Space for change: Coworking spaces sustain entrepreneurial community

Annie Waterman working at HUB Boulder.
Photo by Erica Lindberg

Coffee shops have long held the independent worker captive to promises of caffeine-induced productivity and a sense of social interaction, but perhaps fall short of being a sustainable work space. “Coworking” offices are popping up across town as professionals recognize a need for collaborative work spaces in one of the densest entrepreneurial cities in the country.

Coworking spaces are not your typical offices. You won’t find any cubicles and there are no bosses. A mobile application developer might work at the same table as a natural foods marketer, both sharing one common denominator: a sense of a professional community.

Boulder has a thriving start-up community because people want to help each other out, but entrepreneurs need to know each other before they can collaborate, says Greg Berry, co-founder of HUB Boulder, a coworking space established last year in downtown Boulder.

One in three U.S. workers meet in a third work place, neither an office or at home, according to Berry. “That’s why we’re seeing a blow-up in coworking spaces,” Berry says. “It’s because more and more companies are hiring temps, there are more and more consultants out there. … There are more and more people that need a community.”

Coworking is a way to make real-life, professional connections for people whose work may make them feel isolated.

Currently, six different coworking spaces exist in Boulder: Boulder Digital Arts, Colab, Boulder Co-Motion, Fuse, HUB Boulder and Scribs. The Spaces Co-Working Alliance network connects all of the coworking spaces in Boulder County and helps potential coworkers find the right space. The alliance also hosts collaborative events to raise awareness for networking and coworking.

Each coworking space focuses on building its own unique coterie. Some coworking spaces offer other perks with a membership. Colab and Scrib include bus passes with some membership options, while HUB Boulder and Boulder Co-Motion boast active calendars full of a variety of events.

“To be a good co-working space you could have the fastest Wi-Fi, the coolest Ikea furniture and hip art on the walls, but none of that really matters,” says Bruce Borowsky, co-founder of Boulder Digital Arts, established in 2004. “What matters is the community you build.”

And a professional looking for a co-working office may find that one suits his needs or desires for a certain kind of community better than the other, Borowsky says.

Colab, Co-Motion, Fuse and Scrib are open to entrepreneurs from a wide variety of industries. Boulder Digital Arts coworking space is specifically designed for digital creatives.

“I might come in here to do some work on one thing and end up meeting someone who will later design a website for me … What works for us is keeping it for creative digital professionals,” Borowsky says. “It would be diluted if you had that bigger picture thing.”

Working around like-minded people encourages people, according to Borowsky.

“You have to think, when you’re at home, what are your distractions or motivations?” he says.

At HUB Boulder, the focus is on building community based on an idea — not a profession. The founders of HUB Boulder are trying to be a support system for people doing impactful work.

“Unique to HUB is this movement of what we call impact or for benefit, which means companies are hybridizing the best of the non-profit services with the agility and the momentum and ability to work with profits that came from the for-profit world,” says Lauren Higgins, lead host and community curator at HUB Boulder.

HUB members attack tough questions together, like, “How do I pay my bills while doing good?” which invites an open conversation on finding sustainable work that feeds the soul and creating businesses that do good, Berry says.

“We know, as a community, that we’re on edge, that we’re simultaneously envisioning a world we want to live in, but have to build the infrastructure for that at the same time,” Higgins says. “Exposure to a community grappling with similar problems and challenges allows people to get to work on these problems and figure out solutions together.”

A study done by a group of independent scientists from Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that when people work in groups, their collective intelligence nearly doubles compared to the average member intelligence.

Traditional corporate offices are looking for access to spaces stimulating collective intelligence instead of cubicles.

“They realize having just a few desks in a coworking space offers them incredible access to a vibrant community when looking for new approaches on their products, services and inventions,” Higgins says.

There are corporate offices — such as Google in Boulder — modeled much like a coworking space, with a focus on innovation, sharing and creativity, but it’s different when you de-centralize, Higgins says.

“When you have a community that is decentralized, that chooses to work together, you inherently have a much deeper diversity of ideas and projects that are not specifically centralized, and that really changes the dynamic,” she says.

Community dynamics and collaboration are the driving forces behind coworking, both Berry and Borowsky say.

“The potential for people to collaborate has always been there,” Borowsky says. “It’s just a matter of how you make it work.”