Ditch the office -- How shared work spaces are nurturing creativity and innovation
By Baylie Evans, Writer
“Work” is changing.
Work the verb – the job we do in return for a paycheck.
And work the noun – the place we go to do that work.
It’s all changing.
“When we tell our grandkids we commuted more than a few minutes to an office and back every single day, they’re going to look at us like we’re absolutely crazy; like we took a horse-and-buggy to work,” said Jerad Stack, a serial entrepreneur and proprietor of the Durlacher coworking space in Laramie.
We live in an environment where we are constantly connected at the touch of a button, and yet more and more isolated. That environment creates less need for traditional office spaces and the high overhead cost that comes with them, and yet an even greater need for opportunities to collaborate and network with others.
Similarly, inventors wanting to make a prototype or entrepreneurs with physical products to make have been limited by the tools and equipment they can afford and the space they have available.
Hence, the rise of coworking and makerspaces across the country and in Wyoming, breaking down those barriers to the creativity and collaboration that fuel innovation and economy.
In coworking spaces, techy entrepreneurs with a love for the outdoors can ditch the traffic and congestion of big-city life and set up shop right in their own neighborhood, minutes from the mountains.
In makerspaces, inventors with big ideas can stay or relocate here and grow their products and companies from within the state.
The best of both worlds
Maintaining big office spaces incurs a high cost for everybody, Stack explained. Paying for a building, utilities, maintenance, supplies and more is expensive for the owner; and that big, expensive building usually sits empty and unproductive every night and weekend. That cost can be prohibitive, especially for entrepreneurs or small one- or two-person companies.
At the same time, the costs of fuel and car maintenance, or even public transportation to and from an office that may be many miles away, add up quickly for employees; not to mention the cost of their time and energy spent on commuting. Today's workforce is less inclined to take jobs that require them to commute and clock in at an office every day. Rather, they seek opportunities that allow them to work wherever and whenever they feel most productive.
Still, as anyone who has a home office is likely to say, working at home isn’t always the most productive or enjoyable option, Stack added.
“When you’re working in a garage or a basement, you get kind of stuck there,” Stack said. “There’s no one else around to collaborate or grow with, you may have no idea what resources are available to help you, and you have to rely completely on your own vision and energy to keep going.”
Coworking spaces offer the best of both worlds.
“Members get the benefit of working in a cool office without actually having to work in an office,” Stack said.
Every coworking space around the country is different, Stack said, but they generally all offer members the opportunity to use desk space, internet connection, meeting rooms, office supplies, kitchens and common areas anytime they like for a flat membership fee. Most offer private offices, perhaps for an added fee, and open-concept desks and common areas that encourage collaboration and camaraderie.
They are usually located in busy downtown areas near restaurants and coffee shops. And – as opposed to places like executive office suites that have been around for decades – coworking spaces usually seek to do more than simply share a building. Rather, they aim to create a community of hardworking, independent-yet-collaborative people. They often host happy-hour get-togethers, lunchtime yoga classes, networking opportunities and more.
A global survey on coworking predicted 1.7 million people would be working in about 19,000 coworking spaces by the end of 2018.
Pat Graham works as a real estate broker from his laptop beside the sunny windows of The Second Floor in Cheyenne. He’s worked in large offices before, he said, and much prefers his current “office.”
“The people are friendly, the environment is relaxed, there’s a coffee shop right downstairs, and it’s not a horrible thing that they have beer on tap in the break area,” he said with a laugh.
He saves a lot of money by not maintaining his own separate building. Plus, he’s met people who have helped him solve computer issues or answered other questions, despite working in completely different industries.
If he wasn’t working at The Second Floor, Graham said he’d likely work at home, where he’s not nearly as productive.
“What I love about coworking spaces is the community of like-minded people they create,” said Jenn Ford, the executive director of Silicon Couloir, which owns and operates Spark JH coworking space in Jackson.
Ford is also the owner of Frederick Mountain Group, a management consulting firm.
Sometimes, companies start in a coworking space and grow into their own space, she said.
“It’s an entry point to getting out of the garage or off the kitchen table with your ideas and creativity,” she said.
While it may seem like open-concept desks and common areas would be distracting to the workday, Ford said being around other like-minded people and away from everything that needs to be done at home tends to boost productivity.
“Whether they’re here to build an app, design graphics or anything else, it’s a morale boost to a solo entrepreneur or a small team to see other people around them working and creating and innovating,” she said.
Even within her own consulting company, Ford said she sees the culture of work evolving. The connectivity means companies and employees must step it up and compete globally.
“Just showing up 9-to-5 is not enough,” she said. “And yet, it’s more about productivity than hours worked. You finished your work at 2 p.m.? Great, go ride the river.
You can truly have the life you want and do meaningful work that is financially remunerative in Wyoming.”
Democratizing access to tools
While coworking spaces can be ideal for tech-savvy digital companies, makerspaces are springing up across the nation and in Wyoming for inventors and entrepreneurs with great ideas for physical products.
Such ideas have often been limited by access to tools, machines, training and space to create a prototype or build the products.
Makerspaces typically work with universities and donors to obtain the tools and the provide the training and space to use them, making them accessible and affordable for students and the public.
Tyler Kerr is the director of the Coe Student Innovation Center, a 2,500-square-foot makerspace on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie. It features several 3D printers; a 3D scanner; a laser scanner; a fabrication station with a sewing machine and vinyl cutter; computers with modeling and Computer Assisted Design software; an electronics bench with multimeters and other equipment to test circuitry; and even virtual reality equipment. Kerr hopes to add a virtual reality treadmill soon to allow people to “move” through virtual space.
It also allows users to borrow tools for projects at home or elsewhere, with the goal of encouraging do-it-yourself projects, repairs and recycling. And it features mobile stations to reach out to K-12 students with Lego robotics, snap circuitry and more to get kids excited about science, technology, engineering, art and math.
Initially, the makerspace at UW was a joint effort by the engineering department and the libraries.
“We started by testing the waters, and it has gotten so popular that we’ve gotten the green light to build a second space,” Kerr said.
The expansion will feature additional 3D printers that can print in various materials like resin or ceramic and, hopefully, even in metal. And they could even mix-and-match materials in a single item, allowing them to 3D print, say, a shoe or a screwdriver, Kerr said.
The Coe space is open to the public and currently serves mostly students and hobby makers, Kerr said. Even if someone has no plans to take their hobby to the market, they’re teaching and inspiring others, and they are contributing to innovation in the space.
“The spirit of collaboration is paramount within the maker movement,” he said. “We never turn anyone away. We want as few barriers as possible.”
Still, you never know when a hobby or a student project will blossom into a business, he added. And he hopes the expansion will allow the space to serve more high-growth-potential entrepreneurs.
“We aim to encourage entrepreneurs to go from idea to concept and production,” he said. “Inventors can create a prototype with us, show potential investors and garner support.”
The Area 59 makerspace in Gillette is a growing joint venture with Gillette College.
"There are two components to education: theory and practice,” said Ian Scott, the director of Area 59. “Students learn the theory in a classroom, and Area 59 is a place to come try it out and push ideas through to reality.”
Plus, with all ages in the space, a high school student might teach a retiree about 3D printing, and the retiree might teach the student about woodworking or machining. The mix fosters creativity and unique innovation that just doesn’t happen in a bubble, Scott said.
“It speaks to something that’s programmed in us a people,” Scott added. “We make things; that makes us different from every other animal on the planet.”
The ability to connect and collaborate with a diverse group of independent hardworking people, either right in your own neighborhood at a makerspace or from across the planet in a coworking space, is nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit that bodes well for Wyoming and our wide-open spaces.
With advanced connectivity, an individual or small team can keep up with the Silicon Valleys of the world, all while enjoying the fresh air and safe neighborhoods of Wyoming. And makerspaces leverage the potential business opportunities from the independent, do-it-yourself spirit of Wyomingites.
A healthy and productive entrepreneurial ecosystem is so important to Wyoming, in fact, that Governor Matt Mead’s ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversification Options for Wyoming) Council established it as one of the five crucial building blocks of its aspirational 20-year diversification plan.
Additionally, the 2018 legislature passed Senate File 0118, which set aside a total of $5 million to support innovation hubs, build the entrepreneurial ecosystem, fund grants for high-growth entrepreneurs via the Startup:Wyoming program, and provide matching dollars for federal SBIR grant recipients.
To that end, the Business Council created an entrepreneurial services coordinator position this year, and hired Vivian Georgalas to fill it. Georgalas manages the Startup:Wyoming program, which awarded $730,000 to 10 startups in the first round of funding, with continued monthly application cycles in 2019.
In addition, the Business Council is currently piloting innovation centers in Sheridan and Casper, with plans to stand up additional facilities and services throughout the state.
“Entrepreneurs and economies thrive with space to grow, access to resources and a spirit of collaboration,” Georgalas said. “Coworking, makerspaces and innovation centers tick all those boxes.”