By Adam Moore and Dave DeWitte
For Nathan Smith, an engineering lead with the software development company Chef, working in public places like coffee shops or the library has its freedoms, but it also has some very real drawbacks.
“The thing with a coffee shop is you have to buy a coffee every hour,” he said, ticking off the things that keep him from doing it more often. “There’s not going to be a place where you can go where it’s quiet; if I bring my lunch, I can’t put it in the fridge.”
That’s why Mr. Smith, like a growing number of remote workers and entrepreneurs, now calls a coworking space home.
Typically built with flexible furniture, bench-style desks and a mix of public and private spaces, and outfitted with the newest technology, coworking spaces are designed to appeal to those professionals needing a space more functional and/or professional than a Starbucks. Users can pay for a certain number of “drop-ins” a month, or reserve a dedicated desk or office, giving them the benefits of a fully connected office without the overhead.
And while coworking spaces aren’t exactly new to the Corridor, they are growing rapidly alongside the region’s entrepreneurial climate.
Users can now choose from sites in Iowa City, including the IC CoLab at 316 E Court St. and Busy Coworking at 218 E. Washington St., and Cedar Rapids, with the Vault Coworking and Collaboration Space at 222 E. Third St. SE.
The latest space to open is the Coralville CoLab, a spinoff of the IC CoLab, which is run by the Iowa City Area Development (ICAD) Group. The 2,700-square-foot space, located at 2852 Coral Court in Coralville, exists in overflow space provided by Innovative Software Engineering (ISE), and is essentially a smaller version of the Iowa City model.
Mr. Smith works primarily from the IC CoLab, where he rents a small patch of desk and locking file cabinet in the middle of an open area ringed with whiteboards and reservable conferencing rooms. The 5,000-square-foot facility also provides more formal office space for startups and other fresh ventures, as well as AV equipment, classrooms, kitchen space and allegedly the hardest working coffeemaker in Iowa City.
“There’s these other people in the office that you work around, but you don’t work with them,” Mr. Smith said when asked what he likes about the space. “There are a lot of other people who do the same type of thing I do, so I can ask them questions and we can learn stuff from each other.”
It was that kind of interaction and exchange of ideas that originally inspired the ICAD Group to open the IC CoLab in December 2012, according to Eric Hanson, communications director.
“Ideas will eventually find themselves, but it takes a while for that to happen naturally,” said Mr. Hanson. “If you create spaces or events where people who don’t naturally come together do that, maybe that’s where the next big idea is going to come from.”
The space is designed to encourage serendipity and creativity through a model in which professionals of all types swap ideas in a cool, constantly changing environment. With ICAD Group working as a tenant in the space, startup businesses can also get help with everything from writing press releases to programming.
The approach seems to be working. According to Mr. Hanson, the IC CoLab is now filled to 98 percent capacity, and has only two full-time bench seats available. The Coralville CoLab, which has been open for only nine months, already has four permanent tenants and two to three regular drop-in users.
The Vault Coworking and Collaboration Space in Cedar Rapids works in a similar fashion, connecting its clients in a collection of vintage offices on the fifth floor of the historic Guaranty Bank Building, and has experienced much of the same success.
The Vault opened in December 2011 and filled its seven offices and 4,000 square feet of space to capacity in July 2013. It is moving in July to a larger 6,000-square-foot space in the new Geonetric building in the 400 block of 12th Ave. SE. where it will share a floor with the Iowa Startup Accelerator, according to Kris Fassler, operations director.
Membership in Vault Coworking surged last summer when the organization declared a mission to foster 100 startups, Mr. Fassler added.
Tyler Osgood works on Pungyo, his lawn care company, and other business ventures at Vault Coworking.
“There’s lots of synergy with people and interesting creative minds,” said Mr. Osgood, who is working on a startup idea with longtime collaborator Josh Bass. “It’s easy to find what you need in any situation because there are ‘people who know people.’”
Mr. Osgood said he could physically do most of the things he does at Vault from home, “but I don’t think half of the things I’m involved in would be possible, because I’m too isolated at home. And it’s just more fun – I have more of a purpose to wake up in the morning.”
Graphic artists John Foster and Josh Mateer have also kept an office at Vault Coworking since April 2012. Working around so many other startups have helped Mr. Foster and Mr. Mateer make many connections that led to first-time clients and referral business. Just about every startup needs a graphic at some point, they explained.
The informality of the Vault appeals to Foster and Mateer, but they say it might not be for everybody.
“I think only the right kind of people can be up here, sort of the ‘think outside the box’ people,” said Mr. Foster.
The rates for membership at the Corridor’s various coworking spaces varies by the amenities and levels of service needed. Drop-in rates for those who don’t have a permanent office at Vault Coworking are $199 per month, Mr. Fassler said, although he noted that rates will likely change after the move to the Geonetric Building.
Desk rentals at the IC and Coralville CoLabs start at $200, with higher prices for lockable storage units, said Mr. Hanson, although the space also offers 10-day punchcards and evenings and weekends packages (24-hour access is included in membership). According to the Busy Coworking website, that space offers monthly access for $165, and dedicated desks for $225.