FIRST LOOK: Inside Back Office Studio, downtown Ypsi's long-delayed new coworking space

When the owners of Back Office Studio (BOS) purchased the building at 13 N. Washington St. in downtown Ypsilanti in early 2015, they expected to launch that autumn, not knowing it would take more than three years to open to the public.


BOS now offers private offices, dedicated and shared desks, and four conference rooms. Other amenities include high-speed WiFi, a bicycle rack, a pool table, a foosball table, a kitchenette, and a nap room "to recharge human batteries," according to BOS community manager John Newman. Longterm, the owners plan to include a shower for anyone who might want to commute by bike or on foot.


But BOS' opening on Dec. 3 came after co-owners Diana Wong, Wayne Millette, and Sun Chao made several changes to their plan and overcame a number of obstacles.


A long road to opening


Chao says some of the delay was caused by changing banks and changing the contractor who was remodeling the building. Newman adds that the process of getting a Community Revitalization Program grant also took longer than expected.


"We had several challenges, and basically everything that could go wrong did go wrong, but we decided to stick with the project," Chao says, adding that he didn't want to bail out on the community and leave another vacant storefront in Ypsi. Pub 13, the building's last tenant, closed its doors in 2010, leaving the storefront vacant until the BOS owners purchased it five years later.


All three owners have other jobs. Wong and Chao teach at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) and Millette serves as director of the Office of Faculty Life for Michigan Medicine's Department of Surgery. All three owners also run a consultancy called Sensei Change Associates.


Newman says the owners' other jobs and side projects meant that "there wasn't the same level of urgency" to open as there might be for other small businesses.


Jennifer Olmstead, Ann Arbor SPARK director of business development and coordinator of the Innovate Ypsi incentive program, says the delay in opening might have even been a blessing in disguise as it gave the owners time to learn more and tweak their design.


"They pivoted their project, and instead of getting frustrated, they did a lot more research on coworking spaces and decided to create more private spaces," Olmstead says. "If you've seen the plans from Day One and what they have now, it's a much cooler and different project and it was worth the wait."


Joining Ypsi's business community


Chao has a lengthy connection to Ypsilanti and its downtown, including having his first lunch in the United States in 2010 at the now-closed J Neil's Mongolian Grill, a space at 200 W. Michigan Ave. that now is home to Bona Sera restaurant.


After graduating from EMU with his master's degree in 2013 and joining Sensei Associates, the first-ever tenant at the SPARK East business incubator, he had "circled back" to downtown Ypsi and noticed that both the university and local businesses were big on the idea of community.


"I'm Chinese, and we believe in the concept of circles, and that everything has a meaning," he says. "I felt this meant I was supposed to stay in (Ypsi) and be part of the community."


He notes that all three business owners are immigrants. He's from China, Wong is Chinese-Canadian, and Millette is from Grenada.


"We're from all different parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds, and we're thankful we found each other and found Ypsilanti and can call it home," Chao says. "We have a similar vision that brings us together to invest in this community."


The two-story co-working space offers five different membership levels, starting with four small private offices that are already spoken for. The next membership level is a dedicated desk, where a co-worker can leave a coffee mug or a photo of loved ones. Both of those membership levels have 24/7 access to the building with an electronic key code.


The next lowest level is the "hot desk," meaning a member can come in each day and choose any desk that is unoccupied. Area residents can also purchase a punch card for $125 that entitles them to 10 visits. At these levels, members only have access to the building when it's unlocked, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.


The lowest level is a "virtual membership" that would allow an entrepreneur to have business mail sent to BOS and come in occasionally to sit at the cafe seating or armchairs around the business.


Newman says he doesn't think there will be many memberships of this type issued, but he may give some away to local movers and shakers in the business community who may want to come work at BOS for an occasional change of scenery or be invited to BOS-sponsored events.


Members also have first-come-first-served access to four conference rooms that range from a small room, seating six, up to the largest, seating between 20 and 24. They can be reserved via a shared electronic calendar.


Sensei Associates has already moved four employees into the space as its anchor tenant. They will serve both tenants and other clients who aren't located in BOS by connecting small businesses and entrepreneurs with legal, marketing, bookkeeping, and other professional services.


"That lets the owner focus on growing the business," Chao says. "That's the difference between us and a regular coworking space or shared office."


Newman says that, as part of its focus on community, BOS is also committed to hosting at least one event for a nonprofit each month for free. For instance, BOS already hosted an event for Neighborhood Theatre Group and a party for Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels, and the BOS owners are in talks to have Solar Ypsi give a presentation. Pitch Ypsi will also take place at BOS on Dec. 5.


BOS will host a grand opening celebration Jan. 25. Details will be announced soon on the BOS events page.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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