Smile Politely

Shared spaces for working it out

Local software architect Susan Potter was feeling lonely working from home. Unmotivated and distracted, she was having trouble getting work done. She had tried business suites, but found them too nondescript and uninspiring. She had looked into renting an office, but was daunted by the cost. Finally, she heard about coworking, a recent trend where freelancers, entrepreneurs, remote workers, and others share one big office space, paying a fee (usually by the month) for a desk, access to the internet and basic office equipment, and — most importantly — a community of people to see every day.

The term “coworking” was coined by Bay Area software developer Brad Neuberg. In 2005, Neuberg had recently left a high-tech startup to work on his own inventions and found that he missed having an office to go to every day filled with a group of people to network and socialize with. Neuberg later told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I started asking myself, why can’t I combine the structure and community of a job with the freedom and independence of working for myself?” So Neuberg started a shared office in the Mission District of San Francisco that housed an eclectic group of computer scientists, entrepreneurs, and a filmmaker. The office was a success, in part because the tenants, who weren’t competing with each other, brainstormed together and shared ideas. The concept of coworking, considered a movement by some, expanded across the nation, loosely guided by a wiki where coworking enthusiasts share resources and ideas. 

In Urbana, Potter (pictured right, on lefthand side), along with business partner Lucy Cross (pictured right, on righthand side), used the website to assist in the creation of Collective Turf, Champaign-Urbana’s first coworking space — or, as Cross calls it, “an office without the politics.”

“I kind of wanted something like this for a number of years,” Potter explains. Potter and Cross aren’t too specific in terms of what they’re looking for in clients. “Basically anyone who does desk-based work,” Cross elaborates. Clients aren’t afforded total privacy since the space is open and communal, but some users — for instance, a group of social workers who recently joined the office — can utilize a separate back room when they need confidentiality. According to Cross, Collective Turf will appeal to “software engineers, graphic designers, and writers,” among others. 

Local freelance writer Kristin Tennant was one such person. Pointed toward Collective Turf by a flier at Caffe Paradiso, Tennant found what she had been looking for in a work site. She was familiar with the concept of coworking and had actually considered starting a space herself in Champaign-Urbana; however, she says, “I’m so busy with my freelancing business and my blog and parenting, etc., that I really didn’t have time to put into running a coworking space. I was very glad to find out someone else was doing it.”

Potter and Cross wanted a downtown location for their project — they looked at spaces in both downtown Champaign and Urbana — and settled on 110 West Main Street in Urbana. “We wanted to be downtown near a bus stop, where people had the option to be green,” says Potter.  They feel that part of the space’s charm is the building itself. Formerly, their site was a cake bakery.

“The entire attic was stuffed with tins,” says Cross, “They would ship the cakes around the country on railroad cars, and people would send the tins back for a deposit.”

Now spiffied up, the space has hardwood floors, vintage fixtures, and views across the street into downtown Urbana. The site also struck a chord with Tennant, who was enthused enough about her new work arrangement to post an entry about it on her blog.

Along with Tennant and the above-mentioned social workers, Collective Turf currently has one other client: a remote worker employed by Apple. The collective needs at least six paying clients altogether to break even, and Potter and Cross are hoping to reach that goal soon. Ideally, Collective Turf would host between 15 and 18 people. According to the partners, though, it’s not all about the money; a big reason for creating the coworking site was simply to give Potter herself a place to do her own work. Cross says, it’s merely “a project we’re hoping not to lose money on.”

Tennant says she is fine with the lack of coworkers currently, but is looking forward to having more people around: “Right now, I’m enjoying having a place to work without the distractions of being at home, and I’m looking forward to more people getting into the space. The community and collaboration aspects will eventually play a big part in my commitment to coworking, but right now things are pretty quiet here.” 

She also hopes there will be greater networking opportunities in the future. “I think there are many people who need a work space like this, but they just don’t know Collective Turf exists,” says Tennant. “I’m looking forward to seeing how various collaboration opportunities emerge once more people start working in the space. As a freelance writer, for example, I collaborate with graphic designers every day, but they all live in Grand Rapids, Chicago, New York, and St. Louis. I would love to collaborate with some local designers, too.”

A six-month term at Collective Turf costs $255.00 a month and includes wireless internet access, a kitchenette with free coffee, printer access, and all utilities paid. Clients also have use of a conference room for presentations and client meetings.

“That’s pretty cheap when you compare it to renting an office,” says Cross, “which wouldn’t come with a desk or utilities and wouldn’t come with coffee.” Tennant concurs on the fiscal soundness of the arrangement: “One other side benefit is that coworking is a good business expense — I can’t write off any work space at home because I don’t have a dedicated office, and my accountant won’t take my cafe receipts into account.”

Nationwide, the recession is driving more people into coworking sites. “A cheaper way for companies to get something done is to outsource it,” Cross says. “Freelancers are the other end of that. The company doesn’t have to pay benefits.” Hence, more people are working on their own.

Part of the appeal of coworking across the nation is that it creates accountability. One out-of-work New York man uses a coworking site for his job search simply because there is a consistent group of people there who will know if he is slacking off. Cross also feels that coworking can lead to greater productivity. “I know when I was working from home on my thesis, I was doing laundry and cleaning the living room and I never got anything done. Then I was going to coffee shops and I got incredibly sick of coffee shops, which I didn’t think was possible.” Whereas, in a coworking situation, other people watch what you’re doing: “This is a similar type of environment to a studio,” she continues.  

“You just need that social outlet,” adds Potter. 

Coworking has roots in the tradition of artists and writers coming together to share ideas along with the rent, as well as with the more modern Silicon Valley concept of the workplace being a more informal, friendly, and playful site. As for Collective Turf, Cross says that she and her partner are particularly interested in the community aspect. To this end, Potter puts on conferences for people in software and technology in the local area and helps organize meetings of a local freelancers group. As Cross states, “It’s not just about the copy machine. You can buy a copy machine, but you can’t have a community.”

For Tennant, it’s also clearly about more than the copy machine. On her blog she writes, “The space encompasses so much of what I need and believe in: community, collaboration, the independent business spirit, old urban buildings, lots of natural light, and the rhythm of work.”


Photograph of owners by Mark Laughlin. All other photos courtesy of Collective Turf.

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