Discovery: Common’s Bridgette Farrer Muir
“There was a opportunity here for me to build something I personally felt passionate about and would genuinely want to use.”
With ten buildings in New York City, a thriving portfolio of properties across the country, and a recent round of funding set to fuel expansion, co-living company Common is on a tear.
Through their network of residential buildings, Common offers renters (referred to as “members” in the Common universe) a private bedroom in a fully-furnished space shared with other members. A high-end kitchen, cleaning service, on-site laundry, free WiFi, and easy transfers to other Common properties are all part of the package.
Part West Elm catalog, part urban housing experiment, Common’s fresh, tech-friendly spin on communal living aims to change how people think about city life and community-building.
Common VP Bridgette Farrer Muir talked with us about what drew her to work for Common, how potential Common neighborhoods are evaluated, the diversity of the members, and how flexibility feeds opportunity.
Small Planet: What drew you to work for Common?
Bridgette Farrer Muir: I met Brad Hargreaves (Chairman and CEO of Common) right when I was graduating from business school. The opportunity to work with someone like Brad, who had experience building brick and mortar for business like he did at General Assembly, was a big draw.
I also had a background in commercial real estate, so I understood and appreciated how large of an opportunity this was and how big of an issue this was to solve.
Lastly, I had been in the shoes of our typical consumer. I had been that person, moving to a new city, looking for a housing situation and thought, “Man, I would’ve loved if something like Common had existed when I was in that position.” There was a opportunity here for me to build something I personally felt passionate about and would genuinely want to use.
SP: How does Common typically evaluate potential new markets?
BFM: On a high level, when we’re thinking about cities that Common could be part of, it comes down to the supply-and-demand relationship. What is the current housing inventory in any of those cities, and what is the demand for the type of housing we provide?
It’s probably not a surprise that we’ve initially focused on major metro areas. We’re currently open in five markets: New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Oakland.
When you’re zooming in and thinking about neighborhoods, we look at some specific factors. We’re thinking about transit effectiveness, walkability, access to retail and grocery stores, restaurants our members would be able to walk to … that’s the sort of checklist we’re running through for every city. We’re also thinking, obviously, about affordability.
SP: Do you have have an interior design aesthetic that applies to all spaces?
BFM: On a high level, there are certain things we’re looking for. We always say “Our space is our product.” We take the integrity of this idea seriously. We’re building a brand of products, so we want to have consistency across markets. We have members who have lived with us in multiple cities. We want them to feel like when they get there, it feels like Common.
When it comes to the amount of square footage per member, or the size of a kitchen shared by x number of people, or how many people to a bathroom … the math is pretty consistent and we apply it everywhere.
Our members know we work with both existing buildings and brand new structures. When we build from the ground up, we obviously get to design exactly what we want. In an existing building, we may not have as much control, so there are trade-offs, but we do get to honor the architectural integrity of the building.
Some of our properties will have beautiful bay windows, brick walls, or gorgeous full staircases, and we try to preserve as many of those features as possible.
SP: How many of your members are transient within the Common ecosystem? Do you have a segment of residents who hop from properties, city-to-city?
BFM: Actually, 70% of our members are on twelve-month leases. There’s a little bit of a preconception out there that “furnished” means “short-term.” In our case, that’s not necessarily true. While there’s great flexibility to move within Common, most people are thinking about this as a long-term housing solution.
In terms of flexibility, we definitely design the experience and space through the lens of the modern renter. Opportunities come along for people … perhaps a new job or getting into graduate school … and a major barrier to capitalize on an opportunity is housing. So flexibility and the ability to move into and within Common are pretty core to our product.
We’ve seen definitely people from almost every city go through something like this, where they say, “Oh my gosh, I have this incredible opportunity.” It’s interesting to think that without Common, they may not have taken advantage of it.
SP: Is there something that surprises you about your members? Something you didn’t expect?
BFM: I think the diversity, definitely. We have incredible age diversity; our average lands around 30, but there are outliers on both sides. Also, a third of our members are international.
In terms of professional occupations, there’s tons of diversity there too. There are other shared living arrangements, like, say, Silicon Valley hacker houses, catering deliberately to people working in tech.
That wasn’t our goal. We wanted to meet the needs of a lot of different renters. At the end of the day, our diversity speaks to the fact that there’s demand for a better housing experience across the board. It’s not one particular age group, or one particular demographic, or one particular type of worker.
SP: Part of your background is in the venture capital world. VCs seem bullish on co-living space, why do you think they see it as a growth market?
BFM: There are a couple factors. So first of all, one thing VCs are always thinking about is market potential. Obviously rental housing is a huge market in the United States alone. If you’re thinking about shared consumer spend, for most of us it’s monthly rent. That amount of spending will always draw attention.
Housing also represents a massive consumer category, but there’s a dearth of housing-specific brands, which is so different than hospitality. If you’re looking at hospitality, there’s tons of value in the brands that operate, supply, or manage hotels. We just haven’t seen quite the same thing play out in housing. Our thesis is that there’s a tremendous upside in bringing a consumer brand to the category of housing.
SP: Do you feel like Common’s growth is in part attributed to a little bit of a desire for community?
BFM: I think in our case, it comes back to a few macro factors. A lot of people are moving to new cities, taking advantage of new opportunities. When you arrive in a new place, you’re looking for ease and community.
We want the convenience of the city, but you also want to get to know those around you. In city high-rises and subways, people often don’t make eye contact or talk to other people. It’s so different than the suburban experience, where you live in a cul-de-sac and everybody knows each other.
And we understood this need for interaction. Since the beginning, a question we asked ourselves is, “Why couldn’t we design a space in a home, in a building, where it’s the expectation that you say ‘hi’ to people when you see them?”
SP: Have you ever stayed in a Common space?
BFM: I have, yes. In the early days, our QA process involved a number of us staying at Common homes to “housewarm” them, if you will, to put ourselves in the shoes of our users. Whether we were making a meal together, doing laundry, figuring out how everything worked, what the flow was … those findings were essential.
One of the beautiful things about being vertically-integrated is that we have so such great feedback from our members, our property services and property management team, our sales team, our design team, our real estate team … you name it.
Photos courtesy of Common