He decided to renovate a 1,300-square-foot frame house at the edge of a business park into a Wi-Fi–equipped co-working site for himself and others, and he suspected he would attract a slightly different clientele than some of the techie frat-house spaces that have a kegerator next to the fax machine.
The main space, smartly designed in “earthy retro” tones, is dominated by a central table and 10 chairs. Five cubicles run down one wall and three more semi-enclosed spaces fill another. The break room is stocked with cold sodas and bottled water, a single-serve gourmet coffee machine and an espresso maker. There’s a small conference room and a copy room/bindery outfitted with all the standard office machines, including a commercial-grade printer for which Clark charges “less than Kinko’s.”
Membership runs between $150 and $350 a month, with the highest level allowing 24/7 access and a dedicated cubicle. The entry level provides access two days a week and dibs on the conference room during business hours. Clark says it’s popular with “the road warrior sales guy who needs to sit down and get a proposal done.”
Clark’s members, who need not make a commitment longer than a month, include those with full-time positions in remote locations and the self-employed whose hours are flexible, not optional, and who, for various reasons, don’t thrive working at home.
“It’s a whole mental thing,” says Internet-marketing entrepreneur Mike Newhouse, 23, as he sets up a monitor and keyboard at SmartOffice’s central table. “At home, I’m off to the dog park, or suddenly I want to go to the gym. I find laundry that needs to be done and cleaning. There are days when you just don’t want to work, and here you don’t have all that other stuff that easily gets me distracted.”
Newhouse, whose Web 2.0 Group helps clients optimize their appearance on Internet search engines and organizes their presence on social-media sites, says he tried working at Starbucks and other coffee shops but found the noise — and the struggle to find a spare electrical outlet — maddening.
At SmartOffice, Newhouse says he has shared ideas with others in the best spirit of co-working, including giving Butler tips on how to produce her children’s clothing website. At times, he says he finds loud talk in the office a distraction, “but that’s what headphones are for.”
Don LaPorte, an executive vice president for Meetings and Incentives, is the only Dallas-area employee of his Wisconsin-based company. For most of the past five years he worked out of a bedroom-turned-office in his house.
“I have three children running in and out of the swimming pool, and it’s just not suitable because of the noise, for one,” he says. “Another thing you learn is that you are better off having your own space to go to for focus and concentration. You can get out of the home environment and kick into business mode.”
LaPorte, whose company organizes meetings for major corporations, packs a portable file cabinet and sets up his laptop at whatever cubicle is open. “There is a social aspect to work where you’re working around others,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s just the noise or it’s having even a slight association with people, even if everybody is doing something different.”
Thomas Malone, author of The Future of Work and a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says that the lower cost and higher quality of long-distance communications — Wi-Fi, cell phones, laptops — has fueled expansion of the independent work force. Self-employed workers gain freedom and flexibility, he explains, but they lose myriad benefits, among them the social interaction of the office.
Malone predicted a decade ago that “neighborhood offices” would spring up to give this growing cadre of contractors and freelancers suitable work-spaces. “Co-working sounds a lot like that,” he says.
Labor statistics suggest that co-officing sites occupy an expanding market. According to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by an outplacement firm, Challenger Gray & Christmas, the number of self-employed Americans rose to 8.9 million last December, up from 8.7 million a year earlier.
“Coming out of a recession, you have companies willing to take on contractors and project workers but not full-time hires,” says Jon Down, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Portland. “They want to remain flexible in these somewhat uncertain times.”
California-based Emergent Research, which focuses on small business, says co-officing spaces have multiplied through the recession and that there are now more than 220 nationwide.
Trent Clark says it’s clear to him that the niche market has room to grow. Although he has not reached capacity of about 30 members at his first co-working office, he’s already drawn up a space three times as big and is fairly confident the time will come to expand.
“The way I work is the way a lot of people work,” he says. “I like chatter and noise. It’s good to have other beating hearts around.”
Thomas Korosec writes about business and other topics from his home office in Dallas. His work appears regularly on Bloomberg, in The Dallas Morning News and in D Magazine.
Ready to get some work done? Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research in Lafayette, Calif., suggests two ways to find a co-working site near you: Go to www.coworking.pbworks.com, which includes a directory of sites as well as valuable information. Or you can search online for the phrase “co-working facility” and a specific city or town name. “That will find most of them,” he says.