Thursday, January 15, 2009

Coworking in Austin: Soma Vida

This blog post is the first in a series of posts on my visits to alternative working spaces in Austin.

The Space

As I walked into Soma Vida, a center located in a recently gentrified neighborhood in East Austin, I was reminded of a high-end yoga studio. The beautifully refurbished building - originally "built as the result of a cooperative venture between the African American churches in the community at the time which provided the house for women who were widowed," I was later told - has a roomy interior sectioned into various spaces, including spaces for child care, massage therapy, acupuncture, and meetings. And, of course, an actual yoga studio.

Soma Vida also has a coworking space, with individual desks set up in front of long padded benches arranged in an L shape.

Since I was early for my appointment, I grabbed a cup of fair trade coffee from the kitchen, then settled in to do some coworking of my own. Three other people joined me, one giving me the password for the wi-fi. Two of the coworkers occasionally spoke to each other in low voices, and a stereo played world music from the other room. Beyond that, the coworking space was quiet and serene: Soma Vida's coworking policies state that

Although we strongly encourage collaboration among members, we ask that members respect each others' needs for quiet enjoyment. Networking and lengthy conversations are welcome in one of our many community spaces which include our lounge area, kitchen, and outside garden areas.

In fact, later on, I heard one such conversation drifting in from another area of the building. It turned out to be Laura Shook, one of Soma Vida's co-owners, finishing up her previous appointment. She dropped by to see me, and we went to her office to discuss coworking.

The Philosophy

Soma Vida, which has been open since July 2008 and has included coworking since August 2008, is described in the brochure as "a work/life balance and wellness center." (Hence the name Soma Vida, from the Greek soma (body) and the Spanish vida (life)). It aims to be a cross between an alternative entrepreneurial space and a community center, with the co-owners and tenants sharing the space and periodically leasing parts out for community oriented workshops (such as soul coaching, harmony meditation, and raw food instruction). As Laura told me, Soma Vida had been conceived as a way to balance self, work, and family: their website expresses this balance under the headings "live well," "work well," and "play well." The center was founded on the question: What do people need to achieve this balance?
  • To encourage living well, Soma Vida provides space for yoga and pilates, acupuncture, massage, somatic psychotherapy, naturopathic medicine, herbal consultations, and parent well services. (Laura, a licensed psychotherapist, conducts the therapy.)
  • To encourage playing well, Soma Vida provides child care and children's classes.
  • And to encourage working well, Soma Vida provides work-life balance coaching (conducted by Laura's business partner, Sonya Davis) and, of course, coworking.

Soma Vida's philosophy, Laura explained, is summed up by Sonya's phrase "business the feminine way," an approach that emphasizes integrating family and community with work and that leads away from the dominant masculine paradigm of hierarchies toward a more feminine paradigm of relationship-building. That did not mean excluding men: in fact, Soma Vida draws "mom and pop-reteneurs," entrepreneurs who were also parents and did not want to give up their family life. To that end, Soma Vida works to integrate children into the entrepreneurial community.

Laura related that this philosophy of work-life balance is not just academic: she and Sonya are both single parents and entrepreneurs, and both had felt the isolating effects of trying to juggle one's own business with child care. "How do you do yoga when you can't get child care?" she asked rhetorically. More broadly: How can you maintain a work-life balance when you're working out of your home during the day and in sole custody of your child the rest of the time?

So Soma Vida's adoption of coworking followed from this work-life philosophy, becoming one other service that contributed to restoring a balance to people's lives. One of Laura's friends told her about coworking, pointing to In Good Company in New York City and Cubes & Crayons in Menlo Park, CA. In those areas, Laura explained, coworking was driven by entrepreneurs who did business in high-expense, high-density areas but could not afford to office or live in those areas. Austin, with relatively low expenses and density, was a bit different, but it still was open to alternative ways of sharing spaces due to the high number of entrepreneurs and their openness to innovation.

Unknown to Laura and Sonya, others had also started coworking spaces. A few blocks south, Conjunctured had leased a house and turned it into a coworking space oriented toward knowledge workers, particularly young independent contractors. (I profiled Conjunctured last year.) Only a mile away, Julie Gomoll's Launchpad Coworking is preparing to launch a high-end space primarily to serve telecommuters for larger companies. (See Julie's profile of Soma Vida.) Laura doesn't see these spaces as competitors, and in fact Soma Vida and Conjunctured refer people to each other. It's all about fit, she says.

Laura is optimistic about the prospect of business even as the recession deepens. With upcoming layoffs, she believes that businesses will begin to outsource more work to entrepreneurs, and those entrepreneurs will need ways to share resources, network, and regain community. The coworking space provides a more serene and stable environment than a coffee shop, the tenants have six-month leases that are reasonable compared to running their own space, and each tenant's clients are potential clients for other tenants and the space as a whole. In fact, Laura believes the Soma Vida model could spread to other places, tailored to fit other communities, with the end goal always being empowerment and cooperation rather than competition.

Soma Vida has also pursued the alternate economy of the Austin Time Exchange, a system that allows members to "bank" rather than barter services.

My Thoughts

I've studied work in a number of different contexts, including corporate buildings, nonprofits, police stations, academic offices, and home offices. Soma Vida is a bit different from these, particularly because of the specific philosophy that grounds it. As Laura said, Soma Vida is a cross between an entrepreneurial center and a community center, and coworking is a relatively small (though important) part of its mission.

Will the Soma Vida model spread? I think it has a chance to do so, particularly in areas with high concentrations of knowledge workers. Several factors conspire to make this time perhaps a strong one for such a model.
  • First, comparatively more work is being done in the knowledge work sector.
  • Second, knowledge work is increasingly being performed via information technologies: laptops, servers, mobile phones.
  • Third, consumer-grade versions of these technologies are available, relatively cheap, and powerful enough to accomplish the tasks that until now have required corporate apparatus.
  • Fourth, companies are cutting permanent staff in non-core areas, outsourcing more knowledge work to independent contractors in order to increase flexibility and become more agile (and to lessen the burden of employment benefits).
  • Fifth, independent contractors are already assembling federations of subcontractors for each project, meaning that they must assemble and maintain networks of contracts in order to remain competitive.
  • Sixth, these independent contractors are not necessarily as interested in profit as they are in autonomy. Especially those with young families, I suspect.
Given all of these factors, I think we'll see several spaces emerge with differing philosophy and clientele. Certainly the coworking spaces in Austin appear to be very different. More on that as I visit these other spaces.

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