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Dec 15, 2006: Café 2.0

Right now I'm sitting in my favorite Ann Arbor café, pondering having just sold our house (yesterday) and moving to Brooklyn (February 1 or thereabouts). We'll be giving up our terrific office, and I'm wondering where we'll work once we settle in Park Slope or thereabouts. Home's unlikely, given that we have a three year-old and the place will probably be the size of Tiny Tim's bathroom. So soon after landing in Brooklyn we'll begin searching for cafés and other public spaces, like libraries, that are worker-friendly.

I've been thinking about what might characterize a "worker-friendly" café. (I realize that the notion of working in a café is quite bizarre to those living outside the US, but there it is.) Well, that's not quite right; actually, I've been fantasizing about what kind of café I'd want to own in some post-entrepreneurial life. This is a common fantasy among sleep-deprived entrepreneurs; we delude ourselves into thinking that running a café ought to be easy compared to whatever it is we're doing now.

Easy or not, there does seem to be an opportunity for cafés to go beyond selling coffee. Many of the cafés I frequent are swarming with independent contractors and other business people who either can't afford to rent an office or don't like spending their working hours completely sealed off from human contact. The café affords them an inexpensive workplace outside the home where they can make new contacts, caffeinate, and generally feel part of the human race. But cafés don't provide quite enough services to replace the office; is there a middle ground?

Aside from standard fare, my ideal café would offer a fixed monthly "membership" rate (some number no greater than half what a local office would go for). In exchange it would provide some of the obvious shared business services, such as:

  • Wireless internet access (already available in most cafés)
  • Locked file cabinet drawers and other private storage space
  • A conference room, equipped with a projection system, that could be reserved in advance, and catered (for an additional fee) by the café, naturally
  • A copier
  • Plenty of low cost incidental supplies, such as dry erase markers, paper clips, Post-it notes, and so on

What about phones? Receptionist? Snail mail? This is where things would normally get complicated and expensive. But hey, we live in the age of the Internet, and smart people are figuring out ways to address issues like these for a more mobile population. My café would resell or simply introduce customers to smart new Web-based phone and mail services like:

  • Grand Central: Web-based management of your multiple phones (land and cell), voice mail and menuing systems, as well as blacklists and whitelists (I'll probably try this out when we're in Brooklyn and will save quite a lot of money)
  • Remote Control Mail: I love this idea: they receive your snail mail and scan the envelope. You then use their web interface to see what's arrived, request them to scan and/or deliver what's inside the important envelopes and recycle what you're not interested in. They'll even shred sensitive mail for you. Very cool.

From what I can tell, many cafés open in fairly marginal storefronts where conventional retail has failed before. Rents are low(er), and often there's adjacent space in the same building that might be adapted for conference rooms and, possibly, a few unassigned cubicles. Hoteling isn't all that bad for wandering entrepreneurs–those of us who work in cafés are essentially hoteling right now–and if there's suitable demand, an additional fee could pay for a dedicated cubicle. (Hmmm. Maybe café owners should offer these services in an, um, caféteria plan?)

However they charge, café owners could benefit from a new revenue stream which, like any recurring income, is more predictable than retail sales. And let's take this notion one step further: business incubator! Why not? I'll bet that this is a better economic model for business incubators than the conventional approach of relying on government money. I'd rather depend upon caffeine addictions than any government handouts any day.

Anyway, I'm sure some smart burned-out entrepreneur has already taken his dream of running a simple café and souped it up into something more like the business incubator I describe here. And if you know of such a set up in or near Park Slope, Brooklyn, I'm absolutely ready to shell out.

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Comment: Squirm (Dec 15, 2006)

Right on, man. I was just looking for meeting space for 5 people in NYC and all I found was stale windowless hotel conference rooms for $800 a day including bad coffee and peppermint candy.

I read last month in fastcompany or entrepreneur or maybe it was Officelessgeek magazine about a start up in nyc or sf that does only the shared space thing. Lots of other corporate hacks have delved into retail officing, but I havent' seen a good model with your cafe flavor.

Jimmy at my downtown FedexKinkos spends more time adjusting his greasy nose ring and baggy ass 100 dollar pants (do I really need to see his hairy crack?) than collating my damn proposal or setting up the conference call system. "Dude, these numerals were like, Roman or something-- let me ask my manager".

Boston has had a writer's studio that is pretty spiffy. It looks like a comfortable place to get writers block and feel sleepily resentful about about being unappreciated and underemployed. I don't think they have coffee. Art studios work the same way, but they are in lower rent districts and you have to wear black to get in.

If you start one, can I get one of your free coffee mugs or other marketing tchotchkes?

Comment: Myra (Dec 15, 2006)

Congrats on the house sale! I find it bittersweet that the only house to sell in Ann Arbor in 2006 belongs to three of our dearest friends who are moving away? We'll miss you and congrats!

Love this bloug entry. Got me all juiced up.

Comment: Adam Kalsey (Dec 15, 2006)

What your describing is being called coworking by others. There's a wiki about it at http://coworking.pbwiki.com/ with details about the concept and links to places around the country that offer it. And a quick search reveals that someone's putting a coworking space in Brooklyn, although I don't know enough about Brooklyn to know if it's close to you: http://codinginparadise.org/weblog/2006/09/new-coworking-space-in-brooklyn.html

Comment: Andrew (Dec 15, 2006)

I think Paragraph looks very nice, and covers a few of your requirements:

Comment: Scott T. (Dec 15, 2006)

My friend Noel is working on getting coworking facilities going up in the city. Let me know if you want to get in touch (scott dot trudeau at gmail) ... anyway ... the Manhattan coworking sites that are in development might end up being more conveniently located to Park Slope than the Brooklyn space (which is in Williamsburg) ... and last I heard, the Manhattan spaces sounded more, uh, "professional" than the Brooklyn space which, depending on your clients, you might not want them to pop in for a visit. :)

Welcome to Brooklyn.

Comment: Scott T. (Dec 15, 2006)

If my employer would let me work "from home" or when I move on to the next thing, I'm all for getting together to organize a south brooklyn space. :)


Comment: Scott T. (Dec 15, 2006)

Oh, and there are quite a few cafes with wifi in and around the Slope. Haven't had time to take many for a spin. Muddy Waters in Prospect Heights on Vanderbilt had a reliable connection and lots of power outlets -- but the food wasn't that exciting.

Comment: Victor Lombardi (Dec 15, 2006)

None of these will really act as an office for more than a couple hours, but Park Slope wifi cafes include
- Gorilla coffee on 5th Ave (intense coffee flavor)
- Tea Lounge on Union St (made-to-order tea from leaves, not tea bags)
- Heights Coffee on Flatbush Ave (slightly classier interior, good for informal meetings)
- The Central Library at the north end of Prospect Park

There are empty side street storefronts around, I bet setting up a co-working situation of your own wouldn't be too hard.

If I was designing a co-working space, I'd skip the phone system and bring back the phone booth -- great for occasional calls on the cell with privacy. Katzenbach Partners in Manhattan did this.

If you could reduce the wasted desk space, you could make better use of smaller rooms...

Comment: Ashish (Dec 16, 2006)

Welcome to the growing tribe of " Going Bedouin".

Comment: noneck noel (Dec 17, 2006)

WOOOT! welcome to nyc! i'm the guy who pusher who's wrangling the nyc coworking locations http://coworking.pbwiki.com/CoworkingNewYorkCity - i'd love to chat with you and anyone else who's reading your blog. please feel free to drop me a line at noel(a/t) noneck (d/0/t) org and we'll hook you up!

Comment: Lou (Dec 18, 2006)

All these coworking ideas sound great.

BUT: What about cafes getting into this business? There've got to be some examples, and it seems like NYC would be as likely a setting as any...

Comment: mantruc (Dec 18, 2006)

Congrats on selling the house.

I have a friend who rents an office in Santiago (Chile) by the hour, it includes recepcionist, phone answering and printing, not sure about more details though.

Comment: Edward Vielmetti (Dec 20, 2006)

Lou -

Think about the loyalty a cafe could get if it offered mailbox / ship / print services - you could start to advertise the cafe's address as your own just like they did in "victorian internet" times.

Comment: Edward Vielmetti (Dec 20, 2006)

Lou got me thinking about public spaces that form the hub of social communities, not just because of specific amenities but through some combination of location and proximity to people.

His favorite cafe is the site of my favorite weekly lunch meeting (a2b3) where for an hour a week a group gathers to talk about the latest things that are going on. The key amenity there is flexible tables - Eastern Accents is usually for groups of 2-4 people but if you stick enough tables together you can get 12+ at one place. There aren't a lot of cafe-type spaces like that.

Delicious Monster in Seattle is headquartered at Zoka - http://www.zokacoffee.com/ - that's literally their office, and of course they have made good friends with the proprietors.

Comment: Justin Thorp (Dec 25, 2006)

Lou, check out the blog Web Worker Daily. (http://webworkerdaily.com/) Its devoted to this idea of web workers who do things like work from coffee shops.

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