Inside the Triad’s coworking movement
There are soon to be three prominent coworking spaces in the Triad, and much like the collaborative rationale for creative people forging new businesses in close proximity to each other, those involved in developing and managing the spaces believe each brings something unique to the mission of economic development.
First came Flywheel in Winston-Salem, a for-profit coworking space located in the 525@Vine building within the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. Flywheel, which opened last June, is itself a collaboration between three companies involved with developing office space and business marketing. Greensboro followed suit in November 2014 when the Greensboro Partnership announced plans to open Collab in a building on North Greene Street that’s owned by Elon Law. Collab houses the Greensboro Partnership’s Entrepreneur Connection, a robust collection of initiatives designed to help innovators bring ideas to the marketplace.
Flywheel and Collab represent opposite ends of the coworking spectrum. Flywheel is in the business to provide superior service and experience for its paying customers. Collab is a space that offers a coworking environment for a small fee, but also serves as the community space for new businesses completing the Entrepreneur Connection’s Triad Startup Lab.
Over the horizon comes HQ Greensboro, itself a forprofit coworking space set to open Aug. 19 on Lewis Street in downtown. HQ Greensboro follows quickly on the success of The Forge, a creative makerspace located next door, and grew out of a series of relationships developed during the last year.
These initiatives offer more than just a desk and coffee. The visionaries behind the concepts have harnessed the energy of an explosive national trend that’s developed on the backbone of cloud computing infrastructure and the rise of the mobile white collar workforce.
According to Forbes Magazine, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that about 65 million people in the United States will be contingent workers by 2020. That’s about 40 percent of the national workforce that will be working professionally outside of the traditional corporate environment.
“It’s a huge surge in this type of way to produce an income and make a living and become in charge of your own career,” said Peter Marsh, one of the founders of Flywheel. “Coworking spaces are designed to provide the support infrastructure for that kind of worker.”
Coworking may seem from the outside to be just another millennial fad catering to young people not yet ready to leave behind the camaraderie of the university’s student center. In truth, however, it’s a free market response to the evolution of the grassroots economy made necessary by the creative destruction wrought in this young century by globalization and the demands of corporate efficiency.
Marsh said the coworking movement began to grow in 2007, spreading from its home in Silicon Valley along with the development of cloud infrastructure and the freedom of mobile technology.
“It’s not a fad. It’s a substantial movement,” Marsh said.
“There is a very substantial network.”
There are more than 3,500 coworking spaces in the United States now, with the largest being New Yorkbased WeWork, a company with 32 locations, 23,000 members and a market cap of $10 billion.
Marsh said Flywheel has attracted clients from across the career spectrum, including consultants, freelancers, and startups, in addition to mobile workers such as sales and marketing staff, and even small corporate teams.
“It’s a real mixture of people with domain expertise in a lot of different areas ranging from graphic design to marketing to health care,” Marsh said. “We have writers. It’s really a diverse population. What they have in common is they are working outside of a conventional corporate structure.”
With labor statistics estimating 35-45 percent of the workforce falling into the contingent category, Marsh believes that coworking spaces fill a huge need in the economy. He hopes to open 10 Flywheel locations within 10 years.
“That’s a big part of the workforce, right?” he said. “It’s the demographic that no one can figure out, and the stat that slips through all the employment figures. These people haven’t gone away. They are just working outside of the normal corporate structure, and in many cases, outside of the conventional reporting statistics that are gathered for job and economic data.”
In addition to the changes technology and globalization have forced on the domestic economy, the rise of the Millennial generation brings with it certain responses to the workplace environment. No longer do young workers expect to move up the career ladder within one or two corporations during their lifetime. Millennials grow with the uncertainty of the time, moving from corporation to corporation on average every year and a half.
“Frequently there is a gap in between where they do their own thing in the sharing economy,” Marsh said. “Also, there are a lot of side giggers that have a day job but run a business on the side using the sharing economy and cloud-based infrastructure.”
As the number of contingent workers increased during the last decade, many began to find that working from home has its downside. Marsh said productivity, networking, and sometimes just the basic human need for social interaction, are among the top reasons mobile workers flock to coworking spaces. He differentiates Flywheel from traditional business incubators and shared key man spaces.
“In a key man space, everybody goes behind closed doors to their own office,” he said. “Everybody is completely siloed. If you look out here, this is a community concept. This is a community of workers.”
It’s a community that has exceeded the expectations of Flywheel’s founders. Flywheel is home to 60 member companies and about 80 active users. The 20 private offices in Flywheel are rented and the open space is nearing capacity. Only four members have left Flywheel in its first year, Marsh said.
With a $1.5 million investment in the space, Marsh tracks a number of metrics to determine Flywheel’s success. In addition to low turnover rates, he points to the number of startups and solopreneurs making use of Flywheel. A wall of user profiles is next to the cafÃ© area in Flywheel and lists the accomplishments of its users. From tech startups to healthcare and financial consultants, the list of innovative businesses coming through Flywheel is impressive.
The profile wall and the open working space let users to get to know each other.
“It also engenders an acceleration of the business of business for them,” Marsh said. “They start to partner on projects. They form startup teams and they actually create businesses that wouldn’t be created if they all went behind closed doors.”
Joel Bennett is the program director for the Greensboro Partnership Entrepreneur Connection. An energetic man with a passion for innovation, Bennett’s background in product design and marketing may make him the perfect fit to lead Collab in its early development.
Bennett is quick to point out, however, that Collab is the result of the hard work of many other people.
“I have a good skill set for it. I love this stuff,” Bennett said about how he came to lead the Entrepreneur Connection and Collab. “But honestly it’s the vision of the Greensboro Partnership that put this together and let me expand it, help, and build it out.”
Bennett sold a product development firm back in 2000 in order to dedicate more of his time to a family member who needed home care. He took a three-year contract with another firm, then started a series of businesses during the last decade, which allowed him to work from home.
Bennett grew tired of the isolation of working from home.
“I came out of my house looking for a coworking space,” he said. “I’d read about coworking and wanted to go there. I wanted to work with other people that were creative and driven and entrepreneurial.”
A friend invited him to an entrepreneur roundtable the partnership was having two summers ago. There he met Dennis Stearns, the Entrepreneur Connection’s advisory board chair. Bennett became engaged and began to volunteer for an experimental business accelerator at the time. A few months into 2014, Entrepreneur Connection was formed.
Photo by Jeff Sykes
Entrepreneur Connection is the home to several initiatives, including Triad Startup Lab, designed to help innovators build cash positive businesses from their ideas.
Collab is the space within which those initiatives take place, in addition to offering standalone coworking space for a monthly fee.
With Elon School of Law providing the space for $1 a year, NorthState Communications providing super fast fiber optic internet access, and a $100,000 grant from the City of Greensboro, Collab took shape in November 2014. Entrepreneur Connection fills one of the four key elements of an integrated economic development strategy by focusing on support platforms that can grow businesses.
A business development cluster occurs, Bennett said, when business incubators, accelerators, maker spaces, and coworking spaces grow in close proximity to one another.
“If you can put them all together, if you can create competitions to catalyze these different pockets, such as business plan competitions and pitch events, what you start to see happen is this cluster focuses on business development and creation. That’s what we are doing here.
We are catalyzing a startup community. These programs are the ones that the Entrepreneur Connection rolls out into the community, to catalyze and bring all these people together to create these happy collisions.”
The programs Entrepreneur Connection offers via Collab have produced impressive results. Many of the projects remain in the development stage and in various degrees of confidentiality. One example is a children’s toy being developed by a woodworker from The Forge, a creative makerspace on Lewis Street. The creator came from The Forge to the Triad Startup Lab, where he pitched his project at a monthly Idea Slam. The project moved from there to the coworking space, where the person met a web developer and a branding expert.
A prototype was developed and tested, and another Collab member showed the idea off at the Atlanta Trade Market, a wholesale outlet for gifts and toys similar to our own Furniture Market.
The integrated path for innovators that leads from concept to marketplace is something unique about Collab, Bennett said.
“That accelerates business growth,” he said. “It’s community development, because now Greensboro is considered cool. There’s not any other city that I know of that is doing this much. People are starting to talk about what’s going on in Greensboro.”
The success stories coming out of Entrepreneur Connection and Collab in its first year range from a group of NC A&T college students developing a mobile app business to a company manufacturing 3D printers. In between are arts and crafts based retail concerns, a food catering business that grew from an outreach ministry, and a rebranded and sustainable yoga studio.
Bennett said that coworking space is growing, from the estimated 3,500 in existence today to an anticipated 12,000 spaces in the next five years. The collaborative environment serves both entrepreneurs and contingent workers.
“The other thing with startups is that here they are exposed to so many other people with so many other ideas that their capacity for creativity just accelerates, it expands,” Bennett said. “This place is a refreshing new way to work because there are other people that are doing the same sort of thing. They can develop a whole social life around remote working or freelancing.”
Photo by Jeff Sykes
Bennett emphasizes that the non-profit nature of Collab gives him the freedom to work with client projects that have various levels of potential. He told the story of a recent immigrant with a product idea. Because the man spoke no English, Bennett brought in an interpreter who signed a confidentiality agreement. In six weeks of working together, the Collab team helped the man take his product from idea to prototype. He pitched the idea at a recent Idea Slam. The head of a large non-profit expressed interest in 100 units.
“We are community development,” Bennett said. “Everybody gets a chance, not just the best and the brightest and the most profitable ideas. Everybody gets a chance. That’s the difference between us and the for profit coworking spaces.”
The next coworking space to come online in the Triad will be HQ Greensboro, set to open Aug. 19 in a space renovated by developer Andy Zimmerman, the man behind successful downtown renovations that have helped give Downtown Greensboro a new flavor. Zimmerman properties now are home to Gibbs Hundred Brewery and The Forge on Lewis Street and the Preyer Brewing and Crafted: The Art of Street Food location on the north side of downtown.
The HQ Greensboro space is located next to The Forge on Lewis Street. Zimmerman said the space became available about a year ago, and at the time he had no idea what he wanted to do with it. He put a conceptual drawing and a for lease sign on the building and was soon approached by a commercial real estate firm representing Flywheel, which was looking to expand into the Greensboro market.
That didn’t take shape, but about the same time Zimmerman was approached by UNCG’s Bryan Toney, associate vice chancellor for economic development and corporate engagement. Toney told Zimmerman about an idea pitch at HQ Raleigh last September.
“The minute I walked in the door I was taken by the vibe, by the energy, by the place,” Zimmerman said. “The collaborative environment is an open environment. I personally feel that they day of four walled offices are going to be disappearing fast. They will still have a place, but there is a certain energy about people doing work sitting at a coffee bar, or around a conference table, and they might be from four different companies.”
Zimmerman said it was Toney that coined the phrase, “happy collisions,” one that Zimmerman and others use to describe the essence of coworking. It was just such a collision that brought the HQ Greensboro team together. Zimmerman will cofound HQ Greensboro with three partners he met through The Forge, Ken Causey, April Harris, and Ryan Barry.
Harris, who launched New City Ventures after leaving Action Greensboro, served as the administrative manager for The Forge following its launch. Harris said the program component of HQ Greensboro will augment the stellar coworking environment currently being built. HQ Greensboro is building relationships with attorneys and bankers, among others, who can assist start ups with often complicated aspects of creating a business.
“We want the space to be very active with a set of programs that enhance what the entrepreneur’s knowledge is about,” Harris said. “When we start, when we open the doors, we’re going to have a set of programming for our tenants in place and ready to go.”
The HQ Greensboro space will be the result of an almost $2 million investment among the four partners. The 11,000 square foot space will be divided in 15 offices on two levels. An additional 10 single-person offices downstairs, and room for 30-40 in the coworking space, fill the downstairs along with five conference rooms. About half of the offices are already rented.
Harris said that UNCG plans to move its NC Center for Entrepreneurship into the space, bringing with them a set of programs that’s been in place for two to three years.
Harris pointed to the growth of entrepreneur programs at colleges and universities as a sign that young people are beginning to take their economic future into their own hands.
“(Those programs) were nonexistent five years ago,” Harris said. “Now the dance program has access to entrepreneurial resources, and the art program. It’s not even just a business thing anymore. It’s a mindset of entrepreneurship that’s moved out of the business community and into people that are making and doing all kinds of things.”
In addition to the space, the team at HQ Greensboro stresses its proximity to The Forge. The ability of a craftsman at The Forge to develop a product and operate a business from HQ Greensboro is unique among coworking spaces.
“The Forge is the key to what’s brought a lot of this stuff to Greensboro,” Zimmerman said. “Once something like this happens, everyone says ‘wait. maybe you can take the next step,’ something more specialized for just business.” !