case study: toronto’s inner garden

Ever wanted to create your own holistic hub or event center for cool things?

My pal Rob Helmer (pictured here with his daughter) did it in Toronto with his Inner Garden space and shares his lessons, thoughts and success secrets here.


What is the inner garden?

Basically, it’s a beautiful space in the heart of downtown Toronto that we rent out for events.  Our goal is to co-create space for an intriguing array of events & gatherings. We provide teachers, healers musicians, performers and facilitators the opportunity to connect & share with the local community in an inspiring venue.

Can you describe your space for those who haven’t seen it?

Put simply, the event space has an earthy-zen look to it, the real hard word floors, natural tree-stump seating and greenery make the ambiance warm and inviting.

The physical appearance reflects the lush and abundant gardens that are stylistic of the West and the simple elegance of gardens from the east. This merging of east and west has created a site for people to find rest and relaxation, where they can embrace Being fully, and also be stimulated and nourished.

The space is blessed with natural light filtering in during the day, through a large skylight in the central space and large windows in every room.  For evening events, our lighting we have installed allows the user to create the ambiance they desire at night.

Did I mention we have tree stumps?

What’s the story of how this started? How did you get to be doing this?

In short, like all great things in life i did not plan it this way i just fell into it.

But you were doing Chinese medicine before. How does one go from being a Chinese medical practitioner to an event space organizer?

I have been involved in TCM for over 12 years.  I originally moved into the space a year ago wanting to open the first school dedicated specifically dedicated to Chinese herbal medicine outside of China.  The teachers (some of the best in the world were in place) and cur

riculum were in place but I could not find private funding to support the project and with recent professional regulations being passed in Ontario I decided to delay the project (and now with the event space consuming most of my time I have let go of this idea altogether).

My business model (at that time) included three aspects a herbal medicine school,  an event space and clinical space (with free student clinics for the general public).  My idea was to have the school be the hub for the other two.  Fifteen months later, the events space is front and central and the further I remove myself from TCM the better things seem to flow for me financially.  I feel this new venture helps me “fit my life into my job instead of my job into my life” (thanks for this Alex Baisley).  Most importantly, it allows me greater freedom to spend more time with my daughter and others I I hold close to my heart.

In some ways, it  was difficult for me to let go of practicing Chinese medicine full-time, similar to a bad relationship that is providing a person with some good elements but is not nourishing them and sustaining them on all levels.  TCM (treating patients, writing, teaching etc.) was my main (i.e. only) source of income for a dozen years so the biggest thing I needed to let go of was the financial security this provided me (or at least that is what my mind was telling me).  However, in the end I feel I was meant to leave TCM as my energy and passion for it diminished in the last year so did my income.

I really only made a commitment to running the event space as more of a full-time gig in October 2010 when we launched the new website and renamed the space.

This coincided with spending time with Alex Baisley and yourself last fall which was very useful and reminded me of some things I had forgotten previously that had worked for me in the past and and this time also helped me gain a clearer vision of what I would like to do moving forward.  Some people (patients, students or interns of mine in the past, colleagues, my parents) that have found out are a little perplexed by the shift but this is the direction life is taking me.

And what was the need or opportunity you saw in the community that had you decide to do this?

I saw the limitations of medicine (both modern medicine and alternative medicine).  I wanted to offer events in the space that would help people heal and ease their suffering, i.e. satsang, healing music, or events that focused on going beyond the mind and ego were the first events to take place in the space and a year later these events remain the cornerstone of what we offer.

What kinds of events have you run?

The space is really a blank canvas or playground for people to explore and make their dreams reality.  The event space has only been available for one year and just about everything has taken place here from day long silent retreats to concerts with dancing or yoga with live music, from networking events for social entrepreneurs, fundraising events to singer-songwriter nights to Playback theatre and opera.  One of the most exciting things is there is always new things happening in the space.

In general we are proud to honour the many paths that are available to us as humans on this journey and my experience has been over the last year is it is more important who is running the event than what they are offering.

On the horizon we will be offering documentary film nights and storytelling evenings on a regular basis.

Which events have been most popular?

I don’t know if I see it that way. I think every event serves its purpose.  Events range from a handful of people gathering to over a hundred people.  It is hard to judge what is popular – in general i find people want to feel oneness or connected with others so the tendency in the last several months is the space is attracting people that are looking for a sacred or intimate place to build community whether that is through a group of singer/song writers, satsang, those interested in food security, healing music or something else.

How much do you charge people to rent the space?
Event prices range with many events being accessible to anyone wanting to attend (as many people offer events on a suggested donation basis)

$90 a night or $150 for a day are the suggested donation for use of the space

You seem to give a lot away – letting people rent for free sometimes – what’s your perspective on that?

In the first 6-9 months of running the space we let people use the space for free.

I wish we could give more away.  In time when the space sustains itself more we will be able to give back more to the local community.  In the meantime we do the best we can.

The space only exists due to the generosity of others and to be honest really has nothing to do with me (I am just fortunate to be a witness of the transformation). The personal transformation I have went through from witnessing the generosity and love and support from the local community for this space cannot be described in words (but it can be felt if you spend enough time in the space).  On a personal level I had nothing a year ago ( although it is not relevant I was at the bottom of the barrel financially as I had claimed bankruptcy about six months prior to moving into the space = no money and could not borrow any money from a financial institution) and The Inner Garden grew out of this darkness and nothingness similar to a water lily growing out out of a muddy pond.

I did not ask people for favors or discounted services when renovating and creating the space (although several people did step forward to loan me money).  I just handpicked the people whose professional ability I respected and valued not worried about cost and they all felt the nature of what we were trying to do and  everyone went above and beyond what was expected.

Quite magical really!

I am blessed to be surrounded by people in my life that demonstrate to me how to give without expecting anything in return.  Being in service to humanity and giving from your heart are probably the most important qualities that we try to bring into the space.

Personal note – if you remember our relationship began by me calling you up and offering you the space for free (after hearing about you from several people I loved and respected).   Of course, you did pay me for use for the space but I did not expect anything in return. From working together our relationship blossomed and through you I met so many amazing people and from a financial perspective made thousands of dollars.


The great thing is when you give without expecting anything in return you become a magnet for people that do the same thing.

So you’re saying when you give so generously – that you tend to attract others who are willing to give generously – and that this might take the form of them wanting to pay you even when you’ve not asked for anything? I’m curious what other forms this generosity has shown up in.

I don’t usually discuss things but if it can be an example to empower other entrepreneurs to build their businesses and success through love, compassion and tolerance than I am willing to share a few examples.

One example, is we have offered several potlucks for lazy people for those in our building (which is one of the coolest buildings in the city – where we offered the use of the space for free and bought food and drink for sixty people.  This was a great success and really appreciated by those who attended and now together with a few businesses in the building we have set up  a C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture) for the building.  In other words, we are helping a local farmer sell directly to people in our building.  These types of events are focused on building community without expecting anything in return.
This type of offering is difficult for people to comprehend at first because based on past experience they are looking for the catch but there isn’t one.

I do not worry about them paying ever.  I just follow my heart and give what I can.  I know i will be provided what I need in this life.
The forms of generosity are abundant. Another recent example, a person I lent the space to on a donation basis about ten times over the last year has recently purchased a professional sound system for the space which was a much needed asset for the space.

I also regularly invite people to attend events at the space for free as my guests.  I usually do this to help increase awareness of the great things happening at the space + it allows me to connect with those attending the events at the space and get to know them better + it gives me a way to thank people for supporting past events in the space by allowing them to come for free.

Creating community – some events are used to build community and not make money – this is great because people relax and let down their barriers.  I never want people to feel like they are being sold something in the space

What do you think happens when people feel like they’re being ‘sold‘ something?

They don’t let their guard down and you cannot truly connect with them.  Doesn’t make me feel good to connect on this level.  It also does not make me feel good when people are only promoting their own work and not helping others.

Right. I have the same thing with my pay what you can workshop. People are like, ‘what’s the deal? Where’s the catch? When’s the big pitch going to come?’ and it never does. And then people are just delighted. When they finally realize that it’s just my offering to the community . . . It’s such a beautiful thing. I have people coming up to me at the end of weekends with tears in their eyes sometimes because they’re so grateful and amazed at what was created over the weekend. I love it.

You are real.  This is what I love about you. In my opinion, you are very authentic.  Many people try to do what you do but for them it is a marketing strategy which for me can be easy to identify and I think on some level this can be sensed by most people.  I have felt this way about several projects that initially started using the space or wanted to use the space and I decided to distance myself from them and suggest they use a different space.

Do you feel like most people try to push the relationship too far too fast? Or try to formalize it before it’s ready? Or push it in a box?

This can happen.  I don’t usually resonate with people that do this and I assume they do not resonate with me either.  I compare it to dating and relationships and the various levels relationships may take

1) friends

2) dating

3) committed realtionship

4) intimacy (of course this can happen earlier in this process :))

5) marriage
6) kids

So some people you meet you are feeling like you are just on the first level and they want to jump to #5 after five minutes of conversation or because they know someone you know.  You must get this a lot- someone hears about you – thinks this dude knows a lot of people – next they contact you and want you to be their pimp or best friend, lover , husband, father to their child and you are thinking who the f$%* is this person, maybe i should check their criminal record or at least their credit rating.  Are you following my madness?

I did this a couple times trying to be helpful and support people but discovered it was not wise.

It is so, so, so important who you co-associate with.  Being friends with someone is different then promoting their work or putting your name on the line for them.

Was it hard in the beginning – when you were so broke to be so generous?

No.  I was glad i was able to give back to the communities that had nourished me and supported me during my most difficult times

Offering the space for free for the first six months and co-creating with the right people who promote the space were both essential to help us grow in the beginning.

Allowing people to come to you and let relationships organically grow is also important if you want to be a hub for events.

What’s the response been so far?

Wonderful.  We are almost at the point where the space can start to sustain itself in less than a year.

How are you marketing this? What’s been most effective?

As you can see from our website we don’t market the event space directly we just advertise the events that occur at the space on our website and facebook.

The space and the experience of being in the space sells itself.  Most people who approach us about renting have previously attended an event at the space themselves.

Personally, if there is a type of event that I would like to personally have happening at the space I try to connect with Hubs in that community and  invite them for tea.  That is my main advertising. I basically sit with people and chat to discuss their hopes and dreams (and sometimes The Inner Garden can support them in making their dreams reality).  I meet with anyone really i.e. I meet with those interested in meeting and connecting not just people that want to rent space.

But you do have an email newsletter which you send out yes? How many people are on that list at this point?

Yes, the newsletter is for the events not the rentals though (although having a nice newsletter attracts customers).  Rachelle is the creative mastermind at The Inner Garden that takes care of everything that we require to promote the space and events.  Our long-term plan is to have a monthly newsletter + weekly updates that feature (a specific event) each week.
Not sure how many people (approx. 500) are on our list but we do have people requesting to be on the list each week (maybe 5 people a week) through our website.

One idea (long-term) was to offer to include people on our website and newsletter for free in exchange for circulating our newsletter to their contact list.  This would not be policed but just done on a honor system. I trust that this would help build their reputation with their own contact list by showing their contacts the great space they are using and what other great people are using the community space that they are using.

This helps us build a community and bypasses me trying to collect emails at someone else’s event (which is awkward).  For instance, if 12 groups use the space each month and they each have 500 people in their list each person’s event gets to 6000 people instead of 500.  This goes further if 40 groups use the space over the course of the year now your newsletter is going to 20000 people.  We are currently offering the links and newsletter for free now but to become sustainable long-term we may have to do something.

If someone wanted to do a similar thing what would you say are the biggest mistakes to avoid?

Have people pay in advance in full. People who cannot commit ahead of time will probably not be successful and will be more likely to drop out on you.  This happened several times and cost me ++ money

Be mindful of how much time you spend promoting events.  Sometimes it is important to cut your losses (and admit your mistakes).  Communicate clearly.

What are the things you think people could mis-communicate on doing the kind of thing you do?

Lack of clarity on boundaries and expectations.  From when money is due to what hours they are able to use the space from to what is and is not allowed in the space

Most people i co-associate are just super grateful so i don’t really have any problems. Above was just mostly growing pains

I’d also say follow your gut instinct of what you should have in the space or who you should get involved with and most importantly it is more important to have quality events then it is to have quantity of events

Can you share a story of a time you didn’t trust your gut and what happened?

Last year I had an artist whose art I agreed to display.

In my opinion, I did a huge favor for someone else that uses one of the offices in the space.  My gut said no, no no but i tried to be nice and I  needed the money. The artist ended up damaging the place (costing me a lot of personal hours to fix up the place), and then yelling and swearing at me etc.  So i returned his $300 without being asked and moved on.  I considered it taxing myself for not following my gut.  The great thing was he was transformed in this process.

He was transformed from a person that was very angry and felt like he was taken advantage of  to a person who now smiles at me in the hallway and talks to me.  So instead of having someone spreading false rumors about the space and me he came to me insisting on returning the money and appologized for his actions.

What do you think are the most important things to making this kind of thing work?

The most important is a clear vision of what you would like to do.

What does this mean to you and why is it important. Most people would say they have a clear vision. What’s the cost of not having this clear?

If you are not clear you will attract people and situations that you do not want to wish to have in your life.

And then it’s all about love and support from those close to you, and a willingness to change your direction if things are not working out.

I’m curious where you’ve had to change your direction with this.

The whole direction of the space changed (see above) from a school to an event space.  Also i think you need to be open to how others want to use the space not just your own ideas (but at the same time following your gut and having a clear vision which can be a fine line at times).


For more info just visit the Inner Garden website.


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