In this video, Natalie Chan shares her startup story and talks about the challenges of running her business, Bat Haus in New York City, during the pandemic. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

The pandemic has brought surprising changes to Natalie Chan, both in business and in life. 

When Covid struck last March, the Taiwan-born entrepreneur was forced to temporarily close the doors of Bat Haus, the Brooklyn, N.Y., “industrial chic” coworking-and-events space that she had spent the last 8 years building. She temporarily quit drinking, drew tarot cards to calm her nerves, and began a plant-based diet.

“At the time, I was anxious. Everyone’s anxious, right? Our bodies froze up,” says Chan, who also started running — “every day, like a maniac” — in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park. “That’s the way to deal with the stress.”

[Related: How a NYC Business Owner (and Dog Lover) Is Coping]

And then in mid-summer, she had the type of breakthrough epiphany that one gets under duress. She and business partner Cody Sullivan had just re-opened the doors of Bat Haus — a millennial clubhouse of sorts for indie workers and people looking for a raw space to throw BYOB weddings and baby showers. Before Covid, they had about 40 coworking members and hosted about 8 to 10 events a month, making enough of a profit to sustain Bat Haus.  

But with Covid a continued threat, business had slowed considerably. Membership dropped. Events were halted. And while Chan had secured both a $5,000 grant from the Paycheck Protection Program and a $65,000 small business loan, the prospect of making rent loomed large.

“Cody and I sat down, which we normally don’t, and he had these beautiful spreadsheets for best and worst scenario,” she says. “It was simple math. The overhead was too high.”

Their landlord, while fair, had agreed to temporarily lower costs — but only until year’s end. With a dark winter approaching, Chan knew it wouldn’t be enough.

And that’s when she recalls thinking: “You know what, f*ck this. We have the community. If this physical location can’t accommodate us any more — we move and we build again. It’s not the place that makes it — it’s us. Let’s move.”

Finding a new space is never easy — especially when you haven’t been prepared to look. Before the pandemic, “we were not contemplating moving,” Chan says. “We were trying to survive every month.” But with Covid forcing their hand, the partners began looking at cheaper spaces in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, where they were already based. Nothing came up. “It was terrible — boring spaces with no soul,” Chan says.

[Related: A Brooklyn Bakeshop’s Sweet Milestone in a Sour Year]

And then, she stumbled upon a Craigslist listing in Williamsburg — a gentrified neighborhood closer to the city, teeming with white middle-class residents in artsy professions who are her typical coworking customers. (Her events business, by contrast, is more ethnically diverse, with Puerto Rican and Caribbean customers.) An in-person tour confirmed the space’s appeal, solidified by two words on the listing: “Great landlord.” No other post had said that, Chan noted. 

In August, she and Sullivan signed a new lease, paying half of what they were paying before, about $2,000 to $3,000 less a month. They’re also saving on utility bills, as the space has a lower ceiling than the previous one. It also has a backyard and a basement with conference rooms. Remembering her initial tour, Chan says: “You could just feel — it has Bat Haus in it.”

While coworking memberships are coming back — Bat Haus now has 10 regular members — the events business will have to wait until the vaccine is more widely distributed, Chan says. She is not overly concerned about it bouncing back, as she is already getting inquiries. “People still want to get married and have babies,” she says. 

Somewhat oddly, given the year of upheaval — the business seems better-positioned than it was before the pandemic. “The energy is more mature,” Chan has noticed. “The people who come through and who stay are more mature in their careers.” With her diet and exercise regimen, she’s feeling healthy, too. “My body feels light,” she says. Unintentionally, it’s been the evolution she always envisioned for Bat Haus and maybe herself, too.

“This is what I wanted. It’s much easier, mentally and spiritually, to carry this business,” she says. “It’s almost like a gift.”

[Related: Meet the Fashion ‘Trash Nerd’ Who’s Won Money and Love from Vogue]

Read Full Transcript

NATALIE: I remember March 16. That's when New York City shut down. And then my dad called me. And he said, “What are you going to do?” I was like, “I don't know.” He said, “You know, this will all pass.” But in my head I was like, “Okay, this will end, and what I do in between?” The easiest way would be, close Bat Haus. And then that's when I first realized it's an identity crisis for me. It's like, how much I like this. I love this business, right?

TITLE: Natalie Chan – Co-Founder – Bat Haus – Brooklyn, New York

NATALIE: Bat Haus is a coworking space, Monday to Friday. And on the weekend, we do events, baby showers, weddings, arts events for the community. It's a place for people to be at.

TEXT: Natalie grew up in Taiwan.

NATALIE: A great thing about my dad and my mom, they invest in sending us to learn English. My dad stamped the first approval of things that I was afraid to do, in a way not a lot of Asian parents would give to their kids.

TEXT: In 2003 Natalie moved to Austin, Texas to study philosophy.

TEXT: After receiving her MA, Natalie headed to New York.

TEXT: She found a job at a photography studio, Griffin Editions.

NATALIE: I was handling production, like customers' email, and then like artists. And then we talk to them, try to make everything smooth. This five years in Griffin Editions was the reason why I was able to start Bat Haus, to handle customers at Bat Haus.

TEXT: Natalie was friends with a writer, Cody Sullivan.

NATALIE: Cody would work at coffee shops or public libraries. And he would come back and always complain about it. He's like, “I can't focus.” And one day I was just like, “Why don't you rent a space and find other people like you to share the cost?” He said, “Oh, that's impossible.” And he's a thinker. I'm a doer, right. So I'm like — take the idea, I just run. I just run with it.

TEXT: Natalie found an old industrial loft she thought had a good feeling.

TEXT: Her father lent her capital to acquire the lease.

NATALIE: After we signed the lease, it was just us. And we opened the door. We were like, “Okay, now what?”

TEXT: With no money to furnish or decorate, the two simply cleaned and painted the space.

NATALIE: It's very raw and somehow it became a signature of us. People walk in, they're like, “This is so rustic. This is what we're looking for. Industrial feeling of Brooklyn.”

TEXT: Natalie and Cody opened Bat Haus in 2012 — one of the first independent co-working spaces in New York.

NATALIE: The first challenge was, how do we get people in here and work here? If anyone had talked to us about this and told us how difficult it would be for the first year as a small business, we wouldn't have done it.

TEXT: They worked social media and local press to gain members.

TEXT: Soon people asked to rent the space for weddings, baby showers and parties.

NATALIE: I didn't know how to charge. I look at other venues’ price list. And that's how I learned, if it's too cheap, there's a certain reaction. If it's too expensive...So I was just fine tuning only solely based on people's reaction and booking rates.

TEXT: Clients bring their own food, drink and decorations.

NATALIE: The goal is always to have a good event. Very simple, right? Good event, happy event. So in a way, my goal and my customers’ goals are the same.

TEXT: There is a huge demand for reasonably priced event spaces in New York.

TEXT: Events made Bat Haus profitable after just two years.

TEXT: Then came Covid.

TEXT: Bat Haus was forced to close.

NATALIE: At the time it was like, I was anxious. Everyone's anxious, right? Our body just froze up. I stopped drinking for the whole April. And maybe May. Also June, maybe.

NATALIE: I start running. The whole summer I was just running every day, like a maniac. So yeah, that's the way to deal with the stress.

TEXT: Natalie knew Bat Haus needed to take drastic action to survive.

TEXT: After tough negotiations, she ended the lease with their landlord.

TEXT: She found a smaller, cheaper space that was vacant because of the pandemic.

TEXT: Bat Haus re-opened in October 2020.

NATALIE: I look at people who work here. Some people still pay through the pandemic, and that's something that I will never be able to pay back. Not financial-wise, but just that friendship.

TEXT: But the event side of the business has to remain closed. Revenues are down 60 percent.

NATALIE: I just feel like we have to fight for it. We both recognize this is something we want to hold onto. We’re going to do this. We’re keeping this. There's no other way.