Keep It Moving

Veteran Entrepreneur Joe Donnolo Shares The Keys To His Success


There is a revolution going on in the world of office space spurred by the rising popularity of shared offices around the globe. The concept of budding entrepreneurs and seasoned professionals receiving flexible lease options, and the ability to network with a variety of workers from various industries became the new trend for people who need office space without being tied down to long-term leases. One man who foresaw the coworking business model taking off is veteran commercial real estate entrepreneur, Joe Donnolo, founder and managing partner of 3rd Space in Newark, New Jersey. 

“Learning about the reasons why people wanted small coworking spaces, we started to chop up our office space into small spaces to rent [and we] filled the building! While other commercial rental offices were only 70% rented, we were filled to capacity. We had short-term leases. Everybody offered five years, while we would do two years. We knew that it would be successful and that the [commercial real estate] market was changing,” said Donnolo, who over the course of a four decade plus career as an entrepreneur created five different businesses from waste management to commercial real estate. After spending years doing research on the shared office business model, Donnolo’s first attempt at starting his own coworking space in 2008 never took off until his family reignited his interest. “I’m not sure if they didn’t get involved if I would have still pursued it, but once they got into it, I got even more into it.”

3rd Space is the first family owned boutique coworking space in the heart of Newark, offering private offices, dedicated desks, conference rooms, workshop space, a podcast room and an onsite cafe. Donnolo felt that the Ironbound neighborhood known for cultural diversity and countless restaurants was the perfect area to build his dream.“We looked at a lot of other places, before we decided to come to Newark. We looked in Redbank, Montclair and Westfield, but once we came to Newark, we knew this city was the place we wanted to be,” said Jennifer Donnolo, Joe’s daughter and President of 3rd Space. 

Working with family is nothing new for the 77-year-old Donnolo, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York near Coney Island. As a youngster, Donnolo watched his family’s work ethic, which made him decide how he wanted to live his life when he became an adult. After witnessing his father Paul work day in and day out for meager wages to provide for his family, he knew that the education would be the key to his success. “I was able to see the difference between the people who went to college and those that became blue collar workers. Not too many people who I hung around growing up were motivated to go to college, but I wanted to work in an office.” 

Another motivating factor which lead Donnolo down the road to higher education was an ultimatum given to him by his father, who told him that he would either buy him a new car if he enrolled in college or kick him out of the house if he didn’t. Donnolo’s father, who battled alcoholism and low self-esteem, was keen on making sure that his son had a better life than he did. “From the time that I was five years old, to the time that I was out of high school, he would introduce me to people and say, ‘This is my son, Joe. He’s not going to be a dummy like me, he’s going to college.’” 

Donnolo’s academic career didn’t get off to a good start when he began community college. He was placed on academic probation in his third semester with a 1.2 grade-point average while studying Airframe and Powerplant Technology. It didn’t take long for Donnolo to realize that he needed to change majors or have his dream of receiving a college degree deferred. “When I started to take applied physics, the world just opened up for me,” Donnolo recalled.  Not only did the courses in electrical engineering and math stimulate Donnolo’s mind, it also opened him up to a new circle of friends that propelled him academically.  “From then on, all I wanted to do was work in physics and electronics. I was always working and studying.”

Donnolo did so well towards the end of his college career in 1963 that Xerox offered him a job designing circuits at their Rochester, New York headquarters. For over two years while working for Xerox, Donnolo’s professional and social circle expanded. “I began to meet doctors and physicists, we all used to go out to lunch together. I was like, ‘Oh my God! I want to be like one of these guys.’ I felt like I belonged there. I was like if they can do it, so could I.” Deciding to go even further, Donnolo took night classes at the University of Rochester for his master’s while working at Xerox during the day. All seemed to be going well for Donnolo until his father passed away and he had to take over the family business the very next day, because that was the only source of income. “My father used to do the same thing that my grandfather used to do, collecting recycled rags and paper, which turned into a rubbish removal business that made $21,000 a year.”

Little did Donnolo know, that $21,000 a year business would lead him to become a wealthy businessman in the future. One day while sitting in the truck that his father rented for his business, Donnolo got an idea to form a waste removal company with his uncle.  “I knew that if you wanted to get some business you would have to go to the superintendent of the building. I would meet with theses supers and tell them our ideas, but they never cared about the idea. They only wanted to know how much. So, I realized after a while that an idea is an idea, but you had to have the right price. So, if someone bid $1000 we would bid $800, because you had to be lower.” 

Donnolo’s first business with his uncle would eventually turn into other successful enterprises, which eventually led him into the commercial real estate business he is in today. Donnolo said that he is more interested in what he can create next more than he is about money and that he attributes the keys to his success more to his personality and the ability to communicate well with people than anything else. 

When you ask a man who has made millions of dollars in revenue and employed over 400 workers with his various business ventures over the years what he considers to be his greatest accomplishment, he doesn’t miss a beat as he looks over at his daughter and son-in-law during the interview. “I’m most proud of my family and putting people to work. I would tell an aspiring entrepreneur to think about a short-term dream and when you almost get to that point where you reached your goal, make yourself another goal. Keep going on.”