Free-Agent Clubhouse

It used to be a church. It's got the vibe of a funky nightclub, the technology of a wired office, and the members-only attitude of a lodge. Meet Baby -- René Eller's club for Amsterdam's "Brand Called You" set.

Close your eyes and listen for a minute to the sounds that echo around you, and you'll be hard-pressed to guess exactly where you are or what's going on. You can hear children racing around the room at breakneck speed, laughing and calling to one another. Dance music is playing -- though it's not as loud as it is in a typical nightclub. Cell-phones are chirping, dinner plates are clattering, and an espresso machine is hissing. And behind it all is the steady sound of fingers on a keyboard, expertly and continuously typing, despite all of the distractions in the room.

Now open your eyes and look around: You're sitting on a mid-20th-century-era couch, which is sitting on an ever-so-slightly frayed shag rug. The room is enormous -- about 85 feet from end to end, more than 50 feet wide, and with vaulted cathedral ceilings. Fine details suggest that the space used to be part of a church. At one end of the room are several tables set for dinner; a bunch of computers sit at the other end. There's also a bar, some magazine racks, a few bookshelves, two enormous conference tables, and televisions silently tuned to MTV. Some people are reading quietly; others are discussing a project for work. Toddlers run wildly in circles while their parents have a drink with friends. If you were to venture downstairs, you'd find three meeting rooms available for rent. Upstairs, there is a small lounge complete with a dance floor and a DJ booth.

So where exactly are you? A business-oriented nightclub? A rock-and-roll Internet café? A slightly down-at-the-heels country club? A funky student union? While the space has elements of all of those things, no single English word or phrase can accurately sum it up. To René Eller, 36, the Dutch filmmaker who created the space that abuts a picturesque canal in central Amsterdam, it's simply called Baby. Think of it as the first clubhouse for free agents, a members-only lodge for the Brand Called You set -- a place designed to facilitate networking, creative thinking, relaxation, and new-economy business.

"I wanted to build a catalyst for all creative professionals in Amsterdam who wanted to meet," Eller explains. "Creative jobs come with a lot of freedom, but being an independent creative can also isolate you." Eller knew from experience that in a city as small as Amsterdam, creative people tend to find one another. His girlfriend, "Analik," is a well-known fashion designer in the city, and his right-hand man at Baby, Martijn Roos, created and managed the first talk-radio station in the Netherlands.

Still, even creative professionals in Amsterdam sometimes miss connections. So Eller resolved to create a space that would act as a magnet for the community that he knew existed -- but that had yet to assemble. "I looked at old-style business clubs and tried to envision a Y2K version," Eller says. "Churches serve as gathering places for people who share the same strong beliefs, and certain clubs function in a similar way for sports fans. But there aren't very many modern clubs for people who care passionately about their work." What emerged was Baby -- part physical space, part cyberspace, and part global brand.

Build the Space

Eller's background makes him uniquely suited to play the role of clubhouse builder. He began his film career 10 years ago, dabbling in casting and set design before stepping behind the camera. Since then, he's become well-known for edgy commercials that have the look and feel of independent films -- ads for such companies as Aiwa, Coke, Heineken, and Polaroid. He's also worked with other filmmakers on music videos for Boy George and for David Bowie's side band, Tin Machine. Despite all of the locations that Eller scouted for those shoots, it took him three years to find just the right space for Baby. When he finally did, in 1997, he promptly bought the building -- an old church that had been serving as a dance studio -- taking money out of his production company to finance the purchase.

Eller tackled the building's renovation in waves. He started with the large room on the second floor and, when it was finished, threw a big party to promote the club. On the guest list was Boris Veldhuijzen Van Zanten, 28, who was starting his own company at the time. "I was skeptical," van Zanten recalls. "I didn't understand the concept. What was it? A big, hip church where I could work? A bar? A club? I got to the party early and, since no one was there yet, started looking around. When I saw this large room, my jaw dropped. It was so beautiful. I joined on the spot."

What happened next with van Zanten's company, V3 Redirect Services, exemplifies the whole idea behind Baby. It's a new-economy parable. By using foreign suffixes such as ".to" (which ostensibly places the site in the string of islands known as Tonga), V3 was able to give people better locations on the Web. Van Zanten bought 300 URLs -- among them www.come.to, www.welcome.to, and www.serve.to -- which he would tailor to his customers. For example, www.come.to/boris became van Zanten's personal Web site. The beauty of the idea was that it was all about redirecting people. And since the service didn't involve storing member pages, it didn't require an office to hold dozens of servers.

"Most of the time, all I needed was a phone and a computer," van Zanten explains. "I had a cell-phone, and Baby had Internet access, so I used Baby as my office. In that first year, I would sometimes be there from 9 AM until midnight, seven days a week."

Van Zanten also used the space for meetings. "In the early days, many people in Amsterdam hadn't heard of Baby," he says. "They would come for a meeting, and they'd be shocked. The space has tremendous impact." Other early members who spent a lot of time at Baby became trusted advisers. It was at the club that van Zanten met the person who would become the first to advertise on his site, as well as others who offered useful advice on how to handle investors.

The good counsel paid off. Last year, FortuneCity.com came to V3 looking to advertise. But when the potential advertiser discovered that V3 had 800,000 members (it now has more than 2 million), it decided instead to buy the company -- turning van Zanten into a Baby-enabled millionaire. "If you're an Internet entrepreneur, Baby is the best place in the world to be," he says. "If I were to start another company, I'd come here. In the future, a lot more people will work this way."

At the moment, Baby has 5,500 members, who are all hoping for similar success. At first, members paid between $150 and $300 a year. Today, local trade groups pay Baby a flat fee so that professionals in their fields have access to the space. All creative types are welcome -- everyone from journalists to models to entrepreneurs such as van Zanten. Members, who are mostly between the ages of 25 and 35, come to eat lunch, to do some off-site brainstorming, and to celebrate. People also rent the space for everything from fashion shows to fund-raisers for babies in Africa who have AIDS.

Build the CyberSpace

While the space has clearly appealed to scores of creative professionals in Amsterdam, the premise of the enterprise invites a big question. Given that Eller launched Baby against a backdrop of Internet frenzy a few years back, why didn't he attempt to build a virtual community instead of a physical one? "I thought it would be difficult to build a network that had such a wide range without first establishing a strong physical presence locally so that people could see that it made sense," he says. "I don't think that the people who run most Internet communities get to know their customers very well."

That doesn't mean that Eller lacks an Internet strategy. Indeed, one of his biggest projects right now is WorkBaby, a searchable, Web-based portfolio that will allow members to post samples of their work online. While many members leave paper portfolios on bookshelves in corners of the club, those portfolios do little more than collect dust. Eller hopes that WorkBaby will make it much easier for members to find one another and to make connections.

Eller readily acknowledges that lonely club members could use WorkBaby to seek mates, but that isn't his goal. "Most of the time, the way that we connect with new business partners is old-fashioned, inefficient, and clumsy," he says. "People who are new to the film business spend more than half of their time finding the right models, sets, and lighting designers. They waste time just finding people and getting things to work, when the best way to operate is to have everything lined up long before you start a project."

Eller figures that if the database works, it will be the first place that anyone in Amsterdam goes when launching a new company or starting a new project. "If it works," he says, "it will truly maximize what a network is supposed to be."

Build the Brand

The space may be real, but a conversation with Eller about his many other ideas is like a high-speed trip through fantasyland. On the walls are blueprints for the 18 hotel rooms that he wants to build on the top floor of the building. Eller and some friends, disgusted with the lack of "cool" computers, are building a prototype for a touch-screen machine that members could use to access WorkBaby. He's about to open two furniture stores, one in Amsterdam and another in Berlin, for which he plans to design the furniture himself. And earlier this year, Eller launched "Baby" magazine, complete with ads for MTV and a collection of dotcoms. (He recently hired an editor and plans to publish quarterly.)

Of course, such experiments cost money. Eller claims to have invested about $4 million so far. (He still spends about 10 days a month shooting commercials and videos -- work that pays extremely well.) As Baby continues to grow, the potential uses for that money continue to grow. Like any good brand, Baby seems ripe for global franchising. But since Eller doesn't have the $50 million it would take to launch the club in London, Los Angeles, New York, and a few other select cities, he's on the lookout for outside investors. The brand seems to have developed its own allure: In the past year, Eller has been asked to lend the Baby name to everything from an old resort on the Italian coast that needs freshening up to a series of wacky adventure tours for people who want to meet Madonna or to fly in the back of a MiG fighter jet.

In order to get funding, Eller first needs to convince investors that he can make money. Just three years old, the space in Amsterdam is breaking even. Although Baby is sometimes sparsely populated, the income from members and groups who rent space for special events, in addition to member fees and the club's restaurant revenues, pays for the overhead. In a city as expensive as New York, Eller would need to fill Baby more regularly, but he's confident that the demand for that kind of community space is high. "I wanted to start in Amsterdam because it is my home, which makes it a safe place to experiment and make mistakes," he says. "But the Dutch aren't always accepting of things that are new and different. In my country, it's cool to be a critic. This is also a place where people actually go home at 5 PM to cook dinner. In London and in the United States, people aren't home as much."

Eller will also have to explain the club's name to prospective investors. "My girlfriend used to call me 'baby,' " he says. "And the name fits here. The club is something that I really care about. It's vulnerable. It's a small, cute project that, with a lot of care, could become really big."

Ron Lieber (rlieber@fastcompany.com , a Fast Company senior writer, is based in New York City. Contact René Eller by email (rene@babysite.nl), or visit Baby on the Web (www.babysite.nl). An English version of the Baby site (www.joinbaby.com) is in the works.

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