Friday, August 13, 2010

Coworking in Austin: Brainstorm Coworking

From Coworking in Austin: Brainstorm Coworking

Brainstorm Coworking, which has been open since May 2010, occupies most of the second story of a 1910 Victorian house (and Austin landmark) on 1000 East Cesar Chavez. (They share it with the building’s owner, Marion Sanchez of Estilo Communications.) It’s a rapidly changing area: directly below them, on the first floor, is LOC Consulting Engineers; across the street is a new public library; a block east is Big Red Sun, a commercial landscape design firm; a block west is I-35; beyond that is the heart of downtown Austin. As Martin pointed out, the building’s walk score is 88, “Very Walkable,” and it’s easily accessible by foot, bike, rail, and bus as well as car.That accessibility is important: Brainstorm Coworking’s owners, architect Martin Barrera and commercial real estate broker John Hernandez, explained that Brainstorm is targeted toward “location-independent creative professionals,” and especially those that Martin and John knew from their business networks.

(Pictures below are mine; for some much better ones, see Brainstorm Coworking's site.)

From Coworking in Austin: Brainstorm Coworking

From Coworking in Austin: Brainstorm Coworking

From Coworking in Austin: Brainstorm Coworking

For instance, Martin recently ran into his neighbor, an interior designer, who recently launched her own design studio. She's been working from home and meeting at coffee shops. Martin suggested she come to Brainstorm instead. Other coworkers and prospective coworkers include two college professors who live in Austin but teach at campuses in other cities; a financial planner; a social media guru for a local non profit, a blogger, an interior designer, a music producer, and a web designer. But Martin and John also see Brainstorm as an ideal place for insurance agents, graphic designers, engineers, and loan officers: professionals who are location-independent, but who still need to network, to collaborate on jobs formally and informally, and to brainstorm with each other. “We want to attract a diverse group of independent professionals who cowork in a mutually beneficial collaborative environment,” Martin told me.
John and Martin cite examples from their own work: “For example,” Martin told me, “John and I are collaborating on a residential development project in Clarksville, and an LOC structural engineer and I are collaborating on a custom home in Westlake Hills.” In fact, real estate development is a great example of the potential for collaboration at Brainstorm Coworking: architects, engineers, interior designers, brokers, loan officers, and others routinely collaborate and draw on each others’ knowledge and networks to solve problems across their fields. But professionals who work on real estate development projects usually don’t have a one-stop place to conduct this sort of necessary collaboration. Now, with Brainstorm Coworking, they do. You can imagine how others in the target audience could collaborate on similar cross-field projects: design and advertising, lending, business incorporation, and other forms of work that draw professionals into temporary federations oriented to a specific project.
Notice that for the most part, these professionals aren’t the tech-savvy entrepreneurs who characterize many other spaces. But when they hear the concept, John says, they get it. And hear is the operative word: although Brainstorm has advertised on Craigslist, as noted above, their coworkers mostly come from their personal networks. For instance, John recently ran into his nephew, an apartment locator, at a coffee shop. His nephew worked at the coffee shop because it was free, but the atmosphere really wasn’t conducive to work. John suggested he come to Brainstorm instead.
Further, these professionals often want coworking without knowing it. John says that like him, many people start off by envisioning a little executive suite: a place to meet clients, an address, and someone to answer the phone. But everyone has their own mobile phone, and fewer and fewer people want a service answering it. And it doesn’t make sense to lease a space that you will hardly use, nor is a Congress Street address as highly prized as it once was. Brainstorm’s space is fine for meeting clients, and coworkers can use its address. Martin says that Brainstorm has set up a Google Calendar to manage use of the conference room.
What makes coworking possible for their target group, John adds, is the combination of laptops, mobile phones, and wifi. John had worked for a large commercial real estate firm sometime back, then struck out on his own. He had tried leasing a couple of spaces, but found that they weren’t cost-efficient: he wasn’t in the office that often, since much of his work involved meeting people for coffee and touring or showing spaces. Then he tried working at home, but he didn’t like it. He likes to leave early in the morning, visit a couple of spaces, and then go to the office - going back home didn’t seem like progress. Going to Brainstorm does. When people ask John to explain coworking, he points them to Martin. He has a hard time explaining it himself - but, he told me, he just knows that it works for him. When he is here, his mindset is different: he feels more mobile and more willing to meet others.
Similarly, Martin worked for two years in a home office, but as business ramped up, he found it more difficult to separate his work and home life. Inspired by coworking spaces such as Launchpad and Conjunctured, he opened Brainstorm with John. Now he does most of his work on his laptop and the phone. Rather than turning to a shelf for paperwork, he scans his documents and keeps them in cloud storage; but he also keeps a three-ring binder system at home and pulls the appropriate binder when he comes to work in the morning.
Like Martin, John does more work on the computer, and that allows him to be more mobile. Today, his work primarily consists of answering email, scanning listings, and making phone calls. With a laptop, wifi, and a mobile phone, he’s not anchored to a particular place. John recalls that not long ago, when you worked in commercial realty, you would need physical plat maps (just as architects like Martin used to need physical plans). No longer. As these bulky representations migrate to laptops, professionals became more mobile. Of course, the mindset is still there. Many of their target profesionals, such as accountants and attorneys, still expect to have a lockable file cabinet full of paper files. I wanted a file cabinet too, John said, but Martin discouraged it so that we could work as peers with our coworking members - and now I understand why. John leaves most of his paper files at home, bringing only the ones he needs for the day. “My nephew,” John added wonderingly, “does all his flyers on his phone.”
For Martin and John, leasing the space is a win-win. It’s perfect for their own use, so they’re not desperate to fill it up. Their target is much more modest than most spaces: 10 monthly members. At other spaces, the rule of thumb seems to be twice as many coworkers as seats, Martin says. “But we don’t want to manage 28 people,” adds John. They’d have to hire someone at that point, and they are not ready to.
So they maintain four levels of membership:
  • A full-time membership ($250/month)
  • A part-time membership, 10 days in one month ($150/month)
  • A weekly membership, 5 days in one month ($75/month)
  • A daily rate ($25/day)
  • Conference room rental for non-members ($25/hr)
And they have free parking. That turns out to be a big deal, since Brainstorm is located so close to downtown. Although clients are “location-independent creative professionals,” they still need access to the city, especially for meeting clients and collaborators and for showing spaces. Brainstorm is just a block east of I-35 and on one of downtown’s major east-west streets.
Brainstorm is not only about getting work done, though. Like other coworking spaces, Brainstorm also opens itself up to community events. “For example,” Martin said, “Brainstorm Coworking and Estilo Communications co-hosted an Imagine Austin meeting-in-a-box at Brainstorm, to give Austinites a voice in the comprehensive master plan currently underway in our city. It was a great success and we plan to co-host more community based outreach at Brainstorm in the future.” Martin describes Marion Sanchez, who bought and refurbished the building 15 years ago, as “a huge proponent of our startup” and “a huge part of what makes us great.”
For me, the most striking thing about Brainstorm Coworking is that it represents a shift toward earnestly supporting more traditional information-oriented work, work that has been around for a while but that has typically been tied to location because workers need access to physical representations and fixed phone lines. With those constraints lifted, people such as attorneys, architects, real estate brokers, financial consultants, and interior designers don’t actually need their own offices - but they still need to enact separation between their work and home life, they still need to network, and they need a space with close access to the people they must physically visit. Frankly, before visiting Brainstorm, I had not thought of people in these occupations as being ripe for coworking; now I do. In that context, Brainstorm’s location in a century-old restored Victorian house makes perfect sense.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Some SXSWi panels for your consideration

I'm planning to attend South by Southwest Interactive 2011, which is a terrific cross-disciplinary tech conference. Last year I organized a panel on coworking - a panel that made partially because people like you went to the PanelPicker and supported the panel.

This year, I hope you'll go back to the PanelPicker and consider putting your thumbs-up on three offerings:

Gavin Bell works for Nature, but readers of this blog might recognize his book, Building Social Web Applications. In this panel, Bell and his panelists will discuss how to apply social psychology - particularly activity theory - to understand and design social web applications. It's a very timely panel organized by someone who knows both sides of the equation.

Liz Elam owns LINK Coworking, which will be opening next month in North Austin. She knows a lot about coworking and about general workplace trends, and she and her panel will examine different aspects of these trends. If you're looking for insight into work environments, work tools, and work relationships, this panel should fit the bill.

"Hold on Loosely: How Loose Organizations Work"
Clay Spinuzzi, University of Texas at Austin
This is my core conversation offering. Instead of speaking at people, I'll lead a small-room discussion on loose organizations, how they work, and how they can scale up to meet challenges. If you're involved in a coworking space, a startup, a network of freelancers or subcontractors, or other professions that involve temporary, loosely affiliated professionals (think: real estate development, graphic design, event planning, financial planning), then think about voting this up and coming to the discussion.

Take a look and see what you think. And if you have other panels you'd like to nominate, leave them in the comments!