Athens entrepreneurs aim for engineered serendipity

In the corner of Big City Bread Cafe in Athens, Ga., on Friday was what could have been a handful of friends with laptops chatting or a group of students studying. But a glimpse at computer screens, scrolling code on one and an e-mail in mid-type on another, showed different projects and interests.


The meeting, Cowork Athens’ first, was a nomadic facsimile of what many digital entrepreneurs hope to see crop up in Athens: the conspicuously absent co-working space.

Co-working allows professionals of different backgrounds to cohabitate a single office space, creating what advocates call engineered serendipity: The opportunity for creative types to bounce ideas around, challenge one another and ultimately create the best product or service they can.

“Ninety-nine percent of it is that you’re building this community,” Four Athens Project Director Jim Flannery said. “The other 1 percent is that you have desks.”

Four Athens houses a co-working space in its Doughtery Street office as part of its incubator offering for technology start-ups, but Flannery quickly notes that it’s software-focused. The relatively narrow focus keeps it from being as inclusive as a traditional co-working space.

Matt Smith, co-founder of Cowork Athens, wants to remedy that, though he acknowledges there’s no firm timeline for his group finding a physical space. There’s been a few prospects, but that search takes a backseat to work that pays the bills for him and co-founder Jami Howard Mays. His goal is a place that’s self-sustaining with rent and enough cash left over to reinvest into the space.

Even with a home in limbo, they wanted to get the project off the ground, so they drew a few interested people together Friday.

Glenn Stovall, the founder of Concordant Solutions, a Web and mobile application development firm for businesses, joked at the meeting that “When you’re self-employed, you need to get outside and meet with people to keep your sanity.”

Michelle King, the founder of Noisy Ghost PR, the publicity branch of Graveface Records, echoed Stovall. Getting out of her house, where she usually works, to be around other workers jump-started her focus.

“I got a lot more done than I probably would have at my house,” she said a few hours into the session. “It’s an easy thing (when working at home) to get up every 15 minutes to do some dishes or to take out the dog.”

Smith fell in love with the idea of co-working spaces some years ago after visiting friends in Greenville, S.C. The dynamic of his fellow digital creatives and the vibrancy of their space captured his imagination.

Smith, a designer, experienced it again when a developer friend took up some extra space in Smith’s Chase Street office. They bounced ideas off each other and lent their various experiences to projects.

“(Coding) that might take me two days to accomplish, he could look over and say, ‘Hey, try this,’ and solve it in five minutes,” Smith said.

On Friday, Smith said he intended to pick Stovall’s brain for development tips on a project on which he was working.

Though not true co-working, the Bottleworks on Prince Avenue is working to fill a similar gap for small-business owners looking to work away from home. It’s renting out individual high-end office suites ideal for one- or two-person operations, its representatives said. The tenants there would share meeting space and a break room, but also have doors to bolster a sense of privacy. It’s a popular concept across the country, with Regus, a multinational corporation, being the poster child. Sloane Nichols, the Bottleworks representative, said their Suites@Bottleworks concept gives it an Athens spin. Soda-shop stylings and Coca-Cola bottle posters hearken back to the development’s past as a bottling plant.

Tenants so far have included a start-up helmed by a recent University of Georgia graduate and a lawyer currently headquartered in Spartanburg, S.C., but looking to relocate to Athens. The middle-ground approach – not traditional office space, not true co-working – can bolster the traditional office rentals in the future as small-scale tenants ramp up their businesses, said Kyle Jenks, founder of the firm that owns the Bottleworks, Parkside Partners. It’s a concept that’s seen success in larger cities and that Nichols and Jenks are optimistic about for Athens, which recently ranked No. 9 in the nation for metropolitan areas with the highest percentage of people working at home.

Flannery called the Bottleworks plans a smart business move and full of potential for small businesses. It can even echo the benefits of co-working, Flannery said. For instance, the recent UGA graduate in the Bottleworks, Ryan Helsing, started a business called Centerian that serves as a payment processor for insurance companies. He works with Aflac and one of its representatives will become a neighbor at the Bottleworks suites.

But Flannery recalled time spent in shared suites while working in San Francisco and noted the two aren’t exactly the same.

“Co-working, you tend to think collaboration. Shared suites you tend to think closed doors,” he said.

Flannery and Smith are confident co-working can sustain itself, but that initial plunge can nonetheless frighten off backers. It’s hard to sell people on hopes and dreams, Flannery said.

Finding the right space, with a backer or landlord who understands that co-working isn’t traditional office, will be key.

“I think this is very much the case of build it and they will come,” Flannery said. “But it needs to be built by the right person who gets the nature of it.”

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