There are not many clues in the early career of Nancy Sexton, founder of The Muse Rooms co-working and creative spaces in Los Angeles, that she would end up in the co-working business. She grew up in a small Ohio community (many of her neighbors were Amish, but she neither was nor is) and her early career was as a professional model and singer in Italy.
If you don’t live in Italy, the name Nancy Sexton is more likely to be familiar from her hosting two fitness shows on FitTV and Travel Channel. If you carefully read the credits before and after watching a movie you may have seen her name scroll past as the screenwriter. She pivoted in 2015 to open The Muse Rooms. By March and April 2020, when pandemic restrictions began closing down every business that requires people be in rooms together, The Muse Rooms had two locations and a membership list of over 140 artists, entrepreneurs, and remote professionals. Federal pandemic loans were crucial for many businesses, including The Muse Rooms, but applying for those loans was so cumbersome and the approval process so slow that many other businesses failed waiting for the money. Nancy Sexton later testified before Congress about her Kafkaesque experience applying for a pandemic loan.
We asked Nancy Sexton about her early career, what drew her to found The Muse Rooms, and how the business survived the pandemic.
GD: You had four hit dance albums in Italy. How did you accomplish that? Did you live there?
Nancy Sexton: I wish they had been albums, but they were only singles. I moved to Italy to model for six weeks, but stayed as a singer for four years. I had a band in NYC and when I went to Italy I took along my music demo. After day one, I realized that the modeling agency that brought me over wanted me to babysit a bunch of teens. I think they thought I’d just stay since I had upended my life in NY to go to Milan, but they were wrong. I told them to go fuck themselves, packed my bags and was on my way back to the airport when I met an American named John. He had his own orchestra in Milan. He let me sleep on his floor, so I stayed. He heard my demo and told me that Italians love American singers and that I should go to this one building near Duomo and see if they needed anyone. I got all dressed up, went to the building and started knocking on doors. I spent hours walking the halls and knocking, “Hi, my name is Nancy, I’m from NYC do you need a singer?” Door after door shut, then, on the top floor finally a women told me “aspetta! Matteo, Matteo.” She called this guy, Matteo, who spoke with an American accent. He asked me into his office, I was exhausted and plopped down in a chair and said, “Hi, my name is Nancy, I’m a singer from New York City and I’m not leaving here until you help me!” Matteo smiled when he listened to my demo. He picked up the phone, spoke some Italian and hung up. He looked at me and said, “You have a gig this Friday with Oxa, a local rock band.” I burst into tears and that is how my music career in Italy started. That Friday, I sang Blondie and Heart in front of 5000 people at a school gymnasium. Soon after, I would be given the opportunity to record a song and have it go to number one. This led to tours, ups and downs and well, let’s just say, I wouldn’t change anything about it for the world. What a fucking ride it was.
GD: You’ve had success in the entertainment industry. What got you into the coworking business, and why Los Angeles?
Nancy Sexton: Even though I had been on TV as a personal trainer and had finally had a movie made as a writer, I was over killing myself for every opportunity. I knew I was done with personal training when I just didn’t give a shit if clients were losing weight or not. I do love helping people, but I was just tired of PT. Singing is something I still do, but there’s a big difference between having a dance career in my 20’s vs now. I still write songs and continue to try to sell them, but to perform in the Italian dance market would mean living in Italy and clearly I’m in LA now. Screenwriting on the other hand is something that I still pursue but I’d rather do it on the side and not be resentful of it if I’m not making money from it. In the spring of 2015 I told my husband that I was going to let the universe guide me to my new business. He supported me while I quit personal training and writing music and film. I told him to give me till the end of summer and if I didn’t come up with something that I would dig in my heels and get back into PT full time.
In Aug. around the 15th the idea came to me…well actually an email from a coworking space in Brentwood came to me and that’s when I pitched opening a space to my husband in the valley. There was a hole in the market for a lower price point and there wasn’t anything in our area. I had managed gyms in NYC, so the business model was very familiar to me.
GD: Lots of people thought the pandemic would be the end of coworking spaces. How did you manage to stay in business during the closures, which were particularly severe in California?
Nancy Sexton: We had two locations, one in Noho and one in Burbank. Luckily, our North Hollywood landlord asked me if I wanted out of our lease. After we didn’t get a lot of financing, I told her yeah, we’d give up the space. It sucked so hard. We had grown that location from 2k sq. ft. to 6k sq. ft and had 80 members. However, if we hadn’t closed Noho I would have lost our Burbank location as well. I was very grateful to have a location to close so that we could survive. I know many businesses that didn’t have that luxury.
GD: You testified to Congress about your experience applying for an SBA loan. What did you tell Congress? How difficult was the loan process?
Nancy Sexton: I told Congress about how horrible my experience had been and what they got wrong. The loan process consumed me for about a full month. I can’t even tell you how many hours I spent on hold. One day I was on hold for 15 hours and then got hung up on. That situation continued for about a month. Luckily I was working with a group called the SBDC and they kept me from jumping out of a window. I also kept meticulous notes so when they asked me to present something outlining my horrible experience, I could in great detail. The SBDC recommended me when they were selecting businesses to appear before Congress. Only 4 businesses in the US were chosen, so I felt pretty lucky. When they asked me to speak before Congress, my husband and I had a good laugh. “You may ask to speak to the manager….not me.. I go to the top!”
GD: How important has government aid been for businesses during the pandemic?
Nancy Sexton: We would have never made it without government aid. Last fall I finally received the aid that I thought I was going to get in the spring and thank god, cause we were getting down to the nitty gritty. Our Burbank location was bleeding out about $1500 a month so when we finally got more money, we let out a sigh of relief.
GD: I keep mentioning the pandemic like it is something that we all remember, instead of as an ongoing event. Considering the delta variant, not to mention the continuing resistance to vaccines and masks, how are you feeling about the future of The Muse Rooms now?
Nancy Sexton: I have been following what’s going on in England because we are a few weeks behind them and they are already doing better. However, they also have better vaccination rates than us. I think even with the Delta variant and vaccine resistance, people are ready to come back to work. I mean, the government is allowing big events to happen, restaurants are almost at full capacity, and children are back in school. At Muse Rooms we require proof of vaccination to become a member and you still have to wear a mask until the CDC says otherwise. The Muse Rooms is going to be just fine. We just opened our gorgeous new location near Warner Brothers and Universal and I am looking forward to welcoming new members to the space.