Blog: Bill Wagner & Dianne Marsh

My, how the ENIAC has grown! Southeast Michigan's IT companies, often overshadowed by snazzier startups, are in prosperous mode. Meet Bill Wagner and Dianne Marsh, co-founders of Ann Arbor software firm SRT Solutions. Their blog? The challenges of growing a tech biz and how the tech community is supporting the region.

Dianne Marsh - Post 3: Nontraditional Workspaces

Once upon a time (in 1999), Bill and Dianne wanted to start a software consulting company.  They worked out of their homes, with dial-up internet and a second phone line.  When they wanted to meet, they chose a coffee shop, bought an overpriced beverage, and talked in semi-public about company business.  They worked on one project in a customer's basement (sort of awkward, but do-able).  At least there was a place for a server.

As time went by, the business grew, and the needs for space grew.  They yearned for a whiteboard, where they could plan.  And for a place where they could talk without sharing financials or leads with their neighbors at the coffee shop.  Yet, these needs weren't enough to justify renting an office. They muddled through because there was no step between working from home and renting full-time office space.  Staying home-based (or two-home based) slowed growth. Eventually, they had subcontractors and employees. The impracticality of working at home was causing serious issues, and the revenue had grown. So they rented an office.

In hindsight, we could have grown more quickly if there had been a bridge between home based consulting and traditional office space.  You might wonder how?   We're more easily able to attract developers to work for us given that we have an office to work at.  It's not just about having a place to hang our hats; we've been able to do more collaborative work with customers with an office than without one.  One of the stumbling blocks that we faced was concern that we would need to hire someone to answer the phones and to handle walk-in traffic once we had an office.

And the truth is that unless you have a reason to go to an office, you may just stay home and have additional costs for rent. Co-working, incubator, and startup accelerator space all address these concerns in slightly different ways.

Co-working is a work environment where people who aren't associated with one another in business work together in a shared space, with particular emphasis placed on the informality and social aspects of the environment.  Finding just the right co-working space is key.  Various people in Ann Arbor have tried to develop co-working options, and a variety exists at this point.
For a long while, a group met at Primo Coffee once a week to work together.  The Workantile Exchange has stepped in for independent consultants, with a motto of "You may be independent, but you don’t have to be alone".  Mike Kessler has taken the risk to put together 3,000 sq ft of space and, more importantly, a community that people can join. Drop in for their Friday lunch and learns, or go and check out the space.  The Tech Brewery is a startup accelerator in Ann Arbor.  I would have definitely explored the various options when I was an independent consultant and then later, as a company, before we rented an office.  Why?  Camaraderie.  Socialization.  A sense of community.  Convenience.  And a little separation between work and home.
So maybe you're not an independent consultant.  Maybe you're an engineer and you could really use a lab and some shared lab equipment.  Well, you're in luck with the A2 Mech Shop.  Bob Stack did a heart-warming talk at Ignite Ann Arbor, introducing the audience to the co-working space and to its occupants.   According to Dale Grover, one of the members of The A2 Mech Shop, it provides co-working space for entrepreneurial engineers.   It's also a tightly-knit community focused on sharing equipment but maintaining individual offices.  A2 Mech Shop also hosts the Go Tech meeting, held monthly in the evenings typically on the 2nd Tuesdays, and a robotics club

Ann Arbor SPARK offers traditional business services and office space for entrepreneurs at its incubator spaces in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, if you meet their incubator criteria.  By providing short-term leases, Ann Arbor SPARK also helps to alleviate some of the concerns with traditional office rental.  

And while we're most familiar with Ann Arbor spaces, the metro Detroit area boasts some as well.  The North Woodward Tech Incubator, which Metromode readers may remember from an article in June 2009, is an incubator for technology companies that was started by a law firm.  In exchange for free rent, its tenants give equity to the law firm.  And similar to Ann Arbor SPARK, TechTown provides reduced rent and business services to its tenants.

These alternatives to renting traditional office space offer opportunity for growing companies as well as independent consultants.  Our region is one of the few in the country with such a wide range of opportunity for co-working. We see this as an indicator of the entrepreneurial spirit in our area.  We hope that these opportunities continue to grow and appear, and that their availability will help growing companies, individuals, and to promote our region as offering a full array of services for a wide variety of companies.