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In Good Company: Coworking Spots Cater to Solo Workers

716 Broadway cofounders John Richardson and Doug Hardester
716 Broadway cofounders John Richardson and Doug Hardester - Steve Ruark
George Murphy could run his business helping law firms boost their search engine visibility from his dining table in Highlandtown. He could camp out at a coffee shop when he gets lonely. Or he could sign a long-term office lease and pay $1,000 a month for rent and utilities.

Instead, the 31-year-old operator of thesearchninjas.com pays $295 a month to work above a Quiznos in Fells Point. There, at 716 Broadway, one of Baltimore’s newest sites for the growing trend of sharing office space, known as coworking, he can court clients in the conference room or kibitz in the kitchen. No more procrastinating at home by doing laundry or walking the dog.

In the evolutionary ladder of workspaces, there’s working from home and then there’s working from Starbucks. But sharing space with toddlers and barking dogs comes at a price. So does renting your own executive suite.

Enter coworking.

Artists and writers figured this out centuries ago: share space and split the rent. The modern twist comes as entrepreneurs purposefully design spaces to prompt the creative crosspollination that occurs when people with different jobs work in the same room. Inspired in part by the open-source community, which shares software source code for free, modern coworking started in the mid-2000s in places such as The Hat Factory in San Francisco and Office Nomads in Seattle.
Wireless wanderers in Baltimore first found a home in February 2009, when Beehive Baltimore opened in Canton’s the Can Co. Now, a growing number of coworking spaces circle the Inner Harbor like a necklace. In Federal Hill, newcomer Betamore opened Dec. 3.

Then there’s Capital Studios, near Little Italy. The Emerging Technology Centers, an incubator operated by the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp., took over the Beehive from operators Newt Fowler, Dave Troy and Stephen Muirhead earlier this year. [See companion story for a breakdown of all the coworking spaces in Greater Baltimore.]

Coworking spaces are catering to the growing number of home workers, which, in Baltimore grew by more than one-third between 2000 and 2010. That’s according to the US Census, which shows that nationally, the number of Americans working at least one day a week from home jumped 41 percent to 13.4 million people.

Sharing an office has one obvious advantage over working from home: you meet other people who sometimes give you business leads. Recently, some software developers got Murphy in touch with a big downtown law firm interested in his search engine optimization services.

“Those moments come up all the time,” he says.

Murphy sought out the social environment at 716 Broadway after his previous spot, Sizeable Spaces in Federal Hill, closed earlier this year. He craves office energy and the motivation it brings, but he usually hangs a “do not disturb” sign for the digital age: he works with his earphones in.

The best thing about coworking, Murphy says, is that it helps separate work from home, where “it can kind of consume you.”

Coworking helps startups at a key point when cash is tight, says Darlene Smith, dean of University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business. “This is a very cost effective way to start up a new business,” she says.

Surrounding yourself with like-minded entrepreneurs who have different experiences is key.

“It’s kind of like atoms bouncing off of each other," Smith says. "And the reasons people want to be in these types of offices are the atoms of creativity and what will spark form those exchanges."

“Coworking accelerates serendipity,” says 28-year-old Mike Brenner, who with partner Greg Cangialosi plans to open Baltimore’s newest coworking space this week. Betamore is also an incubator and holds classroom space where, for instance, a developer can teach a class on how to build an iPhone app.
“It’s kind of like atoms bouncing off of each other. And the reasons people want to be in these types of offices are the atoms of creativity and what will spark form those exchanges." - Darlene Smith, University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business
“You get the benefits of an office building: coffee, conference room and conversation,” Brenner says. “But everybody is working on their own things.”

The free exchange of ideas, energy and communication are the hallmarks of coworking, says Michael Morris, co-founder of Capital Studios, which next spring plans to open a conference room, a private phone room and about 15 work stations in a 1,000-square-foot expansion. “The best way to promote that is to not have walls.”

People needing privacy at Capital Studios, which opened in July 2011, can duck into a conference room for a phone call or step outside. A handful of people there do a lot of work on the phone, Morris says. “It’s supposed to be a work environment, not a playground and not a library.”

How to deal with the occasional irritating person at the next table?

“If you get a Koosh ball thrown on your desk,” Morris, “that means you’re doing something annoying and you need to stop.”
Given the increase in coworking spaces from none four years ago to four downtown today, that growth is likely to continue, says Smith, the UB business school dean. “The market is growing and there’s going to be more demand for services.”

And the potential for distraction at home won’t go away either, says Deb Tillett, president of the Emerging Technology Center.
Says Tillett, “Some people find the discipline of putting on the flip flops and walking out the door is really, really important.”

Will Morton is a freelance reporter who has written for the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore Business Journal, Urbanite, Baltimore magazine and Style. He has also written for the Wall Street Journal and was an editor at Dow Jones Newswires in New York. He started as a teen reporter for the student-run Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia.

All photographs by STEVE RUARK

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