How shared working spaces are facilitating start-ups.

Inc. Newsletter

When software engineer Brad Neuberg opened a communal workspace in 2005 and called it coworking, he wanted to achieve the benefits of self-employment without the loneliness that working in a bathrobe can entail. He rented a space from a non-profit organization that gave him a deal, set up rolling tables that could be moved out of the way at night, and waited for people to come work with him. Nobody came until two months later, and he closed the coworking space after about a year.

"I thought coworking was dead," says Neuberg. "But then it turned out that all those people who had come by--because I told them take this idea, steal it, and remix it--planted all of these seeds that started blooming about a year or two years later."

Five years later, there are coworking spaces in almost every major city in the United States and more than 75 spaces globally, listed on the coworking Google group's website. There are coworking "remixes" that fit every niche from green business to working mothers. And coworking is emerging not just as a rich work community for the self-employed, but as an efficient platform from which to build a business.

"[People who start businesses from coworking spaces] are not your completely traditional entrepreneurs, but they've got enough of a desire to be independent and entrepreneurial that given a little bit better foundation they can take those steps," says Todd Sundsted, co-author of I'm Outta Here! How co-working is making the office obsolete. "They've got energy, they hook up with people, they start to collaborate, and start putting things together."

Sundsted says last year he started noticing an increasing number of entrepreneurs who were interested in setting up "coworking plus" locations that would offer services to entrepreneurs beyond the sense of community and networking that coworking traditionally supplies. Many of these ideas were aimed at facilitating start-ups, such as adding small venture capital components and consulting services to the spaces. But most of these new models, Sundsted says, have yet to get out off of the ground.

The Hub, though not formally part of Neuberg's coworking movement, is one form of a "coworking plus" idea that has more than taken off. With 18 branches worldwide and about 51 more in planning stages, the Hub has been facilitating new businesses since 1995, when it opened its first location in London. The Hub is intended to foster social and environmental change organizations, and it uses its 4,500-person strong global network to introduce members to other Hub users who have similar interests.

For instance, a host at a The Hub Berlin might connect someone interested in doing development work in Nicaragua with someone working on a similar project at The Hub Sao Palo.

"There's been a total evolution in how to mobilize business," says Alex Michel, who helped open The Hub Berkeley last September. "You don't necessarily need the brick and mortar solutions that we once had, so people are far more mobile. Coworking spaces make much more sense in being able to access communities. Our business model is based on sort of a zip car for business where you just pay for the hours you need."

The Hub Berkeley is the first American hub, and three months after opening, it has about 220 members. Five other locations are planned to open in the Bay Area within the next five years.

In addition to The Hub Berkeley's collaborative workspace, kitchen, meeting space, and office tools, members have access to the worldwide network of Hubs. If they're traveling in another area or country, they have not only a workspace, but a connection to the same community. Every hub also has a host like Michel who is trained to help facilitate connections, and start-ups benefit from legal, social media, and business consults offered by fellow members and staff in both lecture and drop-in formats. HubCap, a project in the works at The Hub Berkeley, will one day offer venture capital to its members.

Sundsted, who met his current business partner in a coworking space, sees a bright future between coworking spaces like The Hub and small business—especially as the technology to work in nontraditional offices and the empowerment of creative people to work outside of a big company increase.

"I think entrepreneurs tend to be pragmatic enough to latch onto things that help them be successful," he says.