Suburban co-working movement building slowly in Geneva, Naperville

A handful of co-working centers are establishing themselves in the suburbs, but the idea of a place where independent professionals come together, share space and form a community is a tough sell among suburbanites.

In Chicago, co-working centers feature open floor plans. Workers claim a different desk, chair or workspace every day and they're usually young people who have grown up with group projects and constant collaboration.

But in the 'burbs, even among those who are drawn to co-working in Geneva, Elgin, Naperville or South Barrington, tradition reigns.

“We've seen that most people in the suburbs — they want four walls and a door,” said Michael Copeland, executive director of the nonprofit Elgin Technology Center, a co-working space that has been open since 2010.

The reluctance to surrender a space of one's own isn't complete. Some founding members of the new 25N Coworking in Geneva, which is hosting a grand opening Feb. 19 after welcoming its first workers Feb. 2, are opting for the “flex” package that provides access to a wide open workspace with 26 seats, about 15 lounge chairs and cafe seating for 28.

“You pick a spot and set up and go to work,” said Mike Dorrance, a web developer and marketer who is swapping out his membership at the 1871 co-working center in Chicago for a flex membership at 25N in Geneva, a mere four miles from his home.

“I was looking for somewhere else where I could go, work and be energized and have people around me in an open environment,” he said.

But some suburban workers who are choosing the “four walls and a door” option still feel they're getting value from the other entrepreneurs who set up shop nearby.

“We are part of a community,” said Claudia Freed of Willowbrook, who has a private office for her translation and multicultural marketing company Technelion inside the Rev3 Innovation Center in Naperville. “We believe in the idea because we had seen 1871 and we had seen other collaborative workspaces, but we wanted something in the suburbs.”

In the three months since Freed has occupied her $800-a-month office at Rev3, she already has connected with one other entrepreneur, a software designer whose accounting programs she is working to translate into Spanish and likely Polish.

“We had that synergy within three weeks,” she said. “Because we are in a bigger space, there's always a level of energy.”

A productive atmosphere and new business partnerships are exactly what co-working proponents say they aim to provide. But as venues such as Rev3, 25N and the Elgin Technology Center establish more of a presence in the suburbs, leaders expect continued challenges of defining exactly what they offer and explaining how a collaborative workspace can benefit individual entrepreneurs, spawn new business partnerships and enhance economies.

“My goal is to have an economic development model in a privately owned co-working space,” said Mara Hauser, founder and CEO of 25N Coworking in Geneva. “We help build the business of the members who work here and we also help build the businesses in the community.”

Suburban challenges

Before opening 25N on Feb. 2, Hauser had to search 10 months for a location, change the name of her business and the legal address of the building where she eventually signed a seven-year lease, and recruit workers from the Tri-Cities to rent a spot in the “fun, cheery” environment she was developing.

“We created a community before we opened our doors,” Hauser said. “For two years, we've been hosting events and reaching out.”

Hub 83, a co-working space that's been open for a year in South Barrington, still is working to create a community, said Melissa Moody, community manager. The 12,000-square-foot building with open co-working, private offices and meeting rooms is running into the “four walls and a door” problem and wants to bring in “creative people that can all work together,” she said. Hub 83 has room for 40 workers but only six members so far.

“A lot of people out here, they're used to the four walls and a door, which we have,” Moody said about the Hub's 12 private offices. “But ideally what we're trying to do is more to foster that entrepreneurial, collaborative environment. It's very hard to bring that concept out here.”

Hub 83 is offering a deal for anyone with a creative skill such as web development, graphic design, public relations or social media that will cut in half the monthly rent for shared co-working space, bringing the cost to $125. Any creative professional willing to use the space for eight hours a week can get in on the deal.

At Rev3 Innovation Center in Naperville, communities of Wordpress publishing software users, entrepreneurs and so-called “hackers” who develop new online ideas are forming, said Nic Zito, business services director for Choose DuPage, which launched Rev3 last November inside the Northern Illinois University Naperville campus.

“I'm really happy to see that naturally occurring,” Zito said.

After three months in operation, the 10,000-square-foot center has 15 members — already halfway to its goal of 30 in the first year. Rev3 is building its membership by hosting frequent events such as peer business roundtables, Internet of Things groups to discuss wearable technology and “smart” household items, social media boot camps and speakers on legal, financial and marketing topics. Rev3 plans to build a manufacturing lab and become a center for technological innovation, but geography still poses a problem.

“It's that classic issue of the suburban landscape versus the city,” Zito said. “We have all these people who are interested, but everything is so spread out. We're trying to be that central gathering place, so we're trying to reach out to the community.”

Choosing co-working

Rev3's outreach connected with Freed, who runs a translation and marketing company with her brother-in-law in Argentina. She also has a job at Educational Assistance, Ltd., in Wheaton, so before she joined Rev3 on Nov. 1, she did her translation and marketing work from home.

Now, she has an orange and gray office in Naperville that already has connected her with one new client — the accounting software firm whose program she is translating into Spanish and Polish.

Despite Freed's interest in the collaboration of co-working, she chose a private office in Rev3 because she wanted a “level of seriousness,” that an individual space conveys.

Roger Breisch of Batavia, however, is one example of a suburban resident who will be dabbling in open space co-working with 13 day-passes to the flex area of 25N in Geneva. He plans to use them to work on his business, in which he offers speaking and workshops to help people overcome “mind traps” that prevent them from reaching success and happiness. Working in the collaborative space will help feed the human need for social interaction, he said.

“I'm looking forward to having a place where I can get away from the house and distractions and really focus on work,” Breisch said. “I love the clash of diverse ideas because something new and surprising comes out of ideas that are different.”

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  Colorful calendars and menu boards complement the design of the new 25N Coworking in Geneva, which is one of a handful of facilities offering communal shared workspaces in the suburbs. Rick West/
  The cafe at the new 25N Coworking in Geneva has space for 28 people to work or meet over coffee. Rick West/
  Claudia Freed of Willowbrook works on her translation and multicultural marketing company, Technelion, in her private office at Rev3 Innovation Center in Naperville. Although she chose her own "four walls and a door" she says she's found value in the collaborative nature of her workspace near several other entrepreneurs. Paul Michna/
  Rev3 Innovation Center tenant Claudia Freed of Willowbrook is among suburban residents who are interested in the communal concept of co-working, but still want their own private office. Freed works on her translation and multicultural marketing company, Technelion, from her own space inside Rev3 in Naperville. Paul Michna/
  Michael Copeland, executive director of the Elgin Technology Center, says entrepreneurs who use the co-working facility are building a community, but the movement toward communal, open office space may be slow to grow in the suburbs as many prefer their own private offices. Rick West/ May 2014
  Michael Copeland, executive director of a nonprofit co-working facility called the Elgin Technology Center, says a new community is building since the facility moved about a year ago out of the Elgin Tower Building into a new space on Riverside Drive. Rick West/ May 2014
  Ryan Ore is an engineer with Jellyvision, one of the companies that uses co-working space within the Elgin Technology Center. Rick West/ May 2014
  25N Coworking founder Mara Hauser shows tenants the new space in Geneva on Feb. 2, the first day the 10,000-square-foot co-working facility was open. 25N is one of a handful of co-working spaces establishing themselves in the suburbs, but the trend is growing slowly. Rick West/
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