When Robert Petrusz opened Bull City Coworking in early 2012, he was hungry for knowledge. He visited coworking spaces around the nation, joined the League of Extroardinary Coworking Spaces and in the years since, has attended coworking’s national conference, the Global Coworking Unconference Conference.
It’s all helped him create a culture around the space at Brightleaf Square that’s drawn 70 paying members – developers, designers, startup companies and remote workers – 150 Meetups and events. He likes to joke that the months of time it’d all fall apart without his daily efforts is becoming longer.
But while his business is on solid ground in 2014 and projected to add 50 coworkers by next year, Petrusz ties its growth closely to the overall growth of coworking in the Triangle and across the Southeast. After several years of GCUC attendance – in which cities like Austin, Boulder and Chicago became clear leaders in the movement – he noticed few coworking leaders in attendance from our region.
That’s why he’s hosting the first Southeast coworking conference, called WorkShift, this Saturday in Durham. It’s open to coworking space operators and those who want to open a space, as well as people interested in becoming coworkers. So far, attendees are coming from across North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. He expects to host at least 60 people.
“I thought having a conference would get people talking about how to get the whole region stronger,” says Petrusz, who set up the initial Bull City Coworking space (It’s since moved and expanded) to work on his (now defunct) startup alongside others. Different from American Underground or HQ Raleigh, he wanted a space not tied to the startup scene or the investor community. He calls it “a supported work environment.”
A diverse set of coworking spaces in one region is important, he says.
“You want a whole bunch of spaces where people are hopping back and forth, teams and projects dynamically form and break up. Its more like a rainforest. That’s what I see in places like Austin and Boulder,” he says. “It drives me crazy that we’re a step behind them in how many spaces we have because our creative scene is on par with them.”
Petrusz’s efforts aren’t futile. According to Cornell University professor and real estate developer Andrea Foertsch, who has made coworking the subject of her research, the global movement is redefining the workplace and helping the economy.
“For people that need it, you hear endless stories about how their business has benefited over being in a Starbucks or at their kitchen table,” she says. “They might have given up on an idea had they not had the encouragement, the stimulus, networking and opportunities for growth that coworking provides.”
She’s studied 75 spaces around the nation, and will share her research at the conference.
And she’ll be joined by other nationally-known leaders of the movement. There’s Alex Hillman, who founded Philadelphia’s Independents Hall in 2006 and was an early pioneer of coworking. Chad Ballantyne opened The Creative Space in a small Ontario, Canada town in 2009 and provides an example for smaller cities.
Topics will be as nuts and bolts as how to negotiate leases and what management and payment processing software to use. They’ll expand to more socially-oriented issues. For example, how to handle disputes between members and how to encourage members to be part of the community (rather than just show up and work).
Petrusz expects cash flow and fundraising to also come up. He could lend a bit of experience there. He raised funds twice via Indiegogo, but failed in his most recent campaign to open a space in Raleigh. He also remembers when the dishwasher broke at the existing space, and the $600 to repair it was on him.
“The No. 1 hardest thing is cash flow,” he says. “It’s like the restaurant business. Every coworking space is a struggle in building a business and building credibility.”
WorkShift will be held at the Durham Arts Council building and Bull City Coworking this Saturday. To attend, buy tickets here.