In an effort to better understand the inner workings of a coworking business, I spoke with Eva Schweber, co-owner of CubeSpace in Portland, Ore. Schweber is CubeSpace’s Chief Cat Herder, policy wonk and fount of obscure nonprofit information. She brings more than 15 years of collaborative facilitation and organizational management experience to her numerous paid and volunteer gigs. Her professional experience runs the gamut from managing an artisan goat dairy (she was a state-certified pasteurizer) to facilitating a strategic planning effort by an international environmental consortium. Her esoteric background has trained her well for running a coworking community.
In her spare time, Schweber serves on the Mayor’s Economic Recovery Cabinet and chairs the Small Business Development Workgroup of the City of Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council. She also sits on the City Club of Portland’s Research Board and in June 2007 was appointed by Governor Ted Kulongowski to serve on Oregon’s Commission for Voluntary Action and Service. Her blog is her attempt to reconcile her ever-growing interest in small business with her wonkish tendencies.
WWD: Why did you decide to open a coworking space in Portland?
Schweber: Those are actually two separate questions. Why did we decide to open a co-working space, and why Portland? The coworking idea came from experiences David and I had as freelancers and the logistical and social challenges we faced. We had also heard many of the same complaints from our colleagues. We saw that there were no options in Portland for freelancers wanting occasional work space outside their home, a private meeting space or a meeting space that could accommodate more than a couple of people. So we decided to fill that niche.
Why Portland? Portland is a small town masquerading as a medium-sized city. No one is more than one or two degrees from everyone else, so communities connect organically. Since we wanted to create a workspace community that was independent of industry or sector, Portland was the natural place for us.
WWD: How do you think that the coworking market in Portland is different than or similar to other cities, like New York and San Francisco?
Schweber: It depends on the type of coworking space. The idea for CubeSpace’s undedicated workspaces came from a New York Times article about a writer’s coworking space in New York. Given the expensive housing market and tiny apartments in New York, a workspace outside one’s home is almost a necessity. People there literally have their home office in a closet. A coworking space would be a huge benefit to newcomers who freelance or telecommute. It would provide an entry point for making connections, a critical need in a city that size.
There are some really successful coworking spaces in San Francisco who cluster around industry. Maybe that is because the dot-com era brought a lot of tech folks into the region and they are naturally drawn to each other. Several San Francisco to Portland transplants have told me that San Francisco is a very competitive city that inhibits the formation of communities. I can see that being both a help and a hindrance to the San Francisco coworking market.
WWD: What are your biggest challenges during these tough economic times and what have you been doing to mitigate your risk as a coworking business?
Schweber: For better or worse we began to see the economic downturn very early on. Microbusinesses and startups often lack the cushion necessary to sustain themselves in a down market. But the early warning signal gave us time to diversify our revenue stream.
When adding additional services or resources, we have always taken the lead from the community. We had seen the challenges that our community face with client management, fee structures, invoicing, etc. and had been offering assistance on an ad hoc basis. As we saw more folks laid off and looking for work, and more work being contracted out, we formalized contract and project management services. These services give customers who are not members incentives to spend more time at CubeSpace, which also strengthens community ties.
WWD: What is your vision for the coworking industry over the next 5-10 years? How do you think the industry will change?
Schweber: We are still in the early days of coworking, and it remains a foreign concept to many. People who work in tech have become comfortable with non-traditional work spaces because the dot-com era changed the office paradigm. That is why we have seen tech workers on the leading edge of coworking. The economic downturn has made people much more price-sensitive. The high unemployment rate is creating more business startups whose owners are desperately seeking support and community. Those two elements combined are strong incentives for people to look beyond what they are familiar with and venture into coworking spaces. The industry will have to evolve to meet the needs of these new populations, but it is hard to predict exactly what will change.
There will likely be more traditionally “professional looking” coworking spaces. The shortage of jobs for recent college graduates will produce more young entrepreneurs who are looking for the mentorship that used to come from their employers. The range of services coworking spaces offer will increase as the coworking population diversifies.
How do you see the coworking movement evolving over the next 5-10 years?