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Shared offices provide advantages for startups, nonprofits, others

| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Ryan Hestin, 22 of Oakland (left) and Patrick Kelley, 23 of Shadyside, do work for their company Megabits LLC at Catapult, a shared office space environment in Lawrenceville, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. Megabits LLC makes games for smartphones.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Greg Nicholas, 30 of Highland Park (left), Chris Maury, 27 of Shadyside and Adam Larsen of Baldwin of Conversant Labs discuss software code at Catapult, a share office space environment in Lawrenceville, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. Conversant labs create smartphone apps to help the blind.

Bibhuti Aryal, a tech consultant in Pittsburgh, runs a nonprofit that helps educate girls in rural areas of Nepal.

To coordinate his team on two continents, Aryal, 35, ran the Rukmini Foundation out of his living room in Dormont for about two years. He liked the 10-foot commute but not the isolation.

“It's harder to run ideas when you're not in front of other people,” he said.

Aryal and his team moved to Global Switchboard in Lawrenceville, where they share office rental space with others who have international missions. Soon he had opportunities to meet with large foundations and to network. All he had to do was walk around a partition.

Global Switchboard is a shared work environment, known as a co-working space, and it's one of perhaps a dozen in the Pittsburgh area.

Co-working is becoming an alternative workspace option for many area freelancers and entrepreneurs. People who share rental space say it's inexpensive, promotes collaboration and cuts the time and some of the expense of setting up an office.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who highlighted co-working at roundtable discussions he hosted this week and last, has said the concept is a way to keep startups, ideas and entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh.

“The desk is the smallest component of what we get from being there,” Aryal said. “You get efficiencies you just can't get through email.”

Co-working environments are loosely defined as spaces where several independent professionals or entrepreneurs share space and pool resources such as phones, Internet service, even coffee. Some spaces look like corporate offices, with shared conference tables or a beer keg to give it a startup feel. Others have more traditional decor with whiteboards and cubicles. Some are simply space for rent that users can personalize.

“The home office doesn't do it for me anymore,” said Tom Buell, who rents shared office space from Global Switchboard.

In exchange for rent starting at about $200 a month, Aryal and Buell, 58, get outfitted office space among a group of other nonprofits. They can solve problems and collaborate to grow their philanthropy.

Though co-working is novel in the nonprofit sector, it's common among tech startups.

Mark Musolino, founder of the co-working spaces at Revv Oakland, said his idea is to get people working quickly by eliminating the energy they would spend setting up an office.

His tenants get tax breaks because Revv is in a Keystone Innovation Zone, an area designated to promote entrepreneurship near colleges and universities such as Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Musolino said access to the universities and co-working is a way Pittsburgh can prevent technology startups from fleeing to the coasts.

“The vision is just to see Pittsburgh as a destination for startup companies,” said Musolino. “We bring people to these great universities from all over the world, and then they leave.”

While co-working makes financial sense for young companies of three and four people, for others, it's about professionalism and community.

Elliott Williams, 32, started Catapult, a co-working space in Lawrenceville. He grew tired of meeting clients at coffee houses. His tenants include a company making an app to help the visually impaired, freelance writers and designers, an improv class teacher and lawyers.

He said that in other cities, co-working makes sense because home offices aren't available. In Pittsburgh, real estate is less expensive, so to make co-working a viable business, he said, one must sell it on the benefits of collaboration.

“In other cities ... you're not going to have a spare bedroom. In Pittsburgh, you do,” he said.

Despite their disparate professions, he said, everyone in Catapult's open-concept office works together. After one tenant learned from co-workers he charged too little for his services, Williams said everyone in the office decided on a minimum, fair fee. If a designer needs computer programming help, a developer is at the next desk.

Even though they run separate businesses, the people at Catapult re-create an office environment, Williams said, standing in their shared kitchen. Most of it is positive, he said as co-workers milled around a coffee table and a dog ran down the hall. But it's still an office, he said next to a sign above the sink that notes who washed dirty dishes that other tenants left overnight.

Megha Satyanarayana is a staff writer at Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7991 or megha@tribweb.com.

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