Twin Cities telecommuters have a new option for getting out of the house, and it doesn’t require buying a cup of coffee.
A pair of “co-working” centers opened this week in St. Paul, one in downtown and another in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood.
The centers are independent of each other, but both were inspired by similar hubs on the East and West coasts. The idea is to create a place where self-employed and telecommuting professionals can come together to work, and also benefit from some of the socializing, networking and collaborating that happens in a conventional office.
“It’s not really an office, and it’s not really a coffee shop, but it’s this other, third place and we go there to get work done plus socialize,” said Garrick Van Buren, a Twin Cities web developer who has followed the co-working movement on his blog.
The economy makes it an especially good time to experiment with co-working because many workers are in transition and there’s a surplus of commercial office space, he said.
Members pay daily or monthly fees for access to a workstation, an Internet connection and other office amenities such as a conference room, projector and kitchenette.
Zack Steven co-founded The 3rd Place with his partners at Monkey Island Inc., a technology and social media consulting group whose projects include a hyperlocal classifieds website and a local Twitter directory.
“We want it to be a place where curious, creative people come to get stuff done,” Steven said, “and a place where people can be a part of a community.”
The 1,200-square-foot storefront on Como Avenue has room for about a dozen telecommuters. The price model encourages people to pay $55 per month to use the space one day a week, with each weekday geared at different group of professionals.
Mary Lou Sweet, a neighbor of Steven, is one of The 3rd Place’s first members. She’s an independent consultant for a custom publisher that turns family histories and photo albums into professional-looking hardcover picture books.
Up until now, she’s had to ask customers to come to her home to compile information and scan photographs. Now, every Tuesday she can offer public office hours when customers can visit with less hassle. “It’s a huge solution for me,” Sweet said.
Across town, another group of entrepreneurs is trying a bigger and broader co-working experiment in the Lowertown neighborhood called CoCo, which also opened Monday.
CoCo consists of more than 8,000 square feet of downtown business loft-style space with capacity for up to 40 telecommuters to make themselves at home. The center sells day passes for $35, with larger commitment deals that bring the price under $20 a day.
Co-founder Don Ball sees it as an “innovation hub” with co-working at the center. It also offers meeting room rental and is seeking to attract a mix of permanent tenants, even from larger companies, that want to be a part of the atmosphere.
“You’re tending to your own stuff, but in the spare moments you’re throwing comments at each other,” Ball said. The hope is those small interactions lead to some serandipity, perhaps business connections or partnerships that wouldn’t have otherwise been made.
A third Twin Cities co-working effort is waiting for just that – partnerships – before launching an entirely different concept later this year.
Stephen Filing is glad to see co-working experiments popping in the Twin Cities, but he’s skeptical about their business models. He’s exploring what he calls “more of a strip-mall concept,” inspired by the success of places like Snap Fitness and Anytime Fitness.
“The proliferation of the compact fitness center played on two things: price and proximity,” Filing said.
He’s doesn’t believe most telecommuters will pay much or travel very far to use a co-working facility. That’s why he’s looking to partner with a larger company to help launch a chain of small and easily franchised facilities.
“I’m not altruistic about it, and I think too many people are,” Filing said. “I don’t want to put something together than can’t sustain itself.”
Van Buren is another co-working booster who has questions about the sustainability of some of the models that have been attempted or discussed.
A few have failed because they took on too many expenses, buying high-end Herman Miller furnishings, for example, instead of seeking out discount or second-hand products.
Another challenge will be retaining members as the economy picks up and more workers re-establish themselves, either with new nine-to-five jobs orsetting up a home office.
“Short-term, to somebody who’s recently been let go from an employer, who wants the comfort and community and socializing that an office gives, the value pretty clear,” Van Buren said, “but I think after a few months that value proposition needs to change.”