How To Start A Coworking Space in Your Small Town

[Reader Joel Bennett got really excited over last week's post on, Is it time to rent office space? That's because he is a big force behind a co-working space in a small town, called Veel Hoeden. I asked him to share some of what he has learned chasing that dream. -Becky]

Coworking spaces have been touted as great resources for small businesses and entrepreneurs who are looking for a place to call their own.  Although they can be found across the world in large metropolitan areas, many entrepreneurs don’t expect to find them in their local small town.  But that is changing quickly.

Co-working at Veel Hoeden.
See more pictures from their opening week.

Veel Hoeden was launched in October of 2010 in Pella, Iowa, population 10,000.  Our focus was to provide a space where local small business people and entrepreneurs could work and collaborate in an environment that felt more professional than a coffee shop, more interactive than a home office, and more interesting than a table at the public library.

As we researched coworking spaces, it was hard to find examples in towns our size, but with a little digging we found a few popping up in towns of less than 25,000 people to benchmark.  In the 6 months that have passed, even more have hit the radar and are carving out a spot in their local towns.

If you think a coworking space would be a great venture to start in your small town, here are 5 things to remember as you start the journey.

1. Prime the Pump.  Gauge interest in a coworking space by talking to other small business people who currently work out of their home, their cars, or as “mobile warriors” in coffee shops and other local wifi hotspots.  Then talk to those who are starting new ventures, dabble in part-time businesses (like makeup, jewelry, and cookware consultants), or anyone else who has a small business dream and the drive to chase it.  Don’t limit yourself to “white collar” workers or service companies.  Talk to people from all different fields and occupations that share a need for what your space can offer.

2. Ask Questions. Now that you have folks interested, make sure you understand what they want. Wifi, a place to spread out with their laptop, and access to conference rooms usually rise to the top, but ask you members before assuming that is what is needed.  Many spaces go overboard early buying printers, copiers, fax machines, and other “nice to haves” that rarely get used. Save your money and buy what is on their “have to have” list and upgrade later if the need arises.

3. Focus on Community First, Space Second. When I say community I don’t mean the town you are in, I mean the relationships built between your members.  Don’t get me wrong, you have to have some sort of space to have coworking, but the space doesn’t define the community, the community defines the space.  Find every opportunity before and after startup to get the group together— talking, networking, collaborating, problem solving, laughing and even playing together.  The stronger the community, the stronger the coworking space, and strong coworking communities work together to make sure they survive and are successful.

4. Do the Math. Before you launch, know what it will cost to run your coworking community.  Draw up a budget with all of your expenses.  Drop in who has committed to working in the space and how much you’ll bring in for memberships.  Talk to other coworking communities on what they spend their money on so you don’t get surprised (for example, we were shocked that we spend more each month on toilet paper than printer paper).  If the numbers work, move ahead.  If not, circle up your group again and see what you can come up with.  It may mean building up your community more by utilizing Jellies, sharing space in someone’s home or at a local business, or other “creative” arrangements until you build critical mass for your own space.

5. Be Resourceful. You can spend a lot of money outfitting your space with all the newest stuff…just to find yourself closing in 2 months because you’ve run out of cash.  Instead, talk to your members about what they can bring to the table.  Most have some of the office furniture, supplies, and equipment needed to start sitting in their old home office or in storage.  And since they’ll be working with you, they’ll usually be more than happy to share their stuff with people they know and trust (see #3).  Our members wanted a professional yet eclectic space to work in (some would call it whimsical), so we were fine with mismatched (but nice) furniture and unique decorating items because it brought our character into the space. If you don’t have it at home, check out thrift stores, garage sales, auctions, and places like Habitat ReStore for great deals on nice items.  You can always upgrade these items as better pieces become available or as you have some buffer in your bank account.

My hope is that more small towns will look at coworking spaces, and with the right preparation, take the leap of faith to start their own.  If you are interested in taking that next step, lean on the global coworking community to help you make it a success.  Then make it your own.

While serving as the fulltime Executive Director for A Call To Serve Ministries of Iowa, Joel is also the Chief Dreamchaser for Veel Hoeden, a coworking space in rural Pella, Iowa.  His passion for connecting people and ideas serves him well in both capacities.

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About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.
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Comments

  1. says

    That is a great idea, and sounds like a great business opportunity for someone who wants to co-work themselves. I would love to see pictures of the coworking space you have put together.

  2. says

    As part of what Joel calls “global coworking community”, I applaud the pioneering efforts of Veel Hoeden. I fully agree with Joel on the importance of creating a community first, based on my experience.

    The group of friends my husband and I helped organize is now splitting expenses not just for items we buy in bulk but also for the services we need. We are using a free online tool called SplitStuff (http://splitstuff.com) which helps in creating such groups. Your small businesses can use this to share office equipment, admin services, or office supplies bought in bulk.

    I see all these as signs that sustainable, coworking communities are growing all over the world.

  3. says

    Fred, if you’ll click the picture of the women at the co-working table above, it will take you to a post full of pictures from the Veel Hoeden space.

    Annette, thanks for adding your experience.

  4. says

    It was so nice to see Pella mentioned on Small Biz Survival. I went to college there and I try to make a trip back every year at Christmas time. This is one forward-thinking small community. They have an extensive bike trail, called the Volksweg, which was put together with community donations. They have a wonderful outdoor recreation culture, including what I think is the largest man-made lake in Iowa, Lake Red Rock. They have beautifully preserved Dutch architecture. They have two of the best bakeries and two of the best meat markets anywhere. And, judging by the graduates, they have what clearly is the best college ever. :)

  5. says

    Fred- It’s a great idea for someone who needs space as well. It provides them a shared space at an economical rate, a great community of coworkers to fight home-office “cabin fever”, and provides the space a passionate manager.

  6. says

    Shannon- Thanks for your kind words. Feel free to drop in when you are in town next. We’re just south of the square on Main Street…within a stone’s throw of the bakeries, the meat markets, and the coffee shop!

    Joel

  7. says

    Love this! We just started a cowork space in rural Indiana and like any new venture, I’m nervous of the unknown. However, when I come across articles like this, I’ve very encouraged so thank you for sharing!
    - Andrea Cook
    Plymouth, Indiana
    http://themidascenter.com
    Facebook.com/CoworkSpace

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