At Work: Sparkspace’s Inspiring Business Retreat

Mark Henson, the chief imagination officer of Sparkspace, has been building the company since 2000. He developed the idea of building a company around a business retreat center model while working for the design firm Fitch. He says Fitch provided a healthy environment for creativity.

“It was a cool place to be,” says Henson. “People wanted to try things and grow things and it started off a lot of people’s own businesses, such as Paul Westrick who now does Zeroz.”

In his early research, he came across a woman in Austin, Texas who was wanting to sell her business and also found Doug Hall of the Eureka Ranch. He knew he had a good idea that not many people were capitalizing on. He and his wife moved to Columbus about 20 years ago, when she got a great job offer. They love it here, so moving to Texas to buy the established company was not an option.

He started Sparkspace in a 900-square-foot space in the Short North using a home equity loan and a few credit cards. That space was fine for about a year before they outgrew it.

He knew if he really wanted to make money with the business, he would need more rooms. So he started looking around town for a new building. His children had been attending City Kids Daycare in the Arena District and he noticed the building the business currently occupies was looking for tenants.

“I was blown away by the building,” he says.

Sparkspace is housed in a 2,200-square-foot space on the third floor of the building that had originally been a paint factory in the 1890s. It had skylights, wood details everywhere, and definitely gave visitors the “sense of transport” he was looking for. He moved into the space in 2002 and the next year he was finally able to pay himself.

His debt load had crept up to $65,000 at one point. Around that time he learned of Dave Ramsey, and he and his wife went through his Financial Peace University to become debt free in their personal lives.

Left over from the building's paint factory days, this equipment is a focal point in the Think Tank room

After that, he decided he was done using debt in his business life as well and attended the business portion of the class, EntreLeadership. It uses the same principles to treat your business like you would your personal life, although it may be a longer process. Being debt-free is an accomplishment that Henson is very proud of.

In the 12 years Sparkspace has been in business, he has seen many businesses come and go, and Sparkspace has been able to weather the recession because they have been operating debt free.

“One of the downsides [to operating debt free] is that we don’t get to grow as fast as we possibly could, but our patience pays off,” he says.

[Interested in finding out how you can operate your business debt free? Sparkspace is bringing the EntreLeadership Simulcast to Columbus on Sept. 30.]

Sparkspace was growing and they were booking meetings. Sometimes the team-building exercises were loud and disturbed the other tenants in the building. The building owners worked with him and moved Sparkspace to the second floor, into a 3,500-square-foot space consisting of two rooms, an office, and a kitchen.

The business continued to expand and currently uses 7,500 square feet of space for five different meeting spaces, office space, kitchen space and a gallery space. Henson worked with the building contractor to come up with ideas for the floor plan and materials to use. It is quite the break from a regular office and now they host more than 600 meetings a year and about five to eight programs per month.

A company meeting in progress in the Loft Room

The business has grown to support five employees. A few years ago, they made the decision to “start weaving themselves into Columbus,” supporting the local arts community, and buying as many local things they can. They also offer a few books by Columbus authors for sale in their lobby, notably Boring Meetings Suck by Jon Petz and Step Back From the Baggage Claim by Jason Barger.

A collection of Potato Heads that are sometimes used for team exercises
The candy wall, also used for inspiration during meetings

Henson has become very involved with Aileron in Dayton. He is a big fan of their programs and has taken several courses himself. He especially recommends the “Course for Presidents” that helps attendees evaluate and think about everything there is to manage in their business. He has also joined Aileron’s client advisory board.

Artwork by Kirsten Bowen

What’s next for Sparkspace?

“We’d like to take ownership of being the most inspiring business retreat center on the planet,” Henson says. “We’ll be doing more programs to inspire people, businesses, and employees to be better.”

Sparkspace is located in the Arena District at 300 Marconi Blvd., Suite 206 in Columbus. Reach Sparkspace by phone at 614-224-7727. Find it on the web here. Like it on Facebook here. Follow it on Twitter here.

Read more about artist Kirsten Bowen here.