Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Austin coworking scene

Longtime readers may remember that I reviewed Zuboff and Maxmin's The Support Economy four years ago, and despite some of the book's problems, I found it to be very useful in thinking through some of the phenomena I had been seeing in a study I was analyzing. (That study is the basis of my second book, Network, out this fall.) In particular, it helped me to better theorize and analyze blurred organizational boundaries, horizontal learning, and recombinant relationships among employees of the same and different companies.

One of Zuboff and Maxmin's more interesting statements was that we would begin to see more federations, or organizations that come into being to achieve a specific project before dispersing again. One good example is that of a graphic designer who owns a sole proprietorship: when she is contracted, she subcontracts other specialists to do parts of the work, then provides the "face" for that federation until the project is over. At that point the subcontractors disperse. Some of them might be employed in her next project -- and she might in turn be subcontracted by one of these others in their next project. I'm currently conducting a research project on small graphic design shops, and we're seeing this quite a bit. And although the contractor/subcontractor relationship has been around for a while, technological developments are making it really take off: mobile phones, laptops, and high-speed internet connections in particular.

Certain trades, such as graphic design, web design, and marketing, are particularly amenable to this sort of work organization. These trades' work is largely comprised of one-off engagements and mediated largely through digital technologies. So we're seeing a lot of people who work when they like, where they like, especially as contractors or freelancers. In fact, they tend to get better wages that way, since they don't have to pay the company for overhead. (The tradeoff is that they have to supply their own benefits and find their own work.)

But it's lonely working in your home office. So we're increasingly seeing a phenomenon called coworking. Put simply, these contractors and freelancers arrange to meet with other contractors and freelancers -- say, at a coffee shop with free wifi -- and work in the same physical space on their different projects. If you're an activity theorist, you might think of these meeting spaces as the intersecting penumbras of the individuals' work activities. They're working on different projects, but in the presence of others in the same or affiliated trades.

But, importantly, these can also be collaborative spaces and networking spaces. Someone who works close to you on a different project today might become your subcontractor -- or subcontract you -- tomorrow. And even if that never happens, you might end up being their sounding board, critique partner, technical support, or drinking buddy. I think this trend bears watching.

One flavor of coworking is called "jelly"; it's informal and irregular. It got its name because its founders (inventors?) were eating jelly beans when they conceived the idea. (But it reminds me of the "gels" that Sheller discusses: "whereas a network implies clean nodes and ties, then, a gel is suggestive of the softer, more blurred boundaries of social interaction" (p.47).

As you might expect, Austin is one of the few places where Jelly has taken off in a big way. JellyInAustin is a website for coordinating (or "forecasting") Jelly meetups, and acts as a community site.

Affiliated is the Austin Social Media Club, which hosts leading thinkers on social media and proponents of coworking (there's a lot of overlap). SMC describes itself as "part think tank, part curiosity, all new media."

Since coffee shops are not necessarily the best place to cowork -- and certainly not the best place to meet clients -- at least two efforts are being made to create coworking spaces in Austin. Julie Gomoll's Launch Pad Coworking launches in September 2008; and Conjunctured is partnering with to open up another coworking space this summer that is meant to anchor a de facto tech incubator. In Conjunctured's case, the idea is to provide independent contractors with stable collaboration spaces, but also stable relationships with other entrepreneurs. Coworkers could freely subcontract each other for jobs as short as two hours, could form more stable teams, and could share expertise and participate in mutual critique. If stable teams decided to develop their own companies, they would be encouraged to lease property nearby, creating a de facto startup district.

Coworking is a really interesting trend, going beyond project-oriented organizations, beyond federations, and further toward entirely networked organizations. At the same time, it faces significant challenges in terms of accountability, reputation, trust, stability, and project management and planning. Those challenges are already being addressed with some emergent systems, practices, and expectations, but I expect significant further development. I'm going to be watching these developments closely over the next several months and will blog about them here when possible.

Soon I'll also be blogging about recent conversations with two members of Conjunctured. They're fascinating, and should provide further insights into the challenges above. In my view, we have to keep close watch on these challenges, not least because some of our students will be facing them soon.
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Steve Sherlock said...

Have you found Bernie and Gerrit at

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Thanks for the heads up!

Kristine said...

Great post! - Think it's important for those not completely ingrained into the scene to provide their POV. Especially, ask the questions that need to be asked.

"At the same time, it faces significant challenges in terms of accountability, reputation, trust, stability, and project management and planning."

We posted similar thoughts

Personally, think this is a great movement. Houston recently had the opening of their co-working space
Caroline Collective, which has been a huge success.

Hopefully, Austin isn’t too far behind!

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Ha ha, I sense some rivalry here. Thanks for the link, Kristine -- I'll definitely check it out.

jmetcalf27 said...

The talk about groups forming on a project basis reminds me of something we talked about in the co-company google group. There I said "as paid projects or ideas come in, we form small groups to work on the project. ...reminds me of white blood cells attacking a virus. the virus (project) gets dropped into the group and quickly a smaller subset of the group forms to attack it. when the virus is killed all returns to normal and the cells are free to reattach with others next time."

you're summary of conjunctured and startup district are point on. i could not have described them better myself. fact, i wish i could consistently describe them as well as you.

cheers! on to your other post