As she peered with delight through a magnifying lamp into my pores, my aesthetician Irene Delgadillo confessed, “My favorites are the ones people get in their ears, because they make a certain sound. There’s something so satisfying about hearing a pimple pop.”
It’s a sure sign that you have found your calling when something so minute and gross about your work makes you feel that good.
Irene is one of the 300 small business owners in residence at the San Francisco location of ActivSpace, a creative hive of artists, designers, engineers, aestheticians, and dreamers in the Mission. ActivSpace runs similar creative communes in Berkeley, Seattle, and Portland.
For those with little more than a pipe and a dream, ActivSpace’s low rent and straightforward lease terms offer an attractive alternative to a cluttered kitchen or office. Spaces start at $275 a month, all utilities included, and there are few decorating rules. Mostly importantly, renters have the option to get out each month. The low-risk combination draws ventures running the gamut from commercial to microniche. My last pore unclogged, I went out and knocked on a few doors to find out more about ActivSpace’s tenants.
Irene doesn’t have a clock in her one-room spa boutique. She is happy to work long hours, because every minute she puts in goes to growing her, as she puts it, "baby." Even so, it was one thing to know she was doing what she loves, and another to ditch the security of a well-established dermatologist’s office and later a salon to go solo this year. “I didn’t think I had the power to start my own business. I finally realized that I couldn’t keep working for other people anymore. I knew I had worked hard to develop the skills to do this really well. It was at that point that I stopped being scared and decided to just go for it. Now I get a little high by just setting into my own office every day.”
In the dark and narrow garage space available for rent, Lara saw an opportunity to reinvent herself. “I had been following along as my husband relocated to various cities, and here was a perfect space with quirky proportions to fill with my own project.” Having written about design for publications back in Australia, Lara decided her project would be to use her knack for collecting to help clients find unique pieces (with their own quirky proportions) for their homes. Her showroom is still a work in progress, but it is already brimming with joyful floral-upholstered chairs and one-of-a-kind zebra lamps – furnishings with just the right balance of polish and whimsy to reinvent a living room – or a life.
Genna had been training to be a cop but after a few days patrolling knew it wasn’t for her. “If I could, I would spend all my time with cats,” she said out loud one day. Her partner Ash thought, why not? They signed a lease for the largest space at ActivSpace, installed special air filters and custom kitty cabinets, and got certified in pet CPR and first aid. Now Genna’s whim is a reality. “A lot of our kitties come to stay when their parents are at work, on vacation, or getting their floors redone,” Ash said. “Beezer and Lola are Burning kitties.” Another regular guest, a tortoiseshell, polydactyl record holder named Griffin sleepily splayed her 24 toes as Genna scratched her belly just so.
“I had been unemployed for nine months before I decided to buy this place. My family tried to talk me out of it and get a degree in business instead.” Christina didn’t listen and learned how to run her café on common sense and intuition. There were some rookie mistakes, like when she discovered spreading cream cheese on bagels counts as cooking, which is verboten under the zoning ordinances (she now buys cream cheese in individual packets). “It helped a lot that most of my customers are ActivSpace people and fellow small business owners, so they knew what I was going through and were patient.” Christina is looking into expanding to a second location.
Jeff knew it was time to move his sculpting and mask-making hobby from the laundry room to his own studio when his wife told him so. With the move to ActivSpace came the cost of rent, but so too actual profits. People heard about his work, requests rolled in, and his hobby started morphing into a business. Jeff, who since childhood has clocked countless hours molding skin to hang just so and painting eyeballs with just the right sheen, learned his craft through a lot of trial and error. “When I started, there was no Internet. There weren’t many books about makeup and masks, and the pros didn’t want to give up their secrets,” Jeff explained as he worked the furrowed cheek of a bust of Keith Richards as Captain Teague. His aim is always realism, which he achieves to frightening effect in his ghoulish masks that are made from silicon, latex, and makeup.
Jet honed her scissor skills growing up in Siberia and dyeing her friends’ hair with anything she could find, including ammonia tablets from the drugstore that she pounded with peroxide into a paste. “That stuff could make you go blind. But I loved figuring out how to make things work and people’s hair look better.” After two decades renting chairs in the usual salon environment, she got tired of sharing her hair dryer and decided to set up her own space exactly as she wanted – a salon with the aesthetics of a crime lab plus Viola’s macabre portraits on the walls and guitars in the corner. “She likes all things criminal law related,” Viola explained. “But that just affects the conversation – not how she cuts hair.”
It all started in Justin’s dining room with some T-shirts, followed by a website called BangaBunny.com, where users could upload photos of faces to be pasted onto a giver and a receiver bunny, and then watch their anthropomorphized bunnies do it. That turned into a site where you could upload your face and smoke a tree with Snoop Dogg. Things took off from there. Soon the team, which specializes in social media, marketing, design, music video production, promotions, and T-shirt making, had too many projects for one dining table. “I was skeptical about paying for an office,” Alexander said, “but it turned out to be really good for all of us. This one room has become the social, recreational, and fiduciary center of all our lives.”
Rona was inking place cards for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra gala in her signature style, an energetic, italic script named the Lucy Lawless. Her pen moved with the fluidity of decades of practice, give or take a few detours along the way. “I knew I wanted to write illuminated manuscripts when I was 10 and saw old manuscripts like the Magna Carta, but I ended up studying to be an art teacher like my mom wanted me to be. Eventually I decided I just couldn’t go on wasting time doing things that didn’t matter to me and went to this full time.” A photo that tennis great Billy Jean King signed, “Go for it!” hangs above her desk as a reminder of her journey.
Rent a space for $275 to $1,200 a month, all utilities included, through Mission ActivSpace. Leases are month-to-month.