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Economy & Business

Offbeat office culture develops at downtown coworking space

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 31, 2010 - Workers gathered in a wing of the Shell Building downtown earlier this month for a ritual that takes place in offices across the country. This holiday party had some of the familiar elements: the Christmas tree, the menorah, the gift exchange.

Missing, however, was the sappy speech from the company boss and the awkward conversations among coworkers. That's because at this holiday gathering many guests of honor work for themselves or for small companies, and everyone comes into the office voluntarily seeking out small talk about marketing and Web development.

Saint Louis Coworking, the shared office space inside the historic Shell Building, has only been open since early August. But already it has become known for hosting a weekly Friday pancake breakfast for everyone who works inside the building. Now add to that an inaugural holiday party featuring a potluck meal and live music from the landlord's son.

A quirky -- and decidedly social -- office culture is emerging at Saint Louis Coworking, which occupies a 10,000-square-foot room with sweeping downtown views.

"During the day it's pretty quiet," said Rosa Mayer, the space manager. "People are generally working on their own. But then at lunchtime everyone takes a break and eats together. That's when ideas are shared and the networking takes place."

Computer programmers share tips, entrepreneurs swap ideas, and a lawyer answers questions about employment practices and trademark protection. People gather for lunchtime yoga or kettlebell workouts at the office.

"The lunch hour is awesome," said Shaun Hautly, a regular at Saint Louis Coworking. "That's when we come up with ridiculous things and share ideas about lots of stuff." (As a joke, several lunchtime regulars created a website for their faux business idea that involves suburbanites raising tuna in their bathtubs).

After the workday, a group often sticks around for events hosted on site: blogger conferences, wine tasting and a monthly networking program called New Venture Night (formerly known as Geek Night). At these gatherings, sponsored by local information technology groups, people pitch their high-tech startup ideas and receive feedback from investors and programmers in the crowd.

Mayer said it's an attractive event for many of the entrepreneurs, computer consultants, graphic designers and video editors who set up shop at Saint Louis Coworking. Freelancers looking to get out of their apartments and into a creative work environment occupy much of the office space. They are often joined by employees of a public relations firm who have made the Shell Building the permanent home of their St. Louis branch.

One of the ideas behind St. Louis Coworking is to be a place where people can discuss business plans and meet potential collaborators. Mayer is part officer manager, part matchmaker. She's become so familiar with the coworkers and their businesses that she'll hand out their business cards to people coming in for tours of the space whenever she thinks people could benefit from each other's services.

Tom Hart, an entrepreneur who uses Saint Louis Coworking at least four days a week, said he has long been enamored with the idea of a social workplace. Hart initially moved to St. Louis as a management consultant on a long-term project. He quit that job but stayed here to work with a Washington University professor on a college sports social networking site called RecruitPages.com that aims to connect fans, athletes and coaches. (The beta page is online, and a launch is planned for Jan. 11).

Hart said he found himself spending far too much time in his Locust Street apartment, to the point that he "began to drive myself insane." This fall, he attended a Geek Night at Saint Louis Coworking, which is two blocks from where he lives.

"It struck me right away as exactly what I needed," Hart said. "There are social norms that get in the way of meeting people in many environments. Ultimately, for entrepreneurs to be successful it's all about meeting people. You don't get new ideas by sitting on the ground and staring at the ceiling.

"In a city where I don't know that many people, it's good to have an institution that can help facilitation meaningful interactions," he added. At St. Louis Coworking "you're surrounded by people you'd see normally at a coffee shop, but the difference is that here there's an expectation that everyone gets introduced to everyone else."

Hart, whose background is in marketing and general business organization, already has collaborated with a programmer he met at Saint Louis Coworking. This fall, the pair discussed their business concept, a rating engine for tweets, made a full mock-up of their site and launched a Twitter application. Hart said that after a lengthy evaluation the partners decided that they couldn't dedicate enough time to the project for it to become viable.

Hautly, the Saint Louis Coworking regular, has already brought in business to his new office. He started his own social media, video and Web production company nearly two years ago and moved into the Shell building full-time in August.

"I worked out of my home for the first year-and-a-half surrounded by cats," Hautly said. "It's nice now to be able to bounce ideas off of people. You can't surround yourself with cats and come up with great ideas."

In November, Hautly hired another full-time employee for his company, Boom. Reactive. The new employee works next to Hautly at Saint Louis Coworking, and the two often meet with clients in conference room.

They are among the more than 40 different people who have used the space over the past four-plus months, according to Mayer. A core group of 10 to 12 comes in daily, and others drop in as often as three or four times a week and as seldom as once or twice.

Mayer said the most popular arrangement is the $300-a-month plan that pays for access to a shared U-shaped desk with a wired internet drop, as well as a conference room, printing and mail collection. (Two people from the same company pay $500 for the shared desk). For $450, workers get their own workspace and the same amenities. Drop-in guests like Hart pay $100 monthly for access to common areas but don't have a guaranteed workspace. There's also a $15 one-time pass. The office is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

While the space is not yet at capacity, Mayer said she's been pleased with the growth and what it's meant for downtown. "It feels like there's some new life here," she said. "We've been working hard to try to reach out to the downtown community."

Mike Tomko, a consultant on the venture and chief technology officer for the marketing agency Scorch, said he's impressed by the work culture that's developed in such a short amount of time. "The whole thing came together quickly, and for people to already have settled into to making the space their permanent home is encouraging," he said.

Tomko said several area companies are considering moving into the space full time in the coming year.

Elia Powers, a former staff member at the Beacon, is working on his PhD.

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