General Articles
Wide Open Spaces / by Joy Lanzendorfer / September, 2008

Penngrove’s SoCo Depot brings coworking to the North Bay.

Working at home may mean you get to keep your own hours and work in your pajamas, but it also has a downside. Too often, working by yourself can leave you lonely and floundering at the keyboard, fighting for focus and productivity. For some creative professionals, the solution to this problem is to take their laptops to the nearest coffee shop. For others, there’s coworking.

Coworking is a movement where freelancers co-lease space and use it as a shared office. Although this movement started in urban areas like New York and San Francisco, Sonoma County’s SoCo Depot was created earlier this year.

Located in a former train depot in downtown Penngrove, this shared office is large and open, with high ceilings, exposed wooden beams and the original sliding warehouse doors in the front and back. So far, eight people rent unlimited use of the 1,600-square-foot space from landlord Martin Sessi, who owns several buildings in the tiny town, including a restaurant, store and a newer shopping development. Rent is $287 per month, per person. As of this writing, there’s room for four more tenants.

“We say we’re creative professionals,” says Anthony Tusler, the self-described “sparkplug” behind SoCo Depot. “It operates on a co-op model, but it’s also a business model.”

Inspiration strikes

Tusler, who’s a wheelchair user, started and then managed Sonoma State University’s disability resource center for 22 years; he also taught a disability course at SSU. These days, however, he works on disability-related projects ranging from alcohol and drug abuse prevention to disability access to mainstream technology.

Three years ago, Tusler read a book by San Francisco writer Po Bronson about making a mid-life career change. Tusler was especially interested in Bronson’s personal working situation—he’s a founding member of The Grotto in San Francisco, a shared workspace for more than 20 writers and artists. In its 14-year history, a long list of books, films, essays, articles and even television shows have come out of The Grotto.

“I thought, ‘This is a wonderful idea,’” says Tusler. “So I talked to some people about doing something like it here, but it didn’t look like it could get off the ground. Then I came across the term ‘coworking’ in about October of last year. I Googled it, and it turns out there’s a whole coworking movement centered in San Francisco. It was exactly what I was interested in.”

Soon after, Tusler talked with people he knew, including John Crowley, owner of Aqus Café in Petaluma, about coworking in Sonoma County. Through word-of-mouth, weekly meetings began at Aqus, and people quickly showed interest in the idea, including copywriter Vanessa Bauch, who said at one of the meetings that she’d been waiting for something like SoCo Depot for three years.

“I was working for myself, and working from home made it hard to meet people,” says Bauch, who’s written copy for major companies like Toyota, Google and Yahoo. “Normally, I’d go to work and meet people. I spent all day around people. I just thought the idea of working for myself—with other people—would be perfect.”

By December, an initial collection of six people began looking for a coworking space and quickly found the old depot. They painted the dark brown walls white, red and orange; set up Wi-Fi, a conference room and a kitchen; and generally cleaned the place up.  In April 2008, the newly formed coworking group moved into its Penngrove office space. The space is divided into 10 partition-free workstations with a long table running down the middle. Everyone brought his or her own desk and chair.

In addition to Bauch and Tusler, the professionals who now work at SoCo Depot include a photographer, journalist, curriculum writer, advertising specialist, software engineer, website designer and Nancy Sinsheimer, who’s using her time at SoCo Depot to write a novel.

“I’m a hypnotherapist,” she says. “I see my clients mostly at night, and I write [at SoCo Depot] during the day. I’m writing what I’ve been calling ‘the never-ending novel.’ I’m planning to end it this year, though, at SoCo.”

Best of both worlds

SoCo Depot has been operating for almost half a year now, and its members seem thrilled with the arrangement. All report increases in productivity. Getting up every day, going to an office and surrounding themselves with other creative individuals has made all the difference, they say. There is, in Sinsheimer’s words, a positive “work buzz.”

For some, there’s also the self-imposed discipline of working around others. “I want to look good,” says Tusler, laughing. “There’s a basic ego thing. I don’t want to be seen sitting there looking at the web, because everybody knows when I do. The other day, I placed an order from Lands’ End, and they said, ‘Oh, doing a little clothes shopping, huh?’”

Before SoCo Depot, says Tusler, working from home led to procrastination, energy loss and a lack of motivation. Although freelancing provides freedom and independence, he explains, there’s no community, no one to inspire you. In a word, it’s lonely.

“I wouldn’t have said I was lonely when working at home, but I wasn’t as productive,” says Bauch. “And I now think the reason was that I was kind of lonely. There just wasn’t a lot of energy. I just found I didn’t have a lot of momentum. I kind of stalled out easier.”

Most people who’ve turned to coworking describe similar experiences. Take Roman Gelfer, CEO of Sandbox Suites, a coworking office in San Francisco with more than 45 members including publishers, video producers, game developers, marketing people and even an environmental historian. Like Bauch, Gelfer found working at home unproductive and lonely. In fact, that was how he got the idea for Sandbox Suites.

“In one of those unproductive moments, I was reading an article that talked about a coworking space in New York,” he says. “I thought there must be one in San Francisco, but when I looked, I didn’t find much. I had experience running an office, so my wife and I decided to start one.”

At SoCo Depot, Bauch is still her own boss. There are no meetings that she didn’t set up herself, no office politics to put up with and no co-workers she can’t stand—but she still gets to be in an office environment. It’s ideal for her.

“I’ve always said that I want to work for myself but not by myself,” she says. “It gives me the best of both worlds. I don’t have to work for someone else, but I can work with all kinds of other people who only impact my business in a good way.”

The right spot

Location is also important here. SoCo Depot’s Penngrove location balances the professionalism of an office with a pleasant, light-filled environment, the kind of place you’d want to come to every day. It’s down the street from a coffee shop and next to a park, but it’s also off by itself. The small porch on the back opens onto what used to be a railway line.

In the past, the building was used as a warehouse and train depot. Farmers brought eggs, vegetables and other goods to the building and loaded them through the sliding doors onto railcars. The building was also used to sell railway tickets; the old ticket window is still evident in the wall. From the old beams on the ceiling to the hinges on the sliding doors marked “1903,” the evidence of history is a large appeal for the coworkers.

“For me, there’s just something magical about this space,” says Sinsheimer. “There’s something about being here, with other people, that’s a lot like the difference between meditating by yourself and meditating in a group. Here, you’re uplifted by the feeling of everyone else working on their projects around you. Being in this space makes me feel really good. To me, it’s like half shared office space, half secret hideout.”

The finer points of running the office are decided by a steering committee made up of Tusler, Sinsheimer, Bauch and journalist Janet Parmer. Part of their job is screening candidates interested in joining SoCo Depot. And since who you work with is important, they consider several factors when deciding who can join. Some are practical considerations. People who talk on the phone all day, for instance, wouldn’t be a good match for the overall atmosphere. Others are more vague, based on how well the candidate seems to mesh with the group.

So far, however, finding matches hasn’t been difficult, says Tusler. It seems to be a self-selecting process on both sides. “A lot of people who expressed initial interest realized it wasn’t a good fit,” says Tusler. “We spend an hour or so talking to each applicant, so they can get a sense of what we’re doing here and decide if they’re right or not. That’s worked out pretty well so far.”

Making your own workspace

With gas prices driving up the cost of commuting, job security becoming a thing of the past and technology making the workplace more portable, people today are redefining their work environments. As more people begin telecommuting or strike out on their own, they’re blurring lines between working and socializing and inventing new rules for what a workspace can and should be.

Coworking is part of this trend. The term “coworking” was coined in 2005, when a computer programmer named Brad Neuberg began imagining everything he wanted in a working situation. Not long after, he cofounded the Hat Factory, a coworking space in San Francisco. “It seemed I could either have a job, which would give me structure and community, or I could be freelance and have freedom and independence,” he told the New York Times. “Why couldn’t I have both?”

Of course, artists have worked together for centuries in a similar way. But while some people describe coworking as recreating “café culture,” where people in coffee shops share ideas, at its core, coworking has a business and technology-based edge. The coworking community contains many technology workers, and there’s an extensive online community for coworkers, complete with blogs and its own Wikipedia page.

As more people embrace coworking, different models are emerging. There are casual coworking groups like Jelly, started in 2006 by Amit Gupta and Luke Crawford, two New York roommates who periodically opened their apartment to other independent workers for an occasional office environment. Citizen Agency, a San Francisco Internet consulting firm, not only rents desks like SoCo Depot, it has a policy where anyone can come in and use the Wi-Fi connection in the conference room. And the aforementioned Hat Factory not only has office space, it has rooms people can rent, giving a whole new perspective to the live/work idea.

Eddie Codel, a video producer who’s made videos for websites like BoingBoing and Digg, rents a room at the Hat Factory. Like most coworkers, Codel finds inspiration in being around other creative people.

“It creates an environment where you can bounce ideas off other people and vice versa,” he says. “It’s a community environment that’s also an office.”

As much as coworking is about making your own community, it’s also about being part of the larger community. That may be why the  coworking movement is growing so quickly. Communities are appearing all over, and not just in the United States.

“New spaces are popping up every week or so,” says Codel. “There are locations pretty much all over the world. I like that. I like the idea that when I’m traveling, I can look up a coworking space, drop in and do some work.”

For SoCo Depot, being part of a larger community includes the local arts community. The steering committe is talking about having a rotating art exhibit in the space, as well as possibly hosting book signings, showing movies and engaging in other art-related activities. SoCo Depot even hosted an open house in August to inaugurate its broader connection to Sonoma County.

And when it comes to finding new members, coworking remains, at heart, about finding other people who want to help and support the group—as well as get their own work done. “It’s an intentioinal community,” says Tusler. “One of the high values is that we support each other.”