Co-Working Spaces Meet Changing Needs

For the first two years after Sarah Rainwater arrived in Providence, R.I., she worked remotely from her home for a design firm in Los Angeles. But she missed the collegiality of her former office and began looking for alternatives to toiling from her house where, she said, there always seemed a pile of clothes to fold or some other domestic task to distract her.

She found the answer to her quest at the Design Office, a 3,000-square-foot co-working space where she first signed up as a part-time member, planning to come in just two days a week.

“But after the first week, I decided I’d become a full-time member because it was so much better than working from home,” said Rainwater, a graphic designer.

She’s far from alone. Thousands of other freelancers of all stripes — as well as entrepreneurs and remote workers who might be full-time employees somewhere other than the cities where they live — have signed up at shared workspaces where they often collaborate with others, participate in seminars and enjoy the human contact they might have missed working at their kitchen tables.

The trend began on the coasts about a decade ago, said Allen Dines, a former University of Wisconsin–Madison official and startup coach who has created several of his own life-science companies. He said the trend has since spread around the country with hundreds of co-working spaces being created in the past few years.

Dines, who mentors would-be entrepreneurs, said shared workspaces fill a need in a changing economy. He sometimes recommends that people check out this new breed of office “to get them plugged into a community where perhaps they can collaborate and work together. These spaces increase the chances for that kind of synergy. They can also benefit from the networking that goes on or the seminars that might be offered. Rolling out of bed and working at the kitchen table can be nice — and I imagine people who use co-working spaces still do that — but being in an office with others who you might be able to share ideas with is great, too.”

Rainwater, who has designed products for the upscale Williams Sonoma and West Elm stores, said when she is working on a website project, she’ll sometimes collaborate with a developer and programmer at the Design Office.

“I also find I’m more productive when I get out of the house,” she said. “It helps me because I get in a different mindset. Sometimes I wish it were quieter at the Design Office, so then I’ll just put on my headphones to block out the noise and ignore everyone. But overall, the experience of having the energy of other creative, supportive people around has been a big benefit.”

Rainwater said picking the right co-working space can be important. Some might benefit from being in a diverse office where they’re not competing with deskmates and can get fresh opinions from outside their field. For others, the opposite is true.

“It all depends on your wants and needs,” she said. 

The Design Office is the brainchild of John Caserta, who was teaching part-time at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2007. He had a solo graphic design business, but was subcontracting some of the work occasionally.

“I was looking for a place to run my design practice, but it didn’t make sense to have my own, one-person office,” he said. “I wanted to open up a space where other people who had similar ideas could join together. But there wasn’t anything like that, that I knew of, so I started one. Providence is a fairly small city (population 180,000), but there are a lot of creative folks here.”

He opened a 700-square-foot office with enough room for four people. In 2012, he moved to a larger space. Members now total around 20.

“The number goes up and down, depending on who’s around and needs space,” he said. “We serve the creative sector, so graphic designers or industrial designers would be the simple term to describe us, folks who are more desk-oriented and whose work can be done on a Mac. We have some really great spaces with a production table, a projection wall and a library. We have a couple of photographers now and several computer programmers who fit really well because they complement designers, meaning we probably have a core of six to eight graphic designers and then six programmers and two or three folks into industrial design.”

To get into the Design Office, people must apply and be interviewed. For the most part, Caserta said he’s looking for long-term members who “are deep into their work and can sustain themselves financially with a model that is service-oriented. But we don’t scale well and we don’t want three- or four-person companies because they tend to take over the energy of the space.”

A full-time membership costs $385 a month, while part-time runs $155. Currently, two-thirds of the members are part-time and they can “squat” at unoccupied tables for up to 20 hours a week. Full-timers have their own desks, can use sophisticated printers and store materials.

He said collaboration happens frequently at the Design Office, with more senior members sometimes helping junior members with projects.

“It happens in surprising ways,” said Caserta, who is now an assistant professor and head of the graphic design department at RISD. Design Office also offers monthly events for members, brings in speakers and even hosts a Christmas party.

“I did a napkin sketch after work with someone who was there a while back,” Caserta said. “He started working on the back end and the programming language behind it, the server side application and then showed it to me two weeks later. I had no idea he was working on it, but after I saw what he’d done, I started working on my side and we essentially made a complete website with a secure credit card system and the whole bit in two or three months just because we had a similar interest. We shared an impromptu idea. There are a lot of examples of things like that — ground up ideas. It is incredible that way.”

Caserta said he considers Design Office to be “a piece of the puzzle that can help the creative sector. It’s an interesting space where you can jump in if you are new to town or if your career is taking a different direction.”

In Madison, Wis., co-founder Michael Fenchel started the 100State shared workspace with Nikolai Skievaski in — of all places — an old caboose at a former railroad depot on West Washington Avenue. It’s one of four coworking spaces in Madison, a university city of roughly 250,000. 100State began organically, Fenchel said, when the caboose began to fill up with other entrepreneurs and creative folks.

“We were using that office, working on projects, sharing ideas and doing civic stuff to help the city of Madison,” he said. “We built up a little bit of momentum, got written up by the local press and had more and more people who wanted to join. We outgrew the caboose.”

One thing led to another and Fenchel and his co-workers were invited to share a bigger office at 100 State St., from which the organization took its name. As the membership continued to grow, it moved last September to new offices on the nearby Capitol Square. It now has nearly 200 members.

“Our philosophy is that collaboration is a positive feature of work,” he said. “We want people who are excited about working in an environment where freelancers or startups can partner with people who are willing to contribute advice and expertise to others. We interview everyone before they join to make sure they are trustworthy and committed. After that, it is a cultural thing.”

Fenchel said about half the 100State members are working on IT projects, with the remainder spread around other fields, including healthcare, law, and performing and fine arts. Others are simply remote employees who tired of working from desks or kitchen tables at home.

“We have a nice mix, with one-third entrepreneurs working on startups, one-third freelancers or ‘solopreneurs,’ as we call them, and one-third professionals,” he said. “So we have doctors, lawyers, teachers, grad students and retirees working on their own projects. All those groups come together to share their ideas and space. We also have a huge focus on uncovering and trying to solve local problems, which I think makes us unique.

“In addition, we have an artist-in-residence program where we provide free membership for five local artists. Another group was formed to provide a way for area companies to have local art on their walls, kind of a rotating gallery.”

Part-time membership prices at 100State start at $50 a month. The next level is $75 monthly for 24/7 access and there is a $180 option for those who want a dedicated workspace. There are also nine separate offices for small businesses that cost between $300 and $600 a month. The total workspace covers 6,500 feet.

“We host a ton of community initiatives, including conferences, too,” he said. “MadCity Bazaar, an urban pop-up flea market, operates out of here and a music group, too. We see a lot of opportunities to help make Madison a better place.”

Out on the West Coast, former Santa Cruz economic development manager Jeremy Neuner got together with then mayor Ryan Coonerty and lawyer Caleb Baskin in June of 2008 to launch NextSpace.

Neuner, author of the “Naked Economy” and a former Navy helicopter pilot, said the trio saw the shared workspace concept as a “way to bring together talent, ideas and capital. Initially, we viewed this as a way to jump-start the local economy. Before long, we realized that we were on to something bigger, a revolution in the nature of work.”

In 2006 and 2007, when the state’s economy was in the tank, the trio was thinking about how to create economic vitality and jobs in Santa Cruz, a surfing town about 75 miles south of San Francisco.

“We didn’t have tons of money, incentives or tax breaks to attract new businesses, so we were really frustrated,” he said. “About the same time, we realized that there were lots of people in town who are freelancers and consultants, entrepreneurs, specialists for hire and telecommuters. Really talented and amazing folks, but very disparate, working out of their houses, coffee shops or little, 200-square-foot offices. We saw them as the raw material, so to speak, that we could use to really build a vibrant economy.

“So rather than trying to recruit, attract and retain one 200-person company, we thought ‘let’s bring together 200 one-person companies.’ We figured if each one of those single-person firms could become a two-person company, that would be one of the biggest job creation events in the history of Santa Cruz. That was the impetus for NextSpace, the idea that we could really build an economy based not on jobs and companies per se, but based on people.”

Neuner, who has a graduate degree from the Kennedy School of Business at Harvard, quit his job to run NextSpace. It has grown from the 11,000-squarefoot “mother ship” in Santa Cruz since its start, adding nine more shared-work spaces, including three in San Francisco, one in Berkeley, one in San Jose, two in Los Angeles and one in Chicago.

He said the membership is purposefully broad. Monthly rates range from $300 for first-come, first-served “café memberships” for nomads to use unoccupied desks to $3,000 a month for a suite for a small company.

“We don’t discriminate based on industry or where you are in your company’s life cycle,” he said. “We want everybody. We want tech people. We want creative people, accountants, attorneys and marketing people. The broader and deeper the talent pool is, the better chance you have to bump into people who have skills, ideas and connections that you need. What we say is we aren’t renting you space, we are selling you membership in a community.”

Neuner said he hopes to expand NextSpace to smaller cities around the country. He said he’s seeking out communities like Santa Cruz that have an attractive lifestyle, strong colleges or universities and a lot of smart, interesting people.

“Even though we are in some big cities, we have a model that works well in smaller communities, especially those that are looking to reignite their local economies,” he said. “We plan to get back to our roots and use NextSpace as an economic development catalyst.

“In a lot of ways, our country has moved beyond long-term employment. Now a lot of work is stripped bare to the essence of you applying your skills and talents in the marketplace. The trend is toward entrepreneurism, freelancing, independent consulting and mobility. Work is no longer a place, but what you do. NextSpace and other co-working offices fit well into that model.”

Brian E. Clark is a Wisconsin-based journalist and a former staff writer on the business desk of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwau-kee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News and other publications.

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