Co-working was new to Penticton, B.C., when entrepreneurs Jennifer and Nicholas Vincent set out to create and rent out communal office space in an old downtown church.
They had scouted prospective clients – mobile professionals operating out of coffee shops, self-employed workers looking for affordable alternatives to the home office and small business owners hoping to tap the collective wisdom of the broader co-work community.
But first the Vincents had to convince local zoning officials and lenders that there was, indeed, a market for this new type of work environment, where people from diverse fields can book desk space for as long as needed, as frequently as needed. "They didn't know … how to categorize it," Mr. Vincent said in an interview. "It was quite an educational process."
Even so, they were up and running within six months.
"Of course, when you are a startup enterprise, you really don't qualify for bank financing, it's just too high risk," Ms. Vincent said. "We put some of our own funds into it and also took out some financing from a developmental lender known as Canadian Youth Business Foundation at the time – they have just changed their name to Futurpreneurs – and also from Community Futures, which is a B.C. organization supporting entrepreneurs."
The couple's initial investment was about $50,000, which included six months of operating funds.
Now, less than three years later, Cowork Penticton has won a business excellence award from the Penticton & Wine Country Chamber of Commerce. In presenting the "best new business award" this year, the chamber lauded Cowork Penticton as an outstanding corporate citizen that had "enhanced the business base of Penticton."
The company has attracted a wide and varied clientele – including a lawyer, real estate brokerage, a recreational vehicle and modular home company, Web designers, researchers, party planners and non-profit organizations. The clients co-work and co-mingle, each helping the others with business problems, buying each others' products and services and taking turns cooking lunch for the entire group in the fully-equipped church kitchen.
Clients bring their own technological devices and Cowork provides the "plug and play work stations." Membership options range from a drop-in pass for people who want to "hot desk" to full-time dedicated work space.
The fee for someone who just wants to rent a desk for a day is $15. Longer-term clients pay between $300 and $450 a month for a desk and 24/7 access or $600 a month for a studio. Meeting rooms can be rented by the hour for as little as $25, coffee and WiFi included. "Each month we probably invoice about 40 people – a mix of people who are there regularly or people dropping in and out," said Ms. Vincent, who projects the company's 2014 revenue at about $50,000.
Cowork also offers workshops and education and professional development opportunities, Ms. Vincent said.
It's a hit with clients. "Our business is establishing a full-time presence in Penticton," said client Maxime Jouchter of Ertus Consulting International, which provides vineyard and wine making services for the local industry. "Being a small enterprise of two full-time employees, plus a fly-in consultant from France, Cowork suits us perfectly. We have a private office, access to office equipment and conference rooms normally available only in a larger business, great connectivity and contact with people every day who can help us find resources we would never find otherwise."
Through reciprocal arrangements with co-working centres across Canada and in more than 180 countries, Cowork Penticton members can also get free access to desk space when they are on the road.
Ms. Vincent said part of Cowork Penticton's mandate is to support micro-economic development. Drawing on its own experience, Cowork Penticton is now in a position to help other entrepreneurs prepare business plans and apply for funding from sources such as Futurpreneurs, the national not-for-profit organization that provides financing, mentoring and support to aspiring young business owners between the ages of 18 and 39.
And, still a two-person operation, Mr. and Ms. Vincent are poised to expand.
"We are only a couple of years away from being completely out of debt, which is fantastic," said Ms. Vincent. The after-hours workshops and other events staged by Cowork Penticton supplement the revenue from the desk-space renters, whose nomadic natures make it tough to predict cash flow.
"We have 28 desks on the floor. … We are at a point where growth makes sense," she said.
And while the open concept layout encourages healthy collaboration, "We now have a business case in front of us to maybe develop another consultation room for a totally new segment of clientele – counsellors or practitioners who need a private, secure consultation space."
The husband and wife team are also poised to make their first hire.
"When you are an entrepreneur, it is very challenging to take parts of your job, your own control sphere and hand them to other people," Mr. Vincent said.
"At the same time," Ms. Vincent added, "I am really excited about the idea of taking some of my role and giving it to someone else to be innovative and creative with. Because when you find that right person – particularly in a business model like ours, which is so community focused – it would be just great to have another brain on it."