, , ,

Coworking spaces have been touted as great resources for small businesses and entrepreneurs who are looking for a place to call their own.  Although they can be found across the world in large metropolitan areas, many entrepreneurs don’t expect to find them in their local small town.  But that is changing quickly.

Co-working at Veel Hoeden.
See more pictures from their opening week.

Veel Hoeden was launched in October of 2010 in Pella, Iowa, population 10,000.  Our focus was to provide a space where local small business people and entrepreneurs could work and collaborate in an environment that felt more professional than a coffee shop, more interactive than a home office, and more interesting than a table at the public library.

As we researched coworking spaces, it was hard to find examples in towns our size, but with a little digging we found a few popping up in towns of less than 25,000 people to benchmark.  In the 6 months that have passed, even more have hit the radar and are carving out a spot in their local towns.

If you think a coworking space would be a great venture to start in your small town, here are 5 things to remember as you start the journey.

1. Prime the Pump.  Gauge interest in a coworking space by talking to other small business people who currently work out of their home, their cars, or as “mobile warriors” in coffee shops and other local wifi hotspots.  Then talk to those who are starting new ventures, dabble in part-time businesses (like makeup, jewelry, and cookware consultants), or anyone else who has a small business dream and the drive to chase it.  Don’t limit yourself to “white collar” workers or service companies.  Talk to people from all different fields and occupations that share a need for what your space can offer.

2. Ask Questions. Now that you have folks interested, make sure you understand what they want. Wifi, a place to spread out with their laptop, and access to conference rooms usually rise to the top, but ask you members before assuming that is what is needed.  Many spaces go overboard early buying printers, copiers, fax machines, and other “nice to haves” that rarely get used. Save your money and buy what is on their “have to have” list and upgrade later if the need arises.

3. Focus on Community First, Space Second. When I say community I don’t mean the town you are in, I mean the relationships built between your members.  Don’t get me wrong, you have to have some sort of space to have coworking, but the space doesn’t define the community, the community defines the space.  Find every opportunity before and after startup to get the group together— talking, networking, collaborating, problem solving, laughing and even playing together.  The stronger the community, the stronger the coworking space, and strong coworking communities work together to make sure they survive and are successful.

4. Do the Math. Before you launch, know what it will cost to run your coworking community.  Draw up a budget with all of your expenses.  Drop in who has committed to working in the space and how much you’ll bring in for memberships.  Talk to other coworking communities on what they spend their money on so you don’t get surprised (for example, we were shocked that we spend more each month on toilet paper than printer paper).  If the numbers work, move ahead.  If not, circle up your group again and see what you can come up with.  It may mean building up your community more by utilizing Jellies, sharing space in someone’s home or at a local business, or other “creative” arrangements until you build critical mass for your own space.

5. Be Resourceful. You can spend a lot of money outfitting your space with all the newest stuff…just to find yourself closing in 2 months because you’ve run out of cash.  Instead, talk to your members about what they can bring to the table.  Most have some of the office furniture, supplies, and equipment needed to start sitting in their old home office or in storage.  And since they’ll be working with you, they’ll usually be more than happy to share their stuff with people they know and trust (see #3).  Our members wanted a professional yet eclectic space to work in (some would call it whimsical), so we were fine with mismatched (but nice) furniture and unique decorating items because it brought our character into the space. If you don’t have it at home, check out thrift stores, garage sales, auctions, and places like Habitat ReStore for great deals on nice items.  You can always upgrade these items as better pieces become available or as you have some buffer in your bank account.

My hope is that more small towns will look at coworking spaces, and with the right preparation, take the leap of faith to start their own.  If you are interested in taking that next step, lean on the global coworking community to help you make it a success.  Then make it your own.

This post was originally written March 9, 2011, and posted to the Small Business Survival Website but recently posted here to consolidate my writing.  Enjoy!