This Q&A was originally for KXAN when they covered Conjunctured last month. Some events and references have already past.
Q: What exactly is coworking? And can you tell me a little bit about its history?
A: Coworking is not a new concept; it’s essentially just people sitting next to each other and working. The new part is the community that’s built around that concept, and that using the word “coworking” suggests a feeling and an action.
Coworking as we now know it started in San Francisco about 4 years ago. Reaching critical mass around 2000, the number of independent workers (freelancers, web entrepreneurs) increased like crazy. Thus, more and more people were working alone -in their apartment or perhaps in coffee shops, but still alone.
Saying “I’m coworking” became a way for people to talk to each other at coffee shops. People such as Chris Messina, who co-founded Citizen Space in San Francisco, soon realized that a coffee shop or someone’s home was not going to cut it. And coworking spaces were born.
Q: How long have you been working towards this goal of creating a coworking space? When did you originally have the idea?
A: In Austin, the idea for a coworking came out of a “Jelly.” Jelly, a term coined by NYC coworker Amit Gupta in 2006, are weekly coworking sessions. Dusty Reagan (founder of Austin’s Jelly movement), David Walker, and Cesar Torres and I realized after a couple weeks of Jellying that this was something special, and that as independent business owners we could benefit from this type of environment everyday.
During SXSWi 2008 we solidified our decision to create a coworking space, as we were able to talk to so many other founders of coworking spaces.
Using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, we went about creating a list of people who liked the idea of having a coworking space in Austin. Over 200 people are on the list. From there, we asked those with the most serious interest to fill out a questionnaire. We asked question like: What part of town? How much would you want to pay? How soon do you need space? Do you want a permanent desk?
We’ve bootstrapped the coworking space from the very beginning. 50 people filled out this form. With that knowledge, we started the hunt for a space that would appeal to what our community told us they wanted. It turned out to be challenging, because there is such high demand for real estate on the East side right now. We knew if we were going to get a space we would need to have the ability act fast, meaning having the money to put down when we found the perfect location. 6 of the 50 stepped forward and paid our newly formed LLC 1-6 months of the future coworking space’s fees in advance, so that we would have the thousands of dollars necessary to make the deposit, first month’s rent, etc that is required when signing on a commercial lease.
Q: What are the unique benefits of a coworking space, both for individuals and the community at large?
A: There are obvious benefits from coworking, such as decreased cost of office space, opportunities for social interaction, and helping independent workers get out of their house and into a community.
A term that is getting around the coworking community, likely coined by Julie Gomoll of LaunchPad coworking, is accelerated serendipity. It’s about proximity. About critical mass. Coworking brings like-minded people together in a creative and tight-knit environment. All across the country, coworking spaces are beginning to be considered as incubators for startup companies and small businesses.
Q: Austin is obviously a hotbed of technology, but at the same time it seems like the landscape is changing, away from enterprise and chip companies, and towards developers, designers, and more consumer-oriented technologies and startups. Would you agree with the statement?
A: Absolutely. This change has been happening quietly on its own in Austin. I see the future of Conjunctured and my own long-term goals as embracing and extending this change. In fact, I think we are leading this change.
Q: Now that your space is more or less up and running, talk to me a little bit about the longer-terms goals and impacts.
A: My personal mission is to ensure that Austin is technologically progressive and competitive.
I foresee that the people who participate in Conjunctured will become leaders in the movement to change Austin into a progressive hub of technology, specifically with regards to developing web technologies such as cloud computing and the semantic web.
While amassing the support necessary to make Conjunctued happen, I realized there was a need to unite Austin’s tech community in more that just one way. Austin has several cutting edge startups. Startups that are working with leading edge technology or creating it themselves. Startups that are changing the way the world interacts with technology.
These companies thrive on being in the thick of it. Their success depends on it. They also need to be surrounded by other people who are taking a lead. Leadership breeds leadership.
It was as a result of conversations with the people at the helm of these startups that led to the idea that Austin could benefit from a Startup District. A physical district that exists within the city, a particular part of town where there is a concentration of startup companies. I have been in talks with the Economic Development Department of Austin and members of City Council regarding this.
In the mean time, we have been supporting local events, many of which are going to be held at Conjunctured, such as StartupCamp on August 2nd, led by Brandon Wiley, and an upcoming iPhone DevCamp, lead by Andrew Donoho.
Austin needs to know what’s going on in Austin. The Austinites I met at SXSW had no idea which startups were in Austin and what they were working on. They were only familiar with Silicon Valley startups because Silicon Valley has an online network of websites and blogs that disseminate news and information.
Having a stronger Austin presence at SXSW Interactive 2009 is big part of this initiative. I want the Austinites who attend SXSW to be armed with knowledge of Austin companies and what is going on in Austin.
This is not just about creating a fund.
This is about creating a culture that reinvest in the future. The ideal situation is, companies succeed (with funding or without) and then the people who profit from these companies reinvest in younger companies and people. This is the culture that has helped to keep the Silicon Valley flourishing.
I’m working to spread the message of what we are doing in Austin around the country. For early stage companies, web companies in particular, it’s not about the money. It’s about the community, it’s about connections, it’s about mentorship.
Q: I understand you have been out of Austin; what have you been up to?
A: Since the 13th, I’ve been visiting locales in NY and in Boston such as New Work City, Spark Space, NYC Resistor, and Y-Combinator, because these spaces have become such hotbeds for innovation – with dozens of companies formed and launched within the past couple of years. I want to have the best understanding possible of how communities have rallied together to foster a stronger environment and launchpad for these types of folks.
I’m learning as much as I can about what others are doing and what is working so I can bring the best of this knowledge back to Austin and we can integrate it into our scene. I’m visiting San Francisco in August.
Questions I’m answering include: what level and type of economic development have these concentrated communities spurred; how are coworking spaces laid out to best encourage collaboration, creativity, work and happiness; how does geographical location and proximity play a role; what types of funding sources (VC’s, Angels) surround these communities, and why; what are their tenants like in the coworking spaces, and what do they want.