WRITTEN BY JIM MURPHY
Around the time computers became essential in the well-equipped home, people made a momentous discovery. “Hey, I can work from home.” And why not? Kids are sick, snow is falling, just log on and go to work from the kitchen table. It wasn’t much later that hopeful entrepreneurs took their new freedom a step further.
“Hey, I could start my own business.” Turn that spare bedroom into an office and sell widgets online at night and on weekends. Soon some of those home businesses became full-time pursuits and soon after that came the final discovery. “Hey, this working-at-home stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I feel cooped up here in the house all day.”
People needed workspace where they could chat with neighbors at the water cooler, where they didn’t have to sign a lease or worry about utilities and the other details of renting an office. They needed something like a co-op office, a business commune, a place to “go to work.”
And a new industry was born.
It is called co-working, a name that doesn’t really describe the arrangement of several dozen shallow cubicles lined up in an open floor space, each rented to a separate entrepreneur or employee of a separate company. The cubicles may be small enough to accommodate nothing more than a couple of computers and are defined by low partitions. The individual spaces may be small—even cramped—but the electric voltage and the internet service are big enough to meet the demands of high-def worldwide instant communication. Add a comfortable ergonomic chair and the occupant is, quite literally, in business.
The co-working sites promote their office services, including printers, copiers, scanners, fax, and mail services. But many of the co-working clients agree the primary benefit is social interaction.
“This is just a great environment to work out of. You have a lot of cool people who are doing either similar or completely different things from us, and it just is great energy to kind of get your ideas flowing.” Marisa Falcigno and her partner, Shantanu Suman, huddle over their computers in a tight cubicle across from the coffee bar at Mojo co-working in Asheville. Together they are the Open Door Design Studio, producing everything from web pages to business logos. They recently completed a design project for the Kohler faucet company.
“This space has energy,” Shantanu says. “When you’re working at home you’re not meeting people. Here, everybody’s working. The energies are focused.”
They have been working at Mojo since last summer, originally two days a week and now three. “And hopefully we’ll soon be here five days a week,” Marisa says. “We both have our home offices, but we get way more done when we’re here together.”
She expands on the social aspect. “I used to be a freelancer working at home. In the beginning, you think, ‘This is great. I don’t have to worry about what I look like, whatever,’ and then you start feeling like you really need to have sound around you, interaction with other people, and so the next step is you go to the local coffee shop where they have Internet access. And then you find yourself sitting there like six hours and drinking six cups of coffee. But a place like this also gives you the focus you need to get the work done because everybody’s working. Everybody’s in the same position of, ‘Yes we want the community aspect, the social aspect, but we’re here to work.’”
It’s difficult to pin a starting date on the co-working phenomenon; it evolved over time, rather than springing into life. Most accounts put the beginning in San Francisco, from where it quickly moved to other major cities, both in the United States and Europe. The concept arrived in Asheville in April, 2011.
“There was an event I helped run in 2009, ’10 and ’11 called Hatch. It was a creative conference for film, fashion, design, architecture, journalism.” Mojo cofounder Craig McAnsh reached back to recall his inspiration for his co-working venture. “At the conference, I got to see that there were all these creative people in Asheville. They would all come together for that one weekend, then they’d all go back to their houses to work and no one would ever see them again. And I was so inspired by seeing these people together that I thought, let’s build a clubhouse for creative people.”
Craig pours a cup of coffee in the Mojo kitchen overlooking a ping-pong table. One of his tenants stops by for a cup, and they chat for a few minutes about the client’s recent travels to Utah and Honduras. The conversation provides a small insight into that social dimension of the co-working experience.
Craig continues his story about the origins of Mojo. “I was visiting Wilmington (North Carolina) in December, 2010, and I saw a place called Buena Space. I said, what is this place. It was closed, so I went to its website and I saw the floor plan. I thought, brilliant! I came back, found a space on Wall Street (downtown Asheville) and we opened four months later on April Fool’s Day.”
It was an instant success. “Our space on Wall Street was only 1,600 square feet, a lot smaller than what we have here,” he says, indicating his two-floor spread on North Market Street. “And before we opened the doors all the private desks were rented out. Turns out that within six months it was completely full. So we expanded. We came over here and bought these two floors.”
As he tells the story he indicates four private offices that comprise another facet of the co-working phenomenon. The offices are small, with sliding frosted doors, desks and space for a couch or other client seating. They provide a co-working solution for the entrepreneur who spends a lot of time talking on the phone or who must meet clients in his office.
One of the offices is a bit larger, designed for two people, and the occupants of that space offer another example of the unique nature of the co-working experience. At one desk is Vergil Weatherford, an energy efficiency consultant with a Chicago-based company. Just a few feet away, the other desk is manned by Matt Rudolf, whose primary employer is based in Geneva. They each constitute a remote outpost of a worldwide company, connected to “home” by modern electronics. Matt and Vergil met at the original Mojo space, became friends, and when Mojo moved they decided to share an office. And they agree that the social dimension of the co-working arrangement is its biggest asset. “Here you have the amenities of an office, copier, coffee, whatever you need,” Matt says. “And you also have the social interaction. There’s a nice cross pollination.”
[quote float=”right”]“Here you have the amenities of an office,” Matt Rudolf says. “And you also have the social interaction. There’s a nice cross pollination.”[/quote]Mojo’s decorative scheme and ambiance is, in the words of Craig McAnsh, “a combination of creative, artistic looking, industrial but also warm.” That look marks the contrast with another major player in Asheville, a company called Regus (pronounced Ree-jis). If Mojo is a clubhouse, Regus is the penthouse.
The entry at Regus is dominated by a reception desk, where two attractive young people offer a welcoming grin and greeting. Behind them a large framed abstract painting hangs on a bare brick wall. Frosted glass room dividers provide a psychological separation from what looks like a waiting lounge, but is actually a business space with comfortable armchairs and one-person “thinkpods” wired for Internet service.
Where Mojo is dominated by co-working space with only a few offices, the layout at Regus is just the opposite. Most of the accommodations are individual offices with desk, file cabinets, client seating, and all the electronics a client could need. Regus occupies an entire floor of a building in Biltmore Park Town Square. The space includes more than 50 private offices, a co-working space that can accommodate three or four people, and workspaces in the business lounge as well as the open coffee and refreshment area.
The offices include framed artwork on the walls and generally a piece of pottery standing on the corner of the desk or the file cabinet. And clients are free to add their own touches.
“I do have a client who brings two little baskets when she comes in to meet with her clients.” Joy Logan, general manager of Regus’ Asheville facility, tells the story. “She brings her baskets in and she decorates her office, puts up her pictures and certificates, and when she’s done with the meetings she packs up her baskets. It makes it a little more personal.”
When Joy explains all the available options in the Regus catalog, she relies on a website tutorial to walk through the maze of possibilities. Regus could become the poster company for the term, “full service.” With 1800 locations worldwide, including 600 cities in 100 countries, Regus claims to be the “Worlds largest provider of office solutions.” Here in the United States, Regus has 733 locations in 342 cities. They’ve been in Asheville since October, 2012.
Joy says the worldwide reach of Regus opens the company’s client base from small, local entrepreneurs to “Fortune 500 companies that need satellite space in remote locations.” She says the Asheville clientele includes “many clients in multiple cities. I have a gentleman who moved in today. He has an office here and in Ohio and Florida.”
And beyond the worldwide connections, Regus takes “full service” in another direction. “Anything somebody’s business can possibly need we can take care of here.” Joy launches into a list of the services a business “can possibly need.”
“Telephones, internet, administrative support. Nicole and McKinley greet visitors. They answer phone calls with the client’s personal greeting. They can do PowerPoint for a client’s meeting. They can make copies, handle the mail, sign for FedEx, and ship packages. We can take care of anything you would have to hire an administrative assistant to do.”
Joy’s not finished. She takes a deep breath and goes on. “We offer 24-hour security, Internet maintenance and repair. We clean the offices; we cover the power and water bills. We can also bring catering in for you if you need it. And it all appears on one bill. We take care of everything. When you come in for your meeting all you have to do is sit down and get to work.”
Joy says about half the Regus space is occupied by full-time clients. The rest is open to clients who come in one or two days a week and others who “don’t need full-time office space, but they do need to meet somebody every now and then. They want a home base, but they don’t need it full-time.”
Joy Logan ran through the exhaustive list of Regus selling points, but a couple of clients cited a different benefit. And their comments were strikingly similar to what we heard from the clients at Mojo.
“What I like about this is I bump into a lot of different people.” Joshua Merck works in the open space of the common area, where he’s likely to chat with other clients as they get coffee. An animation artist, he’s working on a Nike commercial to air on the soccer World Cup television broadcast. He has been coming to Regus since March.
“I just needed a place to come to when I need to get my head into work—away from my toddler. He’s three years old, and it’s very cute because he’ll pop open the door and say, ‘Daddy, me work.’ He’ll climb up on my lap and play with my mouse, and it becomes a challenge to get anything done.”
At the end of a long corridor are the offices of Fast Pivot, described by its president, Matt Ledford, as a digital business consultancy. “We have three offices here and four people. Asheville is really kind of our hub. We also have a person who works at home. She comes in occasionally, so when she’s here we pick up an extra office or work in the conference room. I like that flexibility.
[quote float=”right”]The client companies work in areas such as film production, online marketing and design, producing trade-show displays, business machine sales, and climate and weather analysis. [/quote]Matt leans back at his desk in a low-light office with electronic gadgets glowing around him. “It’s interesting to see the diversity of people who are here. We have everything from attorneys to psychologists to accountants. You can get very focused working from home and the virtual thing is cool, but the serendipity of meeting new people and seeing new ideas keeps you fresh, keeps you thinking. I think it’s a good space.”
Between Mojo and Regus, the combined client roster looks like a robust and eclectic business directory. The clients include lawyers, accountants, a financial consultant, a photographer, an architect, a church, the Nature Conservancy, and even a custom cabinet maker. The client companies work in areas such as film production, online marketing and design, producing trade-show displays, business machine sales, and climate and weather analysis.
That range of clients as well as the overall success of Mojo and Regus suggest that the relatively young concept of co-working is definitely working.