Coworking Perspectives: Craig Talmage (Hobart and William Smith Colleges & Port 100 Team Contributor)
Craig is a faculty member at HWS in the newly formed (2016) Entrepreneurial Studies program. He is a contributor at an up-and-coming Coworking space in Geneva, NY, called Port 100 and in this interview he discusses his take on the potential positive impact of coworking on small towns and cities across the United States.
CC: Let’s start with this … What do you like about entrepreneurialism?
CT: Well, I like the idea that you can be your own boss! So do my students, but I tell them that that is not the entire point. I also will tell you that we have 58 students signed up for the entrepreneurial studies minor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS) in the program’s first year making us the fourth largest minor at HWS. This semester, we’ll probably have enough to be the number one minor at HWS. And that excites me!
CC: If that doesn’t speak for the future of work, I don’t know what does. I mean, you just started up and people are there …
CT: Sure, it’s intrinsically interesting.
CC: I’m curious. Since you like freedom so much, how did you get into a teaching gig (laughing)? Is it the summers off that were so attractive?
CT: I have always lived two work lives. I had my research work and for some of it I used to maintain websites, which I was terrible at (Laughs). Then, I had this other life that became my full-time job as soon as I finished my dissertation. So I was piecing together teaching four classes a semester on top of having a full-time research job. And then it flipped. And it was great. I love it!
CC: Let’s get into coworking. It sounds like you have been interested in it for a long time. Or at least you have heard about it. So when was the first time you became aware of it?
CT: I actually heard about coworking in grad school. I took a class on community and social innovations in my PhD program at Arizona State University. We covered a lot of topics and Coworking was one of them. We talked about hybrid organizations. So it was these alternative models that eventually led into a larger conversation about local and regional economics. We didn’t really cover it that well. The idea was that we would get together a bunch of entrepreneurs, whether they were for-profit or nonprofit, in a community space … one that was really kind of owned by the community. So I heard about it through friends who were doing research involved in Community Development. But it’s not really well known in the Community Development world.
Most people would say that Community Development, at least academically, evolved out of a bunch of rogue rural sociologists. What this means is Community Development has become more isolated as a field instead of being more open than it used to be. So it was a part of the conversation early on and then it got lost because much of the Community Development world is still very rural and there is a new idea of “urban”.
Now that I’ve hung in different circles, I’m seeing that coworking has had a renaissance in some ways, both in public and urban planning. You’re seeing more of it in urban and regional developments, which is really exciting for me because I came from Big City Phoenix where the blocks aren’t walkable and it needs a lot of love to be more accessible.
CC: I remember you telling me at the first meeting we had for the Geneva Cowork: “I live up the street and I can walk here!”
CT: It’s amazing! I think a lot of people embrace that. I thought Geneva was very rural before I got here and then I came for my interview and realized, “Wait, this has a Main Street … it has downtown.” I love Main Street USA development because that’s the future.
CC: In your conversations with community planners, do you find there’s more interesting coworking?
CT: In many circles (I come from an educator space) I see that people are still unsure what it is and I think that coworking isn’t a part of the entrepreneurship world right now. It’s a part of the business world. These two worlds are friends, but they’re not together. They’re part of the same family, but they’re not the same.
If you look at the entrepreneurial process, there is risk-taking and making change, in that you’re shifting resources. Then if you look at it from an academic sense, all we can usually do with students is get them to come up with ideas and then pitch them. We don’t often have the time to help them execute the ideas. And coworking should be part of that process when you’re starting out. Read any business book that starts about entrepreneurship for startups and they don’t get into any of that stuff until the last three chapters, and coworking rarely makes it into that as an option. It’s still seen as an Alternative when it should be seen as an Avenue. So it’s not like anyone looks down upon it, it just doesn’t have the brand name with it yet.
CC: What potential do you see for a coworking space in a rural area? Like the one we’re doing here in Geneva?
CT: It gives people the option to stay. People love their homes, and yeah, you might rag on where you live …
CC: Not to put words in your mouth, but you just said Phoenix sucks, right? (Laughter)
CT: Yeah, but I’m from Phoenix. I’m allowed to say that! Technically, I’m from Tucson … and that should be on the record (More laughter)!
In all seriousness, you want to root for the places that you are from and one of those ways is contributing as a local economic provider. That’s where I know coworking can help a place like Geneva. Another cool thing, I believe, and this is just a feeling, is that if you go work in a larger city you’re going to get together with people who you wouldn’t have met otherwise. And in a small city, that is still true, but you are starting off with some connections that make it easier to take advantage of. So, rather than LinkedIn, where you have to send an email to get to that second or third connection, in this case you already have those second connections. I think the impact is going to be quicker because of that. And that’s what I like about it.
CC: Well, that exact thing happened here in Rochester (a small to mid-size city) when we started Carlson Cowork. We started with eight people at the coworking space and that core Network knew people, and knew people, and knew people, and that’s how the epicenter began, through Word of Mouth and joint connections, which also built a pool of people as resources. Now you have people who are just finding the cowork online. It’s established and people want to be a part of it. You get the early adopters that way.
CT: The other interesting thing with coworking is that it seems like it’s just a for-profit and real small business/startup model, but it’s not just that. I’ve seen coworking succeed with nonprofits where leaders come and work. Additionally, one of the things we were looking at in the world of entrepreneurial incubators is that there has been moderate success nowadays growing out of focusing these incubators on high schoolers as well as older adults. I think an older adult might already have the $150 to pay the rent just to work on that really small idea that he or she knows they can make bigger. But they still have the place for the network to do it. Coworking becomes a way for people to access communities that wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity.
CC: Absolutely! What I’ve seen in my experience is that coworking is typically seen as just a millennial or generational approach. I look at it like a mindset. At the cowork I’ve consulted for and been involved in, we found people in their ‘40s to ‘60s are adopting this collaborative mindset. These are people who ARE able to afford the cost and have been sitting in their apartment or local coffee shop, but have NOT been interacting with other people. These folks know how to run a business and are ready to expand, but they need a separation of personal and business life and someone else to bounce ideas off of. What happens at the coworks I’ve been involved in is that these people start interacting with the younger, millennial generation, and the ideas that come out of it are amazing. In these cases you have someone who is experienced and knowledgeable sharing with someone who has brand new ideas and this forms an amazing blend!
CT: There are probably three or four primary ways to explain the definition of Community Development. One is a field of study (and of course the academic community loves that). Others would talk about it as a process. In that case, people can see cowork as a means for “me” to do something. You also can see it as an outcome. And I think a city sees it as an outcome. As a place, it becomes a success story for entrepreneurship. What I think is really key to make people succeed in that environment is that coworking needs to be an ideology. It’s something that people need to believe in, and not just people who are cowork members, but also people in the community who will support it. That will be where the real success happens. That’s really the glue that holds it all together.
CC: Wow. Dude. That’s powerful stuff! You’re giving me a lot of ideas that even I hadn’t thought about. And that is what I love about this. The more conversations I have the more I generate inspiration and excitement in myself and the people I share it with. The ideas just build and build and build …
I think I’ll just steal all this and put it on my blog …
CT: Please, you can absolutely steal it (Laughing)!
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