Business Success Strategies Q&A with Liz Elam: Collaboration and Growth Through Coworking

By at 18 June, 2013, 12:20 pm

Liz Elam, founder of Link Coworking, says entrepreneurs come to her space to get work done, but they quickly find "connections, commonality and inspiration." They even "build businesses together."

Liz Elam, founder of Link Coworking, says entrepreneurs come to her space to get work done, but they quickly find “connections, commonality and inspiration.” They even “build businesses together.”

Liz Elam gave up her corporate job to become an entrepreneur.  She became a very successful one. Along the way she discovered another entrepreneurial calling in the emerging coworking sector. Liz founded Link Coworking –  a coworking space in Austin, Texas.  Now, she is a leading industry player within the United States and globally.  In this edition of Business Success Strategies Q&A, Liz explains the key benefits of coworking. She offers tips for startups and small businesses to take full advantage of coworking spaces. Liz also reviews some of the trends, and what you need to know if you are interested in starting a coworking space.

After working from a home office for nine years, Liz Elam moved to Texas in 2008 and decided to open a coworking space.  She wanted to help others overcome the disadvantages she felt she faced in her own home office environment and believed there was a need in the market for doing just this.  She was right.  Link Coworking, the space she founded in Austin, Texas, has doubled in size.

According to Liz, many of Link’s members initially come to the space in search of a place to set up shop and work.  They quickly learn that being in the space offers much more, like opportunities to connect with others and collaborate.  As a passionate leader in the growing coworking movement, Liz organizes the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) – the largest coworking conference in the Americas. The conference attracts people from around the world who are working to spread the benefits of coworking and share best practices.

In this edition of Business Success Strategies Q&A, SBE Council President & CEO Karen Kerrigan interviews Liz, who shares her knowledge and experiences as a coworking trailblazer to explain how and why this growing practice can be a productive and valuable arrangement for startups and small businesses.

Q&A with Liz Elam

KERRIGAN:   First, tell us your story.  How did you “discover” coworking for yourself, as well as the larger need in the marketplace for coworking?

ELAM:  I worked out of my home office in Atlanta, Georgia for nine long years.  I was isolated, lonely and bored. I missed being around people and the camaraderie of the corporate office, and I was reduced to holding meetings in cramped coffee shops with less than optimal meeting conditions.  I was hearing my colleagues’ barking dogs and crying children in the background of conference calls so I knew I wasn’t the only one working at home. Eventually I thought, “There has to be a better way!”

In 2008 I moved back to Texas with the dream of opening a coworking space, even though I didn’t even know the term existed until I did a Google search!  I knew if I needed a space like that, then others needed it too.  In terms of viability and need, two of the things I looked at were the shifting demographics around how people were choosing to work, and also the trend toward hardware becoming agnostic. By that I mean it doesn’t matter what hardware you use any more as laptops, tablets and phone connect with most systems and other devices.  

As I looked around, I didn’t see many coworking spaces that I identified with so I saw a need the market wasn’t meeting and decided it was time to jump in.

KERRIGAN:  What is coworking?

ELAM:  Coworking generally describes a space where people go to work in a community.

Basically, it’ a membership club, just like you would join a gym, but instead of being a place to exercise, it is a place to work. I get asked to explain the term a lot, so I got together with some friends and made a little video to explain it.

KERRIGAN:  You run your own coworking space in Austin – what is the culture of that space? Is this the type of culture that is reflected in coworking spaces throughout the U.S.?

ELAM:   Great question.  I personally like to work in a bright, modern, clean space—so that’s what I built.  Link is designed to be a haven.  I want our members to walk in the door and let out a nice deep exhale because they know the coffee is hot and a great space is ready for them. 

People initially come to Link because they need a place to get their work done but very quickly they find connections, commonality and inspiration. They hire each other and even build businesses together. 

You can find this kind of community in spaces around the country if the owners understand the need for a community manger and really take the time to build, nurture and constantly tend to their communities.  If you’re thinking about checking out coworking, most spaces offer a first day for free.  There are lots of flavors of coworking spaces, so if you try one and decide it’s not for you, please try out another.  

KERRIGAN:  What is the value of coworking to start-ups? 

ELAM:  When you’re starting a business you have questions, questions and more questions.  If you’re in a community day in and day out you will see how others have done it and feel safe to ask questions of the room.  One of the best things we do for start-ups is cheering them on. Recently we had a member who closed his first deal after months of efforts and we were all there cheering and high-fiving him.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

KERRIGAN:  How about established businesses, or entrepreneurs looking to expand?

ELAM:  Coworking is for anyone that needs a place to get ’it’ done whatever ‘it’ might be.  Lots of people can’t afford to jump straight into office space early on and coworking gives you a lower cost alternative.  You can typically get into a space for a fraction of what an office would cost.

Coworking has removed the price barrier for business owners looking to expand. You don’t need to go rent a bigger office, pay for your own internet service, triple net, utilities etc. Just join a coworking space and it’s all bundled together for you.

KERRIGAN:  What are the “hidden” benefits of coworking?

ELAM:  That is simple.  It’s the people.  As humans, we like to be part of a tribe. It’s a really small segment of the population that can stay engaged working alone day after day.

And it’s not just the social interaction of being out of your boring, ill-equipped old home office that will crank up your productivity. You’ll get a creativity boost from being in a new, stimulating environment.

KERRIGAN:  How can individuals and entrepreneurs find a coworking space in their town or city?

ELAM:  A simple Google search should do the trick. There are also lots of apps to help you find space: LiquidSpace, Desktime and ShareDesk.

KERRIGAN:  What should an individual expect in terms of pricing? 

ELAM:  It’s probably about what you’re paying if you go to Starbucks everyday and have a latte and a snack.  There is a lot of variety out there but on average expect to pay around $300 a month. 

KERRIGAN:  How about conversations and talking on the phone? What are the general rules?

ELAM:  Coworking spaces aren’t libraries. You’re not only allowed to talk but encouraged to do so.  However, coworking spaces generally have phone booths for members to step in and out of as needed for private phone calls.   At Link we also provide retro-style Native Union headsets for our members to help with noise reduction, plus we have meeting rooms that can be reserved at no additional cost to our members.  All spaces have their own rules of engagement so, when you go in for a tour, be sure to ask.  

KERRIGAN:  How do you know if coworking is for you?

ELAM:  If you are getting distracted at home or trying to conduct business in a coffee shop.  Here are some common indicators:

  • You’ve asked your cat to listen to your sales pitch
  • You have a wife, kids or barking dog at home
  • You order from Amazon so you chat up the UPS guy
  • You’ve asked a stranger to watch your laptop and stuff so you can go to the bathroom

As I said, most coworking spaces will offer you the opportunity to try their space out for a day. Take advantage of that.

KERRIGAN:  Tell us about your involvement with coworking nationally and internationally? Is this industry growing and are there any interesting trends?

ELAM:  Coworking has been growing 200% year over year for eight years straight.  It’s currently exploding in South America and Asia. We’re also seeing lots of growth in specialization – makers’ spaces, kitchen spaces for businesses spanning the food industry, social entrepreneurship spaces and coworking with childcare. 

For the past two years I’ve produced the largest coworking conference in the world.  I’ve been a speaker for the past two years at the European Coworking conference and will speak again this fall in Barcelona.  I’ve also been asked to keynote the Australian Coworking conference in the spring of 2014.

KERRIGAN:  Is there anything governments (at any level) or other stakeholders can do to support coworking, or its growth?

ELAM:  Absolutely.  Coworking spaces are creating opportunities, jobs and economic growth.  If you have a coworking space in your town, go visit it and see for yourself.  If there isn’t a coworking space in your town, help support an initiative to get one there.  We’re starting to see economic development dollars go to help get coworking spaces off the ground – bravo! 

For a look at a very innovative space check out Gangplank, they’re ground breaking.   

KERRIGAN:  If someone was thinking about starting their own coworking space, what would be the first thing that you recommend that they do? 

ELAM:  Write a business plan. A business plan will help you figure out what you don’t know and get you focused on numbers. If the numbers don’t work, don’t open.  Find the Coworking Google Group and read every single entry for the past year.  Come to the 2014 Global Coworking Unconference Conference and get to know your peers.

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