Monday, November 16, 2009

Coworking in Austin: Cospace

“We bring the co,” enthuses Kirtus Dixon as he discusses Cospace (, a coworking site that he is planning to open with his business partner Andrew Bushnell. Here's what the co stands for, according to their website:
Why Cospace?
We feel it a simple yet effective name for our space and what it means to us and the community it will serve. The prefix CO means together, mutually, or jointly, and that expresses what our space will be perfectly. It is a COoperative, COmmunal, and COllaborative space that will be a place for work and opportunity for its members.
So that's what we're discussing: the co. We're sitting in a room at Genuine Joe, a coffee shop in north Austin, and we've been talking for an hour about the space they're planning. I contacted the two earlier this week, after seeing Andrew post a message on the coworking Google group, and they've been telling me about their vision for Cospace – a vision quite different from the other coworking spaces in Austin. The two met when working as recruiters at a company in California, where they appreciated some aspects: the open floor plan (a “bullpen”); the spontaneous collaboration; the ability to learn from others, especially about technology (they're “late adopters”). But they found that they wanted more. In particular, they wanted more flexibility, more opportunity to build their own businesses, and more diverse coworkers. One problem with working at their old organization, Andrew tells me, was that everyone did the same thing. So they would talk about work all day, leave the office, go out for a beer with coworkers, and talk more about work – learning nothing.
Finally the two broke away, moved to Austin, and became entrepreneurs and business partners, driven by three goals: practice, freedom, and enjoyment. They've started a child safety franchise, initially working out of their houses, but they missed the interaction with other people and they suffered from a lack of work-life separation. More than that, they missed the opportunity to network with other small business owners. Suppose we need a website, Kurtis asks rhetorically. How do we know who has a good reputation? Go to Craigslist? An impersonal, electronic solution like Yelp doesn't appeal to them; they see social media as a good way to cast a broad net, but for relationships, they prefer face to face contact. Networking. The co.
Networking drew them to coworking. After looking into various office solutions, they discovered coworking and saw the appeal. It fit in well with their three goals – practice, freedom, enjoyment – and it met their networking needs.
So why not work at an existing coworking facility? Several reasons. One was that none of the existing or proposed coworking spaces fit the niche. Conjunctured is tilted towards freelance entrepreneurs, tech entrepreneurs, and artists in downtown Austin. Soma Vida is oriented toward family entrepreneurs, especially those in the East Austin area. LINK will be focused more on employees of corporations. None of these serve the small businesses community, address the networking needs of small businesses, or explicitly serve as incubators for businesses that will eventually outgrow the space (although they don't disallow that). None of these spaces reflect Kirtus and Andrew's identities. In addition, none are in north Austin where Andrew and Kirtus live – an important factor, since they want to build a community where they live.
So Kirtus and Andrew saw a niche for SBO coworking, serving growing businesses with sales between $500,000-$1,000,000 that need an SBO network to grow. Businesses like theirs. They envision a place that resembles the bullpen environment in the company where they met – but one where the corporate setting has been washed away. “Take out the bad,” Andrew says. Kirtus agrees and describes the place as resembling the group projects in which he used to participate in business school at classmates' houses.
Flexibility, they say, is the name of the game these days. And that's not necessarily tied to technology, an area where they say they have a lot to learn. It has more to do with networking, developing new relationships, sensing opportunities, and building relationships. As people who fall at the dividing line between Gen X and Gen Y, they see value in mindsets they associate with each, and they also see opportunities in mentoring the next generation, who overrely on social media and underemphasize personal relationships. Social media, Andrew and Kirtus tell me, do a good job of being the broad end of the funnel – they establish broad but shallow connections. But for deep, enduring relationships, you need human contact.
So when will we see Cospace open? Kirtus and Andrew are actively looking for a space, but they recognize that they have to find a landlord who “gets” it and can be flexible in terms of future capacity. Initially they tried working with a real estate agent, but they couldn't find one who could get her or his head around the concept of coworking. Now they're looking for spaces on Craigslist, looking for broad connections that they can turn into one deep relationship with the right landlord.
For now, though, if you're in Austin, you can meet the two during a Jelly at 360 Primo on Thursday at 11:30am.

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