Why Sprawl Kills Coworking

Note: This post first appeared on Medium. Thanks to Matt Fields for editing assistance and my amazing wife Ruby Sinreich for so much support.

Towards the end of 2011, I closed Carrboro Creative Coworking. It was a third place. Not home, not work, but another place where we could come together, be creative, and get work done. A community within our greater community.

I started and ran Carrboro Creative Coworking as a business, but its purpose was to be more communal than a traditional business. I dared to combine the financial rigueur of business with the heart of a community organization. Sometimes I wonder whether I focused on the right part of that combination.

It’s now spring 2013, and I’m thinking more generally about Coworking: I might say, the philosophical concept of Coworking, instead of the individual coworking space. Specifically, what causes a Coworking space to succeed or fail. To me, it’s not just a mental exercise, but an investigation into how humans get along in small groups. Here’s something I found:

Sprawl kills Coworking and other similar community based “third places”.

I’m speaking not just of my own space, Carrboro Creative Coworking, but also of other third places, like TechShop Raleigh-Durham. While I have no inside information on the business side of TechShop, I know enough about running a business and fostering community to know what its challenges are.

This North Carolina location of the TechShop franchise was a place for people to use all kinds of equipment they may not be able to afford. Guests and members took safety courses and classes to use tools that ranged from basic wood tools to laser cutters and computer controlled milling machines. TechShop Raleigh-Durham closed April 20, 2013.

There are three reasons I think sprawl is bad for Coworking.

1) If we live in sprawl, we are not Neighbors: We are “Others”.

For example, the many towns and cities that make up the Triangle region of North Carolina are very spread out. We have several unique cultural identities based on historical reasons. This keeps us apart from each other physically, ideologically, and even spiritually on some level. No one really considers people in Raleigh neighbors with someone who lives in Chapel Hill. In sprawling areas, people can easily become the “Other” person who we can easily ignore. This is bad when you are trying to build a community between connected municipalities, if for no other reason than that you need a large quantity of people to support a “third place”.

2) When we are too spread out, we look out for ourselves first.

When you struggle to prosper your primary concerns are self and family. The struggle is so hard that there is little time to think of your neighbors. This selfishness has consequences. Our lack of concern for our fellow human increases the difficulty of our struggle, both in wealth generation and in happiness. Because we are social beings, collaboration is a prerequisite for success. Sprawl insidiously keeps us at arms length, just far away from each other to prevent a real intimacy that fosters collaboration and empathy.

3) Commuting reduces the amount of time we have to give to the community.

Because we live relatively far away from each other, it is time consuming and expensive to commute to other places to commune with our neighbors. While you’d think there would be enough people in each individual Town or City combined to support a “third place”, like a TechShop, the numbers don’t prove that to be the case. The costs of maintaining the “third place” are now greater than the revenue generated from people willing to travel to be with others. The biggest costs being real estate and payroll.

In the example of Carrboro Creative Coworking, I determined that the maximum distance most people were willing to travel one way to cowork was twenty miles. That may not sound like much, but in the Triangle area it’s about the distance from eastern parts of the City of Durham to the Town of Carrboro. That area includes a lot of people but leaves out at least 1.1 million people who live in the Raleigh Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Cary.

I discovered this distance by plotting the location of survey participants on a map. These were people who said they like the idea of coworking. It showed a good number of people: enough to give me confidence that there were potentially enough customers to support a coworking business. But the number of people who actually drove a round-trip 40 miles and spent money to cowork was much less. In reality, very view people traveled from Durham or Raleigh to cowork in Carrboro. The majority of Carrboro Creative Coworking’s customers lived in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

For a “third place” to succeed, it requires that we know our neighbors, or at least feel some connection with them. We must be connected to one another so we believe our neighbors are our family. I believe this will occur when the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill/Carrboro Region has more dense and connected communities. Walking, biking, and ubiquitous public transit to “third places” must be possible for coworking to thrive.

What is Coworking?

1. The act of working together to get things done.
2. A global movement of coworkers and coworking spaces.
3. Offices that provided a consistent location for independent workers to be productive.

I’m elaborating on it here rather than using someone else’s definition for a few reasons. One is that I founded and ran a Coworking space for three years and have some strong opinions on the subject. Another is my definition greatly informs my writing on how people can work together well and be very productive doing it. This is a foundation for future writing. So when you see the word coworking I mean this definition. I will link to it for reference and context.

BTW – the word Coworking doesn’t have a hyphen between co and working. At least that’s how people spell it who are part of the Coworking movement.

Location, Location, Location

When I was doing my original business market research for CCC I discovered that place is very important. This is the case for most physical businesses with public space. (ex. retail) Experienced business people express this with the refrain, “Location, Location, Location”

As I got into the day to day of running a coworking space the assumption about where our space is located seemed to be validated. I believe that being close to where people live, shop, and play is essential. But can coworking spaces exist in other places?

This is why I created the following survey. If you work at a Coworking space I’d really appreciate it if you could take it. The results are located here. You can even download the data and use it how you want.

I feel its essential we have big numbers of survey participants to validate or disprove this assumption. Once we’ve made it over two hundred participants I’ll elaborate more on why I think this is important.


The Journey to Build a Coworking Space

More specifically its a journey to build a sustainable coworking space. By sustainable I mean it should financially support itself and its operator (me) plus employees. I’m doing the best I can to document this unique journey. Mostly on the biz blog at carrborocoworking.com.

So far I’ve recorded five videos. Hope to do more. You can watch them here carrborocoworking.com/category/topic/video

This one is the latest.

Refresh the Triangle at Carrboro Creative Coworking

Thursday, Oct 23, 2008 from 6:30pm to 8pm Carrboro Creative Coworking will be hosting Refresh the Triangle. This is a great meetup that I’ve been to several times. (Not nearly as often as I’d like though.) Each time I’ve learned something valuable and met great people. We’ll have free pizza and drinks too.

Our topic is Unearthed Arcana for Web People. From the Refresh website:

Clinton Nixon, senior developer at Viget Labs, will present and facilitate this talk about how to avoid trivial, repetitive tasks and increase your productivity with your computer. We’ll cover both software you already have, and free/cheap software you might not. If you’ve got a tip of your own, bring it! We’ll have some free time to share at the end.

Check out all our events on our Google Calendar. Many more on the way!

Carrboro Coworking is moving along

Yesterday I signed a lease for office space in downtown Carrboro! After almost two years of work its FINALLY starting to happen. But this is only the beginning. So much more to do before we open. So much to do to run the space.

Last night I shared with friends and supporters the news.

Via Twitter
I signed a commercial office lease today for @carrborocowork WOOT!

Via the Carrboro Coworking Google Group and Facebook

Right now I’m sending my PR release to as many media folks as I can. Please forward this to people you know. CARRBORO CREATIVE COWORKING SIGNS THE DOTTED LINE PDF

To top it off I recorded a video last night. Its the first one in a series that will document the journey to create a coworking space. Should be a interesting roller coaster.

Please consider purchasing a seat, desk, or office at Carrboro Coworking now. I desperately need to pre-sell as many as I can. Contact me for more information. Lots of info on the biz website.