Volume 6, Number 2 – June 2009

The Rise of Co-Working Spaces

If you think back a few years, you might recall a flurry of articles and books that heralded the rise of the “Free Agent Nation” and the development of a “Brand Called You.”   These studies were reflecting on the emergence of freelance and project-based work as a more important part of local economies.  The economic downturn has actually helped spawn (not always by choice) a new generation of free lancers, and they are responding by developing many new interesting ways of working and collaborating.   The rise of co-working spaces is one of the more interesting innovations now emerging in communities across the US.

Co-working spaces are exactly what they sound like—-locations where individual entrepreneurs or free-lancers can come together for work.  They can build collaborations at the sites or simply use the co-working space as another place to do business. Co-working spaces take multiple forms, but they generally emerge from an entrepreneur or group of entrepreneurs who seek an alternative to working in coffee shops or other public spaces.  They desire a location where they can regularly do business, and, most importantly, interact with other talented people and businesses.   And, in keeping with the “alternative” ethos of many co-working spaces, most of them seem to have cool or funky names, like the Gangplank (Arizona), the Treehouse (New York City), or the Indoor Playground (Toronto).

Some working spaces are just that:  an open space where people can plug in a computer and work.  Many spaces allow users to rent a desk, while others have an open drop-in option. Others try to serve as a local hub for other free lancers and entrepreneurs.  For example, the Gangplank in Chandler, Arizona, provides free work space, but it also tries to link local professionals with other sources of business support and technical assistance.   It also hosts social events, as well as workshops with experts on various topics related to business development and information technology trends.  

These co-working spaces differ from earlier models, such as business incubators, because building collaboration is their primary function.  Many of the tools and resources provided by incubators are now digitized and can be stored on servers or individual computers.   The need for dedicated office space—a primary benefit of traditional incubators—thus becomes less pressing for many budding entrepreneurs.

Because of the informal nature of co-working, these locations are also much less expensive to create and manage.   In many cases, it’s as simple as finding an empty space, filling it with desks, and ensuring good broadband access.   As such, the development of co-working spaces makes great sense for communities seeking to nurture new business owners and to build strong local collaborative networks.

 In some ways, co-working spaces can be viewed as one physical embodiment of the open source movement.   Changing patterns of work mean that much of our current work is project-based.  In what some observers have called the “gig economy,” teams of people come together to collaborate on a project.  Once they complete the project, they build new collaborations to take on new projects.  These collaborations help improve the quality of the final end product, while also providing a community for free lancers and entrepreneurs. 

The first co-working spaces began emerging in the early part of this decade.  For example, Washington DC’s Affinity Lab, one of the earliest sites, first opened in 2000.  But, they have blossomed in the past couple of years, and you can now find co-working spaces in most major cities.  The next step appears to be emerging now in the form of services being provided across co-working spaces.  For example, interested individuals can get a “co-working visa” that allows them to use approved co-working spaces in other cities. Co-working advocates are also discussing creation of their own credit union.  Finally, efforts to provide health care and other benefits are further along thanks to the pioneering work of groups like New York City’s Freelancer’s Union.  

It’s pretty clear from current economic trends that these patterns of project-based work will be with us for some time.  Thus, we can expect to see growing demand for co-working spaces, and, at the same time, greater sophistication in how these spaces are managed and utilized.    As a result, co-working spaces are likely to become important parts of every region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Resources on Co-Working Spaces

-Affinity Lab:  http://www.affinitylab.com/
-Cool Town Studios:  www.cooltownstudios.com
-Co-Working Wiki:  http://coworking.pbworks.com/
-Freelancer’s Union:  www.freelancersunion.org
-Gangplank:  www.gangplankhq.com
-“Work and the Open Source City,” article by Laura Forlano for the Urban Omnibus, June 3, 2000:  http://urbanomnibus.net

What’s New at EntreWorks Consulting?

Council for Community Economic Research Award

The Maine Department of Economic and Community Development was selected as the 2009 recipient of the Council for Community Economic Research’s Award for Excellence in Project Impact Analysis and Program Evaluation.   DECD was selected for its Comprehensive Research and Development and Comprehensive Economic Development Evaluation programs.   EntreWorks has served as a lead partner with DECD on these important initiatives.  To learn more, visit www.econdevmaine.com

E-Book on the Stimulus and SBA

EntreWorks’ Erik Pages recently contributed to an E-book that examined how the stimulus package and other Obama Administration initiatives will affect the marketplace for small businesses.  To access the book, click here: