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?