Where Everyone Knows Your Name - The Prominence of Coworking Spaces in Boston
When I first started writing for VentureFizz, I was happy to know that it was primarily remote. “My first post-college job is a work-from-home job?” I thought. “How awesome!”
While I couldn’t beat that commute of just getting out of bed, having a place to not only do work but also be part of a community where I could meet like-minded folks in Boston tech.
For the first few months of working, I would commute from my house in New Hampshire and work out of a coffee shop. That is until I had heard about a place called District Hall, which is a centralized location in the Seaport District where people who were working freelance could work alongside small, early-stage companies can come together and work out of one place. In just one afternoon, one could see an abundance of professional meetings, either with teams or, in my case, to conduct interviews.
District Hall was also my first look at what a coworking space is.
While the idea of a shared workspace has been around for awhile, as there have always been companies that are renting out space to startups, coworking hadn’t become an official “style of work” until 2005. Around this time, San Francisco-area developer Brad Neuberg, who is currently a Senior Software Engineer on the Machine Learning team at Dropbox, founded the first coworking space in the United States.
With so many jobs in the Boston tech scene, and across the country, that are either remote or without an office, coworking spaces have helped these groups of people come together.
Boston is no stranger to coworking spaces. Organizations like WeWork, Workbar, and the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) have been able to provide anyone and everyone a place to call their “office.” There are coworking spaces that provide general workplace features and there are others that target specific individuals and early-stage companies, like Impact Hub (for social entrepreneurship) and The Food Loft (for food-based startups).
Coworking spaces provide these employees with the usual office furniture and utilities, but also give them a chance to take part in a community and network with each other. It also provides smaller teams a more cost-effective location.
“A lot of anxieties that early-stage companies face are with long-term commitments with leases,” said Workbar Head of Marketing Justin Miller. “Leases are the second biggest expense next to employee salaries.”
Coworking has become its own separate sector in and of itself, and since I have a personal connection to it, I decided to take a deep dive and take a look at coworking in Boston.
The Big Three...of Coworking Spaces
WeWork is the most nationally known of the “Big Three” coworking spaces in Boston. They recently released their economic growth report, announcing the company now has locations in 75 US cities and in 22 countries worldwide.
WeWork was founded in 2010 by Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey. Before starting WeWork, both Neumann and McKelvey were operating Green Desk, an environmentally-friendly coworking space in Brooklyn. After selling the space to a business partner, the duo decided to venture into real estate and start giving individual workers an opportunity to come together.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, Neumann told the outlet that the inspiration was collaboration and community.
"The '90s and early 2000s were the 'I' decade," Neumann said. "iPhone, the iPod, everything was about me. Look where that got us? In a terrible recession. The next decade is the 'We' decade, where collaboration is the future of innovation.”
Currently, WeWork has six locations spread out across Boston and Cambridge, with the most recently opened location being at 200 Portland St near TD Garden. WeWork is set to open two more locations in Boston by the end of 2018 at 501 Boylston and 33 Arch.
“In our business, there is a paradigm shift in how people think about space,” said WeWork Northeast General Manager Dave McLaughlin. “Coworking is exploding across the country. Entrepreneurs and larger companies are looking to see how space plays into their business. They have to make plans in order to attract and retain top talent and workspace plays a big part in that.”
McLaughlin has been involved with WeWork since 2015, and was responsible for the company’s expansion into many cities in Eastern U.S. and Canada. McLaughlin believes WeWork’s success comes from their ability to attract all types of companies from startups to freelancers to larger companies in the area and it gives them a chance to be more flexible with their time. He also points out it gives veteran companies a chance to get to know the “new generation” so to speak.
“We love the idea of younger companies being shoulder-to-shoulder with larger companies,” McLaughlin said. “Like Microsoft and GE in WeWork. They don’t want to be part of a homogeneous network. Those big companies want to interact with early-stage companies. It’s a win-win.”
Coworking in Boston started in 2007 with the betahouse location in Central Square, but it started to gain traction in 2009 when serial entrepreneurs Bill Jacobson and David Ulrich founded Workbar. The founding team were actually inspired by betahouse, but wanted to build off of their initial concept and bring more people in (as opposed to only software engineers).
The other factor was trying to bring people together from the suburbs and have them work within the city. Many of Workbar’s locations are in areas that have easy access to both the roads and public transportation.
“Why did we get started? It was less about real estate and more about the nature of work,” said Jacobson. “If you have a choice, in a typical eight-hour workday, I’m commuting an hour on one end and an hour on the other end. That’s 20% of my day right there.”
Workbar has several locations across the greater Boston area, and associate locations are strewn about as well, with a handful of them are located within Staples stores. Workbar has a massive presence in Boston suburbs as well.
“We are going all in with the suburbs,” said Miller. “Our locations in Arlington, Somerville, and Brighton are always packed. There’s a lot of people out there that are just looking for an independent space.”
Founded in 1999 by MIT graduates Timothy Rowe (who is still the CEO) and Andrew Olmsted, the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) is no longer just located in Kendall Square; the CIC location in the Financial District is home to several early-stage startups, as well as industry-specific spaces like Impact Hub and the Startup Institute. Other organizations located within a CIC office include the startup accelerator TiE Boston, Resilient Coders and the Venture Cafe.
“It’s important to have an ‘entry point’ for small companies who want to be a part of something bigger,” said CIC Community Leader Alex Cheung. “Coworking spaces can give those companies access to shared resources, like printers, copiers, and conference rooms.”
With so much space in one building, the abundance of both companies and various organizations have created their own community of sorts. Cheung told us that CIC holds nearly 100 unique events a month including hackathons to coding classes to afternoon yoga.
“In order to create an ecosystem where any size and stage company feels like they have the professional services and opportunities to grow, CIC brings in industry experts for panel discussions, lectures, and meetups,” said Cheung. “We also encourage our clients to host events, as leaders in their own fields, and open our space up for external groups to bring events, ideas, and conversation to our campuses and communities.”
“Sometimes you wanna go, where everybody knows your name!” - Why coworking just, well, works!
For employees who are nomadic and just looking for a place to call an office, there are dozens of coworking spaces that are ready to invite you in. While receiving a chance to sit down and work in an office setting, it also gives you a chance to take part in something greater.
“Coworking enables all companies to right size their core corporate footprint,” said Jacobson. “By having a mix of startups and solopreneurs and larger company people taking part, it leads to increased business activity because you are bouncing into people you wouldn’t normally come across.”
During the opening ceremony for WeWork’s newest location, McLaughlin summarized how coworking spaces are affecting communities for the better.
“At WeWork, we always use the hashtag ‘better together,’” he told the crowd. “It is reflective of our vision to make our city and our community stronger. It’s important to understand that the public sector is a really powerful partner in that.”
Images courtesy of WeWork and Workbar.