Coworking: Solo But Not Alone

You left that office job to savor the flexibility of freelancing, but after six months of working in your slippers, the walls seem to be closing in. You consider starting an NCAA tournament pool for yourself and the dog.

According to the U.S Census Bureau, 49 percent of U.S. businesses are home-based, and three quarters of businesses in this country are one-person endeavors with no employees. So while you may be isolated, you're not alone.

Works well alongside others

But being tied to the house isn't the antidote for being tied to the office, which is why coworking – working together, but separately – is gaining momentum in Ann Arbor and around the world.

Imagine all the fun and synergy of having colleagues without the hassle of having to show up at the office every day.

Coworkers push tables together at cafes, park themselves in other people's living rooms, rent space from a business or pay a membership fee to use a common office space rented by the group. The basic requirements are simple: flexible space, a good wireless Internet signal, and people. A conference room is key if you're paying for space, and coffee is optional, but just barely.

"Being in the same place at the same time is really powerful," said Ann Arbor man-about-the Internet Edward Vielmetti. Vielmetti, who's also chief economist at Ann Arbor internet marketing firm Pure Visibility, is part of a coworking group – connected via a public Google calendar - that meets at Primo Coffee, 301 E. Liberty, on Wednesday mornings. "Even if you're not working on the same thing, it's that sense of, 'I don't work for you; you don't work for me, but we need to work together."

At the very least, coworking amplifies creativity while helping people build stronger, broader professional networks. Based on simple math that multiplies the number of cafes in Ann Arbor by the 5-10 people sitting in them with laptops at any given moment, Vielmetti puts the city's potential coworking community at an easy couple hundred.

He leads a 250-member list called A2B3 (B3 because they meet weekly for bi bim bop at Eastern Accents). Though it's not entirely made up of coworkers, the list serves as a feeder for the group that coworks at Primo Coffee. Some of the Wednesday morning regulars launched a website, with a blog where visitors can post comments on nonemployment and buy "Not an Employee" stickers.

A history of not working together

People have been working alongside each other in flexible and informal environments for at least as long as coffee shops have offered Internet access. Back in 2005 San Francisco web developer Brad Neuberg gave this activity a name – coworking. Neuberg's gatherings inspired San Francisco's Citizen Space and the movement has since gone global. There's a coworking Google group and wiki, and Meetup now lists coworking groups from Wichita to India. Jelly, a playful network of casual coworking groups, is doing its part to spread coworking around the globe, with established groups in 14 U.S. and two Australian cities and Jellies developing in almost 30 other cities around the world.

 "Coworking really represents a shift in the way we're thinking about the workplace and the way we live," said Tony Bacigalupo, who leads the CooperBricolage coworking group in Manhattan. "More and more people are going to be able to work from wherever they want. I think we're going to see not only an increase in co-working but an increase in the different ways we think about work."

Members of the Ann Arbor group (which calls its casual format "microcoworking,") are considering creating a more formal co-working space, but it's a tentative process. Space is expensive; funding can be complicated, and often the folks who claim to be all about helping small business just don't get coworking.

 "One of the things we run up against is we all intend to be one-person companies," said graphic artist and web designer Laura Fisher. "When we run into small business development people they say, 'Oh, we've got incubator space you can come work in.' But we don't want to be incubated."

Fisher envisions a place those small businesses that do want to become big businesses can count on as a source for short-term, project-specific help.

"We've all got our offices in our homes," Fisher said. "What we want is the ability to come together in loose groups and bounce stuff of each other. One of the things we have to offer (as freelancers) is agility. We can stay out ahead on the leading edge, but only if we keep connected with each other."

Creating communities

Derek Mehraban and his business partner Ross Johnson met while they were coworking in space above the Chop House at 322 Main. After working, and sometimes collaborating, in the same space for about eight months they decided to start an electronic marketing business – Ingenex Digital Marketing. The company launched in Janaury, and Mehraban and Johnson intentionally rented a space at 306 S. Main that was too big for their company so they could sublet the extra workspace to people interested in coworking. They've rented out their four extra desks at "The Brickyard" to web developer Brian Kerr (who's also one of the forces behind Not an Employee), user experience designer Dan Cooney, SEO specialist Andrew Miller and web developer Declan O'Neil, a representative for a large web development company. Sometimes they do contract work for Ingenex; sometimes they're working for other clients.

But for $275 a month (utilities included) they get a desk in a nice, open office space in downtown Ann Arbor, a coffee station, use of conference rooms and a fun work environment. If they were looking for space on their own, Mehraban says, they could end up paying $500 a month to rent a poorly-located, solitary closet of a workspace.

It's worked out so well that Mehraban says they're eyeing another space in the same building with the possible intent of turning it into a place for drop-in coworking.

That might a great fit for Ann Arbor, but the key to developing coworking space, warns Bacigalupo, is listening to the people who'll be using it. CooperBricolage launched in September, Bacigalupo explains, in a café where the owner agreed to open early for coworkers if the organization covered the expense. To do that, they charged a membership fee.

"We found quickly that people didn't want to pay to work in a café," said Bacigalupo, a project manager for a web development company. "When it comes to this sort of thing you have to act as an agent for the needs of the community. You can't tell people, 'This is what you want, come join us,' because with co-working people can just stay home. You have to excite people to get them to come out house."

Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit News and Seattle Times. She is a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.


Ed Vielmetti-Cheif Economist for Pure Visibility-Ann Arbor

Barbra and Bill Tozier-Co-Workers and Members of A2B3-Ann Arbor

Entrance of Pure Visibility  Office Space-Ann Arbor

Bill Tozier Speaking at A2B3- Eastern Accents

Ed Vielmetti Speaking at A2B3-Eastern Accents

Ross Johnson-Ingenex Digital Marketing-Ann Arbor

A2B3 Lunch at Eastern Accents- Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He also likes to fish.
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