Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Coworking in Austin: FG Squared

A few days ago, Steve Golab of FG Squared contacted me, wanting to talk coworking. “FG Squared has created a co-working space inside of our business,” he said, and invited me to take a look.

I met Steve a couple of years ago, through a former student, and later worked with FG Squared to develop the program for Interactive Austin 2009. But I hadn’t dropped by FG Squared in a while, so I was eager to see what they were up to - and particularly how they were developing a coworking space. After all, the majority of coworking spaces in Austin are standalone, not housed in an existing business - although I could imagine the advantages.

FG Squared, Steve explained, started 17 years ago by bartering web design services in exchange for office space. Later, as they grew, they leased their own space. But at this point - especially as more FG Squared employees have begun working from home - the leased space has become too large for the company’s current size. More, because some FG Squared employees work at home part of the time and on premises at other times, the capacity fluxes. At first, the company saw the excess space as a liability. But - remembering the company’s roots, and cognizant of the success of coworking in Austin - Steve decided to turn the extra space into an asset by opening the space to coworking.

Yes, that asset is partially financial: coworking helps to pay the lease. But as importantly, the coworking increases social capital in the tight-knit Austin interactive media scene. Steve facilitates interactions among coworkers; he introduces FG Squared visitors to coworkers and vice versa; he encourages networking. When FG Squared is approached by a client who needs something FG Squared can’t provide, he refers them to an able coworker who works in that specialty or at that scale. He even lets competitors use the conference room, he says.

FG Squared benefits directly in another way: “The office doesn’t feel empty,” Steve added. In fact, as a company, FG Squared realizes the same benefits that individual coworkers do: less isolation, more socializing, more contact with people working on different projects.

Coworkers get several things from this arrangement. One is coffee that, Steve emphasized, is “free and strong.” Another is wifi: FG Squared strengthened wifi throughout the building to accommodate its coworkers. Just as importantly, Steve has instituted an application process to ensure that new coworkers fit into the space: he wants a respectful, safe environment that revolves around interactive design. Currently, he’s developing a membership application and handbook to spell out the coworking space’s ground rules.

So who’s working in the coworking space? One full room is devoted to FeedMagnet, which includes three full-timers and a part-timer. Sometimes they spill out into the rest of the space, which is fine. Individuals also have desks, including an SEO specialist and the manager of a set of bars. A conference room is shared by the coworkers and FG Squared, and a few other rooms are on the list to be converted into coworking rooms.

As I’ve discussed in other coworking blog posts, coworking is partly driven by the trend of outsourcing noncore functions, partly by the rise of mobile technologies, partly by a glut of unused office space. Steve recognizes all of these trends, and he’s looking for a way to genuinely engage with them to provide a win-win situation for coworkers and FG Squared. His goal is to create a space that nurtures entrepreneurs (like Conjunctured or Cospace) within the bounds of another organization (somewhat like Soma Vida or Space12). It would be easy to see FG Squared’s approach as a simple “retail play” to help it make rent, but Steve sees it as genuine, actual community building. I expect this model to become more common as coworking continues to spread.