A recent column about Wi-Fi "freeloaders" stirred up robust debate about the rights (and wrongs) of computer users in public spaces.
Quick review: More self-employed and unemployed Twin Citians are planting themselves in coffee shops and other comfy spots that offer free Wi-Fi. While a few folks regularly hop up to buy another muffin or cup of Joe, too many spread out and refuse to budge from their choice seats for hours at a time. One frustrated reader called them "an infestation."
Business owners aren't that brutal, but several have cracked down in recent months, requiring customers to belly up to the barista and shell out every hour or so.
Fortunately, from aggravation comes innovation. Minneapolis-based social entrepreneur Zack Steven contacted me a few days ago with a potential Wi-Fi win-win that could be an inspiration for others.
Beginning next week, as many as two dozen freelance types from across industries and the Twin Cities will pay $40 each to join an experiment in "co-working." Every Tuesday in November, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., they'll gather at cheery Crema Cafe in south Minneapolis to ponder, create and network. The money covers music, heat, Wi-Fi and the guarantee of not a single fluorescent light bulb in sight. Coffee and tea are on the honor system.
Steven brought the idea to Crema co-owner Carrie Gustafson just weeks ago. She loved it. The cafe, home to locally famous Sonny's ice cream, is closed weekdays during winter. So this is a way to breathe a little life into the place. Gustafson also has a personal interest in the concept's success.
"I work upstairs alone, and I crave that collaboration, to be with people," said Gustafson, who runs the cafe on Lyndale Avenue S. with business and life partner Ron Siron, the late Sonny's son. "I would love for people to be in here, because it feels creative. The space is perfect, small enough to start out."
She is not getting rich off the idea. "The $40 per person will help pay utilities, but it's not about the money. I'm into doing new things."
Co-working, in which independent workers create a communal work space away from the home or office, is just getting its legs in the Twin Cities (check out www.twincitiescoworking.org). But the dozen or so people who attended Crema's introductory meeting this week are bullish.
"It's a really exciting time to be a freelancer in the Twin Cities," said Amy Bryant, a regular tweeter and social-networking consultant who is partnering with Steven to get co-working on the road. "In a coffee shop, you don't bug people. It's not like you're going to noodle up to them and say, 'Hey! What're you working on? Want to collaborate?'"
That's exactly the intention of this group.
"I'm in," said attendee Missy Durant, a self-employed writer who misses the energy of working with other people.
James Farstad, chairman of Intermedia Arts six blocks down the street, was there, too, considering whether the concept could be a "test-bed" for his artists.
Chris Mitra, a software and product developer who commutes to Silicon Valley every few months, said he's "been looking for something like this for years."
Kyle Coolbroth, a "recovering corporate executive" from Ham Lake, said: "It will be a drive, but I'm going to do it." Robyn Flach, a home-based web and new-media designer in Champlin, also will drive in weekly.
Gloria Guerrero has the longest commute. She lives in San Antonio, but spends half her time in Minneapolis, managing the development of an economic hub on Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue. The innovative hub, set to open next spring, will include international networking opportunities and a shared space where desks and bandwidth can be rented by the hour or month. Guerrero stayed long after the one-hour meeting was over, networking like crazy.
Steven, co-founder of monkeyislandinc.com, which offers technology and social-media consulting, hopes the idea will take off as it has in other cities. (A few spaces for the Tuesday group are still available. Register through Bryant's website, www.iplaybig.com.)
"We'd really like people who are interested to get in touch," Steven said. "We believe that there are more tangibles than just sitting together in a room. But we have to see what happens."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • firstname.lastname@example.org