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The high level of layoffs among creative professionals in the last year has led to a correspondingly high number of “necessity entrepreneurs,” and new entries into the ranks of freelancers, consultants, and independent practitioners. As the year has worn on, many of these folks are beginning to look for ways get out of the home office, and in the company of someone other than the family dog. Of course, at the same time these people are trying to keep their expenses low and remain open to the possibility of a full-time job offer, so signing a long-term lease on office space is not a great option.
The emerging area of coworking is a response to this cocktail of economic and job market conditions, and it’s a topic that received lot of airtime at the recent Merge Meetup. Various forms of coworking have materialized including Jelly, which was started in NYC in 2006 by two roommates who began inviting friends to work from their home one day a week. Jellys have since been started in over a hundred cities around the world and the organization recently began webcasting “JellyTalks” featuring prominent social media gurus.
Another co-working option that was mentioned at the Meetup is a new entrant called CoCo, which has taken a slightly more structured approach to the concept. CoCo recently opened a coworking and collaborative space in Lowertown St. Paul in a renovated five-story warehouse building. CoCo co-founders, Don Ball and Kyle Coolbroth are both veterans of the Twin Cities creative community and this new venture strikes me as a bold and timely entrepreneurial move. Here’s a CoCo-produced video about coworking, followed by an email exchange I had with Don Ball to learn more about the CoCo story.
DP: What’s your background, Don? I have always pegged you as a web/communications guy—do you have experience in the commercial real estate sector?
DB: Yeah, you had me pegged fairly correctly. I’ve got no experience in real estate. Neither does my partner, Kyle Coolbroth, per se.
But what we’re doing at CoCo isn’t really about real estate anyway. Granted, we need to have a building to hang out in, but what we’re really up to is building a community that supports the new ways in which independents, employees and small businesses are getting work done through sharing and collaboration.
Describe the Coco offering
In a nutshell, we’re offering space for rent in a cool, creative work environment. We offer several plans and pricing levels so people can participate in the space on an occasional, part-time or free-time basis. Within our space we offer amenities such as tables and chairs, Wi-Fi, coffee, meeting rooms, printers and a copier. So, that’s the “what.”
Beyond that, our job is to foster a community that practices some shared values, such as openness, sharing, mutual support and positivity. We feel these values are essential for true collaboration. So, that’s the “how.”
But equally important is the “who.” And to that end, we’re hoping that several groups will converge at CoCo:
- Independents, freelancers and consultants – these are the “usual suspects” of coworking. It’s those of us who either work from home or the coffee shop – and sometimes coming up against the limitations of those workplaces, whether it’s isolation, distraction, lack of motivation or lack of new ideas.
- ROWE workers and telecommuters – ROWE means “Results Oriented Work Environment” and is an idea developed by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson in their book “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It”. These are workers who have been given autonomy in how and where they get their work done. Many of them are also experiencing the limitations of working from home or the coffeeshop.
- Small businesses – We believe that many small businesses can also benefit from operating within a coworking environment. They have the same need to gather new ideas, connect with resources and develop partnerships that independent workers do. Perhaps even moreso!
- Large organizations – Most of the discussion I’ve seen around coworking assumes focuses on the working needs of independents. But what if coworking was available for teams and individuals within large organizations? This is an idea that we hope to develop further. Currently, some of our ideas in this area include:
– Ideation and prototyping sessions, staffed by the members of the CoCo
– Corporate collaboration days, where we invite select teams from different, non-competing companies to visit. After a breakfast with a provocative speaker, they’re free to talk, work and brainstorm as they wish. The idea is to engineer a meeting of the minds that encourages serendipity and collaboration across disciplines and organizations.
– Get Out of the Office cards – We’d love to sell day passes to corporate managers, who can give them to their employees, either as a reward, or even better, to encourage them to go out and get new ideas.
In addition to the space and the connectivity, how else can a Coco user expect to benefit from the experience?
As I hinted at earlier, coworking is essentially about serendipity. We’re in the business of encouraging chance encounters of people and ideas and energy, in hopes that some of those encounters result in positive results for those involved, whether it’s new projects, new businesses or simply a more rewarding work experience.
It seems like you are launching CoCo at a time when there are many people finding themselves as “necessity entrepreneurs,” hence looking for flexible work space. Likewise, the market for commercial real estate is down. How much did the current economy influence your planning for CoCo?
There were a few trends that sparked us into action, including:
- The fact that coworking seems to be taking off in the Twin Cities (with at least 3 locations in the works). I’m convinced that time is right for this.
- The spirit of openness and sharing (see: open source, Web 2.0, social media, etc.) has infected many of us who are independents, entrepreneurs and small business owners.
- The local startup scene, which seems to be gaining steam, but might need the kind of nurturing environment that CoCo would provide.
To your question, it certainly is a factor that we now have many people out of work and accidentally thrust into the freelance world. During the last downturn, we saw that many people got a taste of self-employment and never went back. When the economy comes back this time around, I believe the workplace will be different, especially for those looking to innovate.
Describe your strategy for pricing with CoCo.
Our approach on pricing was to offer flexible options, because in general, we’re targeting people who have unpredictable schedules and may not be able to (or want to) cowork every day of the week.
We also considered the fact that coworking is still a new concept in the Twin Cities, so we’re letting first-timers spend a day in the space for free. And if that doesn’t pull in a sufficient flow of trial coworkers, we may need to extend that trial period. We really want people to experience coworking for themselves!
When we were creating our pricing model, we looked at the plans and pricing offered by coworking spaces all across the U.S. and Canada. What saw some commonalities: that most places have options for drop-in, part-time, and full-time coworking. But beyond that, the prices were all over the map. So, we had to pretty much invent our own approach.
To that end, what we’re trying to do is layer in other sources of revenue, so that the success of the CoCo doesn’t rest solely on coworking. That has led us to think about some of the other sources of revenue, such as:
• Corporate coworkers (telecommuters, ROWE workers, travelers, etc.)
• Small businesses and startups
• Short-term projects (groups of independents who may need a “war room” for a short time)
• Corporate ideation and strategic offsites
I know there are other versions of the co-working concept popping up all over the country—I’m thinking of Jelly, that has gotten a lot of buzz nationally, and even the relatively low-key Crema Cafe workshare sessions here in Minneapolis—are there existing models that you examined in developing the CoCo concept?
I’ve only heard about Jelly, but haven’t participated in it. But both Kyle and I have actually been part of the Crema Cafe coworking situation. We met some great people there and it confirmed for us that coworking has the potential to be a life/career-changing experience for those who give it a go. Essentially, it sold us on the idea.
Who are some of the experts you’ve had to turn to in developing CoCo?
We’ve turned to quite a few people for ideas big and small. The building owners, Jeff and Roger Heegaard, are accomplished entrepreneurs whom Kyle has known and worked with for some 20 years. We pitched them on our idea not only because we knew they were sitting with a cool building, but because they’d tell us straight up if they thought we were nuts. Turns out, they loved the idea and wanted to get behind it by making some space available and also offering ongoing guidance.
One of our dilemmas was what to call this crazy thing. So we crowdsourced the naming of the space. Turns out that a good friend and naming guru, Kyia Downing, had the winning idea: CoCo.
We’re also working with Mykl Roventine, my co-conspirator at UnSummit who is helping us create a visual identity and plot out how to use the Web to support CoCo’s outreach, scheduling and communications activities.
But I feel like the greatest opportunity for turning to other experts is yet to come. I believe a lot of what we will going forward is going to spring out of the CoCo community itself. A quick example: video and audio production facilities. A number of people have said that they would like it if we had some facilities for podcasting or shooting/editing video. We racked our brains thinking about how we could build that ahead of opening day (what kind of room? what equipment? what software?), but in the end, we’re going to let the community decide what needs to be created and how to create it. That way, the solution is not coming from two guys working in isolation, but from the very people who will benefit.
What are your long-term plans for the business? Possibly a CoCo space in Minneapolis, or other markets?
That’s a tough one. I know it’s a natural tendency in business to look at how things can be scaled. But until we reach the point where I can say we’ve been successful in building a vibrant, attractive community, I feel it’s too premature to think about exporting the revolution to other locations. I’d love to take a shot at that question in a year!
What does success look like for CoCo?
Great question. And perhaps that’s why the previous question was so difficult for me. It’s like trying to make a delicious curry. The ingredients are well known and abundant. We’ve got Wi-Fi, tables, chairs, coffee, all that stuff. And a great community that is really curious about the potential for coworking. But the exact recipe varies from cook to cook. If we’re successful, it’ll be because we’ve found the right blend of these factors – and maybe even some “secret ingredients.”
What will success taste like? If I can do some positive visualization: I see CoCo being known as a hub of innovation that attracts curious, passionate people, because the members of our community are visibly enjoying themselves learning, networking, experimenting — and kicking out successful new businesses and social projects on a regular basis. In the end, this is all about having fun, isn’t it?
It’s always difficult to predict which topics will generate the most interest on Merge. I would have never guessed, for instance, that after roughly nine months online, the most popular post by a long shot would be one that I wrote shortly after launching this blog, entitled Microfinancing. A model that can work for designers?. Even more interesting to me is to follow which posts generate the most reader commentary. My post last week about Tom Friedman’s New York Times column from December 13 (Tom Friedman’s 12/13 NYTimes Column: Why it Matters to Designers) takes that prize. Friedman’s story about how market demands—and opportunities—have impacted his friend’s marketing business clearly resonated with the Merge audience.
Knowing that most readers don’t revisit blog posts to follow the commentary, and because many of the reader comments from this post expanded the theme I was writing about, I want to take a moment to recap some of what I’ve heard in the week since the Friedman post.
Carl Tully made a thoughtful contribution from the architecture world: “Interesting from the perspective of a large scale architectural design practice. The urgency to reinvent the way we work, design, communicate is upon us. Will high quality high value design survive? Current design practices cannot support a sustainable business model based on the fees that are currently winning the work.”
Michael Ratcliff echoed the themes of my post, “My practice as a designer is profoundly changing, and not for the better. Because of the tools we have available, the speed and ease I can create things is remarkable. The downside is that clients are not wanting to pay for services rendered, or they will but at a significantly lower rate.” He goes on, “The genie is out of the bottle and we will never be able to go back to the old [way of working]. Rather than being all gloom and doom, embrace the changes and move forward, or get out of the way.”
Jim Finnegan added some historical perspective with a comment posted to the Merge Facebook group, “It seems to be an ever evolving theme in the graphic design industry. I saw it in typesetting, photography, and now in creative services and design. Fear not. The real future of the creative mind is what you have been discussing in Merge.”
Ironically, a short article entitled Good Enough is the New Great in the NY Times’ Sunday Magazine “Year in Ideas” issue from 12/13, caught my attention as further evidence of the ripple effect of free and low-cost online tools on the industries they serve. The article examines how the nosediving of our quality standards as media consumers has paralleled the availability of these new tools. “High-definition televisions have turned every living room into a home cinema, yet millions of us choose to watch small, blurry videos on our computers and our mobile devices. Cameras capture images in a dozen megapixels, yet Flickr is filled with snapshots taken with phone cameras that we can neither focus nor zoom.” The article refers to research conducted by Jonathan Berger, a music professor at Stanford, who polled his college-aged students over a six year period on whether they preferred music played from a high-quality CD, or lower-quality digital MP3 files commonly used on iPods. Each year more students said they preferred the lower quality audio. “To a new generation of iPod listeners, rock music is supposed to sound lo-fi. Good enough is now better than great.”
This story gives us a glimpse into what the next generation of consumers will respond to. One wonders if we are poised for a pendulum swing.
The healthcare industry is a vast wasteland nearly void of design—a condition I’ve discussed many times here on Merge. This sector is ripe for innovative design thinking and remains one of the great areas of opportunity for the next generation of designers.
Two recent articles highlight some of the great work currently being done by designers in healthcare. First is Allison Arrief’s post on the NY Times online Opinionator section entitled “A Breath of Fresh Air for Health Care” in which she profiles the strategic shift being undertaken by health industry giant Kaiser Permanente to focus, as Arrief writes, “not how well Kaiser will care for you when you’re sick, but rather how Kaiser helps deliver wellness and can enhance the quality of your life.”
This is a significant paradigm shift that I am seeing many of the prominent health industry leaders making (the Blue Cross Blue Shield “Do” campaign developed by Crispin Porter is one example). Allison Arrief goes on to explain how Kaiser is living into this strategy in a way that is impacting their entire organization and every point at which the patient is touched, “from
designing greener, healthier buildings to increasing the amount of time nurses spend at bedside.” The article includes an inspiring look of the Kaiser National Facilities Services group’s redesign of patient rooms.
The second article is by Helen Walters, the Business Week editor of Innovation and Design, who contributes a first-hand telling of her experience in the Mayo Clinic Rural Healthcare working group at the Aspen Design Summit last month entitled “Inside the Design Thinking Process.” Walters engages here in a thoughtful critique of the lofty goals and occasionally wandering methodology of the Summit. The Mayo working group had a brief “to design a new health-care system for Austin, Minn., a town of some 24,000 residents whose main claim to fame is being the home of Hormel Foods, the maker of Spam.” Walters rightfully questions how realistic it is to expect that 14 well-intentioned professionals in a Colorado resort are going to have the depth of insight to propose meaningful solutions to a problem with unique and deep parameters.
Walters goes on to tell how Maggie Breslin, senior designer and researcher at the Center for Innovation at Mayo Clinic, talked her off this hopeless edge by explaining “I don’t necessarily think what will move forward is the specific idea laid out for Austin in Aspen, but whether it ends up as a Web site with video is less important to me than the idea that people need a way to engage in multiple places within their community. You have to get to the detail to understand the larger principle—and then throw out the detail and keep that larger principle.” I agree with Maggie Breslin—and I’ve discussed this in my previous posts about the Aspen Summit—that the most significant outcome of this exercise may not be the specific ideas generated by the working groups, but the many interpretations of design thinking methodology we employed to get there.
The Center for Innovation at Mayo Clinic is an important side bar of this story. Like Kaiser Permanente, Mayo is an institution that is ahead of the curve on embedding design and design thinking in their strategic process. I had the pleasure of working with Nick LaRusso, Executive Director of the Center in my working group at Aspen, and I look forward to writing very soon about the great work they are doing.
For designers wondering where the next frontier will be for our skills, look no further than healthcare. Kaiser and Mayo are barely scratching the surface of the colossal mountain of work to be done.
It wasn’t just the frigid December weather that sent a chill down my spine as I read Tom Friedman’s column entitled “The Do-It-Yourself Economy” in the New York Times yesterday. The author of the visionary book The World is Flat wrote Sunday about what he calls the “Great Inflection,” which he describes as “the mass diffusion of low-cost, high-powered innovation technologies — from hand-held computers to Web sites that offer any imaginable service — plus cheap connectivity.”
Friedman used a real-life example he invokes frequently—his childhood friend, Ken Greer, a marketing guy from Minneapolis—to elaborate on this theme: Greer told the story of a video project he recently completed for which the budget was “about 20 percent of what we normally would charge.” Greer explained how he was able to use a collection of free or extremely low-cost online services—from the project management tool, www.box.net, and www.istockphoto.com, which offers high-quality, royalty-free images for a few bucks each, to www.voices.com, which appears to be a crowdsourcing site for voiceovers—that enabled him to deliver the project on time and on budget.
So, what’s the problem with this story? It sounds like this guy is pretty savvy and was able to find a way to complete a paying project during really challenging times. Bravo, Ken!
Absolutely. I have no qualms with Ken Greer rolling up his sleeves and getting the job done. These are outrageously tough times for creative professionals and, in order simply to survive, we must be willing to consider ways of working that only a few years ago would have seemed objectionable…or even offensive.
My problem with this story is that Tom Friedman is amazingly gifted at predicting our economic future—he did so repeatedly in The World is Flat—and if the scenario he depicts in Sunday’s column is, in fact, the future for creative professionals, we need to change the way we work. The point I have made repeatedly here on Merge, is that the way we are being asked to work is changing radically (our world is flattening, to borrow a metaphor), and creative businesses that have been built solely on client services (with hefty fees and mark-ups for outside services like printing or photography) are going to have to adapt before they become obsolete. The thesis of Merge is that designers and creative professionals should be finding ways to build their business that do not rely only on cranking out work for clients whose budgets—and, in turn, the value placed on high-quality creative work—are melting like the polar ice caps.
Does this mean the client service business model will die? Of course not, scrappy innovators like Ken Greer will make sure that “work for hire” will always be a core way for designers and creative pros to make a buck. But, if I can take a turn at predicting the future, what this does mean is that the design businesses we will hold up as models of success a decade from now will be built on an innovative entrepreneurial foundation that will blend traditional client service work with new product development, and direct-to-market strategies.
There are pioneering designers exploring this new territory now—many of which I’ve highlighted on Merge—and many related disciplines, like industrial design, in which the entrepreneurial path is well-worn. Hopefully these examples will help to illuminate the way for the rest of us to follow.
In the aftermath of the first winter storm of the season, an overflow crowd of hearty Minnesotans packed into the community room at Common Roots Café in Minneapolis for the second installment of the Merge Meetup. With the temperature outside plummeting, the conversation inside was vigorous, the ideas were flowing, old friends reconnected, and many new connections were made. Warm thanks to all who joined the festivities!
The creative business energy was high among this group. Self proclaimed “marketing guy,” Jeff Coffey shared his new business concept for a web app designed to facilitate communication between classroom teachers and parents. Garrick Van Buren gave us an update on his many entrepreneurial ventures including the amazing Kernest, a tool which enables designers to use an array of typefaces for web design. Dan Carroll is on his way to the Small Business Administration this week to discuss funding for several new business concepts he is developing.
I was struck by the high number of attendees who had been laid off in the last 6-12 months, and their presence helped steer the conversation in the direction of redirecting and rebuilding a career as a creative professional. Many in the group were clearly looking to build their network and share their experiences.
Designer, Jennifer O’Brien, asked if anyone had experience in the area of product licensing (something I wrote about in this May 27 post). The obvious hunger for more information on this and other business topics may inspire the future evolution of the Merge Meetup.
I am continuing to consider how these gatherings of designers and creative professionals around the topic of entrepreneurship might happen. Stay tuned for more announcements soon. In the meantime, here is a list of links for networking ideas and resources taken from my notes from Merge Meetup, Volume 2:
Mastermind Groups were suggested by Wendy Ruyle of 5by5 Design
Minnesota Interactive Media Association (MIMA)
Social Media Breakfast: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Gail Rosenblum’s column about “co-working” at Crema Cafe
Twin Cities Startup Meetup
Likemind MIN (at Espresso Royale)
7 Degree Creativ networking group
Garrick Van Buren’s Cold Start podcast
Small Business Administration Minnesota
University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business