the community. It gives us a presence in the community and helps us become something people can rely on.

Are you able to make a living off of this?

Soma: I still do some web stuff but mostly because I’m flighty. It’s nice to be able to diversify.

Jen: I pay myself a salary and we have a part-time assistant who comes in 10-15 hours per week typically. That is really nice because, after 3 years, now we don’t have to be here all of the time.

How did you come up with the name?

BrooklynBrainery_logoSoma: We asked the Internet what the name should be. There were a million horrible ones, but one of them that came in was the Brooklyn Bombastic Brainery. I thought, Brooklyn Brainery, I’ll take that! And now there are other braineries! People did steal the idea. At first it was kind of weird because people thought they are associated with us and it makes it kind of awkward. But then we just wrote it off that we had popularized a word. It was apparently a real word and now it’s a real word once again.

 

Would you ever want to expand outside of New York?

Soma: The thing is that all of the education things like this are reflections of the people who run them in the city that they are in. People ask us for advice and we are like, run some Skillshares where you live and figure out what the vibe is. We can always fill up classes on New York City but if you live somewhere like Philly or something, maybe people don’t care about history. It is very much a reflection of the things that you, yourselves, are interested in. We don’t have classes about health and wellness stuff even though it is pitched to us a lot, but I totally see someone starting up a place that is filled with things like that and it could do really well. It’s just not our thing so we don’t have them.

How do you find teachers? Do you do any kind of outreach?

BKBrainery_tipteacher_ChapterBeJen: At the very beginning we did a lot of outreach but very quickly it shifted and now we have a form on the website and a page about teaching. People can upload their resume and pictures then do their pitch for us. We have a huge table of just returning teachers. Some people will teach like 1-2 times per month, some will do it whenever they can fit it in their schedule. At first it was that people would take a class and then want to teach one.

It’s great that there are so many varied topics. You attract so many different types of people, which I’d imagine is what helps to keep it going.

Soma: Attracting to different people is a great way to have things spread quickly. Last semester we had classes about optics, meat, fragrance, and art. If there is someone who is interested in art and they tell like 3 friends about it, then someone who is interested in meat tells 3 friends about it. It just spreads way more quickly then if it was just all one type of class.

New Yorkers will travel. If they find an interesting class they will go!

Soma: I feel like people write off older people a lot, too. We have a lot of people who are retired. They are some of the people who just keep coming back. They want to have fun and it’s not terribly expensive. They are not so old that they are immobile but they do have the time and often the money and they want to do things and meet people. We had a couple retired women in the other day and they were best friends by the end of the class. BKBrainery_feltclass_ChapterBe

One thing, and I don’t know if it is transferable to other cities, is that 80% of the people who come to classes are female. I would say that most people come to classes not because they want to become an expert at something or that they want to start a business but because they just want to meet people. Anything that has a social aspect to it, people like it more and remember it more fondly because of the personal connections they get here. Also, you can’t just say, “Come to this thing to meet people!” People also want the structure of doing something.

Do you like this better? Some people I interview are just blatantly, “I like my life so much more!” Some are still feeling stress.

Jen: Yeah, it is hard because we were pretty young when we started doing this. I was only out of college for a couple of years when I started working on Brooklyn Brainery. I didn’t love my office job, but it also was a crappy entry-level office job. I don’t have that much experience in the real working world, but I couldn’t imagine going back now. It would be really tough to do. I definitely enjoy this a lot more. Even though it can be very stressful at times, it’s totally different when it is your own thing.

Soma: I work a lot more for a lot less money but it is way more exciting.

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone who was sitting at a desk job and hates it and wants to create something on their own, what would you advise them?

Jen: Just actually do it. You can think a lot about all of these things and if you think it through too much then you are going to paralyze yourself with stress and fear. Give it a shot and try to do it with relatively low stakes. Then if you fail miserably you are not out a lot of money or time. Build up a little at a time. Throw something against the wall and see if it sticks.BKBrainery_sign_ChapterBe

Soma: I think the most important thing is to talk to people who have done a similar thing. When people come to us and have their ideas we can tell them, “This one won’t work…Do this…Here is all of the great advice I have.” We learned a lot of basic lessons that we did not know before – like real estate things. You learn a lot of lessons in running a business about the running-a-business aspects of it that are way more difficult then doing the actual thing you are running a business around.

Have there been any teachers who have started businesses out of classes they have done here?

Jen: Yes – The Design Gym. They are probably the shining example because they are really doing it. They do design thinking. They run all sorts of workshops and do consulting for bigger companies about how to innovate themselves. We had a barbeque for them here on their One Year Anniversary!

Soma: The guy who taught Beekeeping 101 became a science teacher!

It is wonderful that the Brooklyn Brainery gives people a platform to try things out. This guy obviously discovered that he loved teaching and wanted to make it his job. Someone could also discover that they don’t really love it like they thought they would, but you are giving them the space to discover that. Sometimes that is half the battle, just finding that opportunity.

Jen: These kinds of stories are what it’s all about. We love building those relationships.

 

BKBrainery_door_ChapterBe

Notes of Reflection:

  1. I greatly appreciate the fact that Jen and Soma openly admit then when Brooklyn Brainery started, they didn’t know exactly what they were doing. They expressed in our conversation that they never intended for the business to develop into what it is but that didn’t stop them from allowing it to grow and prosper into what it is today. They also didn’t go to business school or wait until they knew everything there was to know about owning a business to start. It grew because it started from a real, organic place and was based on something they were really passionate about – offering a variety of classes about interesting topics at an affordable price.
  2. Millennials can get a bad wrap in today’s news, but quite often it is Millennials that are creating new and innovative things within our communities. They are criticized for having unrealistic expectations of their employers and jobs, yet it is this very thing that is motivating them to create something that is out-of-the-box of the typical career realm. We want them to fit into the paradigm that has already been created, but they are bucking that notion. It is important that other Millennials see Jen and Soma’s story and realize that it is okay if you do not feel like you fit into the existing structures. Look what testing something new out can create. No better time then now!
  3. Always be learning. Jen and Soma have adapted and changed based on what they discover as Brooklyn Brainery grows. They are open to trying out new things – whether that be a new teacher, class to offer or service (i.e. co-working) – but also take the time to assess this addition and see if it is working for the business and their ultimate vision. Like in any good program, you have to leave time to assess and make changes where need be – don’t just implement and then never revisit.
  4. Recognize when your market is changing or growing. Jen and Soma went in with the notion that their market would be people like them – others who were young and wanted to take classes outside of their jobs based on what sounded interesting and fun. Yet, they learned that 1) there was a retired population that wanted to take classes and 2) a majority of their students were women. This impacted when they offered classes, what type of classes they offered and how to market the classes. Be aware of who is following your business and give thought to what that requires of you.

READING LIST:

  1. Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food by Laura Silver
  2. Viva La Pizza!: The Art of the Pizza Box by Scott Wiener – Scott’s taught a couple pizza history classes for us, and his new book on the amazing world of pizza take out boxes is the perfect gift – fun and loaded with facts. 
  3. The Chinese Takeout Cookbook by Diana Kuan – Diana teaches all sorts of Asian cooking classes for us and all over NYC, and her first cookbook features recipes on everything from moo shu pork to black sesame ice cream. It’s really, really good. 
  4. Craft-a-Day: 365 Simple Handmade Projects by Sarah Goldschadt – A way to kickstart your creativity with adorable handmade projects, even if you might not think of yourself as a crafty person. Check out her new book too: Pom-Poms!:25 Awesomely Fluffy Projects
  5. Instacraft: Fun & Simple Projects for Adorable Gifts, Decor & More by Alison Caporimo – Awesome little crafts you can make with five minutes and materials you very well might already have on hand. Check out Alison’s Etsy shop, Figment and Fragment, for jewelry too!

*Images by Chapter Be

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