Salmon in a swimming pool

Draft of 2012.03.14 ☛ 2015.03.17

May include: worklifebusinessadvice&c.

Interesting times we live in.

I had a nice but brief conversation the other day with a pleasant man from a Large Regional Commercial Real Estate Company, on the subject of “starting a coworking thing.”

Now I think it was two years ago that the owners of “Main Street Novi” contacted Mike Kessler, who owned Workantile Exchange back then. He and I went over to “Main Street Novi”, and found a little rattle-trap New Urbanist fantasy: some town homes, some shopping center space, some vacant farm land, and something like 80000 feet of upstairs office space for lease.

And we told the man who owned it what we would tell anybody (and what Alex Hillman will no doubt tell you if you sign up for his Coworking 101 class): “You need a community first, and a space to suit the community after it’s established.”

Doesn’t matter if you want a specialized shared-interest group (entrepreneurs, creatives, Yoga folks), or a cost-and-risk-share like TechShop or Photo Studio Group, or a Clubhouse like Workantile or Indy Hall. You need subscribers and a shared mutual interest to be on hand before you invest any capital in infrastructure, because you can’t market these things.

Now I’m not trying to get into an argument with anybody who imagines you can “market anything”. What I mean is that coworking institutions (whether for-profit or non-profit) are not scarcity-driven—the people who join them don’t need them. Any fool can buy a cheap cubicle and play “my convincing office” in his garage or at whatever Mail Boxes Etc became. Nobody needs to have access to a seventeen-ton CNC machine in a pole barn, or a professional photographic studio. Nobody needs to run their little startup in a big old Victorian mill.

Nobody needs coworking. We only spend the money and effort it takes to join because we discover we want coworking.

But rents are low, commercial real estate inventories are up, and as a result rent revenues are pretty scary, and so folks all over are exploring these new “business models” involving coworking.

So the advice I’m giving now with the nice man from the LRCREC is an awful lot like what I said to the owners of “Downtown Novi”: Community first, then place.

But I realize it’s a trend. A symptom, not to put too fine a point on it.

“OK, so we built an office park. Now what?”

And I honestly don’t know. I don’t think I’m having trouble helping him just because I live in upper-middle-class Mill Town Ann Arbor. Of the 40% of us in this country who are freelancers, not all of us are “knowledge workers”; I think Forbes counts the service professionals and other non-employer businesses among the fold. But I bet an awful lot of us walked away from corporate life. Walked away from the commute. Walked away from office parks.

Even the service folks. Freelancing isn’t about being your own boss, or about giving up the security of a regular job, in my experience it’s mostly about not going there.

A few years back, Barbara and I rented an office in downtown Ann Arbor, in a beautiful historic building, because we wanted to. It was an interesting exercise, and a nice view, and a little change of pace.

But our work went on, as it does today, through our phones and laptops and iDevices. Having done the office thing and found it amusing, we found we’d rather be part of a community.

Because it doesn’t matter whether they’re “knowledge workers” or “service independents”, it turns out that what we freelancers do is have conversations for a living.

My advice to the nice man from the LRCREC is basically this: Rent it out to people who haven’t figured out yet that they don’t need it.

We did a little drive through his properties yesterday, all gleaming colored glass and metal in a big old empty field surrounded by For Lease signs, like Brasilia in the jungle. And it saddens me to say that for the life of me, I can’t think of a single person, company, or institution who does need it.

This, I have told him, may be a problem. Just as I imagine it would be expensive to stock a swimming pool with salmon, it will be expensive to keep subsidizing people to sit in cubicles in high-rise office parks, far away from anything they want to do (street views, food, home, fun). Like the salmon, I expect small businesses stuffed into an office park would just languish while they eat your subsidies, then just die off.

But unlike salmon, freelancers will quickly drive away from that asphalt gleam, leave the car running by the side of the freeway, and walk someplace they’d rather be. Around other people. In a community.

An interesting sort of problem.