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Sonoma jumps aboard national trend in ‘coworking’

Tucked upstairs above the Sebastiani Theatre is office space with cubicles that can be rented by the month by local entrepreneurs and freelancers.

A few doors down Broadway, almost a dozen women who provide different wedding services share a single storefront. Two blocks over on Second Street West, four CEOs, who are also best friends, oversee their staffs remotely in a shared bungalow.

Coworking is a national trend that is gathering momentum in Sonoma. The term refers broadly to any situation in which two or more people are working together in the same place but not for the same company.

The number of official coworking locations has grown globally from 1,130 spaces in 2011 to 13,800 in 2017, according to DeskMag. Sonoma County even has a new coworking association, CoworkSonoma.Org, which aims to “connect people and coworking spaces in order to empower independent workers and foster collaborative communities.”

Local real estate broker Gerrett Snedaker believes that the trend is ideally suited to Sonoma Valley’s entrepreneurial culture, as it’s a low-cost way for freelancers, consultants and small business owners to build a business without daunting capital outlays.

Snedaker turned to Liquid Space, a VRBO of sorts for office space, to rent out Better Homes & Garden’s extra workspace on the Plaza on a month-by-month basis.

His current month-to-month tenants include a hedge fund manager, an interior designer and a sales-and-marketing team for a local manufacturing company.

Over on Broadway, local commercial photographer and entrepreneur Allyson Wiley was an early adopter of coworking when she founded her “creative studio” Love and Lovely five years ago.

Wiley has 11 different wedding service providers who rent either meeting or desk space in her highly stylized 1,200-square-foot space, including a location scout and concierge service, photographers, wedding and event planners, cake designers, florists, calligraphers, graphic designers and videographers.

“The wedding and events industry is a huge business here, so a one-stop-shop for vendors to meet with clients seemed ideal,” she said. “So many vendors work from home, and were meeting clients at coffee shops or a hotel lobby. It didn’t speak to their professionalism and it didn’t elevate their brand.”

Wiley calculates that in 2016, about 350 couples met with vendors in her space for their wedding planning.

At the other end of the spectrum, the largest official coworking location in the county is a place called “Work” on Fourth Street in Petaluma. Work offers monthly workspace memberships or day passes, hourly passes, and meeting room hours. Its website describes it as “like a gym for your business – you can drop in for a random day pass but most people opt for some level of membership.”

After five years in business, the space has more than 200 active members and they just won Best Coworking Space in Best of San Francisco magazine in 2017. Work added a second Petaluma location and owner Natasha Juliana says they are currently considering a third site.

So how does coworking… work?

Coworkers typically bring their own laptops and cell phones and have access to high-speed WiFi, communal tables, whiteboards, office supplies, a kitchenette, restrooms and a printer/copier/scanner.

Membership ranges from $24 a day to $400 a month depending on the space and services shared.

At Sonoma’s Love and Lovely, for example, Wiley offers two memberships: one for desk space, one for meeting space only. Both spaces grant 24-hour access to the storefront, storage space, and indoor and outdoor meeting areas. Its business model is similar to that of the Hivery, a women-only membership coworking space in Mill Valley, which has grown 400 percent over the past year.

Another downtown coworking arrangement is a group of four successful entrepreneurs who have shared office space in a bungalow on Second Street West for the past six years. Among the tenants are Jon Freudenberger, who owns a shipping and logistics company; Rand Rognlien, who has a musical-instrument care company; Don Douglas, who owns an optical sorting equipment company; and Jeff Bundschu, who splits his time between that office and his winery, Gundlach-Bundschu. The four businesses have larger office space elsewhere or employees that work remotely, but the four CEOs (and close friends) try to oversee as much of their operations as possible from the five-room house they rent as a group.

“One of the many cool things about sharing the space is the ability to walk down the hall and get advice on your business from three other successful CEOs,” said Rognlien.

Sonoma’s Community Center was perhaps the earliest coworking outfit in the Valley. The Center has rented out spaces ranging from a small room to a suite of offices to performance space for more than 30 years, according to facilities booking manager Steve Hagstrom.

Among its past and current tenants are Valley of the Moon magazine, Crescent Montessori School, the Sonoma Valley Historical Society, California Martial Arts, Keenan School of Dance, Alcoholics Anonymous, Broadway Quilts, the Presentation School, Becoming Independent, Sonoma Arts Live, North Bay Realtors among many others.

Hagstrom has had good success relying on LiquidSpace to find short term rental tenants for the Center’s vacant office space and meeting rooms.

Jay Rooke, who heads up Start-up Grind in Sonoma, is a big fan of the trend.

“Coworking offers early-stage entrepreneurs the upside of having a commercial footprint, without the unnecessary risk and expense of committing to a solo lease,” said Rooke.

“An entrepreneur might start by running his or her business out of Peet’s and then move up to renting a desk by the month before committing to a long-term office lease,” adds Snedaker.

“Working from home can sound great at first, but it can also be distracting and isolating,” said Juliana of Work.

“We share resources, refer clients to each other and problem-solve together,” said Wiley. “So many of us work alone so much of the time, that coming into the studio feels like a community.”

A 2015 report by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board found that the top four local sectors for coworking are computing and electronics, professional and business services, education and publishing.

Patricia Shults, director of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, said that the Chamber’s Innovation Alliance has hosted a number of meet-ups to discuss the needs of this local cohort of young entrepreneurs.

“Coworking often comes up and is something we’ve had interest in exploring,” she said.

But if the idea is so great, why hasn’t it taken off more broadly?

Sphere Pad, a downtown coworking space in Santa Rosa, was doing well two years ago with plans to expand to a second location, but it has since closed its doors.

“It takes more effort and more money than you’d think to run a coworking space,” said Juliana. “The idea is simple, but the execution is difficult.”

But Wiley is optimistic that Sonoma is an optimal market for coworking.

“I’ve thought about doing this on a larger scale so many times because there is a huge need,” she said. “Someone actually approached me a couple months ago about finding a big space but my plate was full. I’m interested to see where this goes!”

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.