Rural coworking, anyone?

A couple years ago, when I was finishing my Ph.D. dissertation, I was a briefly a member of NextSpace, a coworking space in Santa Cruz, CA, one of many now being created in many locations globally (there’s even a coworking space in Mongolia!).

NextSpace: 1 Year of Success in an Economic Downturn (abridged) from NextSpace Coworking on Vimeo.

Even though I didn’t have much chance to participate in the community, I enjoyed the relaxed, friendly, serendipitous atmosphere, and the busy feeling of people at work. Had I been an entrepreneur or job hunting, there were frequent chances to meet other workers and attend workshops, and I knew there was great potential there to find collaborators, mentors, and more importantly, jobs. I got a lot of work done at NextSpace (which, by the way, now has locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Jose). Coworking definitely is not the same as cubicle working, and it’s not “just” shared office space.

At home, it is easy to distract myself, even though there are no children in the house. In the isolation of home, it can be hard to keep up a momentum. The silence seems to announce that it’s time to do anything but work. The buzz of co-workers around me makes me feel and be more productive.


Coworking refers to a shared work environment and a set of community and cultural values that guide the development and operation of office space: facilities where freelancers, entrepreneurs, telecommuters, and drop-ins work side-by-side. The benefits of a coworking space come from allowing independent and startup ventures to bypass rote logistical obstacles, like obtaining office or workshop space, and from valuing a free-form collaborative environment for sharing resources, expertise, and ideas.
—Mark W. Kidd

Still, I eventually gave up my membership. I didn’t return, even after I finished my Ph.D. and became a part-time lecturer and free-lance editor and writer.

In “Why People Don’t CoWork Yet,” Carsten Foertsch looks at the possible reasons why people don’t cowork:

The two most important reasons first: either there is simply no coworking space in their vicinity, or they are tied to jobs in companies. About one in eight non-coworkers said price was a barrier to their participation – but sadly these people are the ones who could benefit the most from coworking…About a third of these respondents are not yet coworkers because no such facility exists anywhere near them.


Castroville’s main thoroughfare

Right. I live in rural Elkhorn, some 25 miles from NextSpace. Elkhorn isn’t even recognized as a “town” by locals; it’s the site of a large wetlands area and wildlife preserve that draws kayakers, wildlife enthuasiasts, and people who love the area. The drive to Santa Cruz cost me gas and time, as well as the monthly fee for membership, so in the end, it didn’t seem quite worth it. (Note: most coworking spaces charge minimal fee for membership and rent. At least one space, Gangplank, in Arizona, provides coworking space for free, based on a social capital model).

The “rural” label I apply to my local area is a little misleading; Elkhorn is situated within a few miles of various small towns like Prunedale, Castroville, Moss Landing, and Watsonville, all communities with small libraries and community centers, and main streets with empty or underutilized commercial spaces for rent.


A storefront for rent in Moss Landing.

Coworking has been mainly an urban and suburban phenomenon. Nevertheless, I have often thought that a rural coworking space would be useful in this area. Rural folks are feeling the impact of the economy too. Like everyone else, many here have lost their jobs, and have resorted to freelancing and juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet.

It would seem that rural areas can’t provide much infrastructure for a community of freelance workers or small entrepreneurs. Yet, increasingly, rural coworking spaces are popping up. Quoted in The Daily Yonder, Garrio Harrison, who is involved in a coworking site in rural Minnesota, says that the basics you need for coworking include “coffee, desk space, and reliable wifi Internet access,” although it wouldn’t hurt to have printers and scanners, a conference room, and a lounge.

The heavy IT focus of urban and suburban coworking models may not work as well in a rural setting, where, I suspect, a community that equally welcomes small business entrepreneurs, crafters, IT folks, as well as writers and other creative types will be important. In an interview in Deskmag with rural coworkers, Joel reported that coworkers in his area “place a high emphasis on meeting and interaction with other small business people and entrepreneurs. And our biggest events are the ones where networking and interaction are the focus.” Frederik commented that “coworking offers a new perspective and different opportunities since it is a little hard to build interest groups around specific vocations in small towns.”


Storefronts on Moss Landing Rd.

I also think that those who go into the coworking scheme thinking mostly about “what it will do for me” may be taking the wrong path. While coworking should definitely nurture individual needs, it’s also very much about community, and creating a vibrant space for local workers and entrepreneurs to thrive. So you have to ask, What can coworking do for small towns like Castroville, Prunedale, Moss Landing, or Watsonville?

Jessica Stillman points out that remote workers who utilize coworking space put money back into the community. “NextSpace [in Santa Cruz] used an economic development model to sell the idea of a coworking to the local authorities, noting that while it might be hard to attract a big employer to airport-less Santa Cruz, there was little stopping individual remote workers from basing themselves there.

“We realized after chasing a lot of companies that instead of attracting one 200-person business, we should attract 200 one-person businesses. The economic impact is bigger, and some of those businesses will grow,” the mayor explained.”

But how to start a coworking space in this area?


2nd St. Cafe, Watsonville.

Well, you may have to start by making “Jelly.” That is, gather together a group of people who are interested in coworking. Meet in a space that has Wifi and hopefully coffee and snacks (a cafe, house, library, community center, empty storefront). Add a dash of talk, ideas, creativity, work to do, and enthusiasm, and you may just have a the beginnings of a coworking community. So…rural coworking, anyone?


Castroville Library.

Some articles that may provide ideas for starting a local coworking group:
*Coworking in Big Cities vs. Small Towns (Deskmag)

*How to Start a CoWorking Space in Your Small Town
(Small Biz Survival)
*Jelly for Home Workers (How to Work from Home)
*Coworking to Quickstart Rural Innovation (Daily Yonder)
*Why People Don’t Cowork (Yet) (Deskmag)
*Five Big Myths About Coworking (Deskmag)
*The Rural Way of Coworking (Deskmag)

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