Rubbing Elbows

Coworking spaces provide professional feel to solo entrepreneurs and the creative class

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch, New North B2B editor

September 2017

Thanks to technology, economic belt-tightening and a global workforce, remote workplaces are on the up. If you’re a company on a shoestring, it’s a boon: You aren’t responsible for rent or utilities for a brick-and-mortar office, and you don’t even have to stock toilet paper.

Depending on whom you ask, the percentage of workers working remotely at least part of the time is as high as 43 percent, according to Gallup’s 2017 report, The State of the American Workplace. Email, internet, Skype and Facetime, video conferencing and other collaboration tools enable people to work in real time “together” – but apart from one another.

Many workers love the flexibility and comfort of being able to work wherever, wear whatever and live wherever they like. Others need the structure they grew accustomed to after years in a buttoned-up corporate office. Without it, they feel adrift, alienated and uninspired.

Enter the coworking space. It’s sort of like the internet cafes of the 1990s – only without the computers – or like a coffee shop, only without the $9 muffins.

Coworking spaces allow remote workers to bring their own devices and work among other remote workers. They feature open tables and seating areas, with the option of upgrading to private desks, reserved spaces or locked offices. Printers, copiers, super-fast internet, and conference rooms are key components, as well as other office necessities, such as the free coffee at Green Bay’s The Docking Station.

Most co-working locations across northeast Wisconsin feature tiered memberships ranging from 24-hour access to a private office to space at a shared table during prescribed hours. The pricier packages usually offer more privacy, conference room and printer use. Prices in northeast Wisconsin can range from $15 a month for a space at a table, to $600 a month or more for a private office.

No place to call home but home

When Peter Nugent started his financial consulting firm in 2008, he worked from his home office. But it didn’t work for him.

“I quickly realized I didn’t have the level of discipline needed to be successful at that,” he said. “I’d rather pay attention to something like CNN or deal with the lawn that needed to be cut and all of the distractions around you at home.”

He worked at the library for two years, but found it to be distracting, and he never knew if he could get his favorite spot. He ended up getting office space in a local mortgage company, which worked a little better. “I needed that ability to go to an office outside my house,” he said.

But it still wasn’t the best. One reason: He felt he stuck out at the mortgage company like a Vikings fan at a Packers game.

“You had all of them – the members of the mortgage company – and me, an outsider,” Nugent said.

He ran into a friend from college also trying to operate a business out of his home.

“He didn’t have any problems with the discipline like I did,” Nugent said. “He needed to be around other people (to) develop his creativity, and without that, he felt like he was missing something.”

At the time, coworking spaces were sprouting up in larger cities like Milwaukee and Chicago. The two friends toured a few.

“Nothing in the (Green Bay) area was catering to something like that, so we did a lot of meeting in coffee shops, and in doing so, we saw a lot of people doing the same thing – meeting and conducting business in coffee shops,” Nugent said. “We knew or heard of others out there who didn’t have a place they called home other than their home office.”

The rest is history: In 2011, he and that friend, Dana Vanden Heuvel, launched The Docking Station in Green Bay’s Broadway District.

Customized plans

No one entrepreneur is like another. Their needs are specific to them and how they operate their business, Nugent said. That’s why The Docking Station and many other coworking spaces don’t require long-term contracts or membership for a specific period of time.

“Use it as you need it,” Nugent said. “Go between the different membership levels if you have to or want to, but our goal is to provide a creative space (where) people can utilize those traditional office-type amenities … and to meet people or give presentations, and have the really normal office things, down to the coffee that’s provided.”

The Docking Station refers to its patrons as members. “Even though it’s not a membership club, people who join The Docking Station tend to want to be part of something, so the membership name fit the best,” Nugent said, noting a range of careers represented among its members. “There’s the very traditional types of things, like insurance agents and attorneys, to the creative class, which is app developers, programmers, website developers, marketing consultants,” Nugent said.

Catching the current

Menlo Park coworking space in the riverfront development RiverHeath near downtown Appleton opened less than a year ago, in October 2016.

“We offer a mixture between open areas, where people can bring in their laptops and study or work, and we have about four offices for people who want a space unto themselves,” said developer Mark Geall, principal with Tanesay Development, the Chicago-based firm which owns the Menlo park building. The space offers internet, a kitchenette, conference room and river view.

Another plus – “It’s right above Tempest Coffee, so people are going back and forth,” Geall said.

People who use Menlo Park include entrepreneurs, financial professionals, a writer, and several employees from a new branch of a franchise under construction, Geall said.

“It’s flexible office space that provides a relief valve as people are growing or changing their offices,” Geall said. “Some people want to use it permanently, but it’s a great resource for companies that are staffing up or staffing down or are working on a temporary project for a month or two.”

Geall said he named Menlo Park after the place in New Jersey where Thomas Edison built his research labs.

Like other coworking spots, Menlo Park requires no lease. “You’re not tied into anything, so it’s good for people who are just starting out in their own business or transitioning,” Geall said.

The open space, functioning much like a library or cafe would, has a 50-foot-long communal high table and chairs, countertop along the windows, and a river view. A couple telephone booths offer privacy for phone interviews, speaker-phone use or confidential conversations.

“It’s a casual setting, but at same time, it’s not a home office, so it feels more structured,” Geall said.

The space is staffed during business hours, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Those who rent the four offices have access to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Grinding mill

The 12,000-sq. ft. The Grind Cowork Space in Oshkosh opened this past February with 10 members and two offices. Now it has 100 members.

“The community really embraced it,” said Ryan Rohde, community director for The Grind.

Whether coincidence or prerequisite, caffeine seems to be crucial in these places: Planet Perk coffee shop opened a second Oshkosh location within its space.

“We get a lot of foot traffic from people who just happen to walk in and who want to learn more about (The Grind),” he said.

Marketing professional Tiffany Reichenberger called The Grind “a game-changer” for her.

“I was previously working at home without a great place to meet clients and finding myself hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop just to get out of the house and away from distractions,” she said. Distractions eroded her creativity and hampered her work progress, she said. She also missed being able to bounce ideas off others.

Indeed, interaction with other professionals can be an important draw for many coworking space users. Rohde said The Grind has regular social events that double as business boosters.

“We like to treat our members to different networking events just to try to build awareness of the businesses,” he said. “It helps them out and it helps us out, so it’s really a win-win situation for both of us.”

The Grind hosts live music – even a cellist – as well as lunches provided by local businesses, Rohde said.

Reichenberger joined The Grind hoping to be surrounded by like-minded individuals passionate about creativity and entrepreneurship.

“The Grind definitely provides that, but also gave my business a professional space to meet with clients, potential clients, and to host various events which help drive my business’s growth,” Reichenberger said. “Fellow members are always looking to collaborate on projects and work together or connect you with a great network for your business.”

Coworking’s Cadillac cousin

More established Fox Cities professionals credit Pam Baumann, owner of Pamco Executive Suites in Appleton, with introducing the Fox Valley to the concept of shared office amenities. Baumann launched Career Options staffing company in 1987 and rented out parts of her building she wasn’t using. By 1991, Pamco Executive Suites evolved.

Besides providing private offices and corporate mailing addresses, Pamco answers phones with tenants’ names, sets up phone conferences, provides a reception room and even ushers clients to their meetings. Tenants get furniture, utilities, directory listing, door signage and office cleaning, along with the basics, like high-speed internet, office equipment and conference rooms.

“We run their office while they run their business,” said Baumann, explaing the philospophy that attracts many of Pamco’s tenants.

Pamco Executive Office Suites has two Fox Cities locations – a newer building on the growing northeast side of Appleton, and its initial location just south of the Fox River Mall in Grand Chute.

Tenants can rent a private office, share an office, or opt for a virtual one. Although there aren’t communal working areas like at coworking spaces, a shared office at Pamco is one in which Company A uses it certain days of the week while companies B and C use the same office the other days of the week. On the days the office is theirs, each company puts their name sign on the door. It’s good for workers on a budget, or for more mobile business professionals who may only be in the Fox Cities a few days a week for meetings.

A virtual office is no office at all – but tenants still get a corporate mailing address and can use conference rooms and office equipment.

This was a new concept in the early 1990s, and it took a while to catch on because tenants didn’t understand the idea of providing all these services as part of the rent, said Baumann, who’s preparing to retire at the end of this year. “A lot of people would come in and say, ‘Let’s say I don’t want your furniture, or I don’t need this, how much less would it be?’”

It took a while for it to sink in that rent with Pamco included everything, and space couldn’t be bought a la carte.

“I think they thought that because it was a little more expensive, they could take this or that off,” she said. “Others just loved it, because they didn’t have to do a thing – we hooked them all up, got them all ready, and that was it.”

While Baumann is looking forward to a bit more relaxation after more than 30 years as an entrepreneur, Pamco Suites will continue serving its longtime tenants. Baumann’s daughter, Lisa Powers, president of Career Options in Appleton, will run Pamco Executive Suites as well.

A nonprofit alternative

With four kids at home and a fifth due in late September, Mike Schmitz’s house isn’t exactly optimal for a work mindset. He’s community manager for Appleton Coworking, Inc., a nonprofit coworking space downtown.

Appleton Coworking, Inc. had its roots as Avenue HQ, which established itself as a coworking destination in downtown Appleton in 2013.

When its founding owner moved on, the tight-knit community that had formed there wanted to keep the place going. So they formed a nonprofit whose purpose is “to educate people about the benefits of coworking spaces,” Schmitz said.

“Our goal as a nonprofit isn’t to make a bunch of money, but to educate people involved in building this awesome community of creative professionals,” he said. “When we all get together we can do some pretty awesome stuff. If you were to compare our private offices, for example, to other private offices in downtown Appleton, they’re going to be significantly cheaper.”

Schmitz works for a global company with remote teams all over the world. “Most people think, ‘Oh, I’d love to be able to work from home,’ but the trouble is, I don’t get a lot of work done at home,” Schmitz said. “Even if you don’t have kids, a lot of times … it’s hard to make that mental shift to where ‘OK, I’m going to do focused work.”

He said he finds coffee shops to be too loud, and since his work includes video, a crowded cafe isn’t an appropriate venue for him.

“A space dedicated to work, especially creative professionals, where they can (be) around other creative professionals who are doing creative work – there’s something about just being in that environment that helps you do better work,” he said. “It’s kind of like going to the gym: Even if you don’t feel like working out, once you get there, you see everybody else working out and you’re going to follow through once you set your foot through the door.”