Need a space to make business decisions? Co-working mixes independence with just the right amount of structure.

  • Image about Shelia Butler

Photo credit: Chris Korbey/The Photo Division

When Shelia Butler set out to launch her Me Giant line of children’s clothing, the thought of working at home was hardly energizing. “I’m the kind of person who has all the exercise equipment at my house, but I work out better at the gym,” she explains. “In the same way, being around smart, productive people gives me a little kick when I work.”

The desire to be near other working people, even strangers laboring in unrelated fields, led Butler to SmartOffice in suburban Dallas, where start-up entrepreneurs, freelancers and full-time employees based far from headquarters can rent a spot to work.

“I like the modern, open feel of the place and being able to bounce ideas off people with different backgrounds,” she says. “It’s much better than being stuck at home or renting spare space in the back of some half-empty office.”

Before she discovered SmartOffice, the 43-year-old Butler had never heard of the term co-working, the idea of working solo alongside other independents. The concept originated in 2005 in San Francisco, where software programmer Brad Neuberg got a few friends together to share a rental space as well as office tools. (He later went to work for Google.)

In the five years since, co-working has spread to most major U.S. cities and abroad to Europe and Asia. Part movement, part office-space trend, it has its own wiki and even a “visa” program granting people a chair at distant co-working sites when they’re on the road.

With the appearance of SmartOffice and others like it, this tech-oriented, urban notion is branching out to the suburbs, where people from a wide range of occupations are finding it fits their needs. That utility is likely to grow as the ranks of self-employed Americans continue to climb, an outgrowth of the recent recession and broader work force trends.

Trent Clark, a 45-year-old architect who opened SmartOffice earlier this year, researched several co-working sites in Austin, Texas, before deciding to try the idea in the Dallas suburb of Flower Mound. “I worked out of my home for nine years, but all of a sudden I have four kids being home-schooled. I began to look for a place nearby where I could meet clients,” he recalls.