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Shared Workspaces For Entrepreneurs and Freelancers Are Appearing All Over the State

RentalsStartupsConnecticut Economic DevelopmentManchester Community College

In Bridgeport, the "B:Hive" just started up a couple of months back. In Manchester, "Axis901" got rolling this spring as well. Stamford opened its "Innovation Center" more than a year ago, while down in New Haven "The Grove" has been grooving along since 2010.

The connecting theme for all these is the concept of "shared workspace," an alternative business format that's very different from the traditional corporate-style office or the "working from home" gig that's become so common.

Marcella Kovac, who owns her own design agency in Bridgeport and is one of six partners who operate the "B:Hive," says the idea of a communal office is apparently something her city was needing. "I think it's been a positive surprise," Kovac says of the response to B:Hive's May opening. "I didn't expect this to blow up as quickly as it did."

For a computer programmer/entrepreneur/freelance consultant like John Farrell, the coworking office concept is the answer to a whole file cabinet full of old-fashioned problems.

Farrell, 31, has two start-ups going on the second floor of a renovated bank building on Manchester's Main Street that's now the location for the recently opened Axis901.

"It's a great little space," says Farrell. "I share a private office with another company… It's small, but just what we need."

Axis901 was actually created by the city of Manchester, using a building donated by First Niagara and a $500,000 grant from that bank. The downtown location of Manchester Community College occupies the first floor, which left the second level open, says Mark Pellegrini.

He's Manchester's director of planning and economic development, and says research into the success of shared workplaces in other communities convinced his city to give this "intriguing idea" a try.

Using city resources and workmen, the second floor of 901-903 Main St. (which is where the Axis901 name originated) was renovated into three private offices, various work stations, storage facilities, meeting and conference rooms. All told, there's about 4,500 square feet of office space, which now has about 13 people using it full time (seven in the private offices, six in the open work areas).

Like most of these operations, Axis901 offers people a variety of workspace options. For $75 a month, you can have 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. access to the work place 50 hours a month. A full-time membership, with 24/7 access, storage, mailing address and 12 "meeting room hours" each month, will set you back $175 per month. A big private office costs $450 a month.

The other shared workspaces in Connecticut charge somewhat similar rates for a variety of options, all working off the main theme of a cooperative office concept.

The past three years saw Farrell running his businesses out of his home, and he says there are a great many reasons why Axis901 is way better for him.

In addition to simple office space, a shared workplace like Farrell's or B:Hive or The Grove or any other similar operation provides Internet and phone service, fax and copy machines, conference rooms and communal break areas.

If you're "trapped" in an office cubicle, feeling like a corporately oppressed Dilbert clone, working from home can sound sweet. No commute; no getting into work clothes; no hovering, anal-retentive bosses; no irritating co-workers; snacks and TV available all day.

Unfortunately, there are also potential downsides to that lovely home office scheme, Farrell points out.

For one thing, working at home is usually a very solitary sort of gig, which can be pretty freakin' boring after a while.

"I don't want to imply that I was lonely working from home," he says, adding that at Axis901 he has "people to bounce ideas off of" and to talk to during a break and socialize with after the work day ends.

There's also the issue of motivation and self-discipline. Alone at home, it's awful easy to get lost in a TV program or a book, or to get hung up on non-work household chores, or just to shrug and take the day off from "work."

"Sometimes, when I feel like taking a day off, I know my friends here will say, 'Oh, you're such a slacker,'" Farrell says with a laugh. "There's definitely peer pressure, and everyone wants everyone to succeed."

R.C. Thornton, the 23-year-old dude whose web-based design and marketing firm shares Farrell's office space, is just as pumped about the coworking concept.

"It's more conducive to getting things done," Thornton says, adding that it's real nice to be able to meet with clients in a professional office with conference room rather than some restaurant or at the client's place.

"There's a lot of collaboration with others," Thornton says. "That tends to be a fairly common thread in shared workspaces."

Kovac's experience with the problems of trying to run a business out of her home sounds very similar to that of Thornton and Farrell.

The idea for creating a shared workspace in Bridgeport grew out of a talk here in Connecticut by one of the people involved in developing Detroit's "Creative Corridor." Kovac says she and her partner eventually visited Detroit to see what was happening with efforts to get that city moving again, and saw the shared workspace concept as "an effective idea."

A quick recruiting drive brought in a few friend-investors. "We all chipped in to make it happen," says Kovac. She insists this is no charity operation: "We plan to be paying ourselves back over time."

B:Hive now has about 2,000 square feet of renovated office space in a building at 285 Fairfield Ave. in downtown Bridgeport.

In Connecticut, The Grove got going in 2010. Founders Ken Janke and Slate Ballard created a space on New Haven's Orange Street as part of a city sponsored program to bring some life back to empty storefronts in the 9th Square area.

Stamford's Innovation Center is a slightly different, city operated effort with $500,000 in state funding and corporate sponsorship. The center has something like 16,000 square feet of space on Atlantic Street in the city's downtown where a start-up entrepreneur can rent a desk and meeting-room access for $250 a month.

Of course, these shared working space schemes aren't for everybody now slaving away at home. There are expenses involved, and there's almost always a commute.

"You do have to change out of your pajamas," adds Farrell, laughing. "And that's kind of a bummer."

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