Society of Work helps entrepreneurs bid the cube farm good-bye
DESK SPACE BY THE DAY. CHECK. Conference room, check. Crew of unrelated startups and solo professionals, check. Landlord offering resources to grow your business, check. Dart board, blank wall for drawing and beer in the kegerator—check, check, check.
Welcome to Society of Work, a four-month old coworking space in downtown Chattanooga that aims to create a self-nurturing community of practice among startups, freelancers, creative professionals and corporate employees who need to escape their cubicle farm for an afternoon—or longer.
OK, so a company that rents office space can’t really be considered a technology venture—the usual focus of these little glimpses inside Chattanooga enterprises. But coworking is one of those places where the Venn diagram circles for old economy and new economy overlap.
The prehistory of coworking began, according to Kelly Fitzgerald, founder of Society of Work, when “the Amazons and Googles of the world” began shifting some of their employees from physically commuting long distances to telecommuting. Coworking spaces began popping up to offer table space and a wireless connection as an alternative to working at home or in a coffee house.
Fitzgerald was trained as an architect, and her interest in creating a coworking space began when she was working full-time for architectural firms. After sitting at a desk all day for a few years, she realized she preferred client interaction and that it would be eight-to-ten years of dues paying before she could do much of it. She was drawn to coworking because she had enjoyed working on side projects with people from other professional disciplines. She had gone through CoLab’s Springboard course to refine her business plan when she was laid off.
“I was like, that’s it, here you go—do it,” she says. “You weren’t going to jump, somebody pushed you, just go.”
In coworking, she saw an unfilled niche in Chattanooga.
“I realized in working with people who had their own businesses—and when I got laid off it was very apparent—that there’s no place in Chattanooga for small-business people to work at an affordable rate in a location downtown, which is where people who are growing ideas and really want to be on the cutting edge of things want to be located,” she says. “There’s no place for them to locate their business with a community of people that they can work with and learn from.”
Society of Work offers flexible office space, ranging from space on a table to an office with a door, and from two days a week up. Hours are entirely open, and a conference room is available. Rent is month-to-month, with no commitment required. And Fitzgerald works to create a culture.
“We try to let it happen on its own but we provide tools that sort of push it,” she says.
Those tools include good coffee, beer, dartboard and drawing wall, as well as business programming, happy hours, community events like Pecha Kucha and a CoStarters workshop (formerly Springboard), and referrals to trusted resources, like attorneys and accountants willing to work with startups.
Society of Work has attracted photographers, a writer, programmers, graphic designers, a user experience designer, a consultant and a STEM educator, among others. Fitzgerald has two employees of a company in Ooltewah who live downtown and don’t want to drive all the way to Ooltewah every day.
A good mix is key to her business model. Eventually, she expects to see a lot of cross-pollination, like the programmer who is developing an idea for a side project.
“He has an idea, he’s curious to see if he can push it forward so he pinged a lot of people to say what do you think,” she says. “It’s a perfect place for that kind of thing.”
“It’s a group of people that want to get stuff done and are reaching to do as much as they can, but it's also pretty relaxed,” she says, quickly adding, “I say that hesitantly because people get the wrong picture sometimes, that it’s all fun and games. On any given day, you can hear a pin drop in here, and that’s the way most people like it. They want to be in here and quiet and just get to work.”
With about 20 out of 50-60 membership slots taken, Fitzgerald is working on filling half a floor in the First Tennessee bank building, then expanding into the other half and eventually opening another location.
“I tell people all the time everything we’re doing here is an experiment to me,” she says. “I’ve researched coworking across the country and I’ve talked to people with different spaces and absorbed everything I possibly can. But everything is an experiment because we’re in a totally different market. I didn’t want to pick up and copy a bus model from Asheville or Nashville or Knoxville. This is to be uniquely to serve Chattanooga, because we’re not the same as everyone else.”