Stanza wants to be the Airbnb of workspaces
“Our vision is that anyone should be able to find affordable workspace within five minutes of their house,” says Matt Riley, CEO of Stanza. “That kind of inventory is already out there. It’s everywhere. It just needed to be unlocked.”
Stanza—a startup officially launched in St. George, Utah, late last year—functions similarly to the Airbnb model. Acting as the go-between, Stanza connects empty offices with individuals or teams looking for space through flexible contracts.
“I love the empowerment of employees,” he says. “I love seeing companies that let people work from home in a way that’s effective for that individual. But that empowerment should also mean that these companies offer good in-office experiences, too—whatever an employee’s calculus is for a good workday, that option should be accessible to them.”
For work like that, Riley says single offices and private rooms for four-member teams were in the highest demand. Most transactions for spaces of that size were arranged via KSL, Craigslist or other peer-to-peer sites that Riley says the consumers he spoke to weren’t ecstatic about.
“It’s unreasonably hard to find the kind of spaces they want,” Riley says. “Especially if you don’t want to sign long-term contracts. They’re too small to compel a traditional real estate agent or broker’s help, but doing it on your own can be a little fishy.”
Satisfied that he had a customer base (or “users” in the Airbnb model), Riley went in search of “hosts” or vacant office spaces to rent out.
“That’s when I got really discouraged,” he says. “Every commercial real estate office broker that I spoke with told me there was no empty space. ‘Bursting at the seams’ is a phrase I heard a lot.”
Up and down the state, Riley says he got the same reports. Post-pandemic, real estate was back on the rise.
Publicly available data agrees. In 2022, Colliers reported Utah County—one of Riley’s target demographics, considering Silicon Slopes—as dropping in vacancy rates quarter over quarter. For the county, the report predicts “vacancy rates [to] significantly decrease” into the new year.
Closer to home, Southern Utah reported even more dire news for Stanza: vacancy rates for offices and other commercial space dropped below one percent.
After seeing numbers like that, Riley says the idea for Stanza was nearly scrapped. The three-dimensional model requires buy-in from users and hosts, and with only the middleman really engaged, Riley knew the business model couldn’t hold water.
Still, something drew him to toss in one more last-ditch effort. He decided to go see the spaces for himself.
“It was literally just me walking into these office buildings, knocking on doors,” he says. “That’s when I discovered that there’s a data smokescreen problem. The macro-level of commercial real estate data suggests something entirely different than the truth.”
When vacancy rates are reported, Riley says, the information communicated is how much available square footage there is to rent. If there’s an existing lease or signed contract, that space is marked as “occupied” when, in truth, the whole company could be working from home.
“I walked into spaces where, technically, every corner is full,” Riley says. “The box is checked. This is a leased space, right? But the offices are empty. The lights are off, and no one is sitting at those desks.”
In conversation with the lessees, Riley found that many office spaces entered long-term leases just before the pandemic.
“Those leases were a great idea at the time,” he says, “but now half their team is remote, and they’re saddled with monthly payments for a giant, empty building.”
For some companies, breaking those leases wasn’t a legal option. For others, retaining the space for employees who wanted to work from the office—and for clients who wanted to stop by—was a necessity. Both camps, though, were strapped for cash.
“We don’t see them as a competitive force. They’re a cooperative force filling in the opportunities for people who want that kind of working environment. We’re here to bridge the gap that’s left.”
“The response to leasing a room or two of their spaces was positive and immediate,” Riley says. “If they could make $200 a month to put toward the lease, that’s great. If they could make $1,000, even better—really, anything greater than zero was a compelling proposition for them.”
Freeing up the “hijacked” spaces for use by more flexible teams played effectively for both sides. An unexpected byproduct of Stanza’s deals was the response from the real estate agents who had shooed Stanza initially.
“Every person in this puzzle was in a bind,” Riley says. “These agents know the situations their tenants are in with massive leases and empty buildings, but they couldn’t do much to help. With Stanza, the space is utilized, the lease feels more worthwhile, and their conversations with tenants are easier.”
“As we expected, there’s a huge variety of requests,” Riley says. “Some of these users want a handful of rooms long-term. Other users want a conference room for one day, then an office or two the next.”
That’s one of Stanza’s big differentiators from coworking spaces.
“Places like Kiln and WeWork, we see them as ecosystem partners,” Riley says. “We’re a partner for both hosts and users. We’re matchmakers, and we’re happy to work with co-working spaces as hosts for their facilities and offerings.”
While coworking spaces are typically a closed network of branded properties, Stanza lets you choose a location close to home or switch up the building you’re in whenever your team wants. While Riley says he himself has used Kiln’s space as a quiet place to get his own work done, there’s a population looking for more flexibility that coworking isn’t speaking to.
“We don’t see them as a competitive force,” Riley says. “They’re a cooperative force filling in the opportunities for people who want that kind of working environment. We’re here to bridge the gap that’s left.”
The size of the service gap has been surprising, even after Riley’s on-the-ground research. He says all his clientele have come exclusively through word-of-mouth—none of Stanza’s budget has gone into marketing or advertising of any kind.
He’s been building an impressive waitlist in the meantime, too.
“From just existing, we’ve received requests for Stanza’s involvement in Seattle and Portland, Lehi and Provo, Las Vegas, Chicago, even as far out as Milwaukee,” he says. “We’ve identified this abundant middle-ground of real estate, and it’s become a sort of Wild West.”
As Stanza nurtures its existing relationships, Riley plans to exploit the burgeoning economy in a seed round.
“We’re totally self-funded right now,” Riley says. “But with our momentum and the way things are trending, investors are the next step. We’re confident in our information and our user and host bases to take Stanza out there.”
Expansion for Riley means moving out of state, yes, but also diversifying their host options into vacant spaces. It’s the difference between an Airbnb renting out a basement versus an entire home, he says.
Stanza’s initial hosting properties are all spaces otherwise occupied by other companies. Each includes furnishings provided by the existing tenant with standard resources like monitors, desks, and Wi-Fi.
“We’re planning to move into office buildings that are totally empty,” he says, “And help monetize the space for the landlords until they can find long-term leases.”
Ultimately, through expansion, Riley’s goal with Stanza is to empower employees to pick a space that is most effective for them at any given time.
“We want to help people,” he says. “That’s why we’re in this. You should have the kind of working environment you need regardless of where you live. We’re the middleman to get you there.”