Get ready for coworking 2.0

Big ideas and big societal changes don’t simply spring up fully formed. Instead, they develop. Whether it’s the several waves of feminism of the more numerically inclined progression of tech 1.0 to 2.0 and beyond, big impact movements spark arguments as they evolve and are relabeled.
According to Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research, the same can be said of coworking, a nascent shift in work that involves far less than one percent of workers at this stage but is generating outsize interest from thinkers and writers. Born as a social movement to build community, reduce isolation and also, for some, save the environment from the effects of commuting, coworking is undergoing a fundamental shift in its nature from a social movement to a solid business sector, King told GigaOM. Like any new sector,

You start with a lot of people that are evangelists for the area and they’re really into it as a trend, or as a social movement, but they’re not necessarily the most skilled business people. The pioneers come in and get things going. There’s usually a lot of experimentation and a lot of the early people don’t make it work. But if the underlying business is solid, what you’ll then see is a second wave of people coming in that are thinking through it more as business people. That second wave, generally speaking, are the ones that tend to come up with the business models that work.
One of the very first coworking facilities we visited in ‘06, a place called The Hat Factory, you looked at it and said: ‘This is really cool. This has really got potential, but no time soon.’ But starting about 18 months ago we saw that business models were starting to emerge that were looking successful and that lead us to believe the trend had a really good chance of making it. We’re very optimistic and forecasting that there will be a lot of coworking going forward.

Of course, this influx of business savvy talent into coworking and the changes to how spaces are conceived of and run that they’re introducing, doesn’t mean the total demise of less profit-oriented ideas of coworking.

A lot of the purists will continue to be very successful on their own terms. Many people are much more motivated by other issues than money and building a business, and many of those will continue to be successful with their model. I would point to Office Nomads in Seattle. The owners there are committed environmentalists, committed to their community and their neighborhood and see coworking to push forward that social agenda in a way that they feel good about. In their case they’ve figured out a way to make the coworking thing break even. They have other jobs and they own the coworking facility. They’re smart people and they put together a business model that says, as long as I can make this sucker break even and maybe do a little bit better then that’s a huge success. No matter what else happens with the movement, they’re not going to suddenly shift and try to turn it into a bigger business or a more profitable business because that’s not their goal, and that’s true of a lot of people in the movement.

But folks like the owners of Office Nomads increasingly have company from the likes of NextSpace and pariSoma, says King. These new-breed spaces were founded with more traditional business plans and with both monetary as well as social goals in mind. And just as the first-wave feminists looked askance at some in the second wave and the third had issues with both its predecessors, this influx of new voices into coworking is stirring debate in some quarters.
“We had a coworking owners meeting a few months ago in Los Angeles,” King says. “It consisted of sort of the old guard and the new guard. The people that start a movement like this lose control of the movement if it’s successful and they don’t like it because it was their baby. That’s what’s happening with coworking. The original founders of the movement have effectively lost control and it’s very frustrating for them.”
As the term coworking morphs and spawns hybrids, from jellies and makers’ spaces to startup incubators and internal collaboration spaces created by corporations to spark innovation (and even to the horror of some, gets adopted by community-less purveyors of flexible spaces such as Regus) arguments are erupting about exactly what sorts of spaces get to wear the coworking label.
But for King, the expansive future of coworking is big enough to accommodate a wide range of models. “I do think coworking is in the sweet spot of multiple trends that are converging,” he says, citing the rise in contingent and independent work, tech trends and companies’ ever-present desire to drive down real estate costs. “This will be the year where the size of the industry starts to accelerate more rapidly,” he predicts, but it will diversify as it grows. And that’s OK with King.
Citing the difficulty his firms faces in even counting coworking spaces (about 700-800 in the U.S. is their best bet) due to the heterogeneity of the movement, King concludes: “Coworking is always going to be on a spectrum of which they’ll be sort of this far end, purist view of the world that actually fits the traditional definition of coworking all the way down to jellies at libraries with a lot of stuff in between.”
Are you horrified or excited by King’s prediction of a more profitable, more diverse future for the coworking movement?
Image courtesy of Flickr user {Guerrilla Future | Jason Tester}.