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Coworking locale provides an office without the politics - and sometimes without the office

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 24, 2012 - As a scenic designer and theatrical technician, Justin Barisonek could work out of his house. In fact, the 32-year-old South Hampton resident used to do just that.

These days however, he prefers going a different route.

“The people I get to work with give me a really good sense of community,” he said. “It’s that interaction I get with other people that I wouldn’t always get sitting home alone working.”

The people Barisonek gets to work with aren’t in his company. They’re not in his office. In fact, they aren’t even in his field. They are fellow clients with Nebula, an enterprise on South Jefferson near Cherokee.

The company, founded in 2010 in an old parole office, specializes in coworking, a unique concept that an increasing number of entrepreneurs, particularly the self-employed and those in creative endeavors, are finding to be a happy alternative to work-at-home isolation or traditional closed-door office solutions. Most of Nebula’s clientele rent their own private offices, which go for as much as $450 a month. However, a significant percentage simply get “drop-in” rights for about $100. They just come to enjoy the hospitality of Nebula’s common area where they can work and socialize with others.

Founder Jason Deem created this outpost of communal officing with less a plan than a simple willingness to go with the flow. While doing government contract work for an out-of-town enterprise, the native St. Louisan was faced with much the same problem as many of his future clients. He wanted to get out of the house.

“I had been working from home and, personally, I was looking for someplace that was between home and a coffee shop,” he said.

It turned out some friends were looking for something similar as they geared up to start a film production company. Deem purchased a building with a vacant second floor where he began working. Then he started renting space to his friends as the first clients of what would eventually become Nebula. Deem said that wasn’t exactly what he envisioned at first but the concept seemed to take on a life of its own.

“Gradually, other people expressed interest and we had a few people in here before we even had a name for it,” he said. “It just grew organically, spread by word of mouth. We didn’t really do a lot of advertising initially.”

Nebula isn’t the only coworking space in St. Louis. In fact, the idea of shared space has been growing worldwide over the past decade. It’s a fixed-location relative of the “jelly” concept in which professionals agree to meet and work together at a home or similar location in order to avoid isolation and promote creativity.

Today, about 30 enterprises call Nebula home.

“Cherokee (is) a creative area that really focuses on independent, locally owned businesses and artists. I was already getting a lot of calls for space and people were wanting it for an art studio or things like that,” Deem said. “Here we can provide that space for really cheap because we’re putting a lot of studios in one place and splitting the utilities.”

While office renters tend to spend most of the time in their own area, Deem said they venture forth and interact periodically, a process that’s encouraged by the enterprise’s active social calendar. From monthly happy hours to fortnightly family-style lunches to various breakfast mixers, conversation is encouraged.

“A lot of times people from the offices will come out and work in the coworking space if they are in a more social mood, have a question or want to collaborate with somebody,” he said. “It’s kind of fluid in that sense.”

The word “community” pops up a lot during a conversation at Nebula. Deem said he likes to rent to people who want to contribute to the community atmosphere at the establishment.

The larger community is a concern as well.

“We really try to encourage or get people here who are doing good things for St. Louis,” he said. “That’s kind of our bigger, overarching goal.”

In that sense, Deem views Nebula as a potential innovation hub of sorts where new, creative companies can find affordable digs allowing proto-entrepreneurs to strike out on their own with fewer upfront costs and less commitment, perhaps even keeping their day jobs in the process.

Deem thinks some businesses germinate at Nebula that might not start as easily elsewhere or might not start at all.

“Sometimes, you are kind of like, ‘wow, I wish St. Louis had one of those,’” he said of a new innovative business idea. “Well, if we can make this space cheap for those kinds of businesses, then St. Louis is a better place for it. We’re really providing something that is needed in the business community.”

And the community has responded. Nebula is not the only coworking arrangement. This week, a similar business, St. Louis Coworking created a stir in local media by reporting on its blog that it would be closing its operations effective Oct. 1. However, when contacted by the Beacon, management said the message had been in error as a result of a miscommunication and that the establishment would remain open.

Alternative officing is not just for so-called “creatives” anymore either. Deem said that Nebula has its share of graphic artists and media companies but also less adventurous endeavors.

“We have a lot of creatives here but we also have a lot of people in traditional fields who do them somewhat creatively,” Deem said.

Perched behind her desk on an exercise ball instead of a chair, accountant Logan Wall may fit that description. The 32-year-old city resident could be working from her house but the experience would lose something.

“I wanted to move in here to have a dedicated space without the distractions of home and have days when I actually spoke to other human beings,” she said. “It’s good to stand up, take a break and circulate around; and you’ll inevitably get into a conversation with somebody in the hall.”

For her, it provides the friends and connection of traditional work environments without the Dilbertesque side effects.

“It’s a good way to get socialization and collaboration to some extent but there’s no politics because we all work for different companies or for ourselves,” she said.

Politics may be lacking but the experience can provide valuable networking. With so many entrepreneurs talking, business-to-business linkages are sometimes born.

Allison Babka, a 35-year-old freelance writer and video producer, said she enjoys the freedom Nebula provides and it’s also given her openings she might not have had otherwise.

“It’s really great to have so many other creatives around,” she said. “I’ve already had opportunities to work with some of the other companies that are based out of here and I’ve only been here less than a month.”

Access to professionals has been a boon in other ways as well.

“I can’t do math, and there’s an accountant right down the hall,” she jokes.

Deem said it’s all part of the evolution of the two-year-old institution, the genesis of which he still describes as something that “just kind of happened.”

What will happen next is anyone’s guess.

“It was an experiment,” he said. “It still is to some extent.”