Friday, October 08, 2010

Coworking in Austin: Link Coworking

Just over a year ago, I saw an email on the coworking Google group announcing a planned coworking site in Austin: Link Coworking. A week or two later, I interviewed the proprietor, Liz Elam, at a local coffee shop. She had a specific vision of a coworking space, one that she had begun during her previous stint as global account manager at Dell.

Liz, I discovered, is an aggressive researcher. Over the next year, whenever I heard about a new coworking space, I would show up to see it - and almost always, the proprietor would mention that Liz had just visited or was about to visit. She's also visited coworking sites across the country. When I had an opportunity to add a fourth person to my SXSWi 2010 panel, I thought Liz was a natural.

So I've been hearing for over a year about Liz's ideas for a coworking space - ideas that have gone through multiple iterations, but always have certain principles at the core. Liz argues that coworking spaces can use different models, orient to different professions and segments, while still adhering to the precepts of community and collaboration that seem to inhere in all coworking spaces.

Liz told me, "I think what makes Link different is I actually worked out of my home for nine years. I worked in corporate America and I was isolated. I was trying to hold meetings in Starbucks and what I figured out was I wanted a place like this to work. So this is really built exactly like I've envisioned it the whole time, because this is where I wanted to go work. And when I look at other coworking spaces - and I visited over 15 from New York to L.A. - what I found were a lot of them weren't really environments I felt energized by and I really was comfortable in." Many of the coworking spaces, Liz found, just had the wrong vibe for some professionals in their 30s and 40s:
Some kind of felt more like a dorm style, and some were just a little bit more casual than I like. And I think that's great and there are people that love that and good for them. It's not what I am energized by and like and expect in the place where I want to work. So I created the space that I'm most drawn to, anticipating that other professionals in their maybe 30s and 40s are going to want to work from here too.
Coworking has typically skewed younger, toward the "webbie/techie crowd." Liz fully supports these spaces, but believes that "we've been ignoring a very significant, well funded part of the market." Link Coworking focuses on this niche, attracting independent workers that won't be comfortable working in a more casual environment. One profile might be:
somebody that works in high tech ... they probably already have a home office and in that home office they have a beautiful monitor and maybe mahogany walls and they have two kids and a barking dog and a spouse. It's not ideal for them, and they're running around town or going to the airport and they need a place where, a few times a week - maybe two, maybe three - they come in here and get work done in a better environment, and bring in customers to meet in the meeting rooms like we're sitting in, because it's not professional to go and sit in a Starbucks and talk about a $10 million deal. ... This is a place where you can bring your client and be proud to bring them.
Link caters to other independent professionals as well: entrepreneurs, small business owners, independent workers. Current members, for instance, include an entrepreneur, a life coach, a realtor, and an interior designer. Liz says that she is aggressively pursuing independent workers who are women in particular.

At the same time, Liz emphasizes that Link is still a coworking site: it's still a place for professionals to meet, form community, collaborate, bond, and bounce ideas off of each other. "I’m looking to build a community that will collaborate, share and help each other and greater community around them," she told me later. Link is not an executive suite, it's a full-fledged coworking space.
For a coworking space to work, they really require a catalyst. That is somebody that's within the space that manages it, that introduces people that has speaker sessions, really helps form a community. And those don't really happen in executive suites. But there are lots of people who come in here and say, "Hey, I'm on the phone all day, I'm a lawyer and I have to have a closed door," and I recommend that they go look at a Business Suites or a Regis, because I'm not selling closed door offices.
Liz has put different measures in place to make sure that coworking happens. For instance, the website (built in Drupal) shows basic outward-facing information on the members; but if you're a member, you can log in and "go behind the curtain and you can see more information about the people that you're working around." The space, featuring mixed seating arrangements in an open configuration, facilitates interaction and collaboration. Community presentations and events are hosted in the space, open to members. When I visited, Link had only been open two days, and Liz already had stories of how the coworkers had collaborated. And she already sees the patterns emerging: "people tend to go to the same spot, but people also go to where the people are. They only isolate if they need to get something done. But the rest of the time, people want to sit at the same table where the other people are. There are 40 places to sit. They're sitting next to each other."

At moments like this, Liz gets an extra sparkle in her eye. She makes no bones about Link being a for-profit business, but she's also very obviously excited about being a connector and cultivating Link as a space for genuine connections and interactions, all within a beautiful place to work. "I want people to network, support each other, employ each other and possibly start a venture out of Link," she told me later.

Link differentiates itself in other ways. For instance, it provides concierge services: "we take things off your hands so you can focus on work," Liz emphasized. Link also provides a space that has been custom-renovated for coworking - and furnished by Turnstone with furniture designed for this sort of environment. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide a lot of natural light. Power outlets and ethernet plugs are installed in the floor, within reach of each station. Of course, Link also offers wifi, and Liz insisted on a T1 line to ensure high capacity. Finally, Link offers a red phone booth for private conversations (although you of course must bring your own phone.)
How did Liz get to this particular location? She had five tenets for choosing a site, and finding a place that matched those five tenets was a struggle:
  1. It had to be less than a mile from a major thoroughfare.
  2. It had to have abundant surface parking.
  3. It had to have outdoor seating.
  4. It needed to be on the first floor.
  5. And it needed to be within walking distance of retail and restaurants.
Liz looked all over Austin for the right spot, and finally found it in the Anderson Lane Shopping Center: A few steps from Madam Mam's, Korea House, the Alamo Drafthouse North Village, Office Depot, San Francisco Bakery, and other spots. As I observed, someone could drop by a nearby coffee shop on the way to Link, then literally park their car for the rest of the day as they worked, lunched, worked out at the gym, dined, then caught a movie.

What's next? Liz believes that we'll begin to see coworking segment to address different industries, and we may even see dedicated coworking spaces for employees of single corporations - but still holding true to the principles of coworking. Community-building is critical, she emphasizes, but different space configurations are going to support different sorts of work.

One more thing. If you're in Austin, you really should come by for Link Coworking's Grand Opening Party. It'll include tours by Turnstone and a live DJ. I'm planning to be there, so look for me, and tweet me @spinuzzi if you don't see me.

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