Two St. Paul spots introduced the Twin Cities to coworking earlier this year. Now one hopes traditional employers will join the mix.
Every morning, a Web consultant, a device programmer and an architect arrive at the same St. Paul workplace, a renovated warehouse in the Lowertown district. They share a tidy row of walnut-stained tables sandwiched between a view of Union Station and a kitchen. They pour a cup of coffee, set up their computers and start working.
For different businesses.
The three belong to CoCo, one of two metro area coworking sites meant to give telecommuters and one-person shops a cast of colleagues. Since opening in January, the two St. Paul locations have attracted more than 80 members between them.
Now CoCo and The 3rd Place, thought to be the Twin Cities' first coworking spots, aim to make the transition from novel concepts for freelancers to viable off-site options for traditional employers.
"It's coworking 2.0," CoCo co-founder Kyle Coolbroth said.
CoCo, which takes its name from its mission as a coworking and collabortive space, will soon add another "co" to its mix: corporations. Coolbroth expects teams from three large local corporations to move in by January. Those companies, which Coolbroth declined to name, will partner with "best and brightest" tech-industry experts that CoCo will bring in as fellows. In exchange, the larger businesses will pay for those individuals' membership costs.
"There's coworking, and then there's this innovation," Coolbroth said.
CoCo's second site will open this fall in downtown Minneapolis, and third and fourth locations in the suburbs are in the works, too, Coolbroth said.
A new model for work
Twin Cities coworking originated from a larger national trend rooted in the open-source technology movement in the West Coast. The two St. Paul locations opened within days of each other in January, quickly developing their businesses based on the success of a November coworking experiment in Minneapolis.
"You're drawn to [coworking] first, and then you figure out how to make this sustainable," said Don Ball, who also runs CoCo.
The owners built from the idea that freelancers and small businesses need somewhere to work that's more professional than a coffee shop and more flexible than an office suite. Tenants pay monthly fees to work in the open-air offices, outfitted with wireless Internet and free coffee.
But the real perk of coworking is collaboration, said Marc Chapman, a CoCo member who programs small devices. "There's a wealth of knowledge that's around you," Chapman said from his CoCo desk for the day.
Chapman is among CoCo's 80 members, who each pay fees ranging from $180 to $750 every month. The site, above Rumours club at 213 E. 4th St. in St. Paul, encompasses 18,000 square feet throughout three floors.
Open coworking space fills one floor, three-walled offices fill another and conference space fills the third. Ball counts all three uses as keys to CoCo's future as an innovation hub. In addition to hosting off-site corporation teams, Ball said CoCo also hopes to host a steady stream of conferences.
Many CoCo and 3rd Place members freelance in technology-based fields, making it possible to work from any location. They belong to a growing population of metro area remote workers.
A growing market
The number of one-person businesses in the Twin Cities increased 10 percent from 2003 to 2008, the latest year U.S. Census Bureau data were available. Professional, science and tech-related self-employment grew at an even faster pace, as did revenue. Those receipts increased 25 percent from 2003 to 2008.
Patrick Rhone, a self-employed computer technician, belongs to both CoCo and The 3rd Place. "They're really doing a true service to folks like me who otherwise work in pajamas out of their bedrooms," said Rhone, who can be found most Tuesday afternoons at The 3rd Place, the smaller coworking space.
Its owners have no immediate plans to expand their 2190 Como Av. location. Members, including a university biostatistician, an iPhone app developer and a freelance editor, pay $60 every month to work from the spot, where self-portraits of its 13 current members decorate a whiteboard in the lounge.
"It's about the members and the people who are here, not so much the space itself," co-founder Colin Hirdman said.
In addition to water-cooler talk, the new connections have also spurred business during the past eight months, Josh Becerra, another co-founder, said:
"Three of our coworkers are working together, doing things that they couldn't have done or handled on their own."
Molly Young • 612-673-4376