Another day, another desk: GigaOM tests out New York’s coworking spaces

Free-flowing beer, midday yoga and new classes to choose. My life in college? No, my month spent visiting New York’s coworking spaces.

Five years ago, New York startups had few options for setting up shop — many either worked from home or camped out at a Starbucks (s sbux). But a local cottage industry has now sprung up for early-stage startups that need a place to plug in their laptops and get down to business.

As the city’s startup community has exploded, coworking spaces have moved in to fill a void in a real-estate market that caters to banks, law firms and other big corporations and others that can afford the steep rents. Mostly priced between $300 to $600 a month, the workspaces run the gamut from city-subsidized projects to businesses hatched by local entrepreneurs eager to encourage new ways of working and new industries.

Some provide free snacks and drinks or access to startup-centric classes, while a few even offer discounts on legal services and healthcare insurance. On the flip side, some of the spaces are so open that it’s tough to get enough privacy to make a phone call, and some have slightly random closing times, which can create challenges for entrepreneurs working round the clock.

But for many startups, the most important feature of a coworking space is the access to networks of other entrepreneurs and technophiles that it provides. In the right place, desk neighbors can swap tips on web designs and marketing strategies or make an email introduction to the biz dev guy they met last week. A few people I met along my tour said they found new clients, investors and even jobs, all by stopping by a happy hour or chatting with someone in the hall.

Within a couple months of joining The Alley, a coworking space near Penn Station, Veeral Shah had found a team to build a site for his collaborative equity research startup Equitally. And he says he still regularly gets help from UX designers, big data scientists and others there that he would never have met otherwise.

Dispatch, a cloud file sharing startup, might never have been were it not for introductions made at New Work City, a coworking space in downtown Manhattan. Founders Alex Godin, Jesse Lamb and Nick Stamas met at the workspace in 2010. After a successful go at a local hackathon, they went on to graduate from TechStars and raise a seed round from an impressive group of investors, but they credit the coworking space for bringing them together.

To get a feel for the coworking world in New York, I spent the better part of two days at each of 12 venues in New York, taking up desk space, drinking the coffee, haggling for outlets and chatting with members.  I’m sure I just scratched the surface, but it was enough to realize that even in an industry that’s largely about what happens online, it often starts with what happens in these offline hubs.

Photos by Rani Molla, GigaOM