Our feature story this week is about the rise of coworking in the North Bay. The following is a longer excerpt from our interview with Genevieve DeGuzman, co-author of the Working in the 'Unoffice:' A Guide to Coworking for Indie Workers, Small Businesses, and Nonprofits, out now via Night Owls Press.
Is coworking a growing phenomena? Why? Are there more freelancers, people who work from home, entrepreneurs now?
Coworking is definitely growing and a large part of that can be attributed to the fact that more people are working for themselves or are telecommuting from their jobs. Technology is a large driver of that, making it easier than ever to do work remotely. Most of us have laptops, smartphones, and tablets and access files off the cloud. These digital tools make it possible to get work done from any location. It can even make work more efficient. Workers aren't distracted by the downsides of in-person office life: office politics, endless meetings, long commutes, and so on. They can plug in, get the work done, get on Skype to touch base with team members, and get on with life. The rise of more independent professionals — entrepreneurs, such as freelancers and startups — as well as telecommuters who opt to work offsite comes with a cost though — isolation and inconvenience… and that's where coworking comes in.
Note: for some hard stats on growth patterns, check Deskmag.com.
What does it take for a cowork space to survive?
A space that builds out a facility and hopes expectantly that people will come is more likely to be the space that closes down in a few months. One of the biggest reasons coworking spaces close is that they can't meet the membership threshold to cover rent and other capital costs to keep the lights on. So, the biggest priority to be long-lived as a space is solid membership numbers.
In coworking language that translates to figuring out what drives your community. Most members stick around because they like the coworking culture. In essence, the space has to be more than just people wanting to save money by not having to buy Starbucks lattes everyday and having a place to network to make business contacts. Owners of spaces have to figure out what makes their members tick beyond their professional goals. This comes down to programs and events. Are people just showing up and then leaving at the end of the day? Do they say hello and then put on their headphones? Do they stick around after work, or come back on weekends? What you don't want is that the space regresses into just another office space where people plug in and work, working on their own projects with blinders on. Spaces have to focus on keeping their community energized.
So, before building out that coworking space and signing that 2-year lease on a building, entrepreneurs who want to start a coworking space should start building their membership before hand. Find out what the actual demand is. Hold local "Jellies" to gauge interest in a shared workspace. What are people looking for? Market and engage local businesses, build up that buzz and demand first.
Then, once you're operating, keep close tabs on membership turnover. On one hand, high turnover can signal instability in a space; on the other hand, it could mean a space is successful, attracting and cultivating superstars that steadily expand and then find they have to graduate out. Startups often leverage a coworking space this way; then they get massive VC funding and find that they can afford their own space. In fact, many companies often see a coworking space as just an intermediate step.
As a space, you want to make sure you have enough long-term members to offset your casual or part-time coworkers. Many spaces focus first on getting 'anchor' companies to join (who are more or less committed to working out of the space for a few years) and then the more irregular members can flit in and out every few months without too much risk to the coworking space.
What are the benefits of coworking vs. working at home or working at a coffeehouse?
Coworking provides a more structured and secure environment than what you can find at your local coffee shop (where Wi-Fi networks may be riddled with security holes or when prime spots next to the wall outlets are scarce), and it's less isolating than working at home day in and day out, in your PJs. If you're looking for a community of fellow entrepreneurs to be around, coworking spaces are ideal places to work. It's the camaraderie that sets it apart from other remote work locations. You're no longer just getting that startup or freelance career off the ground in your lonely little bubble. Now, you have that tribe — people to be around without the office politics.
And then there's the magic of sharing: sharing ideas, exchanging services. There are countless stories of businesses getting leads for clients or partnerships from fellow members. You also get exposure to people with different backgrounds and life experiences. Who knows what random conversation at the brownbag lunch or Meetup will prod the walls and fences of your thinking, making you a better entrepreneur. You gain so much more from working because it's about seeing other businesses as potential connections rather than competition.
It's great for people seeking to get out of the hermetic enclosures of their homes, who need to be around people to work, and want to plant roots in a community of fellow entrepreneurs. Coworking is really about getting away from the old model of working and looking at work and life more collaboratively. Great ideas come out of the churn of working alongside others.
What type of people tend to take advantage of cowork spaces?
People from all types of fields and industries flock to coworking spaces, though tech is still the dominant industry with app developers and web startups making up most of the membership demographic (especially here in the SF Bay Area). But you're also seeing more nonprofits, social enterprise, telecommuters, and creative professionals looking to coworking spaces as their default workspace. Diversity is always a good thing for a space, I think.
Entrepreneurs who are just starting out may choose to cowork because of the benefits of having that community and exposure. It's a tough life being a first-time entrepreneur or just getting your business off the ground; coworking gets you talking to people, exchanging ideas — and that might be well-worth the investment for many startups. In fact, you could look at some coworking spaces as pre-incubators, where startups go to prototype and experiment with new ideas. It's also low-pressure networking. There's no exchanging awkward elevator speeches — just conversation across the table.