Coworking grows more popular in Sonoma County

Amelia Beemer doesn’t have a regular 9-to-5 job, but she does share an office.

“I discovered I can’t work from home and be happy,” said the Mill Valley writer and editor. “My life changed for the better when I realized there are other people who feel like that.”

Beemer, 33, typically spends four days a week sharing space at Work Petaluma, the largest co-working space in Sonoma County. There she’s surrounded by consultants, freelancers and entrepreneurs from a variety of fields.

“It’s like a gym membership for your business,” said Natasha Juliana, who with her husband Matt Moller started Work Petaluma more than three years ago. The aim is to provide space and services that make business people more productive as well as feeling more connected to a community.

The increased interactions from co-working can lead to “accelerated serendipity,” said Melissa Geissinger, an owner in WIMPspace, one of three co-working spaces in downtown Santa Rosa.

A decade-old phenomenon, co-working continues to grow in Sonoma County and around the globe. In essence, the practice involves the sharing of work space by the self-employed or by company workers who occasionally need a satellite office. The first co-working effort popped up in the county seven years ago in Penngrove.

This year has brought a series of new developments. Among them:

San Francisco-based SpherePad, with two co-working spaces in The City, this summer opened a site in downtown Santa Rosa. Company CEO Hasan Mirjan was pleased enough with the initial response to buy a second building east of downtown, and he plans to open it for co-working next year.

Santa Rosa Share Space, which has operated its downtown Third Street location for more than four years, this month opened a second small co-working site in Ukiah.

The program, a partnership with the Economic Development & Financing Corporation in Ukiah, appears to be the first such space in Mendocino County, said Kelly Rajala, a co-owner of the social purpose corporation that runs Share Space.

The co-working space for the Sebastopol Entrepreneurs Project is moving early next month to larger offices in the O’Reilly Media complex on Gravenstein Highway North. There members will find a new feature: A “pet friendly” space, said Executive Director Gay McFarren.

Work Petaluma next year will add a second building several blocks away from its Fourth Street location to provide more meeting rooms and private office space.

In addition to those efforts, the companies and nonprofits this year came together to form the Coworking Alliance of Sonoma County. Both the co-working leaders and county officials hope the alliance will promote efforts that help more new businesses get off the ground.

“There’s plenty of demand here in Sonoma County,” said Ethan Brown, a program manager with the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

A recent study by the Economic Development Board found seven businesses and nonprofits are providing co-working space in Sonoma County.

The shared office space programs provide good options for beginning business owners because they typically offer much lower costs than other leasing arrangements, said Ben Stone, the economic board’s executive director. And the interactions with like-minded entrepreneurs can provide connections and ideas that advance a business.

“It’s meant to inspire what they refer to as creative collisions,” Stone said.

Co-working is expected to be an area the county highlights in 2016 in a proposed series of events and presentations billed as “The Year of the Entrepreneur.” Planning already is underway, and the Board of Supervisors is expected to back the effort.

Across the world, co-working remains a fledgling but growing phenomenon.

In 2013, the U.S. had more than 780 co-working sites, or almost a third of the nearly 2,500 sites worldwide, according to Deskmag, an online publication that covers the business segment.

And global membership in such spaces is expected to surpass 1 million by 2018, according to Emergent Research. In the next five years the number of co-working sites is expected to grow annually at a rate of about 30 percent.

The study by the Economic Development Board noted that in 2013 the county had more than 43,000 one-person businesses and they generated an estimated $2.2 billion. Some of those entrepreneurs lease individual office space, but many work from home.

The board’s survey of 122 co-workers found that half of the respondents reported making more than $60,000 a year in revenue.

The co-working sites range from a spot at a table to private offices and meeting rooms. Many offer memberships where desks can be dedicated solely to one specific worker.

Some sites also offer options for phone and mail services, including the option of having mail opened, scanned and sent electronically to the member. Sphere Pad’s Mirjan is also CEO of Sphere Mail, which provides mail and phone services to co-working businesses.

Along with space, some sites host training sessions, workshops and socials.

Work Petaluma, for example, holds a weekly morning coffee social. Owner Juliana said the timing works because most members are workers with families. A younger clientele might instead prefer a Happy Hour gathering, she said.

The co-working business owners say their sites offer flexibility, lower costs and social connections.

Leasing a private office in a commercial building typically requires signing a five-year lease, said Mirjan. Most new business owners don’t want to be locked in for that long a period.

In contrast, an entrepreneur can rent co-working space for a few hours or can get dedicated space on a month-to-month basis.

“That type of flexibility is what people need right now,” said Rajala of Share Space. “You pay for it when you need it.”

Many members are drawn for the social interaction.

“It’s like being in an office and you have co-workers there, but it’s not your company,” said McFarren of the Sebastopol Entrepreneurs Project.

Such benefits brought Amit Kulkarni to Work Petaluma. Kulkarni, a Petaluma resident and self-described extrovert, is a cancer scientist who consults for doctors by reviewing patients’ genetic and cancer profiles and then analyzing data on thousands of treatment outcomes to help tailor therapies most likely to be beneficial.

“Because I have to work hard and long, I cannot isolate myself,” Kulkarni said. As such, at Work Petaluma he doesn’t mind hearing nearby co-workers on the phone or engaged in chit chat because “it feels like healthy noise.”

At Sphere Pad, located at 838 Fourth St. in Santa Rosa, Mirjan last week showed off his 16 desk spaces, many outfitted with 24-inch monitors so members can plug their laptops into a bigger screen.

He later unrolled architectural drawings for a second Sphere Pad just up the street at 1619 Fourth St. He bought both properties with SBA financing and expects to hire two people to manage the spaces.

While the city now has four co-working sites, Mirjan doesn’t think the market here is saturated.

“I think Santa Rosa can handle a couple more,” he said. As well, both Healdsburg and Sonoma appear attractive towns for such businesses.

Co-working operators acknowledged the growth of freelance and consulting work may seem foreign to an older generation that sees full-time company work as the norm. But whether due to necessity or choice, they said, younger workers increasingly are seeking other ways of making a living.

Many credited Geissinger of WIMPspace for bringing them together to form their co-working alliance.

WIMPspace, which stands for Web & Interactive Media Professionals, grew out of a series of tech meetups that Geissinger and friend Joshua Simmons began five years ago - and through which Geissinger met her future husband, Cole Geissinger.

This year Geissinger has taken part in a planning committee for the county’s proposed Year of the Entrepreneur. She wants the local co-working spaces to join that effort.

“The biggest problem for entrepreneurs is they feel they’re going it alone,” she said.

In response, the county events will offer resources to help startups, she said. And if the co-working sites hosts some of the events, the business owners will learn firsthand about an alternative way to meet their space needs.

“If people go in the doors,” she said, “they’re going to get it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit

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