Office nomads unite in 'coworking' spaces

Tired of the home office? Shared office spaces, for rent by the day or the month, are popping up all over.

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Office Nomads founders Jacob Sayles and Susan Evans
Office Nomads' space is an open-plan office that encourages conversation

SEATTLE (FORTUNE Small Business) -- As a sole proprietor who works primarily online, every day I face a painful decision: work from home or go to a coffeehouse?

Working from home is awesome. No boss hanging over your shoulder. No need to shower. No human contact. No incentive to stay on task.

The coffeehouse comes with its own challenges. Overcaffeination. No place to make phone calls without being a jerk. Nowhere to meet with clients. You have to buy lunch.

Marketing consultant Chris Haddad has found a third option: coworking. Every weekday he heads to Office Nomads, a shared office space in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. For $475 a month, Haddad gets a permanent desk space (he's bought his own snazzy stand-up desk), unlimited coffee and printing, 24-hour access, Wi-Fi and use of three conference rooms. He also gets some friendly coworkers who happen not to work for the same company.

"I've been self-employed for four years now," Haddad said. "It's a lot of fun, I like doing it, but the walls close in really fast. There were several times where I realized I hadn't put on pants or left the house in 30 hours."

Haddad is Office Nomads' first and, for now, only monthly member. "When I was first here, it was like, wow! It's all the good things about having an office, which are coworkers, a separate place to go, more space," Haddad said. "But there's nobody standing over your shoulder making sure you're not checking personal e-mail."

Haddad also has a place to meet clients other than his small condo. When I drop by on a Wednesday morning, Haddad is in the conference room with a client. At a nearby desk is Eric Von Blom, who works remotely for an Arizona telecom.

"It was good for my relationship to come here," he said. "I'd rather talk to these wonderful, freaky people than my wonderful, freaky cats."

Von Blom gets free office space in exchange for being the Nomads' office manager. Other regulars, mostly Web developers and copywriters, pay $20 for a day pass.

Coworking is a growing phenomenon - an online map of coworking spaces lists about three dozen spaces worldwide, most of which went into business in the last two years. One of the market's earliest pioneers was Nutopia Workspace (named 116 West Houston until a recent move) in New York City, which opened in 2001.

Nutopia now has 300 members paying rates from $100 per month for a "virtual" presence (a mailing address and actual office use up to two days per month) to $800 for all-inclusive full-time access. On any given day, up to 40 members will be in the office, according to founder John McGann. He estimates that around a third of his clientele is small-business owners; the rest are freelancers and out-of-town workers who need an occasional Manhattan presence.

Nutopia was recently forced out of its longtime space by rising rents - a problem that, ironically, McGann expects to ultimately benefit his business.

"The rise in commercial rents is really hitting small businesses the hardest," he said. "My rent doubled. Because of price hikes like that, more people are becoming familiar with coworking."

Office Nomads' office is a large, open-plan space in a pedestrian-oriented district of Seattle. It's airy and bright, with exposed brick and a typical startup feel. There are no cubes or office doors. Conversation is encouraged.

"Somebody pops their head up, usually everybody's heads pop up and everybody has this fun, random discussion, whether it's talking about Britney Spears or talking about marketing," said Office Nomads founder Susan Evans, 26.

Evans and Jacob Sayles, 30, opened Office Nomads in November with their own investment capital. They're also clients - both have other jobs and work on them from Office Nomads. Sayles telecommutes to a software developer and wanted a way to avoid home-office isolation. Evans works for an environmental nonprofit and was drawn to the idea of coworking as a commute-trip reduction strategy.

"Seattle talks a lot about their congestion problems," she said. "Wouldn't it be great if there were a way that people could telecommute and have it be efficient, effective, and not a burden to them?"

The space has four work zones, including a very quiet one known as The Cave, which is good for private calls. Unlike at a coffeehouse, however, it's no breach of etiquette at Office Nomads to make phone calls. You can also shower at Office Nomads, an activity discouraged at most coffeehouses.

It would be hard to quantify the annual revenue of the nascent coworking market. Office Nomads itself has a long way to go before turning a profit.

"To stop hemorrhaging money, we need about 25 monthly members," Evans said. "We can start paying both Jacob and me a meager salary at about 32 members." The space maxes out at 40 members.

Evans has found that the benefits of coworking go well beyond getting people out of their cars. "It's about having a work community and being around people who are also interested and inspired."

I'm not ready to give up the coffeehouse just yet: $475/month is a lot of money. But on days when I have a lot of phone calls to make and a seductive pile of laundry at home, I'll come back to Office Nomads for the $20 day pass. When I ask Evans how to connect to the network printer, she hands me a USB drive and quips, "You can't bring a printer to a coffeehouse."  To top of page

Ditch your cubicle: A treadmill for a desk? Check out FSB's full archive of stories about unusual business locations.

Have you gone the coworking route? Tell us about it.
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