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Communal Entrepreneurs

Collaborative work places, called coworking sites, have a foothold in Alabama, and a Mobile real estate developer hopes to scale the concept across the South’s second-tier cities.

Creators and leaders at The Exchange in Mobile are, from left, Allan Cameron, Tre Copeland, Todd Greer and John Peebles.

Creators and leaders at The Exchange in Mobile are, from left, Allan Cameron, Tre Copeland, Todd Greer and John Peebles.

The coworking movement that has gained momentum nationally for the past decade is now spreading across Alabama, with coworking spaces available in Mobile, Montgomery, Birmingham and other cities.

Unlike a typical office setting, coworking involves a shared working environment and independent activity, with a communal culture characterized by a high degree of sociability. 

Molly Wasco, associate professor and chair of the Department of Management, Information Systems and Quantitative Methods at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is a proponent of coworking.

“Coworking allows for the sharing of different types of resources, not just the structural resources such as shared office space, shared technology and shared infrastructure,” Wasco says.

“Innovation comes from the free flow of ideas across boundaries. Coworking brings in diverse people with different ideas, different knowledge, different know-how and different advice. 

“Another component is the relational capital, which is the culture of a community committed to helping other people. What is unique about the coworking space is that it builds a culture where people want to work together in a shared communal setting that is part of who they are.”

Jason Whatley, marketing director for CentraLite Systems, finds a quiet corner for concentrated work at The Exchange.

 

Wasco adds, “Coworking brings a shared sense where you help each other, which is very different from a traditional corporate setting, where people often feel like they are competing with office coworkers for things like promotions. In these coworking spaces, people typically are not going after the same clients, so there is the open sharing of ideas.

“There is no direct competition, no office politics. The cultural norm is to want to help each part of a larger social movement, with a strong sense of personal identity and work identity that you may not get if you work in a big corporate office.”

John Peebles, a Mobile real estate developer and co-founder of The Exchange, a coworking space, says he became interested in coworking about two years ago.

“I started hearing and reading about coworking spaces and the shift in paradigm to collaborative work space or cowork space,” Peebles says.

“I realized that the Western officescape is changing and more and more corporate entities are unhooking their workers, laying them off and then hiring them back to do exactly what they had been doing but without an office and benefits.”

Peebles and co-founders Todd Greer and Allan Cameron renovated an office building in downtown Mobile across from the Mobile Government Plaza.

“We want to be part of a growing business community, to help move things forward,” Peebles says.

“Working out of your house is not the ideal solution as people who work in offices fantasize about, so there needs to be another solution. For a while there was the coffee shop phenomenon where you get coffee and broadband but there is a lot of baggage that comes with that, like how do you meet with a client in a coffee shop, or you are on a call and they start grinding those beans?

“Places like the Exchange provide a more businesslike structure and you are working with people in the so-called gig economy, and it turns into not only a comfortable, efficient, professional place to ply a trade but it turns into a place where you can develop a business.”

The Exchange currently has 30 members from 15 companies. 

Todd Greer, chief catalyst for The Exchange, says a typical workday can be divided into “heads down periods” when people are really concentrating on their work, and “heads up periods,” when workers move into a more relaxed mode.

“For the entire day, I don’t want to be holed away in my office, to be separate from other people. We are social animals, so the heads up period is really an important piece, maybe sitting in an open area and somebody passing by may do something to trigger a thought that allows me to create.”

Greer says research shows the average office is empty two-thirds of the day. 

“So why do we need so much space, if we are not in there? So what we have seen is an international movement toward smaller, more adaptable office spaces. A lot of people who use the workspace say they are much more productive in the coworking environment.

“When you set it side by side with taking a traditional lease, there is no comparison.”

Coworking is designed for interaction. Here Todd Greer and Suzanne Cleveland talk at the table, while Curt Crider works on his own project across the room.
 

For Zandra Thornton Jackson, an academic and community consultant from Mobile, her membership in the Exchange has worked out well.

She has a private office, in which she spends eight to 10 hours or more daily. “I love what it has to offer, like meeting people from different backgrounds and the networking. I am so appreciative of what it offers. I feel like we are a family. It is like a think tank. “

Jackson, a 23-year veteran of the Mobile Police Department before going into private business, says she used to “have to move around a lot to find space to meet with clients. So the conference room setting is an important part of what I need.”

Alexander Cooksey, a Mobile political consulting and fund-raising company, was the first tenant in the Exchange when it opened last October. 

“We love it,” says Candice Cooksey, co-owner of the firm. “It is reasonable and it doesn’t add too much to our overhead too quickly.”

Cooksey says her firm has a dedicated office space and she says she spends most of every day in the Exchange.

Cooksey says the Exchange has “great conference room facilities” and that her firm has hosted fundraising events at the facility, including some on weekends.  “An added advantage that we did not expect is the interaction with the other tenants and the collaboration that comes from that.”

And, Cooksey says, her clients really like the facility. “Some of them even rode the razor scooter around.”

In some cases, coworking spaces have been designed to attract a certain segment of the workforce. Ampersand in Montgomery is a cooperative for creatives, for example, and Ignite in Birmingham is a coworking space for entrepreneurs.

Adaptable work space is a key to the coworking environment. 
 

T. Devon Laney is president and chief executive officer of Innovation Depot, a high tech and biotech business incubator in Birmingham, which is supported by the city and UAB. Innovation Depot includes Ignite, a coworking space that opened about a year ago to provide space for aspiring entrepreneurs who don’t have the time or resources for a long-term lease.

“Ignite is for people who want to be entrepreneurs that don’t want to commit to a long-term lease but need a place to work,” says Laney. “It’s like a feeder to flesh out ideas and to develop business models and prototypes. We screen to make sure people fit in, to make sure the person fits the entrepreneur culture.

“We see entrepreneurs who come to us and say, ‘You know, I still have a day job, but I had this idea and I’d like to see if this thing has potential to really be something, so I don’t really need an office, but I need somewhere to come to work that isn’t my house or my kitchen table or the coffee shop but where I can still be exposed to resources and still be in the middle of a culture of entrepreneurship.”

Laney says 10 to 15 people a month use the Ignite coworking space.

“There is a definite shift in terms of what entrepreneurs are looking for. They are looking less at having a private office and more of ‘I want to be in a place where all of my team and my coworkers are sitting in a big room and we are working together.’”

Ampersand, a cooperative for creative coworking in Montgomery, was designed for creatives, mainly writers and designers, to have a dedicated space to work, learn and meet in a professional setting — escaping isolation at home and distractions at the coffee shop. Ampersand is an initiative of Stamp Idea Group. 

David Allred, managing director and principal with Stamp, says, “Our original plan was to have a place for freelancers to work, because we use a lot of freelancers. We did not do this for money. We remodeled a building to do this as an experiment.”

Allred says Ampersand has 10 members but has become a gathering place for creatives in the area. “We had 15 to 20 people here one Sunday,” he says.

Most coworking spaces have a tiered membership ranging from $50 a month for a mailing address up to $350 a month. Also included are 24-7 access, coffee service, conference rooms, water, Internet, printing service, telephone and educational and professional seminars — and some offer extras from shower facilities to table tennis. 

Most coworking spaces are in larger cities, but Peebles hopes to move to smaller markets. “In smaller communities, people are looking for alternatives, for new ways to connect, new ways to expand, new ways to get to know people, so we think there is real market here in smaller communities like Mobile, Birmingham or Pensacola,” Peebles says.

The question, of course, is whether coworking is here to stay or just another fad. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2020, about 65 million Americans will be freelancers, temporary workers, independent contractors and entrepreneurs, making up about 40 percent of the workforce.

“I believe that coworking is definitely here to stay and that it is going to grow,” says Wasco. “Some of the benefits that we get from these coworking spaces — innovation, people highly motivated to come to work, people feeling a strong sense of who they are and how work is part of their lives — are going to spill over into the corporate world, as more and more people are telecommuters and become part of a mobile work force.

“Everybody benefits from the sharing of ideas.”

Bill Gerdes and Elizabeth Gelineau are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. He is based in McCalla and she in Mobile.

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