Working alone from comfort of office

The Baltimore Sun

At Beehive Baltimore's still-spartan office in Canton, about a half-dozen intense people huddled recently at laptops, with cell phones, Coke cans and power cords scattered across tables. But they aren't employed by the same company; they're software developers, entrepreneurs and freelancers busy with their own projects - part of a trend called "co-working."

All have one thing in common: They're tired of working from home alone.

The Beehive was formed for independent workers "tired of talking to their dogs," says co-founder Dave Troy, a software developer who's been involved with the local technology scene for years.

The co-working concept, relatively new to Baltimore, allows independent workers to network, share ideas and build camaraderie. Groups are typically small and based in welcoming coffee shops; some, like Beehive, have a more formal structure.

"There can be these long patches of everyone working away, and all of a sudden the ideas are flying around," said Robin Yasinow, a public relations consultant who is based in Kensington but works at the Beehive a couple of times a week. "I imagine as we get more people in the Beehive, more graphic designers, more artists, those conversations are going to become even more diverse."

Co-working started on the West Coast several years ago and has spread worldwide; online sites list groups in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Australia. Groups tend to be more established in urban areas with a concentration of independent technology and creative industry workers, such as San Francisco and Austin, Texas.

There's no precise figure for co-working Americans. But the people most likely to take advantage of the concept - self-employed "free agents" - make up more than 25 percent of the U.S. working population, up from 19 percent in 2006, according to a recent study by Kelly Services Inc., the temporary staffing and human resources agency.

The co-working mantra - displayed on a Web site that tracks the concept's international evolution - is "cafe-like community/collaboration space for developers, writers and independents." Chris Messina, an open Web advocate and one of the movement's founders in San Francisco, says co-working is an example of "accelerated serendipity" - of fostering new encounters and collaborations in a supportive environment.

Troy, who calls Beehive Baltimore a "people incubator," hopes to foster a collaborative environment. "If someone starts laughing, it sparks a conversation. It's the community first, not the place."

Troy's ideas for co-working in Baltimore grew out of connections made in November, when he helped organize SocDevCampEast at the University of Baltimore. The informal conference for technology and Web workers attracted about 200 people from the East Coast's "Amtrak corridor," and some in Baltimore wanted to continue the spirit of the event on a regular basis.

Troy and others kicked off their co-working sessions that month at Bluehouse Life, a cafe and home-products store in Inner Harbor East. After meeting there for several weeks, the group started longing for a permanent space to call home.

Troy traveled to Philadelphia to get advice from Alex Hillman and Geoff DiMasi, who moved a co-working group - Independents Hall - into a dedicated space 18 months ago.

Reached by phone last week, Hillman said every one of their 24 desks was occupied that day. They have a waiting list of six people for full-time membership, and, with some members wanting later hours, they recently launched a "night shift," he said.

"It's shared office space with extraordinarily strong underpinnings of community," Hillman said. "What it really comes down to is co-working facilitates individuals who recognize that they are not as effective alone as they could be among others."

Troy and his business partner, attorney Newt Fowler, approached the Emerging Technology Center in Canton's American Can Factory complex about leasing space for the group. He credits the center with working well - and quickly - to help get Beehive going.

Neil Davis, the center's vice president of operations, said he had never heard of the idea but saw the possibility for a "whole lot of neat synergies."

"It was certainly a new concept to us," Davis said. "Immediately, you could see it was a good, solid idea, with a couple of really sharp people behind it."

Davis said the center negotiated a lease with Beehive, which Troy set up as a limited liability company, and it received a couple months of free rent to get started in an 1,100-square-foot space at the Boston Street complex.

The space, which officially opened Feb. 2, includes a large conference room and table, several smaller offices, and a lounge with a couch and coffee table. If members need to meet prospective clients, they can invite them to the Beehive; no more meeting in loud coffee shops or home offices.

Troy and other Beehive members say Baltimore's technology and entrepreneurial worlds need this type of open, easy-going environment for creative collaboration - and to help raise the region's profile as an exciting place to work in technology. He's also behind the Baltimore Angels Network, a group that launched in Baltimore last month to help fund promising start-ups.

About 25 people have signed up with Beehive - or the Hive, as it's called by members. Different membership plans are offered: for $275 a month, a "Beehive resident" gets unlimited access to the space, a dedicated desk, and other perks.

"Worker bees" and "basic members" pay less for fewer options and privileges.

Prospective members must sign the Beehive Baltimore agreement - a quirky document drafted by Fowler that's fun in its delivery, yet serious in substance. It begins: "Behave well and treat others the way you would want to be treated or you're out of the Hive."

Member Mike Subelsky said working at Beehive is like having co-workers, but without the office politics.

"Before this, I primarily worked from home, remotely, with people in Austin and in Canada," said Subelsky, who co-founded, an Austin-based start-up, and Ignite Baltimore, a networking event where people give rapid-fire slide show presentations about interesting topics.

He said Baltimore's technology community is becoming more organized and aware of itself, and he expects that to spark new business opportunities. Co-working is part of that trend, he says.

"I still love working at home, but I really benefit having casual conversation, spontaneous dialogue, with people working on similar projects," Subelsky said. "I didn't know so many people in town were interested in so many of the same things I was."

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