History of Coworking – Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Coworking: Where did it all come from.

I explored at the beginning of my research some of the background that has lead to the movement around coworking. Here I look at the key developments in the short history of coworking. Examining some of the past and current circumstances which have lead to impressive growth over the past 7 years. In the past 5 years New York City has gone from having one coworking space to having 80. 4.28

Coworking has a fairly short history and it’s difficult to pin down as Alex Hillman told me when we chatted, there is the more commonly cited story in America and many variations worldwide due to similar circumstances concluding in a natural evolution to coworking.

Speaking of Citizen Space identifying heavily with open source, Alex told me:

“They created Wikis and discussion groups to get the word out and this, I believe, is a large portion of the DNA of why it has turned into what is is today, it is spreading like wildfire and the people that do it are more likely to share than to contain knowledge in any one silo. Meanwhile, simultaneously to that entire story going on, similar stories where unfolding in other parts of the world. There’s a European lineage, an Asian lineage and they sound very similar with different characters” Alex Hillman Interview 3.11

Because of the difficulty in establishing a true history of coworking as an activity I have drawn up a timeline of what has been interesting and stood out as important landmarks during my own research.


FIG 9 – Timeline

It all depends who you speak to where the origins of coworking come from. If your looking for the current iteration most popular in America, now growing the world over, the version of the story goes a little this:

Brad Neuberg from San Francisco, was a coder, used to hacking out solutions, in 2005 he decided to create a community of likeminded people to work alongside in order to keep what he loved about freelance and what he loved about structure and community. He used the word coworking to describe what his space was for and was the first to do so.

Based out of Spiral Muse simply referred to as the coworking group. The space was inside a house, with a kitchen communal area and work space. The original online flyer said

“Coworking Rents Space From Spiral Muse, a Healing Centre Complete with Massage Therapists, Life Coaches, and More On the Second Floor” 4.29

The space utilised the 3 day downtime of the health and wellness centre to get them out of their homes and working side by side, but also maintained the ethos of the health centre with yoga and other healthy activities being a daily occurrence.

Mr Neuberg and many of the other first coworking space creators where developers and advocates of the open source movement they applied the same principals to their new ventures and they shared their knowledge online on the coworking wiki, spreading the concept.

After his Spiral Muse venture Brad then created the first full time coworking space The Hat Factory in San Francisco. Simultaneously Chris Messina and others where establishing the first BarCamps – The antidote to the corporate over priced overproduced exclusive tech conferences. From this Chris Messina along with Tara hunt Founded Citizen Space, one of the longest running coworking spaces – currently with 3 locations – and Brad, Chris and others involved early the movement created the coworking wiki and the google group as any open-source thinkers would.

The concept certainly isn’t a new one, if we think of things like sewing bees or quilting bees which go back to the 1700s and any tribal groups from any period we find people gathering to work, to sing together and to just generally not be alone. In 2002 Daniel H. Pink was writing about F.A.N. clubs, Free Agent Nation clubs which where similar to the popular current term of a Jelly event, gatherings of free agents to learn and get away from home, they would meet in coffee shops and other designated third spaces.

Of course the crucial development in the growth of coworking is an outside factor, the instigation of wifi and later 3G. Wifi becoming more commonly used and available around 2003/4 we have all the tools necessary to work anywhere we please, and a generation of new workers who are used to instant contact through mobile and Skype, working anywhere is even more appealing now than back in 2002 when Daniel H. Pink wrote about Free Agents:

“The largest private employer in the U.S. is not Detroit’s General Motors or Ford, or even Seattle’s Microsoft or Amazon.com, but Milwaukee’s Manpower Inc., a temp agency with more than 1,100 offices in the U.S. The dream of America’s young people? Not to climb through an organization, or even to accept a job at one, but to create their own gig on their own terms—often on the World Wide Web.” 1.3 Free Agent Nation – 2002

A factor that can’t be ignored in the short history of coworking is the fact that we have had a major economic downturn and subsequent unemployment rates. Coworking sums up a period in time right now where the stars have aligned for some people to create something new. Tony Bacigalupo is one of those people, founder of New Work City, advocate of the coworking movemnent and a freequent blogger on the surrounding factors of coworking. He points out,

“The Irony of being able to work anywhere is that there isn’t anywhere designed for people who can work anywhere, so a movement formed around that and that is the coworking movement.” – Tony Bacigalupo

Tony’s presentation on the Job Crisis ‘Let’s fix the stupid job crisis ourselves’ highlights the importance of the kind of independent workers that use coworking spaces and that there is an opportunity to create jobs for ourselves and for each other. Creating value for yourself becomes a positive action in tackling the job crisis.

“The decline in lifetime job security has shifted the balance towards self-employment”. 1.2 Working in the Unoffice

If we look at Google Trends we can see that in 2007, around the same time as the downturn in the economy began to have major effect, the word coworking began to take off in search. Google Trends are by their own admission not a basis for accurate data but they can give us a good picture in these circumstances of the growth in the use of Brad Neuberg’s term ‘coworking’ we can see that 2 years after Brad started using the phrase there has been fairly steady growth since, with ‘coworking space’ being the most popular related term.


FIG 10 – Google trends

During this growth of coworking between 2007 and 2012 many entrepreneurial coworkers and others, in the open-source thinking spirit, have seen the need to create new online platforms and directories for others to find coworking spaces and much like coworking itself many appeared at the same time seemingly all seeking to find the solution to the same problem. The two most prominent of which are Deskwanted a directory of coworking spaces available in cities around the world, successful because of it’s blog DeskMag which conducts the annual Global Coworking Survey and has established itself outside of the Google group and Wiki to be the place for study and research on coworking best practice and trends. The other being Loosecubes, established in 2010 it was the most publicised of the directories by tech blogs and newspapers alike. Loosecubes was somewhat responsible for a lot of press around the coworking movement, lauded as the Airbnb of deskspace, they where venture capital funded in 2011, but they struggled with their business model and failed to create the platform for coworking that was envisioned by the community and the press they closed the website in November 2012.

Other entrepreneurs are creating software to help coworking spaces with the day to day running of the space. As time has gone on some better established business models for spaces have become apparent and it’s now possible to make something that can be useful and adaptable to every space. Cobot where one of the firt to create such software and more recently established Desktime have created a balance between Directory and software.

Other entrepreneurs are creating ventures with a more community focus, Goodcoworking.com launched at the end of 2012 aims to create a different type of directory one based around ‘social’, the spaces are listed when someone tells their story in a tweet of what they love about working in that coworking space. Coffee and power now called Work club connects you to people with skills in your area who are working in different spaces, Work club bridges the gap between home, coworking spaces and coffee shops, preventing the small communities from becoming too inward facing, creating a larger pool of resources in your area.

Parallel to the coworking movement we have seen websites like Airbnb, Craigslist and Ebay show us that collaborative consumption is the smart way forward.

“Sharing is to Ownership what the iPod is to the eight track, what the solar panel is to the coal mine. Sharing is clean, crisp, urbane, postmodern, owning is dull, selfish, timid, backward.” New York Times Journalist Mark Levine via WMIY. 1.1

Ventures like Deskwanted, ShareDesks, Cobot and Desktime look to the success of Airbnb to establish the economy of trust Ratchel Botsman talks about in her recent TED Talk 2.5, The more acclimatised to the process of sharing we become the more likely the success of the directories and therefore the coworking spaces will become.

Take aways

The history of coworking is short but the concept has proven itself in the past. An emergence of new tools and supporting infrastructure around the movement could lead to further growth in the near future.