Meetings of the Minds
Click Workspace Puts Members on Collision Courses
Randall Smith, left, and Chris Landry connected at Click Workspace and are now collaborating on a project.
That’s the term Paul Silva absolutely wore out as he talked about what happens when entrepreneurs — or ‘crazy people,’ as he calls them — as well as creative types, such as writers, editors, musicians, and website designers, get together in close quarters.
“There are collisions — and lots of them,” said Silva, adding quickly that these developments take many forms, such as individuals collaborating on an idea that becomes a business concept. Or an entrepreneur finding an angel investor that can provide the capital to get an idea off the ground. Or a writer making the acquaintance of a social-media expert who has some suggestions on how she can better communicate with her readers.
All these scenarios and countless others have played out at a unique facility in Northampton called Click Workspace, or simply ‘Click,’ as most members call it. It is one of the more recent manifestations of a trend toward coworking, a style of work that involves a shared environment, said Silva, the nonprofit facility’s president, noting that it was inspired by much larger projects such as the Cambridge Innovation Center and the Innovation Pavilion in Colorado, which was founded by serial entrepreneur Ali Usman, who would later help start Click.
The basic concept behind coworking is simple. Create a work space where people can share a table or an office, provide fast Internet service, charge modest fees or rent, create a critical mass of those crazy people and creative professionals (who are also entrepreneurs), and wait — and not for long — for collisions to happen.
Like the one involving Randall Smith and Chris Landry.
Smith is a digital strategist and founder of a venture called PowerLabs, which helps organizations use the Internet to recruit supporters and raise money by integrating data-driven digital strategies into their work. Landry is the founder of Landry Communications, a branding company that works with businesses, foundations, and non-government agencies to get their stories out.
The two came to Click Workspace primarily because they often found it better, for various reasons, than working at home, although they do that, too. The two started talking, then collaborating, and eventually wound up responding as a team to a request for proposals issued by the Chorus Foundation in Boston, which has a stated mission to end the extraction, export, and use of fossil fuels in the U.S.
“I got this RFP and instantly thought, ‘I need Randall on this job,’” said Landry. “Here’s a guy I probably wouldn’t have met if we hadn’t been working here; he’s the perfect person, and he helped us land the contract.”
Smith had similar observations.
“This wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t here,” he said of the Chorus work, which included a recent trip to Kentucky, where the foundation was presenting funds to several groups. “The biggest projects I’ve landed have been a direct result of my being here at Click.”
In addition to fostering collisions, the facility has also been the birthplace of several startups, most notably one called Fiksu, which specializes in cohesive mobile app marketing. Micah Adler, its president and founder, was one of the first members of the facility, said Silva, adding that he now employs dozens of people.
The obvious goal is to help foster more startups and generate many more collisions, said Silva, adding that the plan is for Click Workspace to expand. When, how, and where it will do this are the key questions still to be answered.
Expansion into larger quarters in Northampton is a possibility, but this will be difficult because of the high price of real estate there (the facility is currently getting an attractive deal on 1,000 square feet on Hampton Avenue), said Silva, adding that the more likely scenario is creation of additional offices in other area cities and towns.
Amherst is one possibility, but lease rates are quite high there as well, he went on, noting that downtown Springfield holds vast potential as a site, and exploratory talks with some building owners and managers are underway.
For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest examines the shared-workspace concept, the early success recorded at Click, and the prospects for expanding that operation to other communities.
Getting a Read
Middle School: My Brother Is a Big, Fat Liar. That’s the title of the latest work, in a genre known as young-adult fiction, to which Lisa Papademetriou, one of the co-founders of Click, has attached her name.
The tome, the third in the acclaimed Middle School series of books, was co-written with James Patterson, but she has many titles she authored herself, including Sixth Grade Glommers, Norks, and Me, The Wizard, The Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey, and How to Be a Girly Girl in 10 Days.
She said these are humorous books aimed at an audience she calls ‘tweens,’ those ages 8 to 12, and that she conceived some of her ideas and did a good bit of the writing at Click.
“I come here for two reasons,” she said, noting that she’s at the facility four days most weeks. “First, it’s good to interact with human beings — writing can be a very isolating profession. But also, I come to ask people about the best ways to use social media and to build a customer base, and also to focus on the business aspect of my writing.”
Indeed, when asked about collisions, a word used by just about everyone at Click, Papademetriou put her hands together and then pulled them apart abruptly with verbal commentary consisting of the one word: “boom.” It was a gesture aimed at indicating the magnitude of these developments.
“I’ve had several very productive collisions here,” she noted. “In fact, I was just raving to my husband that I had one just last week that was so helpful in terms of using Facebook and interacting with fans in a way that’s meaningful to them.”
These are the kinds of synergistic developments that the founders had in mind when they conceptualized Click Workspace in late 2011.
Silva, who was not involved with the organization then but knows the history, recalled it this way: three serial entrepreneurs, Papademetriou, Usman, and Rocco Falcone, were looking for space in which to conduct their operations and develop new ones, and turned their focus to Northampton.
“The smart thing to do would have been to find an office somewhere and split it three ways and be done with it,” said Silva, who is known to spice his commentary with humor. “But they’re entrepreneurs, so they’re not smart. We do crazy things. What they said was, ‘what we really would like is to be around crazy people; there’s this coworking thing that really hasn’t come to this area — let’s try that.’”
Usman, whose latest venture, Credit Market Intelligence, provides software engineering to Fortune 100 companies, noted that the trend toward coworking space began five or six years ago, and when he would visit New York or Boston, he would visit such facilities.
“I would say to myself, ‘wow, this is great,’” he recalled. “I spent a lot of time convincing people that they should start one, and when I realized I wasn’t being very persuasive, I just banded together with some other people and started Click Workspace.”
Like others, he said the facility allows him to be around, and work with, talented people across a number of sectors and specialties. It’s an environment and constituency that can inspire ideas and fuel growth for a business.
“As an entrepreneur, I need access to talent, so it’s very good for business,” he explained. “If I need social-media help, Randall is there; if I need some technical help, I have a number of people I can turn to; if I need anything about entrepreneurship, Paul is there … it’s a lot of fun.”
Click occupies roughly 1,000 square feet and includes a main room with several tables that can host perhaps 12 to 15 in what is called ‘open space,’ with those seats priced at $175 per month. There are also three small offices with two or three desks that run for $350 per month.
The facility also includes a few conference rooms that are shared by members, as well as a copier, a kitchen, and nearby classroom space.
“It has everything you’d find in an office but a boss,” said Silva with a laugh.
Time and Space
Young-adult fiction writer Lisa Papademetriou is one of Click’s founders and one of its strongest advocates.
Overall, this atmosphere has proven very conducive to collisions — and the opportunities and jobs that they generate.
While each story told by the members is different, there are many similar threads, such as the factors that inspired them to come to Click in the first place.
Landry, who had worked in the nonprofit realm for 20 years before going into business for himself, seemed to speak for everyone when he said simply, “I got tired of working at home — it’s too easy to get distracted, and I wanted people to bounce ideas off.
“That’s what I found here — smart people, people I could just grab and say, ‘what do you think of this?’” he went on. “It’s fun, it’s smart people, it’s thinkers — it gives me what I need. I don’t always come here; some days, if I’m editing video, it’s easier to sit at my dining-room table, or if I need a break I’ll go sit at a coffee shop. But it’s great to have this as my home base. It makes me more productive.”
John Galvin, who’s been coming to Click for more than two years now, feels pretty much the same way.
A magazine writer by trade — he’s written pieces for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Wired — he left that field nearly a decade ago and started a company called One Day University, which he called the “ultimate day of college.”
“We’d bring in professors from across the country to give their best one-hour lecture to an audience of mainly adults ages 50 to 75 who were thrilled with the idea of learning from the best minds in the country without having to take a test or pay $50,000 a year,” he said, adding that he sold the business in 2009 and soon thereafter started the Strategic Media Group.
He works with a host of organizations to create engaging content for their audiences, a concept known as content marketing. And he’s hired a number of individuals working at Click to handle graphic design, promotional materials such as signage, proofreading, and more.
“I travel a fair amount, but when I’m in town, I’ll be in here working — it’s a great environment,” he explained. “It has all the benefits of an office without all the office politics.”
Ali Usman, another of Click’s founders, says it’s patterned after initiatives in Cambridge, Denver, and other cities.
Looking forward, both Silva and Usman said coworking space is a concept with staying power, and they will look to expand it in Western Mass.
While Northampton has a large number of people who fit the coworking profile, the concept doesn’t easily lend itself to expensive commercial real estate, at least in this region. The Cambridge Innovation Center, which hosts more than 600 companies, now occupies 207,000 square feet in Kendall Square, and recently announced plans to open a major outpost in Boston’s Financial District with enough space for about 300 startups.
“I tried to expand in Northampton first,” said Silva, “and I had some very pleasant interactions with landlords, but the market rates are such that it’s not feasible; they’ve got too many people from New York coming here who are really happy to pay New York prices for Northampton real estate.”
So, at the moment, most of the focus of expansion talks centers on downtown Springfield, said Silva, as that’s where many young entrepreneurs are coming together — Valley Venture Mentors meets monthly in Tower Square, for example, and Paragus IT founder Delcie Bean has relocated that company temporarily into Harrison Place — and the real estate is, in theory, anyway, more attainable and affordable.
But a facility like Click represents a challenge, as well as sizable risk for a landlord, said Silva, adding that he usually has to offer an education in the potential benefits, which are sometimes difficult to envision.
“I say to landlords, ‘you have small fish come to you all the time, and it’s not worth your time to deal with them, but you know that if someone feeds the small fish, they may grow up to be big fish — you just don’t want to be in that business,’” he explained. “‘So give me some space, and send all the small fish to me; we’ll feed them and care for them and nurture them. Some of them are going to die, but some of them are going to grow up to be big fish, and they’re not going to fit in our tank.’”
Despite some inherent challenges to getting them off the ground, Usman said, coworking facilities represent the future of incubation and efforts to foster entrepreneurship.
“I really believe coworking spaces will be in every large town — New York probably has 60 coworking spaces, if not more, and almost every major city has them,” he noted. “And many of the startups now are through coworking space — they don’t get their own office space, but they just go to a coworking facility.
“If you want to promote entrepreneurial activity, you have to have coworking space,” he went on. “Greenfield should have a facility. Westfield should have one.This is the wave of the future.”
When Something Clicks
Smith and Landry don’t know how long they’ll be working for the Chorus Foundation, or how much the contract will eventually be worth to them.
What they do know is that it’s highly unlikely that their partnership, and this assignment, would have come about had they not both been working at Click.
Theirs was a highly effective collision, one that Silva and others hold up as a model for what can, and often does, happen when creative minds and crazy people share a table, a copier, a conference room, and an office without a boss.
The goal now is simply to create more of them.
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org