Rechung Fujihira and his classmate Tony Stanford, both students in the Hogan Entrepreneurial Program at Chaminade University, had an idea.
They envisioned a coworking space. Only back then, the concept was relatively new, with early establishments dubbed "hackerspaces." They pitched their idea as "airport lounges outside of airports." It was their final project, and after graduating, they decided they wanted to make it a reality.
"We had a really hard time finding a place because we were just students out of school and no one was really good to give us a lease," Fujihira tells me. "So we were like, 'Okay, maybe we can do pop-ups instead.'"
Thanks to Fujihira's mother, who ran an interior decor gallery in Kakaako, they opened what was proposed as a temporary coworking space in the back of her shop.
"That's how we started BoxJelly, and we thought it was gonna be a pop up," he explains. "The BoxJelly is named after the box jellyfish that comes for a few days a week after the full moon and pops up and then disappears."
Eleven years later, the BoxJelly at fishcake on Kamani Street is still open, now with a greater focus on local artists. BoxJelly also partners with the High Technology Development Corporation in managing the coworking space at the Entrepreneurs Sandbox. And in the middle of the pandemic, Fujihira and his team opened a brand new location at Ward Village.
"The first few years were definitely hard," he recalls. "We weren't really eating right, we weren't buying anything—I remember one time when me and Tony both put our feet up on the desk and we both had holes in the bottom our shoes.
"It got really lean there for a little while, but we made a decision to do it, we were determined to do it," he adds. "So we just finished it."
Fujihira says that a pop-up wouldn't have created and sustained the kind of community he had in mind, so he's grateful they were able to host local and visiting entrepreneurs and workers at their first location for so long.
"It took a lot of time, and it really needed a lot of intent, and one place to come to," he recalls.
The BoxJelly space continuously expanded, spending one year behind a sheet at the back of fishcake before taking over an adjacent retail bay from another furniture store.
"We just started taking over other parts, and we ended up having a big chunk of that space, maybe 6,000 square feet," Fujihira says. "that was our home for eight years."
"I remember when we got Uber, it was a big milestone," he says. "I was like, 'Whoa, it's a real company and they're doing this thing!'"
Many other coworking spaces came and went during that time, and BoxJelly's leadership in the space was validated in 2019 when the HTDC selected them to help manage the 13,500-square foot Entrepreneurs Sandbox.
"The purpose of the Sandbox is to be the front door to innovation in the state of Hawaii," Fujihira explains. "Our role there, in running the coworking component, is also to build programs to help connect the dots between the different organizations that are partners in the building."
Fujihira is quick to credit his mother with thinking fast to save her own business.
"It's basically like a artists colony," he says, proudly.
If a furniture store plus art gallery can make it, perhaps it's not too crazy to imagine survival for a business designed to encourage strangers to do their independent work in the same physical space.
Against those odds, though, some coworking spaces managed to adapt to the myriad restrictions of pandemic operations by reconfiguring their spaces, expanding virtual member benefits, and adjusting their customer mix among independent consultants and larger businesses looking to reunite but still segregate their workforce.
Weathering the COVID storm is one thing. Taking a big leap of faith at the same time is another thing entirely. Hawaii's oldest coworking company undertook a major expansion at the peak of uncertainty.
"It actually started before the pandemic, when we were looking for a new space," Fujihira says. "One of our early tenants saw this space, and when we saw it, we though it was really cool and wanted to do it."
He consulted with his business partners, Leo Rogers, and found an ally within Kamehameha Schools named Christian O'Connor, who was then the landowner's senior asset manager. Just as headlines started to warn of COVID-19, Fujihira and team flew to Japan to raise funds for the expansion.
They were able to design and build BoxJelly Ward with an updated vision for coworking in the post-pandemic area. The new location features a large outdoor workspace, many private offices and meeting rooms, phone booths, a kitchen, and ample infrastructure for videoconferencing. Covered garage parking is ample, and free.
The new space also features a lot of art, building upon an "Artist in Residence" program that began at the original space, inspired by Fujihira's mother's support of the arts.
"When we built this space, we made sure that we built the Artist in Residence studio, so we're really happy about that," he says. "Now maybe two times a year we will host artists from all over the place, from Hawaii, from Europe, from the mainland, wherever.
"It's fun to engage new artists, they always bring a new vibe to the space while being visitors on the site," he adds.
As BoxJelly built out its new space, there was one more amenity that Fujihira was excited to offer.
"When we were going to open the space in the beginning, we had a partner to run a coffee shop, so we started working on it, we starting building," he recalls. "But then a pandemic happens in the middle of building things out, it was maybe March or April 2020, and they said, 'Yo, this is weird, we don't want to open a coffee shop.'"
"T.K. helped to set up a lot of other coffee shops here on the island and is a roaster by trade," Fujihira says.
"I never really drank coffee — I really didn't drink coffee before," Fujihira confesses. "We had a few coffee shops in the old space, but I didn't really engage in coffee until meeting and working with TK."
A year later, and Fujihira is in love.
"It's fun to get into something new, and think about a space and then adding this element of coffee," he says. "The coffee game is just so deep, there are so many levels to it, and I think it's sparked an interest in me because it's just like... an infinite amount of things."
Fujihira sees meaningful links among coffee and art and productivity and happiness.
"I have this idea of art influencing work and helping to inspire good work," he explains. "I don't have any statistics or anything, but I feel that by being surrounded by this kind of creative energy, it's just better for your work and better for your life."
Given how precious your waking hours are, Fujihira sees value in what he does.
"We really feel like we can help improve people's lives by doing little things — coffee, art, sun and fresh air, being across the street from surf breaks," he says.
Indeed, when he's not behind the coffee counter, he's now mostly behind the scenes, working with his team—predominantly art majors—to set the stage for collaborative magic.
"We try to be the middle of Venn diagrams," Fujihira says.