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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Paper
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New coworking space bolsters Madison's tech scene
Collaboration through chance encounters
Dryden: 'I like the social aspects of coworking.'
Credit:Carolyn Fath

The tech world is so different from other industries. Can you think of another field where successful companies would rent space in their offices to freelancers working on their own projects?

This is not business as usual.

But that open-minded approach is central to the burgeoning coworking movement that's spreading from information technology hotspots in Chicago, San Francisco, Cambridge and New York to much smaller IT markets like Madison. Its emergence here is another sign that the Madison tech scene is powering up.

In downtown Madison, Bendyworks, the 12-person web and app design outfit, rents another five desks to outside info tech workers. The online music storage company Murfie operates Horizon Coworking in shared offices. Hardin Design and Development welcomed outside IT workers for several years before moving to new quarters in the Verex Building in 2011.

"We hung out with those guys and played foosball with them," Hardin exec Scott Resnick, who is also a city alderman, fondly recalls. "It created good energy. We were all in the startup game together. We did a lot of brainstorming."

And that's the key - the frisson of intellectual stimulation from chance encounters. Techies may have the reputation of being geeky loners, but the best aren't. Web developers and software designers are unusually collaborative. Maybe it's because many use open-source software as their tools to write code. Or perhaps because they're used to working in development teams. Whatever the reason, they are often social creatures at work.

Alex Hillman, who runs the celebrated IndyHall coworking space in Philadelphia, put it this way in an email: "Our #1 resource isn't our square footage, it's the relationships and connections between our members.... Our entire reason for existing isn't because people need an office, it's because they need each other. The need for office ebbs and flows, but the need for camaraderie and support and friendship doesn't."

'A study hall for adults'

Coworking spaces come in several flavors. Some provide personal desks and are more expensive at $200 or so per month, while others offer shared facilities and are rock-bottom cheap at $30 a month. Preston Austin of Horizon Coworking calls the latter the "health club style of coworking. Like the machines in a health club, you don't dedicate them to someone and you don't schedule them."

Coworking, he adds, is "like a study hall for adults. That's all it is."

And it's not just an isthmus phenomenon. At least three coworking offices can be found on the city's periphery, including two run by Regus, the giant Luxembourg-based multinational that operates more than 1,300 business centers across the globe. "It's a big and growing sector for us," area director Scott Ravenscroft says of information technology.

Other coworking (and related tech) spaces are in the early discussion stage. University officials are pondering a site near the Computer Science and Discovery buildings, and downtown IT leaders are weighing a multi-use "tech hub" they think could be the next big step in advancing the central-city web scene.

"Coworking is in its infancy in Madison," notes Chris Meyer, who runs the inventors workshop and coworking space called Sector67. "Seeing where it's going is the exciting part, not where it's at today."

Learning from others

Meyer is on to something. Solo workers (the so-called 1099 economy) are growing in number, up from 16.4 million in 2000 to 22.1 million in 2010, according to the Census Bureau tabulation of "nonemployer businesses." Some grow tired of the spare bedroom and the coffee shop as their workplace.

Take Ashe Dryden. For seven years, she's worked as an independent web developer specializing in Drupal, a content management system. She became a Bendyworks coworker last fall, saying leasing her own office was just too expensive.

"I don't think it's meant for me," she adds. "I like the social aspects of coworking."

As I've written, Bendyworks puts a premium on creating a programmer-friendly environment ("Bendyworks' Big Idea," 10/18/12). Dryden participates in the company book club, attends the weekly lunch that features a tech speaker, and got to see F. Stokes' Kickstarter in-house concert a few weeks ago.

"Our goal was never to get rich doing coworking," says Bendyworks partner Jim Remsik. "It was to bring interesting and likeminded people into our office.... We're seeking diversity of thought. If it's always just us in here, we're never going to learn anything."

Adam Braus and Mike Fenchel, who woodshedded, an online social calendar shared by friends, while coworking at Bendyworks, praise the experience. "It was critical to the early stage of," they said in an email. "We found help and mentorship from the Bendyworkers." The duo now have their own offices.

Over at Sector67, web developer Grant Dobbe offers a mundane but really pertinent argument for coworking: Working at home is filled with fatal distractions. How many times, he asks, do you find yourself emptying the dishwasher, doing chores or idling away hours watching Dr. Who on Amazon Prime when you ought to be working? Hey, nobody's checking on you.

"Conversely you can get stuck in work mode and put in 16 hours straight because you're at home," he says.

Dobbe likes the Sector67 scene. Even though he rents a desk in the "quiet room," he will sometime take his laptop out to the big room and work smack dab in the middle of the action.

"I'll talk to people about code I'm working on," he says. "We'll trade ideas back and forth. I just want to be around people."

Preston Austin, who's a serial entrepreneur and, at 42, one of the founding fathers of the downtown tech scene, gets what Dobbe is talking about. "We need places that are dense with entrepreneurs, hackers, creative folk, service providers, consultants coming together," he says.

"When people like that interact, they have a lot of complementarity. They can serendipitously encounter one another and solve problems. Stuff just kind of happens."

Madison co-working spaces

[Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Drupal is a content management system and not an open-source language.]

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