Women in Business Q&A: Liz Elam, Link Coworking

12/04/2014 09:20 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Link Coworking came about in a way that many businesses do--a need arose in the market and no one was meeting that need. Liz Elam spent 14 years working for Dell, Inc., and managed a highly successful and profitable multi-million dollar business from her home office. She often found herself jockeying for cord position at Starbucks, speaking in hushed tones and looking over her shoulder. If not at a coffee shop she was renting expensive meeting space or working in relative isolation in her home. She had a need for a professional, welcoming space that provided meeting rooms, connectivity and most importantly, human interaction. Coworking is the term that caught on to describe these new innovative spaces.

Liz runs both Link Coworking and Link Too, is the former president and founder of co-working network group The League of Extraordinary Coworking Spaces, founder of national coworking association Coshare and producer of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Dell afforded me the opportunity to travel and experience sales bonus trips (as high performers were rewarded with exotic travel). Once you have had the great pleasure of staying in a 5-star resort, you start to judge all others by their level of service. I became fascinated with hospitality and design and am always looking at ways to improve service, experience and new ways to delight and inspire. I am now in the hospitality business and have the great pleasure of playing with design.

In addition, I got sober. Sobriety has taught me a great deal about dealing with life on life's terms. I don't take myself as seriously as I used to. I'm not as quick to anger. I'm never hung-over and I just take it one day at a time.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Link Coworking?
I worked at Dell during their run to the top. Dell was an excellent training-ground for being an entrepreneur. Your work was never done, you were only as good as the day's numbers and we were constantly looking for new ways to add value added services, or upgrades. I spent the last nine years of my career at Dell out in the field and basically managed my own small business with sales to one company in excess of $40 million and was highly profitable. I find that I use all my sales and business acumen skills I learned in corporate America every single day.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Link Coworking?
Link has flooded not once, not twice, not three times--but actually four times. We had to work with the landlord to dry out the space, manage member's expectations and stick a smile on our faces. It was hard, but we eventually got the owner to invest a great deal of money to fix the problem. It took a great deal of persistence, patience and grace. I opened in Link in a down economy and it took me 18 months to break even. I was overly bullish about how quickly I could get sales in the door. It was hard but I 'weathered the storm' and came out on the other side.

What advice can you offer women who are looking to start their own business?
Everyone will tell you not to do it. That is about their fear--don't listen. Write a business plan. When you get stuck, get a mentor and work through it. If the numbers don't work--don't do it! I'm amazed at how many people don't do the basics. Have 2 years of operating expenses in the bank before you open. I used SCORE - it's a free counseling service run by retired executives.

What are your top tips for building and managing a valuable network through collaboration?
Do what you say you're going to do. If you promise to make an introduction, make it. Use the words 'please' and 'thank you.' Take out your pen and write handwritten Thank You notes--often. Remember that everyone has a story and sorrow and heart; be gentle with other humans.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Not well. I work too much. I recently hired some help and have plans for more. It's scary to responsible for payroll but I need a life! I do make time for my family, dogs, the gym and friends. I could always do more on the 'life' side of the equation. I'm a work in progress.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Work/life balance. We are multi-taskers and are told that we do it well. We often take ownership of the household, childcare and careers while striving to be marathon running super models. Technology is allowing us to be more productive and more tethered than ever. Finding time for ourselves and our spirituality and peace of mind is getting harder than ever.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have worked with the same mentor for over five years. I found my mentor at SCORE. Celia Bell has helped me, pushed me, listened and advised me on all major decisions. It's hard to be an entrepreneur--I used to feel I was all alone. The good news is that I started to find my peers and now have coworking friends around the world. I speak to someone in the industry every single day. I also do a great deal of mentoring to people looking to get into coworking or coworking conferences or who just needing a sounding board. I feel I have been blessed have so many people helping me along the way--I want to pay it forward.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Sara Blakely of SPANX, as she is a self-made billionaire who did what I did and what most entrepreneurs do: she saw a need in the market that wasn't being met and brought a product to market. She was tenacious and, even when doors shut in her face, she prevailed. Sara is very active in philanthropic efforts and good buddies with Richard Branson (a man on my bucket-list to meet.)

Oprah, because she taught me that if I don't take care of myself, I couldn't take care of others. I'm in the hospitality industry; I love to give of myself but I can't give what I haven't got. I also admire her pursuit of spirituality and health.

What do you want Link Coworking to accomplish in the next year?
I plan on more than doubling in size in the next year. The Austin market is demanding it and I feel the need to rise to meet the demand. I am working on taking Coshare (the first Coworking association I helped found) to the next level by devoting resources to grow it at least 250 percent. I hope to take the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) to three continents, at minimum. I plan to do all while focusing on working less. Sounds impossible? Watch me.