Jen Belk figures there are so many people working on their own in Fort Mill, why not do it together?
Belk plans to open a co-working space in downtown Fort Mill this summer. She expects space for up to 50 workers, which could mean perhaps 100 members. She already has about 70 people in a regular meet up group, working together to share the experience of working on their own.
The group has plenty to do before the expected June 1 opening. Along with simply letting people know what co-working is.
“The environment is somewhere between an office and a coffee shop,” Belk said of LOOM Coworking of Fort Mill. “The business model is more like a fitness center or a gym.”
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Belk presented the business plan Friday to the Fort Mill Economic Council. Freelancers, small business owners, work-from-homers and other mobile workers looking for a new environment will sign month-to-month agreements. Some will have a LOOM desk ready for them full-time.
Others, who may only need a conference room rental on occasion, can pay for a lower tier membership.
“It’s extremely practical,” Belk said. “You’re paying for the space, but we’re selling the community, not the square footage.”
Shaw Kuester, Economic Council board chairman, sees plenty of potential.
“The Mayor and (Town) Manager were both impressed and excited about this business, and we on the Fort Mill Economic Council are in full support,” he said.
Even the higher tiers won’t cost much more than a cup of “guilt coffee” every day, or the drink mobile workers feel obligated to buy for working a few hours or meeting someone at a coffee shop, Belk said. The idea of co-working space has grown, both for Belk personally and in a larger trend toward mobile working.
“My first profession was, I was a corporate interior designer,” Belk said. “From grad school on, innovative work environments was always something I was interested in.”
She’s worked on “hotel” style working spaces. She began teaching at Winthrop University in 2001, and a few years ago assigned design students co-working spaces.
“It started a lot of really cool conversations and relationships,” Belk said.
After leaving Winthrop last summer and working on a design textbook, she decided to take the next step. The Baxter resident found that on her street and one beside it, 10 homes had nine people who worked from home. She posted her idea on social media. Overnight, she had 45 comments on what a new co-working space should accomplish.
“They want to have the work-life balance, and not work from their dining room table,” Belk said.
An ongoing survey from LOOM, which holds monthly meetings including one Feb. 9, finds workers like avoiding the traffic and parking of traditional office spaces in Charlotte. They don’t like being online at all times when working from home, or having their home spaces covered in work materials.
“For some people it works, for some it doesn’t,” Belk said.
Co-working space allows workers to feel more professional, she said, while allowing for the “serendipitous collisions with other people” common to larger offices. Workers will have access to projectors, meeting rooms and other supplies. Plus, a one-person business owner may not have a graphic designer, but may meet one co-working and form a relationship that benefits both.
“They like the fact that a co-working space makes them look bigger than they are,” Belk said.
Belk has a litany of statistics and sources backing the co-working movement, including one that 40 percent of workers will be mobile workers by 2020. With her meet-up group she already has a strong base for LOOM. Belk also plans to attend college career fairs and similar places where she can promote co-working to young people. She believes young people have options beyond handing out applications to large companies.
Her message to graduates isn’t that different from the message to older workers who may see co-working as a fit.
“They can go out there and create that career that they want to have,” Belk said.
Want to know more?
LOOM Coworking of Fort Mill has an open meeting at noon Feb. 9 at Z Bakery, 124 Confederate St., Fort Mill. The group is working on a website. For more information, search them on social media including Facebook, Meetup or LinkenIn.