By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times
Forge founder and CEO Kim Lee wants to fill a void in the Magic City. There have long been co-working spaces in larger cities across the nation, but there were none in Birmingham—until now.
Located on the mezzanine level of the refurbished downtown Birmingham Pizitz Building, Forge includes both open and enclosed office spaces, a kitchen and some meeting rooms for professionals who want to start something they love. More than 120 members have already joined.
“It’s part of the small-business and entrepreneurial ecosystem that was really missing here,” said Lee. “If you started a business, [didn’t have a] brick-and-mortar location, and were tired of the coffee shop, there was nowhere else to go.”
Forge’s cost-efficient space gives people an option to start a business, “be professional, and meet with clients without having to pay $1,000 a month for an office, where you’re isolated,” said Lee, 38.
“There’s something to be said about leaving your house … for a dedicated purpose, … coming to a place for a purpose and not getting distracted. You just get so much more done. … [Another] huge benefit: you can ask other people, ‘What do you think of this kind of marketing?’”
Forge has become a go-to spot for people in the midst of growing start-up businesses. One reason: the flexibility.
“You’re not working in a box. You can come and go as you want. You can come in, be super-productive, and then go home,” said Lee. “It allows people to work the way they want to work, to integrate and to create. It allows for their lives to reflect more of the way they want to live.”
Forge also offers community, said Lee, who is from Knoxville, Tenn., and moved to Birmingham more than 15 years ago to attend Samford University.
“When you’re at home in isolation—even if you like it—you’re still disconnected from people, and people are generally what make businesses grow,” she said. “[Some of our] members are complete introverts who would be fine not talking to anybody, but they see the value in being around other people and being able to bounce ideas off people, or just the energy that’s created from people working together.”
Another attraction is “Free Fridays.”
“It’s once a month if you follow us on Instagram, and we try to make it pretty obvious,” Lee said. “We do a lot of pitch competitions, and most of those are focused on tech.”
Forge does not have a target demographic because a mix of ages allows everyone to learn from one another.
“There’s just the benefit of having a huge network that grows, especially if you’re self-employed, a remote worker, or an entrepreneur [and] your job is not going to connect you with other people,” she said.
Even Forge’s location helps those who want to start their own businesses. It overlooks the Pizitz Food Hall and features panoramic views of the city’s central downtown district. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even happy hour are never far away. Every meeting room is equipped with a complimentary whiteboard, LED screen, HD display, and business-class Wi-Fi; screens and projectors are HDMI and Apple TV compatible.
The Pizitz Building attracts hundreds of people daily for food, shopping, and fellowship, while Forge attracts entrepreneurs for work and play.
“What’s also cool about being in the Pizitz Building is, back in the day when it was a department store, it was bringing people from all different walks of life, all different ages, all different parts of the city together. It was a place that brought people together. I feel like with us and the food hall, it’s doing it again,” said Lee.
“People have built friendships through the relationships they have built here. We see people go down and … have drinks together with their team, and we do happy hour up here for our members once a month. We try to do lunches to really build relationships and to enhance the bond.”
Forge hosts monthly Lunch and Learns with some of the city’s top professionals and experts; these events are typically open for public registration.
“One of the things we love about our Lunch and Learns … is that they are not just for our members,” Lee said. “It’s really our way to give back to the city and to provide education and training for people who can’t afford it on their own.”
Lunch and Learns include a lawyer who comes in once a month, as well as accountants and other professionals who come in to talk about marketing, such as how to use Instagram for business and Facebook videos.
“Our [recent] one was about how to prioritize your work and set your goals in life, and how your work should reflect those goals every day,” said Lee, adding that Forge has helped improve the business ecosystem in Birmingham.
“Really, for small businesses or people starting out, it just legitimizes what they’re doing.”
Even the name Forge is a nod to Birmingham’s history: “Obviously, it’s a play on Birmingham’s steel industry [past], the roots that made us a city. But it’s also about forging ahead, forging new relationships, new businesses,” said Lee. “There are just so many different directions it can go that are still so central to everything we do.”
Mountain Brook resident Lee and her husband, Murray, have three children, but Lee emphasizes that Forge is not a mommy-goes-back-to-work project.
“There has to be a need . . . and we really want to make Birmingham a better city,” Lee said. “I feel that if people have a place to work and are starting jobs and starting companies, that creates jobs for people, which will … filter down [and generate more money for] our economy, which will trickle down to other people.
“We want the services that we provide here, the jobs that are created, the companies that are formed here to grow,” he said. “We want to have an impact on the city.”
For more information or make a reservation, visit workatforge.com, call 205-870-7558, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.