As a graduate student, Darren Westenhaver rented time in a co-working space in downtown Austin. The experience made him decide he wanted to study the industry, which puts professionals—who are often employed by different organizations or self-employed—in a shared working environment.
Westenhaver said he visited more than 100 co-working spaces around the world, interviewing customers and managers.
“Most co-working places … are in big cities, and they’re massive,” he said. “They’re a destination.”
But rather than force customers to travel to a densely populated area, Westenhaver said he wanted to create a space that was convenient.
“I wanted to work where I live, and so do other people,” he said.
Hamlet Coworking is now 1 year old with two Cedar Park locations—one at South Lakeline Boulevard and a new South Bell Boulevard location, which opened Nov. 1. Westenhaver said he plans to open a third location on Anderson Mill Road in Austin in March.
Co-working spaces allow professionals to rent desk, table, office or conference room space with access to high-speed internet and the opportunity to network with other professionals. American computer scientist Brad Neuberg is often credited with starting co-working in 2005 when he opened the San Francisco Co-working Space at Spiral Muse in the city’s Mission district. The concept took hold in California, and then it spread to other metropolitan areas, including Austin, which now boasts about 30 co-working spaces.
Only last year with the opening of Hamlet did the trend make its way to Cedar Park, and Westenhaver said the market has plenty of room to grow as more professionals turn to freelance work.
“I believe I found a niche that could have hundreds of locations,” he said.
Brian Fisher and Jeff Kikel opened T-Werx Co-working on Arrow Point Drive in Cedar Park in August. The business rents private offices, private desks, conference rooms and open table space. Kikel said the majority of dedicated offices were reserved before the business opened its doors.
T-Werx now houses financial advisors, an attorney, real estate professionals, a security company and a human resources specialist, among other fields.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Kikel said. “We’re not one-size-fits-all.”
He and Fisher said they plan to open another T-Werx location in about 18 months in another suburban area, though they have yet to pinpoint the exact location.
“We’re never going to compete in the urban environment,” Kikel said.
As two previous city-dwellers—Kikel said he is from Dallas and Fisher is from Chicago—the T-Werx cofounders want to target workers in a 10-mile radius of their co-working space.
“It was completely normal to have a 1.5-hour drive to work,” Kikel said of his time in the city. “I never want to do that again.”
A member’s take
Mike Shenk said he founded Learning Cycle Tutors LLC in February 2015 after he retired from a career as a senior military officer. At first, Shenk said he worked from home, but he often encountered distractions. Besides that, Shenk is an avid cyclist who would sometimes find himself tinkering with his bicycles during times he had planned to work on his business.
Sometimes he would visit local coffee shops to get work done, but he said the environment was often loud and more conducive to socializing than getting work done.
“It became a productivity question,” he said.
Shenk said he knew a handful of people who had already joined T-Werx, so he decided to give it a shot.
“I progressed through a couple levels of membership very quickly,” he said.
Membership levels at most co-working spaces vary. Clients can pay more for a private office or a lower flat monthly fee to use an open table space with access to the internet, a power outlet and a printer. Shenk’s membership is somewhere in between—he rents a private desk in a relatively open space, much like a reporter’s desk in a newsroom.
“There’s some security with owning a desk,” he said. “It’s comfortable; it’s your space.”
Benefits of co-working
Shenk said his business attorney was already a member of T-Werx when he joined. Now, he said, he has on-site access to her when he has legal questions. Since joining T-Werx, he said he has encouraged both friends and business partners to become members.
“I call it drinking the Kool-Aid,” he said.
Shenk said he urged Roshan Pai of digital marketing company WSI Digital Atlas to join T-Werx. Pai designed Shenk’s website for Learning Cycle Tutors, and Shenk said he now has more frequent access to Pai.
“He probably gives me more work on the website than I’m paying for,” Shenk said.
Another member, Darla Sees of Sees HR Consulting, is a human resources consultant, who gives Shenk tips just through social interactions in the office, he said.
“The environment motivates people to help the other members, fee or no fee. … It’s the side benefit of being in a space where you have multiple different professions,” he said. “You get more for your money here.”
Fisher and Kikel said they started T-Werx to facilitate collaboration between small businesses.
“It’s all about connections,” Kikel said. “People are here to build a community around them.”
Westenhaver said he has had clients leave Hamlet to work from home, then quickly decide to return after they discover they are not as productive. Not to mention, most people do not enjoy being alone at home all day, he said.
Hamlet also enables members to be flexible with their schedules, he said. Westenhaver said one of his members, Ryan France of Three Pillars Realty, is a broker with a young family who comes into the office at 5 a.m. six days a week, works a few hours, goes home to get his children ready for school, and then spends the rest of his day meeting with clients.
“The cost is such that he can come and go and not feel like he’s wasting money,” Westenhaver said. “Flexibility is a huge thing.”
Members are not under any contract with Hamlet, so if they take a long vacation, they can drop membership for a month and return, Westenhaver said.
And although suburban co-working spaces appear only to benefit nearby residents, they actually cut down on the amount of traffic driving in and out of downtown Austin, he said.
Every space is different
Westenhaver said he has been a small business owner several times.
“I like to help startups. That’s kind of where I’m focused,” he said.
Westenhaver said he will act as an advisor for any of his members who want guidance, and he will be honest in telling them whether they should rein in the business or grow it. As an entrepreneur, having someone to bounce ideas off makes a huge difference, he said.
“And I love that. It’s one of my favorite parts of being in this business,” he said.
All co-working spaces have their own pulse and lifeblood, Fisher said.
Kikel and Fisher, who are both active members of the Cedar Park and Leander chambers of commerce, said they aim to work in conjunction with the chambers to act as a meeting place for businesses.
“We’re an extension of the chamber of commerce,” Kikel said. “The more we can help businesses grow here and stay here—that’s our mission; that’s what we want.”
In January, T-Werx will launch its first incubator program, which will accept 10 business start ups into a 12-week program, and teach the start ups all aspects of running a business, including how to launch, how to get funding, branding and accounting.
The program will conclude with each start up doing an investor presentation before a “Shark Tank”-style panel of local CEOs to prepare them for facing future would-be investors.
Kikel said T-Werx will also launch a new program for its members in November called Success Werx, which allows members to book appointments with local experts on bookkeeping and branding as well as attorneys and human resources professionals.
“It helps them build their business, and it makes it easier on the entrepreneur, who’s already drinking from a fire hose,” Kikel said. “That beats out [working from] home or a coffee shop any day.”
T-Werx also hosts a Monday morning networking event; co-working Tuesdays, during which the open co-working space is free and available to the public from 9 a.m.-noon; and Thursday afternoon member appreciation events.
Community Werx, or C-Werx, the philanthropic arm of T-Werx, sponsors a local charity each month, Fisher said. On the first Friday of each month, members learn about the nonprofit being sponsored. In October, Community Werx sponsored Texas Humane Heroes and served as a drop-off site for donations, such as blankets and toys for shelter animals. In November, the company is sponsoring Heroes Night Out and is collecting donations of water, coffee and other items that would benefit the veterans resource center.
The T-Werx office will also serve as a collection site for the Cedar Park Police Department’s Blue Santa initiative, which provides children’s toys for families in need, Fisher said.
Not for everyone
Some businesses are not conducive to a co-working space. Westenhaver said probation officers and social workers have approached him about office space, but he worried it would bring privacy complications, noise and even the possibility of violence.
The Wilco Driving School, which gives adults and teens seeking a driver’s license an alternative to the Texas Department of Public Safety, operates at Hamlet, and Westenhaver said the school’s founders, Richard and Lisa Lusby, upgraded their membership to operate in a private office to help maintain clients’ privacy.
Businesses that have a steady stream of customers, such as retail businesses, might want to invest in a stand alone location rather than co-working space, Westenhaver said.
Kikel and Fisher said any business subject to privacy violations would not be ideal for a co-working space.
But co-working allows start ups and most other professionals the ability to leverage being surrounded by other professionals in different industries, Kikel said.
“There’s a viable alternative to having to get in a car every day and drive to an office downtown,” he said. “There’s a benefit to being around people focused on work every day.”