Coworking in Columbia?

5 May

by Guest Blogger, Frank Hecker

I’ve lived in Howard County almost ten years, and have spent most of that time commuting to Bethesda. I now work out of my home. (I’m currently living in southeast Howard but soon moving to Ellicott City.) Working from home is convenient (I can just plop down on the couch with my laptop) but also simultaneously distracting and boring; as when I commuted to Montgomery County, I don’t really feel that connected with the community I live in.

I work in the Internet/web space and have spent most of my career working for companies based in San Francisco or Silicon Valley. One of the latest trends to start in the bay area and spread outward is that of coworking: “a movement to create cafe-like community/collaboration spaces for developers, writers and independents“. In essence coworking is a 21st century approach to the traditional problems of finding both cheap office space and a good place to hang out.

As with many things in the 21st century, the roots of coworking go way
back, for example to the coffee houses of London and the functions they served as meeting and work places for businessmen and writers. In its modern form “coworking” as a concept was apparently first conceived of by Brad Neuberg, then popularized by Chris Messina and Tara Hunt (creators of the Citizen Space coworking space in San Francisco), Jay Dedman and Ryanne Hodson (creators of The Hat Factory, another San Francisco coworking space), and others. It’s now attracting the attention of the mainstream business press. Coworking spaces typically offer relatively low rates (compared to traditional shared office spaces and dedicated offices), an informal and friendly atmosphere, and even interesting after-hours events.

I’m very interested in coworking spaces in Howard County, but at least based on online evidence (e.g., doing Google searches for “coworking” and “Columbia“, “Howard County“, and “Ellicott City“, or looking at the coworking wiki and discussion list) it seems as if absolutely nothing is going on. I can’t even find any evidence of coworking activity in Baltimore.

I think a good test for the viability of Columbia and Howard County as a place to live (as opposed to a place to sleep in between commutes out of county) will be whether it will ever have (or could have) the combination of demographics and spaces that could make coworking viable. You basically need young (or at least young at heart) professional workers who are self-employed or in very small firms, combined with relatively low-cost flexible and repurposable spaces located near (or even co-located with) amenities like coffee shops, restaurants, etc.

Right now I get the sense that in Howard County there isn’t a sufficient critical mass of people in the right demographic, and few if any suitable spaces even if there were people to take advantage of them. But need this always be the case? With over 40,000 professional/technical workers in Howard County and future trends favoring small entrepreneurial businesses, I have to believe that at least one in a hundred of these people might be interested in coworking arrangements; that’s a few hundred potential customers.

Leaving aside the question of demand and looking to the question of supply, it seems to me that in an ideal world coworking spaces would be located in one or more Columbia village centers. I don’t know if the economics and other issues would work out, but assuming that suitable square footage was available for the coworking facility itself, it seems like otherwise a village center could have the basic requirements for a Columbia version of a coworking space: ample parking, some sort of “hangout” place (e.g., bagel or sandwich shop, coffee bar, informal restaurant) for lunch or breaks, a copy shop to supply basic office services like shipping and printing, and so on. With large retailers and restaurant chains focused on “big box” centers and even smaller retailers shunning the village centers in favor of newly-built specialty retail centers, perhaps coworking spaces and small businesses supporting them could be key elements in updating the original Columbia vision for the 21st century.

As implied by my first comments above, although a Howard County resident I’ve been pretty of touch with matters Columbia- or Howard County-related; has anyone ever tried or even proposed something like this? If not, is anyone else interested in pursuing this idea?

P.S. If you want to edit the “CoWoCo” wiki page just linked to, the password is the topic of this post, with the two “o”s replaced with zeroes.

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19 Responses to “Coworking in Columbia?”

  1. Frank Hecker May 5, 2007 at 10:02 pm #

    To clarify: The password on the “CoworkingColumbia” wiki page I linked to is “coworking” with the “o”s replaced with zeroes. (The note on the coworking front page is wrong; they had to change the password due to spam problems.)

    Also, I perhaps should have called this page “CoworkingHowardCounty” or “CoworkingHowardCountyMD” or some such, to be more inclusive. (After all, I’m moving to Ellicott City, not Columbia.) If anyone wants me to I’ll consider changing it.

  2. Jessie Newburn May 5, 2007 at 11:27 pm #

    Oh, how I’ve consider this coworking concept from so many angles. I’ll put my thoughts here and in your wiki, as well, Frank.

    Early days coworking options in HoCo: My suggestion is the East Branch Library off Cradlerock Way. Either an official relationship with the library or unofficial.

    An official relationship could look like, for example, every Tuesday and Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., the back area study tables are reserved for CoWorking. The same library etiquette would apply: no cel phones and use your “library voices” when speaking. There’s plenty of space for socializing, in the lobbies and out front where the benches are.

    The library has plenty of free computers with free high-speed internet access. Though, “high speed” is a somewhat sketchy definition, especially for people with laptops. (The library could use a boost in their wireless capacities.)

    Overall, the space is just lovely. A sanctuary to focused intellectual pursuits. Particularly in the winter, I was at the East Branch Library almost every day, meeting a friend to just “hold space” and work together. The nearby presence of another person working has, for me, an accelator function. I work better with others nearby, especially if I can bounce an idea off someone every once in awhile. I just love the East Branch Library as my second office.

    To round out my post: An unofficial relationship would just look like a group of people, networked online, with one or more of them saying, “Hey, I’ll be at the library on Tuesday from 9 – 11 a.m. at the long tables in the back. Anyone who wants to join me there and get some work done is welcome.”

    Actually, some of this is already in play. But you gotta find us through Facebook.com. Hoco Breakfast Club is the group you’re looking for after you get a Facebook account.

  3. Frank Hecker May 6, 2007 at 3:30 am #

    I think the library idea is a good way to test the waters for coworking, to see if a critical mass of people exists who are interested in a coworking arrangement. It would certainly address my major problem with working in the library, namely having to pack up my laptop, etc., every time I get up to go to the bathroom or to do something else.

    However in the longer run I’d really like to see a private coworking space (i.e., not piggybacking on a library or other public facility) where I had a key and could come and go as I pleased.

  4. Chris Messina May 6, 2007 at 6:48 am #

    Great post, Frank! I’d encourage you guys to consider starting up regular gatherings a la Jelly in NYC or the recently launched Cream Cheese Sessions in Philly. Once you get momentum going with regular meetups you’ll have both the interest and more importantly the people to get something off the ground.

    I’d also encourage you to look around to universities and approach your chamber of commerce. With lots of jobs heading overseas, coworking is a great way of creating local stickiness by way of creating strong local communities. And, as you build out your efforts, you’ll be joining an effort to establish spaces for independents the world over!

  5. Prentiss Riddle May 6, 2007 at 5:12 pm #

    The only hard part of this for me to accept was the bit about plopping on the couch with your laptop. Ouch, the ergonomics! 🙂

    (Seriously, ergonomics does play a role in how viable coworking might be for me — for various physical reasons I need an external monitor and a real keyboard when I work for any extended period of time, and a bunch of bare tables for laptops won’t cut it.)

  6. discursives May 6, 2007 at 5:33 pm #

    I have enjoyed regular visits to the http://affinitylab.com in Washington DC which is a managed co-work environment…a bit gritty perhaps, because it is solely focused on the machinations of 13rs, but a really great place to get things done. I’ll check out the wiki to see what ideas are cooking for Columbia.

  7. Frank Hecker May 6, 2007 at 6:25 pm #

    On ergonomics: Right, this is one reason why I think a permanent space is ultimately the way to go (as opposed to working out of a library, etc.). Suitable work surfaces (i.e., something better than “bare tables”) are not all *that* expensive, and if people were renting space on an ongoing basis (as opposed to being “floaters”) then they could bring in their own monitors and keyboards and leave them there.

    On Affinity Lab: It appears to be offering more than a bare-bones coworking setup, and the pricing reflects this; at $900/month for a dedicated space this is on par with traditional office suites in Howard County (although I’m sure in a DC context this is relatively cheap).

  8. Patrick May 6, 2007 at 10:59 pm #

    Nice post Frank. Not to take anything away from Brad, Tara and Chris’ work but Queen Street Commons opened in Prince Edward Island months before Brad’s post and Workspace in Vancouver before Citizen Space. The groups in SF are doing a hell of an evangelizing job and a lot of work on creating a community around all the spaces poping up or being planned and I thank them for it but the trend didn’t start in the bay area ;).

  9. Frank Hecker May 7, 2007 at 2:57 am #

    Patrick: Thanks for the update on the efforts. I tried to track down the earliest coworking efforts and credit people properly, but didn’t find anything on the Canadian efforts. I suspect the SF-centric focus is because a) the term “coworking” was coined there, and b) people in the bay area think they’re at the center of the universe in any case 🙂

  10. Patrick May 7, 2007 at 3:36 am #

    I kind of cheated, I just used my own archives like this one for Queen Stree Commons and this one for Workspace. I followed them from the start so my dates aren’t perfectly accurate but close enough.

  11. Jessie Newburn May 7, 2007 at 12:33 pm #

    For a name, how ’bout HoCoWorking. 🙂

    For myself, I’m less inclined toward a coworking space to which I have a key and can leave my stuff. I want spaces locally that are able to support small group work – collaboration needs. Many times, I need to meet with, say, a client and another consultant / thinker. We just need a space with plenty of room to spread out, enough freedom to speak openly, electricity and wireless internet. The space being aesthetic helps too, on another level. Cafes don’t offer much spread-out space, plus it’s a bit unkind, methinks, to park for hours inside a business that makes money by turning over tables with new customers.

    Is this a business concept for someone to develop
    ? Small collaborative space in an aesthetic, slightly hip, welcoming space. Some amenities. It’s not a faux office front, like the early 90s office broom closets with fancy receptionists. Quite on the other end, but still with some style. Perhaps it’s an hourly rental for small groups. Off Red Branch Road, where there is lots of pretty green space around?

    For example, perhaps the sales team from XYZ real estate group would meet off-site at one of these places every Tuesday morning from 8 – 10 a.m. to plan and strategize. The “not at the office” factor decreases interruptions and kind of tricks the brain to say, “Hey, focus … This is not our everyday place where we talk around the water cooler. We’re here to plan and work.”

    Just some thoughts on a Monday morning. Gotta get ready to go HoCoWork with a client. I’m meeting her at her home, which is lovely and has a beautiful view, and a coffee pot where she always has a strong pot of decaf brewing. And, of course, she has high-speed internet access and a big ol’ space to spread out our papers and plans.

  12. Miss Newburn May 8, 2007 at 12:02 am #

    Hometown Columbia HoCoWorking post gets linked to a blog in Japan. http://buyo.blogspot.com/. Plus bloggers in Austin, TX and Montreal chimed in.

    I think the coworking concept need is big, and that a spectrum of options are called for.

    I have the best time, for example, when my brother and sister visit from out of town. They each bring their laptops and we spend a lot of hours working independently, in the same space, touching base with each other for conversation, sounding board or chit-chatting.

    I just find my attention is so much stronger when I’m in the physical presence of another person working. But I love the coziness and aesthetics of home. Personally, any coworking space I’d frequent would have to be pretty. That’s just me. I’ve always worked in beautiful spaces with natural light and windows that open. Plus, I’m a believer in the rejuvenating power of a short afternoon nap. So, I’d like a place with nap spots, too.

    http://www.metronaps.com
    … Since we’re talking about possibilities and desires.

  13. Robin Abello May 9, 2007 at 8:10 pm #

    Great idea. I guess this goes beyond the private offices that something like the Columbia Business Suites offer.

    I started telecommuting back in the late 90s and over time I began missing being able to talk to other people at the office. So when I went to the office (once a week when I wasn’t travelling) I made it a point to chat with the folks to reconnect with the world. Believe it or not, some amount of productive ideas actually came from those conversations.

    I know of a few software developers who love working in cafes just to be around other people.

    It would be great to see something like this in Columbia …

  14. Miss Newburn May 22, 2007 at 5:12 pm #

    I saw a branded “Meetup” sticker on a Starbucks’ ad and followed the link (www.letsmeetatstarbucks.com), hoping it would be a new type of cow0rking opportunity. They do offer Starbucks-styled “eVites.” Hmm.

    Until someone makes a coworking space into a business — or public service, where is there a good local public place to cowork? Anyone have suggestions?

  15. Miss Newburn October 9, 2007 at 10:05 pm #

    More thoughts and links on the subject here: http://modphx.blogspot.com/

  16. Chris December 14, 2008 at 2:26 pm #

    I heard a co-working facility is being planned for the East Side of Columbia right off Route 29.

    I’ll follow up with more information as it becomes available.

  17. Mike Morucci (@GCGeek) April 11, 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    Frank & Jessie–

    I would love, love, love a revisit of this topic. It’s now 2014, and I find myself self-employed again as a screenwriter and a tech freelancer. I have a dedicated office at home but really want that collaborative vibe at least a few times a month, and I won’t find it in a Starbucks. Coworking spaces have finally arrived in the DC/Baltimore area, but Howard County still lags behind.

    I’m not interested in being a landlord, but I sure would love to be a tenant! I pine for a shared space on the lakefront. 🙂

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Howard County and the 21st century suburb « Frank Hecker - June 9, 2010

    […] centers might include one-of-a-kind restaurants, boutiques, and other services, live/work spaces or coworking […]

  2. Could Howard County libraries help grow Howard County’s economy? | Frank Hecker - February 23, 2013

    […] got me involved in the hoCo blog scene, via commenting on Jessie Newburn’s blog and then doing a guest post on the topic. I’m still skeptical on the idea, for reasons stated in the post. However I think […]

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