118 South Main Street in Ann Arbor is home to a coworking community known as Workantile. Over the last several years, I’ve probably scratched out notes to myself half a dozen times, reminding me that I needed to hunt down the folks in charge and interview them for the site. Well, a few days ago, I finally got around to actually doing it… Following is my interview with Bill Tozier, Dave Nelson and Tom Brandt, the owners of Workantile. I hope you find our discussion as informative as I did.
MARK: What were all of you doing prior to Workantile, what made you think that Ann Arbor was ready for coworking, and how did community of yours originally come into being?
BILL: We were doing pretty much the same thing we do now, before Workantile started. Pretty much all of us — the three Owners, the non-owner Maintainers, and all the rest of the Members — are freelancers and remote employees. Before Workantile existed, we were either coworking informally, or sitting in coffee houses or spare bedrooms, or quietly going crazy and/or failing because of accumulated business risks, the way most freelancers and remote employees do.
As for being “ready for coworking,” personally I don’t know. A few years back, some of us had been coworking informally already in a group that one of us (I think Brian Kerr) named “microcoworking,” which still meets: just two or more freelancers meeting in the coffeeshops (Ann Arbor’s downtown Primo Coffee location, originally) every week… just to sit together. I think I remember meeting your wife Linette there, for example. This was before “Jelly” or whatever was popularized; it was just a reasonable incremental improvement over what we’d been doing before that. But the core community gradually grew, and the venue we preferred was closed suddenly, so a few of us started wondering whether we could find a place where we could continue sitting together and doing the same work we already did.
Commercial real estate prices being what they are in Ann Arbor, those efforts didn’t get very far. This was back in the day when it seemed Ann Arbor builders and economic development people were intentionally driving away apartment-seeking independents in favor of attracting the attention of self-contained corporate branch offices. New construction was ridiculously overpriced by our standards, and the older office spaces were available were basically abandoned fourth-floor dentists’ offices, or damp nineteenth-century basements, and who-knows-what-else. I think we looked at a hundred properties and came up more or less empty.
Then, some of us ran into Mike Kessler at the second ArbCamp meeting (the one that Dug Song held above Cottage Inn, not the first one that was held at Washtenaw Community College). Mike is the builder and entrepreneur who built-out and started Workantile Exchange — more or less on spec — because he saw the prospect of synergies that come when you gathering together a few dozen creative, smart independents in one place. But he didn’t really have a connection to the shadowy background networks of coworking already underway informally, so it was really a blue-sky entrepreneurship move on his part, supported and underwritten by the landlord Ed Shaffran and Mike’s friends and family.
So, when we met at ArbCamp, it seemed to work out: the community of coworkers and the new space sort of merged. A few of the extant coworkers helped him on the side with planning, while the buildout finished up, and promoted the place to our peers and colleagues.
Unfortunately, over the first couple of years, Mike discovered what wasn’t obvious up front: there’s no money in running a coworking facility. Coworking, at least in this sense, is really just a thin social layer on top of sitting at the same tables in the coffee shop, or — in a real city — gathering at somebody’s apartment and sitting on the sofa together to “Jelly” or whatever the verb is. There’s money to be made from selling office shares, but the customers don’t really form communities so much as demand services and support and the trappings of a “real office” at low-ball prices. And, when you factor in entrepreneurship (by which I mean “tech startup culture”), it’s worse on both counts. I mean, those are perfectly viable life choices, but they’re well served already by the Chambers of Commerce, SPARKs, University Tech Transfers, that kind of thing: all institutions that have established and well-understood expectations of their clear path to profit or fame from their offerings.
At any rate, over its first couple of years Mike’s Workantile Exchange gathered a few dozen people of all types — freelancers, startups, service professionals, remote employees, authors, and so on — but never really “gelled” as a community. The price-point for membership that might have kept it above water as an “office share” made the damp Victorian basements competitive, so the cheap people just rented the basements and had their own offices. The startups and professional services “solopreneurs” (an awful awful word you should kill me for using unironically) that stayed were a poor cultural match for freelancer and remote employee members, and community management became a burden over and above the diversity of services and demands from the wide-ranging “clientele”. Mike increasingly had to pursue paying work as a builder, and Trek Glowacki stepped up from the remaining Members to be the (unpaid) Community Manager, but things didn’t look good at the end of 2010.
We had a lot of meetings and discussions among the Workantile Exchange Members. There was a core — mainly freelancers and remote employees — who felt strongly that the community was what had helped them succeed in their businesses. And there was a periphery of startup and business services folks who felt that we should raise prices and try to offer a more traditional office-share thing for folks like them. And, hanging above all this, was the sword of the debt that Mike and Trek and others had put into building it all. It didn’t feel as though any one solution would address all three problems.
Then, a few of us came up with a hare-brained scheme. At the end of 2010, we stepped up, formed a new company (Coworking Society, LLC), helped shut down Workantile Exchange, and started Workantile in its place. Workantile is a community exclusively formed from and for freelancers and remote employees. We treat the space as a perk, since we know all of our Members can and do work at home or a coffee shop, so we don’t ever focus on the “clubhouse” or services: our focus is on providing and supporting the community of Members.
After all, freelancers comprise about 40% of the workforce, and remote employees are getting even more common. We’re typically underserved by the Chambers of Commerce and startup people, and we already have customers, office space, fax machines, mailboxes, and all the other trappings of “real” businesses. As a rule we have plenty of work, and we’re not hiring employees or looking for new lawyers. The risks we face in our lives and businesses (which are usually the same thing) involve failures of communication, lack of coordination, social isolation, and fragile mutual support. We don’t work on the same things or even in the same fields, but we all work better when there are other people around — something the Chamber and SPARK and so on can’t really monetize or market.
So Coworking Society, LLC is a purely social venture, intended to become a Michigan L3C corporation as soon as we can make time to do so. All it really does is handle the paperwork for Workantile, which is not the place but the community of freelance and remote employee Members. The three of us who own Coworking Society are still dues-paying Members of Workantile; all we really do is try to keep it afloat and make sure the rent is paid. Written right into our paperwork is a mechanism for sharing any profits back to Mike and Trek, and some other folks who worked so hard in the early days.
Back to the other part of what you asked: I’d say it’s an open question whether Ann Arbor is in any practical sense “ready” for coworking. I’m not sure what that means, even. People cowork, informally, all over the place: any pair of freelancers who meet to type together is “coworking”, in the sense we use the word.
The question feels like asking if Ann Arbor was “ready for carpooling” or something.
We run Workantile with the goal of sustaining the community that already exists, and a mission of outreach to a high-risk and underserved segment of the workforce. But the people who are Members are just the people who end up being members: the city and the region aren’t really salient. We live here, so this is where the community is.
DAVE: Just to butt in with an actual answer to Mark’s question: I was a freelance writer/editor, working from home and taking care of a toddler. I’d previously been a teacher and admin at a small Hippie School for Troubled Youth here in Ann Arbor (work I’d done for around eight years), but, when my son was born, my wife and I came to grips with the fact that, childcare costing what it does, we could not afford for me to keep teaching. So I stopped (my wife had the better benefits), became the housewife, and started writing and editing because it was work I could do at night and during naptimes. I initially fell in with Kessler and the microcoworking crowd because I was a business columnist for the Current, and it was an interesting business story. Also, I’d been advised by a therapist that I needed to start forcing myself to leave the house, ride public transport, and spend time in public places. This was part of a course of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) I did after being diagnosed with “panic disorder with agoraphobia.”
MARK: Ah, yes, I know CBT well, having done my share of aversion therapy and the like over the years. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But, for what it’s worth, some of the most interesting and creative people I know are those who are forced to deal with panic disorders and OCD… I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not all bad, in my experience. There’s also an up-side, in that it allows you to see the world differently than others. I know it’s little consolation, but I take some comfort in it. Sorry for the tangent, but I find it hard not to commiserate when I’m introduced to another member of the club.
Back to my last question, I’d like to make one clarification… When I said “ready for coworking,” I meant, “ready for a dedicated coworking space.” I was, of course, aware that people worked next to one another in apartments, coffeeshops, etc. My apologies for not being more clear.
Now, moving onward… I wasn’t aware that your founder had left. It’s probably a question better directed to him, but your mention, Bill, that he left after discovering that there wasn’t money in it, surprises me, as I’d heard in the past that he was primarily motivated by what I guess you could call a political/societal vision. I’ll concede that I may have been given bad information, but I was originally told that there was kind of a pro-worker, “people should break free of the corporate workplace” kind of an impetus behind Workantile. Was that not the case? Was it just a straightforward entrepreneurial venture?
BILL: You should ask him, but I’d say Workantile Exchange totally arose from Mike’s vision of imminent large-scale change, his optimism and his sense of coworking being a novel social opportunity. Among other things, Mike came in with a great sense of systems thinking, emergence, and how community diversity leads to robustness and innovation. A lot of the philosophical underpinnings that motivated the vision — even before he ran into those of us already coworking — were based on wide-ranging Complex Systems stuff.
No, I mean he left because he spent all his money building Workantile Exchange, and then (essentially) had to quit his day job to run it by himself. I’m not sure I know what a “straightforward entrepreneurial venture” is, but Mike spent tens of thousands of his own money, worked like a dog to build the place out, spent all day every day trying to get fax machines and phone lines up and running, mop the floors, and fix the toilet (again, by himself)… and didn’t get anything much in return. He certainly never got any “investments” from local “business development” people, who never really understood what it was, or what it was for.
Like most entrepreneurs, he identified an under-served demographic, which represents an increasingly popular lifestyle, and he saw long-term benefits to the community at large. When I say there’s no money in coworking, I mean that in a don’t-quit-your-day-job way: it’s satisfying, important, and useful, and it can even pay for itself. But it won’t pay back investors.
DAVE: This is probably worth hitting a little harder, because it befalls many folks and social ventures out to Do Good™: Mike couldn’t afford to keep working at Workantile. Likewise, schools can’t cover their operating costs based just on tuition/per-pupil stipends (even private schools; they’re generally heavily supported by alumni donations and other endowments). Houses of worship aren’t money-making endeavors, either. That’s why we subsidize these things, why they seek 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, etc. As a broader culture, we’ve yet to zero in on the possibility that we might all benefit by finding a way to support Workantile-style institutions that, for example, “spur economic development” by supporting independent workers as people rather than subsidizing large businesses with tax subsidies in the hope that those businesses might employ people and treat them decently.
MARK: You mention that there are presently three of you who manage the business of Workantile. Dave has given us a little of his backstory, but I’d like to hear from each of you what it is that you do, what brought you to Ann Arbor in the first place, and how you come to be aware of the concept of coworking?
BILL: Well, not “managing” in the sense your readers would use the word. We three own Coworking Society, LLC, whose sole purpose is to operate Workantile. We do the paperwork, and we make sure the bills get paid and there’s enough money in the bank at the end of every month. And as I said before, written into the business documents is a provision that shares any profit Workantile collects above working capital to Mike and Trek. Not as a debt repayment, but because they’re the prime examples of the demographic we serve.
As Owners we don’t do much at all, except paperwork. We all have our real jobs, still. That’s the only way we’ve been able to do what we have so far to support Workantile.
Then there are the Maintainer roles, which are a bit more like “managers”. Maintainers help coordinate the members as a whole, and try to make sure that the daily chores get done, the right people know about problems and opportunities, handle outreach and marketing, and essentially do their best to preserve and foster healthy institutional norms. The three of us were, until recently, also the Maintainers – in the last few months we’ve started splitting the role away from being an Owner.
And, since we get asked a lot, the word “maintainer” is based on the open source software role: Our Maintainers are the gatekeepers of our current vision, and the arbiters of many folks’ ideas about the project’s priorities and how to spend our limited resources.
Tom: I do software development. For the past several years, I was a freelance website developer building sites for whomever would pay me to do so. However, I got tired of chasing sales, being the last in line to get invoices paid, and the other pitfalls to which a solo consultant falls prey, and am now employed by Systems in Motion, an IT consulting company.
I became aware of coworking several years ago when a mutual friend introduced me to Bill, who subsequently invited me to the microcoworking sessions at Primo Coffee, which were mentioned earlier. I was also going to the Ann Arbor Bi Bim Bop (a2b3) lunches, where I met Kessler, who was going to things like a2b3 to try to round up people who might be interested in Workantile Exchange.
DAVE: To answer Mark’s actual question *scowls at Bill*: I’m a freelance writer and editor. Come see what I shamelessly self-promote! I also care for my children and home, and fix the oven, and argue with the insurance company, and make beds and stuff. Like many Ann Arborites, I came here to attend the University, met my wife there, and never escaped the Michigan’s Erudite Vortex.
BILL: What I do is not answer questions straight.
Seriously: this and that. I’ve started a few companies, been a freelancer, was a tech consultant and advisor for a bunch of tech startups. I did some time in graduate school a few places, like one does. Some of it at U-M, some at a few other schools. Bunch of different disciplines. I spent a lot of the last few years taking care of dying relatives at home.
My wife Barbara and I moved here about 16 years ago when she was an engineer. Her employer was in Plymouth, so like a lot of folks we drew the proverbial commute circle on the map and Ann Arbor was in it. We stay because we have a house full of dead people’s stuff we promised to treat well, and a dwindling pile of friends who are stuck here, and because I have a thing I’ve been working for a few years, and it involves Universities. But our plan is to leave a skeletonized base here and start a nomadic loop that includes more real cities with real culture, ASAP. Ann Arbor is increasingly just a mill town. Lately it doesn’t feel like it’s doing well with the challenges posed by its mismatched self-image and the self-destructive tendencies of college town demographic lock-in. I don’t need to see buildings larger than 170 feet on the diagonal of the rectangular prism, but I do need to see new residents being something other than frustrated with the gray-haired ex-postdoc population’s expectations.
DAVE: Listen, Bill, the gray-hairs say that we’re more than welcome to do with the town whatever we choose, so long as we don’t ever change anything; permit any antiquated business to close, move, or renovate; increase the size of the city, or increase its density, or add public art, or not add public art, or reduce or increase the number of parking spaces, or change the price of anything. I don’t see what your beef could possibly be. [note to readers: Bill has numerous gray-hairs.]
BILL: More of a luminous silver crown, I prefer to think.
MARK: As you mention, quite a few of your members are folks who work remotely for companies that don’t have facilities in our area. I assume, however, that you also have entrepreneurs in the mix. I’m curious as to the breakdown percentage-wise.
BILL: I’d need to know what you think “entrepreneur” means to answer this meaningfully.
If you mean people starting small businesses, there are a few, but in my experience—and I think some of the other folks will second this—the folks I glibly call “startup kids” don’t actually need or want membership in a community. They want cheap office space and services, and access to investors. The people Workantile serves tend to be established non-employer businesses: people who work alone, and typically have too much work already, and for whom the risks are more often ameliorated by working in a socially sustaining community.
So, for example, is an author an “entrepreneur”? A lawyer? A publisher or a web developer? A landscaper? A printer? They might be. I’ve heard other folks use the word more generally than I’m comfortable with, to describe anybody who ever does anything that isn’t “a real job” of the sitting-in-an-office flavor.
Personally I think of an entrepreneur as somebody who knowingly accepts extra business risks, in exchange for the delayed promise of growth and returns. If you use that definition, then one of the things we try to do is talk people out of becoming “entrepreneurs” when they don’t really need to. That kind of entrepreneurship demands rapid growth, and the people who are members at Workantile are what the growth crowd dismisses as “lifestyle” businesses.
MARK: By entrepreneur, I meant simply individuals who aren’t employees of existing companies that are working remotely, but I appreciate the distinction that you’re making. The word is broad, and it ranges from people like my wife, who was mentioned earlier, who runs her own small design company, to those folks who are aggressively looking to raise millions, build large companies, cash out, and move on. For the purposes of our conversation, I’d be interested to know the split between self-employed, and those working for others. And, of those who are self-employed, I’d also be curious to know how many of them, if any, might fall into the “I’d eventually like to outgrow Workantile, hire people, and get space of my own” camp, whether or not that entails venture capital.
BILL: I think about half these days are remote employees, and about half freelancers, plus some amazing graduate students we engage because their lifestyles are so much like those of freelancers. Like “entrepreneur,” all these words can be fuzzy at the edges: some of the “remote employees” are managers or owners of good-sized geographically distributed businesses; some of the “freelancers” are novelists with long-standing contracts, or licensed professionals like lawyers or architects.
As for “outgrowing,” the implication that freelancing lies somewhere below boss on the Great Chain of Being worries me a lot. Our lifestyles depend on adaptability and change, and the reason Workantile has any mission at all is because that change entails additional risks. We’ve had people get “jobby jobs”, but remain members—Tom, for example, is still an Owner, even with his full-time job and is in California for a few months right now. And we’ve had a lot of people who remain freelancers, but leave to find better fits in other communities like TechBrewery.
The point is that Workantile’s reason for existence, for the moment, has almost nothing to do with people’s work — whether they grade themselves as “starting” or “stable”, “real” or “freelance”. It has to do with a need for community, and the risks that lack of that community brings to the members’ lives. Is that unclear?
MARK: By “outgrowing” I meant in a physical sense… as in, they might need to leave in order to accommodate employees. I didn’t mean to infer that the leader of a small company would, “outgrow” a freelancer, for instance, in a spiritual sense, or be of any more value to our community. Clearly you’re sensitive to people making judgements about freelancers, and valuing them less than CEO-types who want to attract investment capital and grow large companies. For what it’s worth, though, that’s not what I’m getting at. I’m merely trying to figure out the mix you currently have within the Workantile community, and get a sense as to how these different types of people work together, collaborate, and contribute.
DAVE: These always strike me as made-up distinctions, but that’s because my business is 1) integral to my being (I’m basically just talking with my hands on keys; it’s a voluntary function only as far as something like breathing is voluntary) and 2) unexpandable. I write and edit, and people who pay for that (be it fiction or web copy or a textbook) do so because they want me to work on their project. Honest! I’m a fun guy; people like me! What am I going to do; hustle up more gigs and hire two Dave clones to pick up the slack? The only “growth” for me is picking up higher margin work so I can work fewer hours and make better dinners for my family. (I know it sounds like I speak from ignorance of “the realities of doing business in America,” or whatevs, but the bulk of my family has or does run their own businesses, some quite large. When I say “to hell with getting big and getting rich,” I do so *because* I grew up with the needy ghost-sibling of The Family Business sitting at the dinner table with us.) A lot of folks at Workantile are like me. I’d venture that most of the sole proprietors here swing that way. We’re all “cottage industry” types.
MARK: Again, it wasn’t a judgement call. I was merely wondering whether or not, under the Workantile umbrella, you had any Spark and Tech Brewery types, who were aspiring to eventually hire employees and move into space of their own. I know that Workantile wasn’t constructed to serve these types of individuals, but I thought it possible that some might be in the mix, and I was curious as to how they might fit in, add to the dynamic, or detract from it.
TOM: I don’t think Workantile has many, if any, members who hope to “outgrow” Workantile. If people are thinking along those lines, they tend to look for space to grow into from the beginning, and Workantile does not fill that bill. Also, we make it clear that we are a community of individuals. Our mission is serve the self-employed and remote workers.
MARK: I’m curious as to what kind of groundwork was done before opening? Assuming you know the answer, were there focus groups? Were memberships pre-sold? I spoke some time ago to the woman who operates the Sonoma Share Exchange in California, and she indicated that she wished she’d done more work in advance of launching, to get people in her community acquainted with the concept of coworking.
BILL: I was involved as an advisor (and Member Number Two, after my wife Barbara) of Workantile Exchange. And all three of the current Owners (and of course Trek, when he was still in town) had talked to a lot of other people who had wanted to start coworking businesses. In most cases they seem to come into the idea with a bunch of unrented commercial office space. They seem to imagine one can just say, “Here! Look! Desks!” and people will flock in and be all Richard Florida on that unused space, and get synergistic and $$PROFIT. Or, in some cases, they have had the ears of (or are) local community business development folks, and the outcome is a similar, “Here! Look! Subsidized desks! $$COMMUNITY!! ”
Personally I have a hypothesis about this. A lot of the people who try to start coworking facilities have never actually worked in one, and don’t really see the reason to do so themselves. But they see other people doing it here and there, or they read about it on the Interwebz, or (rarely) they visit a coworking place and see sort of how it works. And they’re like the dog who looks at your finger when you point at the cookie: they see the thin young people wearing fashionable glasses and Being Creative on Macs, or they see the bustle and work and chatter going on among the members, and not knowing personally about why those people are there doing those things, they imagine the stuff is the business.
What they don’t see is that community is required to make coworking work. Coworking spaces don’t make communities pop into being. Any idiot — whether they’re a freelancer or remote employee, or an “entrepreneur” or a downsized executive — can go to Office Dump and buy a Sauderware desk and set it up in his spare bedroom and have every visible product and service a coworking facility offers. In her house. Except for the extra people.
The stumbling point I’ve seen break a lot of coworking spaces is that tricky line between “a bunch of people all working in a disused drygoods store” and a community. I’m frankly amazed at how hard it is for a lot of folks to understand that distinction. You pile a bunch of non-community people together, and it’s not like falling in love in an arranged marriage. People working in the same place don’t fall into community because they hang out together, any more than people married before they know one another fall in love because they share a house. They interrupt each other, they get on one another’s nerves, and increasingly they either find corners and walls to stare at so they don’t have to deal those pests… or they leave.
So maybe all of Workantile Exchange (RIP) is our “focus group”. And all the other failed coworking efforts, even the well-meaning “Field of Dreams” ones. Hell, maybe Workantile is our “focus group”.
DAVE: We had a perfect example of coworking this morning: One of the members ran out of gas over on Liberty at Seventh. That member sent out an email on the Google Group saying “Help! I rant out of gas!” A few members said “Yikes! I’m sorry I can’t help!” A few others relayed info on the nearest gas stations that they knew would loan a gas can – and the weight of a gallon of gas, relative to the length of the walk and if the member was dressed for the trek. A member who was on his way in dropped by Workantile, then swung back out to give the stranded person a lift. On the one hand, there’s nothing special here. I used to work for Borders, in the corporate offices. My battery died once and a coworker came and gave me a lift. No biggie. But when the transmission died on my crapass Olds Achieva in the middle of the afternoon four years ago – by which time I was a freelancer – I was up a creek, working through my cell phone address book until I came across the number of a former student who happened to still live in town and was between jobs. This is *exactly* the kind of uncategorized risk that comes with the isolation inherent to independent work; there aren’t just business risks, but social risks. The Gas Can Incident highlights the core thing we’re looking to support: Connections among otherwise independent humans to mitigate their exposure to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, so that all of us are safer and happier. Nowhere in this anecdote is there the office space on Main St. or the desks or the printer or the conference rooms or the coffee pot; just the Workantile, the network of actual human beings, not drawn together because we work for the same company or worship at the same building, but because isolation is inherently painful for social animals, and so we’ve arrived at a new excuse for gathering together, now that many of the old excuses have become invalid.
TOM: Damn. That’s it in a nutshell.
MARK: Are you finding yourselves providing services that you weren’t expecting to?
BILL: Like I said, Workantile is about more than just doing your job around other people.
Part of the trouble with Workantile Exchange (sadly discovered too late) is that people don’t naturally form communities. So nowadays we’re much more careful making sure that people who apply for membership realize they’re joining the community.
So we’ve actually removed a lot of “services”. If for example somebody needs a printer or a fax or a scanner, then they use their social capital within the community itself to arrange to have it on hand. The printer we have now was purchased by one of the early Members, who graciously lets others use it whenever they want. It doesn’t belong to Coworking Society, LLC. When it needs maintenance or replacement, then that’s a matter the community addresses.
The point is that we “manage” Workantile (in the sense of making it sustainable) by emphasizing that all members have permission to do what they want, and the responsibility to coordinate with one another. We Owners handle the law, the banks, and the paperwork. Everything else is up to whichever Member wants or needs to take the lead on it, and the Maintainers (who are still Members themselves) just sort of coordinate among them asynchronously and make sure we all know what we have and don’t have on hand.
MARK: I’m aware of the importance of community, and the fact that people, when they join Workantile, aren’t just renting an isolated, turnkey office space, where you provide secretarial services and cater to their every need. I suspect, however, that you are, on occasion, confronted with situations that require you to adapt, whether it be allocating space for an additional conference room, choosing to make food and coffee available, or perhaps, on occasion, coordinating social events that bring in outside voices. I’m just always curious to know how things change over time, and how people adapt to circumstances, and I thought that you might be able to share an illustration of that.
DAVE: Conference rooms are actually a good example. When Mike built the space, coworking spaces were themselves very new; he didn’t know who he would attract or what they’d need, so he built a “business center” kind of space: Lil conference room, big conference room, phone room, ethernet ports and plugs all over the place. Well, that big conference room is *waaaaay* too big; it’s made to comfortably seat, like, a dozen folks. In practice, it most hosts six people at a time, and is usually being used by a lone person on a phone call. On the other hand, a single phone room is *waaaaaay* too few; folks need to make quick, private, short calls *constantly* throughout the day. So, we have a giant conference room that gets used as a phone booth, and folks constantly hiding in nooks and storage spaces and doorways trying to find a little privacy to talk to a client. We started by experimenting with adding a few ad hoc phone booths, but are finally taking the plunge this summer: We’re going to divide the existing phone room into a pair of booths, and also split the giant conference room into a large conference room with another pair of booths. The ethernet is a similar story: We started out with lots of ethernet ports no one ever used and a consumer-grade wifi rig that was often overloaded. We’ve since moved over to enterprise-level (am I using that term correctly, guys?), full-redundant, high-speed wifi, while probably half the ethernet ports in the front of the space have never been hooked up. We evolve.
BILL: Since the beginning of Mike Kessler’s effort — and moreso now — there’s been a strong effort to send folks who better fit those cultures over to those places.
Personally I have the sense that SPARK doesn’t have the slightest idea what we are or do, but (speaking as a founding member of the IT Zone) I think some of us have a pretty good idea of what they do: so we’re happy to send folks over to SPARK when they have a traditional “non-lifestyle” entrepreneurial streak, or they want to network, or they want to hire people, or any of the things that SPARK is nominally for.
Tech Brewery was founded on a particularly technology-flavored culture of launching and making. We’ve had a number of members who’ve come to us from there, and a number who’ve shifted over there, because they felt it was a better fit. The risks and expectations of the tech startup business model are so different from those of freelancers and remote employees that we see them as parallel and complementary. Plus, as I understand it Tech Brewery was (at least a few years back) about services: desk shares, infrastructure, and space. Workantile membership is about doing your pre-existing work around the other members.
MARK: Is there a culture of collaboration at Workantile? Do you have examples, for instance, of projects involving multiple members, which wouldn’t have otherwise come about? Or are people more inclined to just work on their own projects? Assuming it’s the former, are there things that you’ve done to help facilitate the exchange of ideas between members, etc?
BILL: Again I want to unpack the assumptions here a bit. If you mean: are there work collaborations between members? Not much. We all pretty much have too much work already. There are ideas for new things, and at least a few of them have gone somewhere. But we all understand that whenever we launch a new Next Google, our dance cards are immediately filled with appointments with investors or for a boot stamping on our faces—forever. So that outcome tends to be a self-trimming branch as far as Workantile is concerned.
Members collaborate to work on the needs of the community and the space all the time. We have regular cleanups, and all Members are expected to participate in something from the list of Tasks that just need doing to keep us all afloat. For things that need capital outlay, the members run little internal “kickstarters” to raise the cash before the work. We’re not a co-op, and there are no assignments. We just ask that people who are members think for themselves, work together as needed, and act on the permission they all have to address whatever they see as a problem.
There are numerous interesting side projects. Though I suppose based on your question they just don’t have much to do with participants’ “work”. Some of the members arrange occasional liquor tastings every few weeks. There are excursions, and irregular after-work meetups. There was an idea for a phone booth, and so some of the members got together and designed and built a prototype flat-pack phone booth kit. I’m launching an ill-advised literary magazine shortly, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with Dave and some of the other literary types discussing it.
The community is essentially a functioning anarchy. That is, all members have the permission and initiative to start or pursue whatever they want, with whomever they want. Any and all of them have the space and the other members as a resources, as they see fit—though we all also also an accompanying responsibility to not be a dick about it.
Which if you think about it is sort of the definition of “community”.
DAVE: Just to take a sec and disagree with my distinguished colleague: I’ve seen and participated in a fair amount of “billable work collaboration/hook-up” in the Workantile–but I don’t think this is unusual in any community. I know folks who are deep into their communities of faith; those are their goto communities, and if they’re looking for a lawyer or writer or graphic designer or builder, those are the people they ask. This is the same at Workantile, except for without the God business. When I needed a tech reviewer for the electronic projects in my very enjoyable book of geeky crafting, I ended up hooking up a Workantile member (the one that designed and built our original computer-controlled door system, in fact). When another member needed someone to write content for web sites he develops or do some of the coding for those sites, he asked around Workantile. The writing group I’m in now – and, with whose support, I’ve done my best work – was introduced to me by a Workantile member. Our email group regularly has threads that start with: “Hey; I need a contract looked at; what lawyers do you guys trust? My sewer pipe is collapsing; what plumbers do you trust? I wanna buy ethically raised pork; who knows a pig guy?” I think maybe what Bill wants to foreground is that this sort of commerce isn’t our *purpose*, just a by-product — but what *I* want to foreground is that commerce is the human business, and whenever humans are in a group fungible exchanges are brewing. Dogs sniff butts, we recommend organic CSAs, but it’s all the same.
BILL: See? None of us can pay attention to everything going on, and none of us needs to. Other people know stuff we don’t. Which is still the point of the whole exercise. So there.
MARK: I’m hesitant to get into money matters, but I’m curious as to how you’re able to manage it in downtown Ann Arbor. Would I be right to assume that you have a landlord that likes what you’re doing enough not to go out in search of a Starbucks, a 7-Eleven, or some other chain that could pay a great deal more than you? It seems like that’s the case with most folks who are doing interesting things downtown.
BILL: No, definitely you should get into money matters. It’s just because of our busy schedules over the last few months that we haven’t managed to build the software to publish the daily bank balance and the income stream right on the website for everybody (inside and outside) to watch.
DAVE: Man, having that number published on the front page would make my life so much easier (I recently pulled the short straw on making sure rent gets paid. We live on a pretty tight budget, so I need to be *certain* we can cover the check before I sign it. The bank website is sort of a pain, so…)
BILL: Ed Shaffran is an excellent old-school landlord who owns a lot of property downtown. We pay the rent, but he also gets it, which is a core strength of any commercial landlord. And I suspect he understands very well how the last few remnants of “cool” left downtown are all that’s left to support the few people who still live and work there. Several members have said they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) live or even visit downtown at all if it weren’t for Workantile being there; Ed knows that.
And of course this is crucial: We Owners have no expectation of ever making a dime directly from running Workantile. We have real jobs, we’re busy, and whatever financial gains we ever see will come indirectly, through social or cultural capital. We’re not in it for “the money”. Any profit we realize will be split with Mike Kessler and Trek Glowacki—not as a debt repayment, but because we gave them an options contract that created that long-term possibility of a revenue stream.
Every one of us has a better life, and (arguably) makes more money more consistently because of Workantile. But if we had to pay our personal bills out of its income, we’d all fail. That’s been demonstrated already.
Tom: I do want to emphasize that we are fortunate to have Ed as our landlord. Were our a landlord a more corporate entity, Workantile would probably not be around. We certainly would not be on Main Street.
BILL: Super fortunate.
MARK: To what extent do you work with and/or keep tabs on other coworking groups around the country? Is the movement evolving in any interesting ways? Are there specific things that you’ve learned from other groups?
BILL: I like how you call it a “movement”. If by now the reasons I’m amused aren’t apparent, I guess they won’t ever be. Shoot a world map with a shotgun from 10 yards, and the holes will be failed coworking efforts.
And of course way back in the days when we were investigating how microcoworking could get a place, my wife and I looked at and visited a bunch of the early coworking places, in Columbus and Austin so on. I’m sure some of them are still around, though there’s a lot of attrition. Probably would have been smarter to open a restaurant [he said unironically].
DAVE: I just want to say that Bill clearly knows nothing about opening restaurants if he’s saying that unironically. IF THIS MAN APPROACHES YOU ABOUT A “RESTAURANT INVESTMENT,” *DO NOT* GIVE HIM A DIME!!!
BILL: We could serve pêche à la frog. Where else will a young couple, visiting Ann Arbor for the first time, get a really big frog? It’ll be great….
Tom: There’s a coworking Google group whose members are owners/operators of coworking communities around the world. I have been reading and occasionally participating in it for a couple of years. Coworking spaces come and go, but the ones that persist are those who build a community and a culture that emphasizes participation rather than fee for service.
MARK: You mentioned earlier that your founder bowed out when he discovered that coworking wasn’t as lucrative as he’d hoped. I don’t recall off the top of my head what your rates where when you initially opened, but, right now, you’re charging $175 per month for full membership. Had he originally been thinking that the market would support a higher monthly rate, or was he thinking that the carrying capacity of the space would be higher than it is?
BILL: Well, the original price line ($100/month) was, as I recall, set to get people to join, and bootstrap the community, and generate interest and buy-in, and hopefully launch some growth and critical mass and so on and so on. Our price line is set to get the bills paid with the membership we have now. It would be specious to generalize about the path between those two approaches, for reasons I’ve tried to make pretty clear.
MARK: Just so everyone in the audience is clear, Members do not have assigned desks, correct? Are they, however, able to store things at Workantile?
BILL: Members have 24-hour access to the space, and no assigned desks. All the furniture is intended to be moved around. There are some lockers in the back, which were originally set up to be used occasionally, but, as they’ve gotten more jammed up, the members have started trying to figure out how to apportion them better. I’m sure somebody will have a good idea of how to redistribute them reasonably. And there are no desktop computers or anything, of course.
MARK: You mentioned restructuring as a social venture. Does that mean that Workantile is now a non-profit venture? And, if so, does that mean that there are other sources of funding available to you (i.e. grant funding, charitable donations, etc.)?
BILL: At the moment it’s still an LLC, while we’ve been stabilizing the community and refining the social mission, but the transition to an L3C structure appears to be relatively simple from a legal standpoint. We expect to take that route someday soon, rather than become a not-for-profit. The Michigan L3C corporate structure seems to have been set up for just this sort of thing; all it really does (in theory) is let us emphasize the social purpose over any financial obligations we encounter. Plus I’m told it helps with applications for foundational grants in some cases.
We three Owners have put a bit more than $20,000 into it, with no real expectation of returns. Mike and Trek and other founders put about another $100,000, all told. (Dave makes a noise, as he believes that number is low.) I think we’re all pretty much tapped out as far as personal investment.
Of course we accept donations—as any institution does — though they’re not tax-deductible. We consider our own investments and efforts “donations”, in that sense.
The problem with the legal infrastructure covering non-profit organizations, frankly, is that it presumes and promotes institutionalization. The organizational structure we use now is as loose and flexible as it can possibly be, because we’re all constrained to retain our “real work” first. More complex legal status entails boards, management, meetings—
DAVE: —lawyers, accountants, donors, founders—
BILL: —and more than anything a sense of central control. You might have noticed: we three “own” only as proxies, in the sense that we act as an interface between the legal and financial outside world, and the direction the community of members wants to go.
We’re not a co-op, and we’re not a charity, and we’re not a service provider. We’re just the layer of polish on the surface of something that’s in the process of forming on its own.
MARK: Given your accumulated knowledge on freelance and remote workers, I was wondering if you might have some insight as to what these folks need (outside of the scope of Workantile), and how our community might do a better job of supporting them. For instance, would it be fair to say that the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t really do a good job when it comes to looking out for freelances? I’m thinking specifically of things like insurance… How do your Members typically handle things like that, if at all?
DAVE: Oh, Mark, it is to laugh. The Chamber does crap for people like us; the government in *general* does crap for us. We get dinged at a higher tax rate, we have less access to group-bargained insurance (health and otherwise), we have lower-input retirement savings, we’re considered a much worse financial risk — I was denied a mortgage refinance by Fannie Mae (*those* financial wizards) because I’m self-employed, and that was on a HARP refinance; a program *designed* to help relieve risk. Thankfully I’d moved all of my eggs to the U-M Credit Union, who are willing to hold my paper because their mission is to take a few moments and understand their customers as viable members of a community, not erratic-looking numbers in a ledger.
BILL: Well, among other things, we can talk to one another and ask for advice at Workantile. That’s not a thing Chambers do, nor SPARKs. We’re all customers, not middlemen.
MARK: Anything that I should have asked, but didn’t?
DAVE: No one ever asks about the terrible noises from the basement. Why is that?
BILL: Hsst. Maybe he didn’t notice.
[photo credit: I'm not sure if it's true of all of these photos, but I believe a good number of them are the work of Barbara Tozier.]