by Jessie Ammons
photographs by Keith Isaacs
The way we work is changing. “It’s about so much more than the physical space,” says Jason Widen, entrepreneur and co-founder of HQ Raleigh downtown. Widen helped launch HQ in 2012 as a place to provide support, programming, and work space for startups. “We think of it as community building.”
Since the dawn of the Information Age in the ’70s ushered in digitally stored and exchanged knowledge, the notion of what makes an office has shifted. Nowadays, it can mean that the people who work in the same space don’t necessarily work for the same company, or even do the same thing. Like many innovations, it began in Silicon Valley, Calif., where a shared-workspace concept first emerged about a decade ago. Dubbed “coworking,” these offices allowed small teams and independent workers from different companies to rent desk and office spaces and work side-by-side, ideally learning from, helping, and inspiring one another.
Today, coworking is a familiar setup championed by tech entrepreneurs, creative freelancers, and millenials. Thanks to Raleigh’s university and startup cultures, coworking has taken hold here, although the people behind many Raleigh coworking spaces squirm at the cut-and-dried label. “We’ve built a place that has everything you need to get your work done and to get it done well, period,” says Carter Ellis, community manager at Loading Dock, one of the city’s newest cowork spaces.
They range from offices with sweeping downtown views to scrappy makeshift conference rooms; from entrepreneur-focused to design-driven; from intimate settings for a few to giants that accommodate 200-plus members. What these places have in common is the goal of cultivating productive work. Here’s what that looks like in Raleigh.
“When we opened our doors, it was an experiment,” says HQ director Liz Tracy. After the annual entrepreneurship-focused Innovate Raleigh summit in 2012, “we heard the community of entrepreneurs say, ‘We need a physical place to gather,’” Tracy says. Founded by a team of successful local thinkers – Widen, Christopher Gergen, Brooks Bell, and Jesse Lipson – HQ immediately focused on “high-impact, high-growth startups.”
Today there are just over 130 members, and Widen says the space has been at capacity and with a wait-list since day one. When you rent a desk or office by the month, you also get “fireside chats” with authors and entrepreneurs, workshops, and regular networking events. In the five years since its start, HQ has earned a B-Corp certification and built partnerships with the N.C. State Entrepreneurship Clinic, which hosts weekly evening classes at HQ, and Citrix and Red Hat, which teamed together to develop an accelerator program with HQ.
To make room for the future, HQ expanded its warehouse district space into an adjacent building on Harrington Street. At press time, construction was finishing on a 25,000-square-foot space on the lot next-door to the HQ headquarters; this spring, it will begin revamping the top five floors of the Capital Club building downtown into event and classroom space. “We’ve begun to think about how to have an impact on the entrepreneurial community not just in Raleigh, but in the Southeast,” Widen says.
‘Anyone with an idea, a goal, or a dream’
Another player on the coworking scene is The Frontier, in the heart of RTP with a public-university-library vibe. The only space without a membership fee, The Frontier developed from a desire to freshen up RTP. “Ten years ago, the park was a stale, suburban business park,” says RTP Foundation member Michael Pittman. “There wasn’t much of a community. There was no sense of place. We knew that we needed to change in order to remain relevant.”
In June 2015, the bottom floor of a former IBM building opened to the public with a new look: open layout, hanging planters, and free WiFi. “Anyone with an idea, a goal, or a dream” is free to set up shop for a few hours, for the day, or consistently. Pittman says the demographic is diverse – mothers re-entering the workforce alongside millennial coders. The free coworking opportunity was an immediate success, and in the last year The Frontier has expanded to include two floors of office space for rent. Main-floor access remains free, and there are conference rooms available for a nominal charge. Events manager Amanda Frystock says The Frontier gets 100-200 daily workers in the free space, and now has 200 members upstairs. There are almost-daily fitness classes, regular happy hours, and weekly food truck rodeos. “It’s a community hub,” Pittman says, “that has coworking in it.”
‘The decentralized workforce’
Tucked into a building on Fayetteville Street downtown, Nest Raleigh offers a funky loft atmosphere for its 125 tech-minded members. Started by Sean Maroni, who founded Betabox, a local modular technology lab, and chief design officer Michael Hobgood, the space has “that transient entrepreneurial community and feel,” Hobgood says. Opened in fall 2016, Nest’s common area has hanging hammock chairs; Hobgood, an architect by training, made the conference tables himself; and local beer and coffee are always available.
Many Nest members are remote workers for larger companies, some based across the country: Hobgood calls them the “decentralized workforce.” These companies “aren’t sure if they’re going to put down roots in Raleigh,” Hobgood says, so they’ll fund a few staffers at a Nest space in the meantime. Members are treated like family: Rates scale to fit tenants, work-trade opportunities are available, and Hobgood is “vigilant” about thoughtful, thrifty design.
‘Polished, professional home’
Industrious is the City Plaza outpost of a national coworking provider. Opened in January, it’s swanky and hospitality-focused, with a constant supply of Lucettegrace pastries, Counter Culture coffee, fresh fruit, and organic snack bars. There are 50 companies with 200 workers who share paper shredders, noise-eliminating phone rooms, reading nooks, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking downtown, and nursing mothers’ rooms. “The Triangle is one of the quickest growing entrepreneurial communities out there. We wanted to get in early in Raleigh,” says president and co-founder Justin Stewart, who is based in Chicago. He says Industrious is “a polished, professional home in the heart of downtown.”
A creative take on coworking can be found at Loading Dock Raleigh, a renovated warehouse on Whitaker Mill Road that opened in summer 2016. Founded by Murphy’s Naturals and operated by the company’s team, it’s a shared workspace in the truest sense, born of the B-Corp’s wish to open up its own office space. “This is a place for anyone to get out of the house and get work done, and a community to work with,” says Murphy’s employee-cum-Loading Dock community manager Carter Ellis.
The 100-odd members, who pay rent to join, include makers, nonprofit workers, freelancers, and remote professionals. The community culture is informal, including poker nights and pizza dinners to benefit charity, cookie-baking brainstorming gatherings, and other community-generated get-togethers. “We provide the context for interaction and community, and then we want the members to own it.” Up next is a shared “messy warehouse” operation next-door, geared toward companies, such as Murphy’s, that have order fulfillment and packaging needs, or makers who need storage and bare-bones space.
A self-described “no-frills” version of coworking happens at Bldg Co., an airy shared building off of Boylan Avenue. Once the studio of architect Frank Harmon, it became the headquarters for composting pick-up organization CompostNow in late 2012. Realizing they had more space – and more rent – than they wanted, CompostNow co-founders Justin Senkbeil and Dominique Bischof spread the word to share the office. “We’re more like roommates,” Senkbeil says of the members, which have ranged in number from 12 to 20. Bischof handles the very basic maintenance and logistics, and otherwise it’s “the roommate standard:” if you wash a dish, clean it; if you need a printer, bring it. “Coffee, kitchen, desk, inspiration provided,” Senkbeil says. “But who handles the mail when it comes in? Whoever’s closest to the door.”
Over time, members and the CompostNow team have added a conference room and two phone booths, and there’s a common area where all are free to hold meetings. “It’s not like we’re trying to be something or not trying to be something,” Senkbeil says, adding that he’s overcome an initial shyness about the workplace. “When we bring in clients and corporate executives, they’re really responsive. People appreciate the sincere humbleness of this space.”
‘The intersection of business and design’
The Assembly downtown represents another evolution of coworking. “We wanted that studio atmosphere from design school, a dedicated space that’s both creative and professional,” says graphic and brand designer Joshua Gajownik, who graduated from N.C. State College of Design. There, he met designer Gino Reyes, and the two partnered with Reyes’ wife and floral designer Nikelle Orellana-Reyes, brand strategist Mary Ann Bitter, and event director and DJ Nick Neptune to open a space inspired by design school studios. The Assembly opened in September 2016 and “is somewhere between an art studio and a highly polished suite,” Gajownik says.
Orellana-Reyes’ floral business, Wylde, bookends the space with a small storefront entrance and a curtained-off portion in the back where she arranges flowers; in between, 25 members share a dozen simple white desks and a custom-made ping-pong-conference-table hybrid. All of the members are broadly design-related, and include brand managers, calligraphers, and photographers. “We’re sitting at the intersection of business and design, and the people here are, too,” Bitter says.
Members work independently, but there’s a “shared platform” approach, the founders say. “We want to elevate individuals to work together on larger projects,” Gajownik says. All furniture at The Assembly is on wheels so that the room can shift for events and meetings. “Somebody might come in, pitch an idea, and others will overhear. Here, they’ll jump in and collaborate,” Reyes says.
With shared work as the internal camaraderie-builder, Neptune says community involvement is a key part of The Assembly. “We want to actively seek to engage with the community. We see in Raleigh, right now, an opportunity to shape – what it looks like, what it feels like. What kind of place do we want Raleigh to be?”