Office Nomads, Seattle’s oldest coworking space, celebrates its 10th anniversary on Friday, November 3. Located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, Office Nomads helped pioneer the coworking movement when there were just a handful of spaces around the world.
Coworking is now a booming industry, and Office Nomads continues to lead the way with community-focused coworking. I spoke with Office Nomads co-founder Susan Dorsch about the early days creating the space with co-founder Jacob Sayles, what it’s like to look back on 10 years of coworking in Seattle, and how the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance formed out of a desire to connect to other space operators.
Cat Johnson: 10 years in coworking is no small thing. Congratulations! Tell me the origin story of Office Nomads. How did it come about at a time when coworking was a fledgling movement?
Susan Dorsch: We are the oldest coworking space in Seattle. When we started in November of 2007 I didn’t even know what coworking was – I was just thinking about creating a neighborhood-based work place. Jacob and I didn’t know each other, but we had a mutual friend who heard me talking about creating a shared, neighborhood workspace, and Jacob talking about coworking. She made an introduction, we got coffee, and three days later, I was meeting with a contractor at a space we were considering. I think we knew right from the start that we had a great working relationship.
Jacob had already found the Coworking Google Group, which was probably just a few dozen people at the time, and he went to San Francisco to check out some of the spaces there.
Office Nomads has a strong community focus. In fact, you describe it as a coworking community, rather than a coworking space. Was that ethos there from the beginning?
Yes. Jacob and I both had experience working at companies that had grown to what we thought was the optimum size of a company, which was 40 people. With that size, you can get to know everyone, and know a few people really well. It’s not so big that you feel like you get lost. Our vision for Office Nomads was to have 40 resident members in our space, thinking that, at that number, everybody will feel good.
I think that was a great vision, but when it met with reality, we realized we had to change what we were doing based on the needs of the people around us. The bar to membership was so high that people we knew who didn’t have those resources felt like they were outsiders. They could drop in for a day, but they didn’t have that membership experience with us.
We wanted that 40-person intimate experience, but we realized we had to change our business model, and that changed the dynamic. Rather than being a little, intimate thing, it was going to be a bigger thing, with different membership tiers, including memberships that were just one day per month. That was not something we would have considered when we opened.
Changing up our offerings based on the needs of the community wound up being one of the most important ways we helped develop the foundation for an awesome community here at Office Nomads. Now anyone who is interested in building and participating in our coworking community has the ability to do that at the level that works for them.
Can you give me an example of someone who needed a different membership option than what you were offering?
One woman who joined once we adjusted our membership worked from home full-time. But with a new baby at home she realized she needed some help creating definition between the weekend and the week. She would put on her clothes and come in on Monday, her husband would bring by the baby to nurse, and she was able to work successfully at home the rest of the week. She was able to carve out a structure that helped her be more successful at her work and as a parent.
Her experience really stuck with me and helped me understand what the people we wanted to serve really wanted. That model also allowed us to build community – it was just a little different than what we first envisioned.
Who is it that you serve at Office Nomads? When you look at your community, what do you see?
Oh, everything, which is nice. When people ask what our shtick is, or what our style is, or who our people are, I don’t have a great way to sum it up. The closest way to do that is to say that it feels like a little microcosm of our neighborhood. There’s a variety of ages, a wide variety of professions, people who’ve been working from home for decades, and people who are working their first job out of college.
Office Nomads definitely feels like an extension and reflection of the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
There are plenty of other coworking spaces in the neighborhood now. We were so relieved to have other people who were excited to build coworking communities in the city. It’s scary to have a space and no one to grab a beer with and swap stories.
When we opened, it was so early in the movement. People didn’t have a sense of coworking – they hadn’t even heard the word coworking. Comprehension was small, so we had a lot of educating to do.
Our community for people who were doing that work around coworking was virtual. We had the Coworking Google Group. We kept talking about having an in-person Google Group so we would have people to share our experience with. So when spaces came onboard after ours, we were incredibly excited and we probably smothered them with enthusiasm and support.
Was that the spark for the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance?
Yes. We called ourselves Coworking Seattle at the time. There were maybe two or three other spaces. Jacob was the best at having his ear to the city and catching wind of these places getting started. He would reach out to them right away and invite them to get together and talk about what they were doing. He was the biggest champion of Coworking Seattle in the early days.
When you look at the Alliance now, as it’s grown to two dozen spaces, what do you see?
We’ve had fits and starts of trying to get ourselves more organized, less organized, more structured, less structured. But it really doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, the biggest value we’ve been able to provide is that we know one another, and that we have the opportunity to get to know one another in a way that’s not couched in competition.
Some people may get thrown off by that, or wonder if it’s for real, but coworking still is not that big. Especially actual coworking, as opposed to stated coworking. Two dozen spaces is not that big for a city of our size.
I think you’re right that some businesses can’t grasp the abundance and community the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance strives for. Do you ever meet space operators who really just don’t want to be part of this?
Not really, they just don’t join the alliance. It’s very similar to the way we’ve run Office Nomads from the start. A company doesn’t become a member of Office Nomads, an individual becomes a member of Office Nomads. We develop a relationship with that individual, even if their company is paying for their membership. That’s what’s important. They’re the ones who will be members of Office Nomads and experiencing coworking through us—not their billing department.
Similarly, with some of the larger, more corporate coworking conglomerates that now exist – which is just mind-boggling to say 10 years later – it really depends on the person in charge of running those spaces, and who the community outreach person is. If that person is excited to share and reach out, then all goes well. If they’re not, then usually they just don’t join the alliance and it’s no skin off our nose.
Every once in a while we get wind of larger conglomerates trying to poach coworking members and, truth be told, for us, it’s like, ‘Good luck with that.’ If we lose a few members because of that, that’s our bad.
If a member is looking for the lowest dollar amount, and they’re traversing several neighborhoods to save a few bucks, that means we’re not doing the best job we could be doing to make someone understand the value of our community.
What challenges do you face with Office Nomads?
A big challenge now is, how do we make sure we’re around for the next 10 years? I think we’re now learning what only a handful of other coworking spaces around the world have learned: starting your coworking space is the easy part.
What are your big picture thoughts on Office Nomads turning 10?
It’s so crazy that we’re still here. I’m surprised and not surprised at the same time. There are things we really want to improve on, and other things we excel at that I’m super proud of.
When I think about 10 years, I’m just thinking about all the members that have come and gone—the ones that cracked me up, the ones that pissed me off but made me laugh later. We’ve had so much fun. It’s been hard, for a variety of reasons, but it’s been so much fun.
Lately, every time we’ve talked about how to strengthen our business and do better in the next 10 years, almost all the things I think of are things we’ve done in the past that we should do again. We’ve done things that went well that we need to bring back—especially when it comes to community-building stuff.
Coworking is not a revolutionary idea. There have been artist collectives and coffee shops where people convene. This is not a new idea, it’s just a new packaging of an old idea that’s smart, because it’s putting people together and trying to break down some barriers. There’s just so much more that I’d like to do.