The world of the solitary entrepreneur can be a little, well, isolating.
Technology has enabled some professionals to operate their own low-overhead consulting or freelancing businesses from their kitchen tables or guest bedrooms using little more than a laptop computer.
But it hasn't solved the problems of where to meet prospects or find like-minded co-workers to bounce ideas off. And while the local coffee shop offers wi-fi and a place to sit, it's also frequented by chattering teenagers and moms with noisy toddlers who don't scream professionalism.
The Allentown Economic Development Corp. has a solution it hopes will promote high-tech entrepreneurship and create a community of innovators who can feed off each others' ideas. It's opening a new coworking space at its Bridgeworks Enterprise Center at 10th and Harrison streets.
"One of the challenges for independent professionals is that they can work out of Starbucks or Panera, but it's really hard to meet clients there," said Matthew Tuerk, AEDC's assistant director, who has set up his own office in the space.
The Lehigh Valley has more than 13,000 people who work at home, said Tuerk, citing the Census Department's 2009 American Communities Survey. It will take only a few of them to fill up the coworking center's 25 spaces.
Coworking is new to the Lehigh Valley, but the term was coined six years ago in San Francisco, the epicenter of the U.S. coworking movement, where groups of telecommuting computer code writers began to create open, collaborative office hubs where they could congregate.
Similar to most coworking spaces, Allentown's Hive 4A will offer owners of small service businesses and creative industry professionals the essentials. The bright, airy loft-like space includes high-speed Internet access, work tables and chairs, a conference room, coffeemaker and fax machine, plus a place to have mail delivered.
The intangibles: lots of interaction and networking potential.
The monthly fee is $25, a fraction of the cost of office rent. For $150 a month, participants can rent a limited number of dedicated cubicles.
By converting unused space in its existing incubator, buying used office furniture and using labor provided by the Allentown Rescue Mission, AEDC kept the cost of setting up the space under $10,000. Tuerk said he is looking for grants from entrepreneurial groups to cover other costs and make additional improvements.
Members can come and go as they please during business hours.
The space is designed for the entrepreneur who doesn't want or isn't ready to rent a full-time office, but wants a professional space he or she can use as needed. They can include technology consultants, Web developers, graphic designers and freelance writers.
Allentown's coworking space gets Tom Kensel, whose company, Pivitec, is developing new audio and video technology, out of his apartment and into a location where he can work alongside creative professionals in software design or Web content management.
"It's the camaraderie and like-minded people," said Kensel, of Macungie, one of a few entrepreneurs who have been using the space on a trial basis since it unofficially opened in February. "That really can tend to foster a collaborative environment. We can bounce ideas off each other."
Coming to the Hive also means he has to put on something nicer than a sweatsuit, Kensel quipped.
In the last year, new coworking centers have opened in Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, Florida and other states. Pennsylvania now has multiple coworking locations, including sites in Philadelphia, York, Lancaster and Pittsburgh. But it has really exploded in San Francisco in the last year.
"Working in coffee shops was so '90s," chided a June 2010 announcement by NextSpace Coworking and Innovation Inc. at the opening of its second Northern California coworking office in San Francisco. The company expects to open a Los Angeles coworking space this month.
San Francisco now boasts multiple, competing coworking locations. NextSpace describes its location as "designed for people who work for themselves but do not want to work by themselves."
"Working at home is nice, but there can be a lot of distractions," said Clif Kussmaul, a Muhlenberg College professor who operates Green Mango Associates, an open source software and Web content management firm.
Kussmaul said the coworking space fosters productivity and creativity because it is devoted entirely to work.
Hive 4A is somewhat unusual because it has been started not by a like-minded group of entrepreneurs, but an economic development agency. Until now, it has been open only Tuesdays and Thursdays, but starting this week, it will open five days a week.
Tuerk said AEDC is not looking to corner the region's coworking market. He's hoping someone steals the idea and replicates it in Easton and Bethlehem.
"I don't want this to be the only coworking space in the Lehigh Valley," Tuerk said. "I want this to be the first coworking space in the Lehigh Valley."
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