A Place Geeks Can Call Home

Ann Arbor's geek scene – also known as the entrepreneurial and start-up community – is finally becoming the target market for new alternative workspaces. These flexible, co-working clubhouses hope to fill the gap for tech-geeks and 1099ers (sole proprietors, often tech service-providers) who feel left out of SPARK's economic development/incubator model.

As Ann Arbor's official economic development engine, SPARK  gets all the love, especially when it comes to funding. Still, SPARK can't be all things to all start-ups, or even to more-established entrepreneurs who mainly work alone. The much-lauded incubator mostly puts its focus on early stage companies, offering a top-down support system that's heavy on mentoring and networking, as well as resource assistance and pre-seed funding programs .

When it comes to individual early stage entrepreneurs, however, SPARK's focus tends to be limited to promotion, adding them to a detailed on-line directory.

"It helps them connect to groups of similar businesses with group descriptions, links, and meeting notices in its calendar and newsletter", explains Amy Cell, managing director of talent enhancement for SPARK. But funding such enterprises is not part of SPARK's portfolio, she said.

"We have a pre-seed fund and a business accelerator, geared for businesses that have the potential to create many jobs in the future. If we have a choice between investing $10,000 on somebody going into business for (him- or herself) or $10,000 on an inventor who could hire lots of people in a few years, we'll put the investment with more potential for the community. We have to make difficult decisions."

So, where do independent innovators gather for support, resource sharing or plain 'ol camaraderie? Geekish group activities – A2B3, LA2M and other user groups seem to be flourishing, but some observers of our tech scene say opportunities for geek networking are scarce to non-existent, and, more importantly, the lack thereof is limiting economic growth.

These same critics claim that the region's lack of geek culture or geek-incompatible economic development efforts, coupled with Southeast Michigan"s "place handicap" –our preference for suburban lifestyles over dense and lively urban cores–are keeping Ann Arbor from truly emulating high-tech enclaves like Boulder, the Research Triangle, or Silicon Valley.

But help is on the way...

Geeks can now find a home, build business success and form strong social bonds with others of their kind in the new private workspaces. Workantile Exchange, a co-working facility on Main Street, and Tech Brewery on the city's north side, have begun to offer workspace, peer support and networking to freelancers and start-ups, respectively. Neither is an incubator.

Workantile Exchange, which opened in June, offers several membership options from full workspace access to single-day use. Its high-visibility location in the heart of downtown demonstrates that organizers are serious about making a business impact. Crossing genre boundaries among its members is very important to the collective, since it sees Ann Arbor's geeks as tending to cluster within silos of specialists, like church denominations.

"We need a community of smart, knowledgeable people – artists, creative sorts, writers, business people, attorneys. Broad strength is the quickest and easiest route to problem-solving," explains Mike Kessler, one of Workantile's organizers. He is a historic restoration specialist and software developer. "We're not an incubator. We're about independent people finding their own ways. We're gong to have all kinds of training by top-tier people, private events, public events, like an old school Lyceum."

Things are already looking good at Workantile Exchange, with more than 60 members currently signed up. And some joint projects have emerged from the weeks-old space, including an open-source entry-tracking system. Such projects could eventually become revenue sources for the group, Kessler said. All that and Mighty Good Coffee in the front, too.

On Ann Arbor's north side, Tech Brewery is a community of technologists, entrepreneurs and start-ups. It's home to a dozen fledgling companies. Rents range from $50 to $250 per month on a no-lease basis.

Tech Brewery organizer Dug Song calls himself an economic gardener. "I support what already exists here, to help companies flourish. This has been an experiment for me to find out how deep the well is – how many companies are starting up. The more I look, the more I find," says Song.

"As small as Ann Arbor is, in this economy, everyone's an entrepreneur. I'm encouraged about how much has been ongoing. I'm very excited."

Derek Mehraban's company also leases downtown desks to 1099ers on a smaller scale.

"We have some definite geeks. We deliberately chose more space than we needed," he says. He is CEO of Ingenex Digital Marketing and an organizer of LA2M, another part of the geekish community.

"As more people discover they can do their work in an independent stance, co-working will grow," says Laura Fisher, freelance web designer and proprietor of Mitten Art Works. She is also a Workantile organizer and self-named guerrilla economic developer.

Outside of alternative workspaces, networking groups are booming. A2 Geeks, LA2M and A2B3, among others, offer weekly or monthly forums and programs for the entrepreneurial community.

LA2M (the acronym stands for Lunch Ann Arbor Marketing) has 400 to 500 members on Facebook and LinkedIn. It hosts 80 to 100 people (up from two people at some meetings last summer) at weekly lunches. Although not technically a geek group, it's largely composed of 1099ers, individual entrepreneurs who are notoriously group-averse, Mehraban says.

A new web index, A2 New Tech meet-Up, tracks activities of more than 60 local geek groups, including SPARK. The list creates a fascinating profile of a developing culture. The group is inclusive, inviting anyone interested in local high-tech start-ups to join, whether student, seed-capitalist or amateur.

It also hosts events, including its signature meet-up on the third Tuesday of each month. Three to five companies have five minutes each to demo their product or idea and five minutes to answer questions followed by announcements and networking.

Go Tech is yet another growing show-and-tell group with five-minute demos at monthly meetings at Great Oak Cohousing. Demos encompass a wide range of technology on the hardware side of things from aluminum smelting to pneumatics. "Bring something cool" is the mantra.

A lack of seed capital sets Ann Arbor apart from Boulder, claims Ed Vielmetti, a tech-scene observer, recent addition to AnnArbor.com  and driving force in the creation of geek communities with his long-running blog, Vacuum and A2B3, a weekly lunch group for tech and non-tech types among other efforts. Recently Boulder has seen tremendous growth in seed-capital and venture capital funding for a large number of companies, says Vielmetti.

"Is there enough talent – and by talent, I mean unemployed entrepreneurs – for that to happen here? Probably. We also need marketing people, accounting people. It's a complex challenge," he adds.

This same wave of energy in the entrepreneurial scene has also spawned a free private incubator in faraway Troy, hosted by Young Basile, an intellectual property law firm with offices in Michigan (including Ann Arbor) and Silicon Valley. The North Woodward Tech Incubator supplements the work of public incubators with its focus on free space and services for the most fragile, early-stage IT companies.

Young Basile shareholder Andrew R. Basile, Jr. is gung-ho: "It's an incredibly exciting time to be in Michigan. This painful restructuring is exactly what we need. Ann Arbor may be the leader in driving the process forward," he says.

Dug Song concurs: "The challenge we face as a community is to reach out to each other, to help promote the region even as we float our own companies. Few things are happening, so we have to circle the wagons, prepare for what will be a difficult period in the state. We're seeing people pull together and take more of an attitude of ‘co-op-etition."

Constance Crump is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press and Billboard Magazine Her previous article was Art Funding Takes It On The Chin: What's The Impact?


Dug Song and Crew at the Tech Brewery-Ann Arbor

The Workantile Exchange-Ann Arbor

Laura Fisher Get Tangled Up-Ann Arbor

Mike Kessler at the Workantile Exchange Grand Opening-Ann Arbor

"Geeks" at Networking-Ann Arbor

Ed Vielmetti at the Workantile Exchange-Ann Arbor

Dug Song Taking a Break at Tech Brewery-Ann Arbor

The Grand Opening of the Workantile Exchange-Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski
is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He's always been a geek.