Saturday, September 18, 2010

Coworking in Austin: Cowork Austin

Cowork Austin is on the third floor of the Hannig Row Building on 6th Street, just across from the Driskill Hotel. In other words, it's about as close to the center of downtown Austin as you can get: a few blocks north of the river, east of Congress, and northwest of the convention center.

If that sounds familiar, it's because this space has been recently rebranded. It originally opened in January as Texas Coworking, but one of the partners recently left the organization and the other, Blake Freeberg, rebranded the space in August.

So how does Cowork Austin fit into the suddenly crowded set of Austin coworking spaces? Blake describes a spectrum of coworking spaces. On one end are businesses with excess square footage: "Oh, we have an extra desk in our office. We'll lease it out." On the other extreme are incubators such as TechRanch: "coworking with an intention to model and develop your business and mentor you." Somewhere in the mix are communally based models.

But Cowork Austin is more about enabling small businesses: it's "both a place where we can meet and help people or build a platform for them to do their business on. See these things grow. It's kind of an enabling thing." He adds, "I approach coworking from a slightly different angle, not what coworking is, per se, but what it enables. ... it's kind of a low cost business platform with shared knowledge that amplifies your business opportunities at the beginning." That amplification comes from abundant networking opportunities. Cowork Austin summarizes this idea in their tagline, "the un-office office."

Not that everyone at Cowork Austin has to come seeking networking: although those opportunities are there, Blake says, many come because "I don't have to put the deposit down. I don't have to sign a two year lease," and the space is relatively cheap. Coworkers prepay month to month.

What do coworkers get other than a space to work and the opportunity to network: "If you're a member, you have access to our address, you have a keycard to come in here 24x7, and you have rights to use the printer. We have a black and white and color ones coming up. You have the kitchen and you have everything. We do Internet but we don't do phone. That's twentieth century." Blake explained that Cowork Austin expects everyone to have a mobile phone or to use Skype; Cowork Austin has no landline phone. But it does offer parking for $15 more per month.

At the beginning of the month, Cowork Austin was growing: it had 12-14 coworkers, generally working in the tech industry, but also including a book publisher, a movie director, a wildlife conservation group, and a music festival planner. "These are industries that I have not seen in other coworking spaces," I told him. "And they kind of characterize Austin, you know? Film, music, artists..." Nodding, Blake emphasized that "work encompasses people's, not just computing stuff, not just pure business stuff but the art and the music that is Austin. I want to be a kind of holistic place."

That holism has led Blake to open Cowork Austin to different opportunities. For instance, art from local artists is displayed on the walls. They recently hosted a tequila tasting. They host interface design meetings, Women in Tech meetings, a Cassandra hackathon, and they plan to host an all-girl, all-night hackathon. "We have space for [a 20-person] group. Can't do the 50s to 100s. Not yet," he added.

Blake is optimistic that coworking is going to be around for a while. "I certainly don't think it's going to shrink," he told me, "And I think, fundamentally, it derives from professionalism and the tax code." On the one hand, "It doesn't take an army to build out a idea that monetizes things that you can live off of. So, that gives freedom. And on the other side, the tax code fundamentally says that if you hire a consultant you can write them off." So he sees corporations "moving to optimize their core business and hire consultants for everything else." And that means more need for coworking spaces, as those consultants seek offices - and as they seek more cohesive, more networked environments to match they sort of work they have to do.