Coworking space: should you run your business from one?

Co-working spaces

As a freelancer, one of my biggest challenges is finding space to think, write, and develop my business. Sometimes I work from home, but find it hard to get motivated because I’m too relaxed. I end up taking naps or procrastinating by doing chores or walking my dogs. I’ve tried to work in coffee shops and books stores, but hate the unreliable Wi-Fi, limited table space, and noise from the music, cell phone conversations, and coffee machines. It also sucks that I have to take my laptop and purse with me every time I go to the restroom because I’m paranoid that someone will steal my stuff.

Last year, I was introduced to coworking spaces by a friend who wrote her dissertation in one. Two months ago, another friend and small business owner joined a coworking space in his neighborhood. For him, it was an affordable alternative to renting office space and a way to connect with other entrepreneurs. In an attempt to solve my own workspace problems, I did some research on coworking spaces, which I’m going to share here—including what coworking spaces are, why freelancers love them, how much they cost, why they might not be for you, and how to find one.

What are coworking spaces?

Coworking spaces are membership organizations that provide shared space for people to start or grow a business. Some spaces have offices or suites that can be rented out, but many facilities have an open floor plan with tables and desks in one room or several rooms. Desktop computers are available in some locations, but in general, people bring their laptops and work independently.

Each place is unique. Some have a distinct vibe. Some are limited to the size of teams they can house. Some attract a wide range of business types. Others target certain industries. And some offer value-added services. For example, Citizen Space in San Francisco has a Google-like atmosphere—an open workspace with perks like a kitchen and living room area—that is geared toward solopreneurs, consultants, and small teams of up to four people. Ensemble in New York City houses individuals as well as teams of up to 11 people. Places like Workantile in Ann Arbor and START in Houston attract people from a range of industries, but focus on technology. START even hosts professional and business development events and workshops and has industry mentors available to its members.

Why freelancers love coworking spaces

Community, feedback and networking

In talking to people who run or use coworking spaces, one of the themes that kept coming up was the strong sense of community they provide. For many places, that sense of community is fostered by involving existing members in the application process. For example, potential members for Workantile have to get three “endorsements” or signatures from existing community members before being allowed to join the space. This kind of process helps ensure that new members are courteous, respectful, and good coworking mates.

Another perk is the ability to bounce ideas off of others. Mark Karten, who manages Ensemble, told me, “The instantaneous feedback is amazing. It’s like a thermometer for your ideas and concepts.” Relationship building, social support, and cross-collaboration are other attractive features. Members get to know each other, discuss their challenges, lean on each other for support, and sometimes end up having each other as clients.

The social side

Lots of coworking spaces regularly coordinate happy hours, networking mixers, fundraisers, and other special events as a way to bring people together. For example, Workantile hosts film screenings, social lunches, and chair massages for its members. Ensemble hosts “Social Eatia”—a daily afternoon break where complimentary homemade treats are provided and members are encouraged to network. Some places have games rooms where people get to know each other while having fun.

Business development

As mentioned earlier, some facilities provide opportunities to help grow your business. In Houston, START actively fosters the tech scene with hackathons, meetups and a monthly “Demo Day” that gives the opportunity to four startup companies to pitch in front of mentors and investors.

Amenities, building accessibility and mail

Coworking spaces offer amenities that you may not be able to afford on your own. For example, most places provide wired and wireless Internet, conference rooms, access to kitchens, private rooms to take telephone calls, printers, scanners, fax machines, and discounts on other business services (e.g., storage and shredding).

Fees and other details

Monthly memberships can range from $50 to $450 or more depending on the city, amenities, and building. If a monthly membership is too much of a commitment, there are also day passes, hourly rates, and virtual memberships.  For example, in 2013, Citizen Space’s hourly fee was $8 (maximum fee per day was $20) and its virtual option was $25/month which included use of company’s address and 2 drop-in passes.

If you decide to join a coworking community, it will be important to understand how you will access the building and when you will be able to use the space. Some facilities are only open during set times like 8am to 6pm during the week, with no evening or weekend access. Others offer access to the building 24/7 by providing members with keys, a security code, or a fob card.

With regard to mail, some sites allow you to use their business address to receive packages, while others discourage the practice because their mail area is not secure. If you decide to use the building’s address, inquire about how the mail is handled and where your items will be stored.

Drawbacks and questions to ask

Coworking spaces aren’t for everyone. Some people have concerns about protecting intellectual property and being distracted while working in an open space, or that that the fees are too high for someone just starting out.

When considering a coworking space, remember to ask these questions:

  1. How are members selected and is there a vetting process?
  2. Will I have a month-to-month contract and is a deposit required?
  3. If problems arise between community members, how are they handled?
  4. What office equipment is available?
  5. Will I have access to the facility 24/7 or just during certain times?
  6. How are conference rooms and private rooms allocated?
  7. Will I be assigned a desk/table or is the space on a first-come, first-served basis?

How Do I Find a Coworking Space?

One option is to do what I did and run a Google search with your city and “coworking” or “co-working.”  You can also check out WeWork, a network of facilities across the U.S. that connects entrepreneurs and small businesses with workspace, networking opportunities, office equipment, and business services.

About the Author: Aisha Langford, PhD, MPH, is a freelance writer and researcher living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She is also the founder of 360 Health Media, LLC.

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  • Mark Burdon

    Great article Aisha! I am a Freshbooks client, Cloudworker and coworker in Canada and I agree that coworking spaces are a great place to motivate yourself for a day, a week or on an ongoing basis. I have worked at a place called The Creative Space in Barrie which has been featured in the Globe and Mail. TCS’s founders Craig and Sandra Ballantyne are very passionate about supporting entrepreneurism, inspiring innovation and creativity for their members.

    I wrote an article for Startup Canada about coworking that you and others might enjoy. There is a “Coworking Wiki” that identifies where the spaces and places are worldwide.

  • lena_scott

    Hi Aisha! Thanks so much for the write up on co-working, it’s a topic that I keep my eye out for as I work out of, and support, a co-working space on Bainbridge Island in Washington. We are right outside of Seattle. OfficeXPats has been active for about 2 years now, and as a small business owner I have had a fantastic experience during the process of becoming a community member. Your write up hit all the salient points about the benefits of co-working. One key thing that I have noticed is that unlike traditional employee interaction spaces, the atmosphere is much less politically driven, and highly collaborative and supportive, with natural teams forming and shifting all the time. So we may be freelancers, and even ‘competitors’ in a sense if some of us offer similar services, but that doesn’t seem to stop the flow of referrals and the belief that what benefits one member benefits all the members. The group also seems to be self-selective, in that those who do not share this belief and mindset tend to exit or withdraw on their own so we don’t have to ‘vet’ them. Our space is very connected to the Kitsap County chambers, and serves as a hub for small businesses both virtual and brick/mortar, as well as a nice cross connection to the city chamber and larger community. I’ll share your insightful piece with our group, thank you for contributing!

    • Aisha Langford

      Thanks Lena:

      Your feedback is helpful. I haven’t officially joined one yet, but I’m VERY close. I really liked the collaborative nature of these spaces. All of the owners/managers that I interviewed mentioned the importance of fostering a sense of community and how that was helpful for most of their members. Thanks for sharing!

  • Aisha Langford

    Awesome! Thanks Mark. Your article is great. It’s good to know about the Wiki.

  • julie

    Another great option to find coworking spaces is the Desktime Directory. It offers details (amenities, price, location, contact info, photos) for over a 1000 spaces worldwide (and counting).