For many freelancers, coffee shops are home base for business operations. Even those with home office space find themselves fighting distractions, a lack of suitable meeting space, and spotty WiFi.
Geekdom, which occupies three floors of the historic Rand building, is now four years old and the established co-working space for so-called “geeks,” tech startups, and others, including the Rivard Report. Co Lab, the new co-working space located in the near-Eastside light industrial zone near the railroad tracks and I-37, caters more to the artist/maker scene. That leaves a lot of indy entrepreneurs left out. Where do interior decorators, accountants, consultants, grant writers, or other independent professionals find a welcoming and affordable co-working space in San Antonio?
Come Jan. 4, 2016, former Rackspace employees Sally Aguilar-Robertson, Mari Aguirre-Rodriguez and three other female partners will open a space to meet that need. It’s not in a downtown office tower or repurposed warehouse. The Workery will call home a complex of four historic, early century homes in the Tobin Hill neighborhood near San Antonio College. Its owners promise a decidedly more “cozy,” “homey” feel than other co-working spaces.
“The street, the trees, the houses – it has a different feel,” co-founder and owner Aguilar-Robertson said on a recent tour of the facilities. There’s a jewelry and gift shop next door and almost all of the other homes at the intersection of Lewis and West Poplar streets have been converted into commercial space.
“We want to be a hub for freelancers,” said co-founder and owner Aguirre-Rodriguez. “We’re alone out there as independent contractors. The Workery will bring us together.”
The complex, totaling 5,280 sq. ft., is still owned by LiftFund, formerly Accion Texas, which previously occupied one of the homes and is leasing all four to The Workery’s owners.
“It’s really unique being female founders – it’s super rare – and we’re self-funded. We have zero loans, we’re opening this ourselves,” Aguirre-Rodriguez said, laughing with Aguilar-Robertson. “All risk, all crazy, all the time.”
The duo plans to open the complex in phases. The opening on Jan. 4 includes the two-story green house at 221 West Poplar St. and a smaller “carriage house” in the back that can serve as a conference/meeting space for members. Its primary function will be hosting seminars and classes as a learning center. The 1,900 sq. ft. yellow house will be phase two. It can fit about 10 people downstairs and has four offices upstairs. Like the green house, one of the rooms has balcony access – interested persons would be wise to call dibs on those soon.
Downstairs of the green 2,100 sq. ft house is where “Commuters” can set up shop at one of the approximately 12 desks for $50 per month. For $275, “Residents” will get dibs on one of the desks in the shared office upstairs and a space in the limited off-street surface parking lot. The “Sponsor” membership level, $25, grants access to on-site classes and membership network. There’s also plenty of outdoor space on porches and in the courtyard, which may soon have picnic tables for freelancers that need a little fresh air.
They’ll start with the basics: a few coffee machines, printer/copier, conference space, some office supplies, high-speed Internet, and all the power outlets you could need (yes, there are even some embedded in the floor). The Workery will have a mailroom as well, providing business addresses for freelancers.
“We’re going to bond over that printer and we’re going to bond over a shared experience,” said Aguirre-Rodriguez. As CEO and founder of Opt In Experts, she has spent way too much time at Kinkos. “(Freelancers) need a place to be. It’s great to go to a coffee shop, but I want to grow my business.”
There are also full bathrooms – the green house even has a shower – and kitchens.
But membership also comes with access to the learning center, which they’re calling Workery U – a play off of Racker U that Rackspace requires new employees to take in order to learn the basics of the hosting company’s policies and technology. Workery U, while not required, will offer developmental classes for a freelancer’s body, mind, and business.
“At at corporation, you get to continue to learn and develop skills,” through seminars, mentors, and other engagement courses,Aguirre-Rodriguez said. “Freelancers can’t afford that (kind of training) on their own.”
“It’s hard to leave a corporation, where you feel safe,”Aguilar-Robertson said, who also owns SGA Robertson Consulting and is a partner at Pecan Street Capital. “Having to start your own business on your own – especially if you want to do consulting – is hard. Where do you go? How do you start? Having a place where you can come in and ask questions or even just (have people that) encourage you … that is huge.”
That’s where Workery U comes in. It will be led by local “learning experts” Delise Crimmins and Marisa Ortiz. They’ll organize a variety of small business classes from growing your LinkedIn presence to billing and accounting 101. They also plan on inviting leading CEOs and City leaders to talk to Worker membership.
“So you could have yoga class in the morning and then an intensive writing class in the afternoon,”Aguirre-Rodriguez said, who hopes membership will also become teachers. “Everybody’s got knowledge to share. Let’s share it.”
Childcare is not out of the picture, either.
“We talked about, but it’s so hard to manage … and the insurance is expensive,” said Aguilar-Robertson. “But maybe we could find a partner someday.”
They’re holding off on formulating concrete plans for phase two and three until they’ve created a membership base that can critique and inform The Workery as it grows. Even the small, fourth building on the property is essentially a large question mark. Right now it’s being used for storage, but maybe in a year they’ll find that childcare partner – or someone will want to open a coffee shop, or they’ll need an administrative office. Perhaps Workery U will expand.
If there’s a need for on site food preparation, a catering business could use the space, Aguilar-Robertson said. “We’re going to learn and listen to the community: What are you going to tell us that we need?”
They just got the keys to the houses on Monday, Nov. 9, but it’s been more than a year in the making. During this time, Aguirre-Rodriguez served as interim City Council member, ran a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the seat, continued to grow her own consulting business, and gave birth to her second child – all while brewing up plans for The Workery with Aguilar-Robertson. “This is not the typical face of an entrepreneur,” she said, laughing.
According to a survey released in October by the Freelancers Union and freelance platform Upwork, there are about 700,000 more freelancers in the United States than there was this time last year, bringing the total to roughly 54 million – or about 1 in 3 workers.
“Freelancers are pioneering a new approach to work and life – one that prioritizes family, friends and life experiences over the 9-5 rat race. This study shows that the flexibility and opportunity associated with freelancing is increasingly appealing and that is why we’ve seen such dramatic growth in the number of people choosing to freelance,” stated Sara Horowitz, Freelancers Union founder and executive director in an October news release.
The proliferation of co-working spaces in San Antonio signals the Alamo City’s contribution to this dynamic workforce, albeit slower than other cities.
“This is an exciting moment for San Antonio,” stated Geekdom Director Lorenzo Gomez in a recent news release. “We built Geekdom to inspire entrepreneurs and I am beyond excited to welcome The Workery to the San Antonio co-working family. There are many free-agents in San Antonio looking for a work ‘home’ and this is a great way to serve more co-working customers.”
The all-female team is ready to welcome members of any gender with pretty much any professional background – as long as the space can accommodate their businesses’ needs. While there maybe some overlap with Geekdom’s more technical membership, “but we’re really a different market,” Aguilar-Robertson said.
“I think this (co-working revolution) could be really significant, not just for our businesses but for the community of freelancers in San Antonio. We’re ripe for it,” Aguirre-Rodriguez added. “And these houses get to live to tell another story.”
*Top image: Angelica Arriola, a partner and website designer with The Workery, works at her computer in one of the co-working space’s converted dining rooms. Photo by Scott Ball.