By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley
From locally run to corporate options to unofficial coworking meet-ups, members of Columbia’s business community are carving out their own niches around the city through a variety of coworking spaces.
Coworking spaces, which are typically defined as shared working spaces by those who are self-employed or working for different companies, are appearing in cities around the world. According to the Small Business Labs US Coworking forecast, there were more than 4,000 coworking spaces identified in 2017, with that number predicted to grow by 12.5 percent in 2018.
As SOCO co-founder and managing partner Greg Hilton himself points out, Columbia has not been immune to the influx of new members entering the gig economy of non-office-based work.
SOCO, which was first founded in late 2013, was created as a community for the growing mass of untethered workers in Columbia. What began as one location with a handful of members has spread to two locations that hosts more than 100 events a year for its 125 individual members and more than 70 member companies.
“We're a for-profit company with a social mission to build community and connect people that is at the core of everything we stand for,” Hilton said. “Notice that I haven't used the word cowork once. That's because that is not what we do. We're in the business of building community and helping people work differently.”
While Hilton doesn’t technically define SOCO as a coworking space, the main tenet behind the organization is about as close to coworking as you can get: Fostering a community where freelancers, entrepreneurs, and other creative types can come to collaborate and get work done.
“There are thousands of independent workers in this region with the vast majority of them working out of their houses, coffee shops, and/or other temporary spaces,” Hilton said. “That's a fine way to work for a short while, but people find that they miss the connectivity, community, and structure of an office environment, and building your life's work is lonely business.”
In many cities, larger corporate coworking models have entered the scene.
In Columbia, the main corporate player is Regus, housed in the Meridian building on Main Street and offering amenities like a full fitness center with showers, restaurants, and a bank in the building's lobby. Its model offers a variety of different tiers to their membership, from on-demand usage to monthly subscriptions to full-year leases.
And while spaces like SOCO and Regus can provide a more urban backdrop for its members’ productivity, this entrepreneurial spirit can be felt in spaces regardless of any formal organization.
For Shige Kobayashi, who is the general manager for Camon Japanese Restaurant as well as the program director of Tapp's Arts Center, somewhat unofficial coworking spaces have yielded amazing projects for the community that couldn’t have happened otherwise.
“[At the restaurant], many of my staff are artists who work on freelance creative projects. After we clean and close our restaurant, we hold late-night cowork sessions in our dining room. We also invite other freelancers who have nontraditional schedules and can benefit from what we call our ‘ungodly office hours,’” he said.
At Tapp’s Arts Center, which houses 27 artist studios in its former department store space, Kobayashi says that there are many independent arts entrepreneurs in the space daily.
“There have been many collaborations and partnered events in our space,” Kobayashi said. “Most recently, the joint opening parties for the Love, Peace, and Hip Hop Festival and Indie Grits Festival came as a result of the coworking environment that the Tapp's Arts Center provides.”
The good news is that no matter where you find your work-home in Columbia, both Hilton and Kobayashi can agree that Columbia’s entrepreneurial community is picking up speed.
“I think the city is really starting to heat up… We're seeing strong growth in the entrepreneurial community, an exploding creative class, and it feels like the city has finally woken up to its potential,” Hilton said. “Inspiring places to work, incredible people to work with, and the community, events, [and] offerings help you continue to hone your skills and grow your craft.”
As for the future, it’s unclear exactly where the market will head in Columbia, but Hilton is optimistic.
“I can't speak to the broader market, but as our city grows, Columbia will start becoming attractive to more creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs and that will just fuel demand for more community and space. We have a vision to connect Columbia's independent workforce together through spaces, community, events, and services on a much larger scale. Regardless of how untethered your work becomes, you'll always need a place to work and community to work with,” Hilton said. “That's what we do, and we see plenty of room to run.”