Over the past five years, coworking has emerged as a movement that is changing how entrepreneurs and innovators work. Coworking has been touted as everything from a way to find a job for the unemployed to the “future of work“. It started out as a loose community for the self-employed, bringing freelancers and independents together to share space and resources, but has since evolved into an all-around platform for various types of businesses and organizations, including startups, social enterprises, nonprofits, and even corporations.
The Value of Coworking for Social Entrepreneurs
Coworking makes sense for social entrepreneurs because of the resources it provides, particularly the “social capital”— the relationships cultivated by working alongside others. Cospace co-founder Kirtus Dixon summarizes the case for coworking this way: “The magic of coworking is [having the access to] an ecosystem of innovation, learning, and support.” Working independently in these communal spaces, people from different backgrounds and industries create thriving opportunities where creative sparks fly— a process dubbed “accelerated serendipity” by advocates. Other perks include mentoring and coaching in the social enterprise space; auxiliary services that social enterprises need, such as legal advice; and possible leads for funding.
Here are more benefits of coworking for social entrepreneurs:
#1 Networking opportunities.
Coworking spaces have regular social events for their members to get to know each other, such as Centre for Social Innovation’s Salad Club (members each bring a salad ingredient to share with others over lunch).
Other social events like Friday happy hours, after-hours socials, and sponsored mixers make it easy to meet fellow local businesses, investors, and potential partners.
Joey Coleman, a member at Affinity Lab, a space in Washington D.C., praises the access to networking events and even the run-ins in the hallway with fellow members. “Brown bag lunches with guest presenters, featured speakers at evening training sessions, and even the casual conversation in the hallway, have all led to tremendous opportunities to learn and grow.”
The Hub Bay Area director Jeff Shiau explains how its mission is to create a “network of idea-driven people working to build a better world”— beyond a simple collaborative workspace. They specifically look for member organizations and companies, “whether it’s a big company that’s trying to reach multiple bottom lines, or a small startup that’s creating a product, service, or initiative, whose aim is to ‘save the world’ in some capacity, that are looking to achieve a bigger purpose.” The Hub provides its members a way to connect with similar-minded people, “to find a tribe of people that can validate and support what they’re doing.”
Jason Beatty also extols the networking opportunities he has experienced at NextSpace in Santa Cruz, CA. “Other than the benefits of having my own office and workspace, which greatly improves my productivity, being a member of a coworking facility has connected me with a large and talented pool of like-minded, hardworking individuals— some of whom have since worked with me on projects and enhanced my ability to accept a broader range of work.”
Reesa Abrams, another NextSpace member is also an ardent advocate of the various networking events hosted at the space by Girls in Tech, Tech Meetup, Monterrey Bay consultants, and local companies that provide products and services.
#2 Tapping into ‘accelerated serendipity’.
With coworking, communities can be very diverse, and you never know whom you’ll bump into in an encounter that could change your business forever. Peter Sims, author of Little Bets, writes: “Most successful entrepreneurs don’t begin with brilliant ideas — they discover them.” The creative process is less about the cult of the lone genius, and more about knowing how to connect the dots. At a coworking space, social entrepreneurs are constantly being inspired by the people around them— the entrepreneurial community.
And that’s where coworking can really change things for social entrepreneurs by providing a safe space— an “idea sandbox’ if you will— to knock around thoughts and insights with peers and colleagues.
Suzanne Akin of Fort Collins, CO, was inspired by an article written by a fellow coworker on the different things you can do to conserve energy on Earth Day. “One of them was commuting to work by bike (or bus if you couldn’t bike).” After some more collaboration, Suzanne’s “Bike to Work” program was born. “Now each year, I sell a special ‘Bike to Work’ edition shirt (of which part of the proceeds go to a local bike charity) and if you order throughout the month of June and choose bike delivery during bike month, I deliver your order by bike on ‘Bike to Work’ day. It has been really successful and has gotten me some good recognition within our community.”
Doug Naegele, another member of Affinity Lab, recalls how a simple conversation with a neighbor led to a new, exciting venture. “The person I sit next to recently won a Ford Foundation grant to help alleviate food deserts in Washington D.C. He and I got to talking and we came up with the idea of supporting the vendors and patrons of the Pop-up Farmers Market through text messaging.” Starting with some of his own company’s technology that was sitting on the shelf unused, they developed mobile technology to support the project. “Two months later, that new market is using our technology and we’re actively trying new ideas around health, food deserts, and mobile technology.”
#3 Opportunities for bigger projects.
With access to people working in different fields, you can now pursue bigger projects. Affinity Lab member Doug Naegele is hoping to establish a bigger nexus of innovators in his field in D.C. by replicating the principles of coworking. He explains, “I’m on a team of people working to start a health IT innovation center in Washington D.C. The goal is to house 20-30 start-ups, and pair their developing innovations with the major users of health IT in the United States: hospitals, insurance companies, government agencies, etc. By creating a coworking space for those start-ups, we hope to speed development of critical health IT innovation.”
Joey Coleman shares his experience of phenomenal revenue growth for his company, Design Symphony, after joining Affinity Lab. “Within three months of getting a desk, I had been referred business by my fellow coworkers that covered my rent for the first year. This trend continued over the years and referrals from my coworkers continue to play a significant part in my annual revenues. If I had to estimate, I’ve received approximately $50,000 in direct revenues from Affinity Lab members and another $100,000+ in referrals from members.”
NextSpace member Reesa Abrams, who runs tech recycling company TechCycle3, describes how discussions among other group members at NextSpace led to the development of PIE (Project for Innovation and Entrepreneurship), an internship program designed to immerse students from the University of California, Santa Cruz in entrepreneurial projects in the high tech and green tech industries. The program hosts a bi-weekly speaker series featuring company founders discussing entrepreneurial concepts and community-development strategies.
#4 Shared resources (from equipment to expertise).
For the budget-conscious, coworking spaces are ideal places to set up your business. Instead of shouldering the cost of an entire office space, with Wi-Fi, a coffee machine, whiteboards, copier and printer, lighting fixtures, you simply split the cost with the other members of your space. You can also leverage better prices for other equipment or affordable subscriptions with group deals.
But one of the truly amazing things about coworking is finding other people to bring fresh insight, skills, and connections to a project that you’re already working on. Reesa Abrams says being a coworking member has been a great way to get and give relevant advice on a range of topics. “[Coworking] has brought me cheaper resources in IT management, free web advice, short-term consulting, a place to validate or learn about new ideas, sales associates for my new startup, a reputation that has brought me new clients in the Santa Cruz area, and serious support from compassionate people.”
#5 More bang for the buck.
Lisa Shulman Malul, who heads Action Alliance for Children, a nonprofit that focuses on education and childcare advocacy, tells us that coworking makes economic sense for organizations looking to streamline operations and minimize overhead expenses. “The landscape for nonprofits has changed so much. The funds for operating expenses are always decreasing. People want to fund programs, not overhead.”
Coworking offered Action Alliance the best value for their dollar. Since the bulk of the infrastructure is their Internet and desk space, coworking at The Hub Bay Area made sense. While they maintain offsite storage for their publications, they use the coworking space as the command center for their day-to-day operations and to meet with consultants as needed. “There are reasons for large organizations to stay in their own independent spaces, but I think for smaller organizations that need to be very nimble and meet many changing financial demands, I think that coworking is a great solution.”
Note: The interviews cited above originally appeared in Working in the UnOffice: A Guide to Coworking for Indie Workers, Small Businesses, and Nonprofits (Night Owls Press, 2011). The book is available on Amazon, iTunes store, and Barnes & Noble.