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Co-work movement trims individual's costs, builds community

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Posted: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 4:58 am

CARRBORO, N.C. - When Brian Russell heard that some folks in Raleigh were considering opening a business similar to the one he operates in Carrboro, N.C., he had some advice for them.

"Charge what it costs to make a profit," Russell told them. "It's going to cost more than you think and costs are always going to go up."

In any other business, such advice would be comical because it's so obvious. But Russell is part of the co-working movement, which seeks to create cafe-like spaces where developers, writers and other independent contractors can work.

Co-working, as its proponents will eagerly tell you, is about community-building, not furthering the cause of capitalism.

But after nearly three years of operating Carrboro Creative Coworking, Russell, 40, has learned that the two cannot be entirely separated. To survive, he has had to raise his prices and tweak his business model.

The co-working movement has been gaining in popularity in recent years, particularly in San Francisco and other wired cities where there are a large number of freelancers.

The economic downturn has made co-working more attractive to companies and entrepreneurs trying to keep costs down.

On the surface, co-working doesn't seem radical. Many of the services offered by Russell and other co-working spaces -- desk or office space, Internet access, meeting rooms, a mailbox -- are no different than what you'd get if you leased an executive office suite or set up in a business incubator.

A freelance web developer, Russell started Carrboro Creative Coworking after getting a $90,000 loan from Carrboro's revolving loan fund.

About 20 people lease space in the 3,200-square-foot location. Russell estimates that at least 100 have cycled through since it opened. A number of businesses have used co-working to ramp up until they needed their own office space.

The endeavor has a casual nature, which is perhaps best exemplified by the flexible leasing options.

Carrboro Creative Coworking's tiered pricing allows people to lease a seat at a shared table, a desk or even a private office. Leases can be as short as one day or as long as a month.

Co-working started as a movement to get freelancers out of their houses and into a place where they could be more productive. That continues to be its greatest appeal.

"For me, at home, it's a little hard to focus. All my stuff is there," said Dave Mason, 42, who has leased an office at Carrboro Creative Coworking since March. "I want to pick up my guitar and play it or start playing with my dog."

Mason is a product manager for Mountain View, Calif.-based Mozilla, the nonprofit responsible for the Firefox Internet browser. He and a friend pay $900 a month for the space; his employer pays part of the cost.

Being around a community of like-minded professionals has its benefits. "It's good to have the social interaction and there are times when you get great ideas," Mason said.

The rise of co-working acknowledges freelancers' craving for structure and human contact.

Vinci Daro, 38, admits that her attempts to work from home were a disaster. She and her husband have two young children.

Daro, who helps education companies develop math curriculums, found herself working all the time while at home, even weekends. She now pays $150 a month for access to the shared workspace. Russell has since raised the cost to $250 for new members.

"Every once in a while I try again and it's even more of a disaster," she said. "Now I come in and do my work and go home. It completely changed the dynamic at home."

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