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How L.A.'s New Shared Office Spaces Try to Make Creative People More Productive 

Thursday, Nov 7 2013
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Meghana Bhatt had a problem. The 33-year-old co-founder of media analytics startup FEMinc, which aims to promote strong female characters in TV, film and other media, wasn't sure whether the algorithm she was working on would be worth the effort.

Sitting at her laptop at downtown communal workspace Hub L.A., she remembered that a few weeks earlier, while getting coffee in the space's kitchen, she'd met some guys who had worked on data analysis at OK Cupid.

So she walked the 20 feet to where they were sitting and asked them for advice. Sure enough, they said the algorithm would be overcomplicated.

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In the last year, Los Angeles has experienced a boom in members-only office-space communities such as Hub L.A., which, like vacant McMansions and waiters with master's degrees, come as a consequence of our postrecession economy. Yesterday's laid-off workers are today's entrepreneurs and freelancers. The 21st-century office requires only a laptop and a WiFi connection, but home is too distracting and coffee shops too unpredictable: Who knows whether that guy you asked to watch your laptop while you go to the bathroom will actually do so?

Flexible office space is not new. International co-working powerhouse Regus opened its first L.A.-area business center in El Segundo in 1999, allowing Angelenos to book cubicles and conference rooms by the hour. (The firm now has 50 L.A. locations.)

But this new generation of co-working spaces has redefined the shared-office model from a rented desk in a drab corporate environment to an industry playground–meets-incubator-meets–cocktail party, where the boss takes no equity but wants to actively help each individual thrive, network and collaborate.

At Cross Campus in Santa Monica, which one member deemed "the nerve center of Silicon Beach," a pair of startup bros might spend the afternoon hashing out a business strategy at a standing desk and the evening attending a talk about MySQL databases. At Hub L.A., in the Downtown Arts District, a community "curator" arranges and then sits in on coffee dates to suggest points of collaboration among its socially conscious members. And downtown, a communal workspace called Maker City L.A., chock-full of expensive, specialized equipment for artists, designers, YouTube stars, jewelry makers and other creatives, is opening in phases this fall. Even Sonja Rasula, creator of the popular made-in-America crafts fair Unique L.A., is getting in on the action, launching the Unique Space for creative entrepreneurs downtown next month.

While Regus charges extra for kitchen usage, these new spaces order pizza or barbecue a few times a month and position their kitchens to maximize serendipitous interactions. They hold events and classes for the populations they want to attract: programmers, fashion designers, artists, filmmakers. "We want people to feel totally hosted," says Sharon Ann Lee, co-creator with Ava Bromberg of Maker City L.A.

During Maker City L.A.'s September soft opening at a party there celebrating the 10th anniversary of electronic radio station Dublab, ravers stepped gingerly out of the elevator and marveled at the blue and gold tree stretching its branches around the foyer. As beats pulsed from a workroom down the hall called the Atelier, men in thick-framed glasses peered into the matcha-stocked Japanese tearoom that will serve as an office for the 60,000-square-foot space's general manager, or "cruise director."

Around the corner, in a flowing yellow vintage Hawaiian dress, Lee welcomed friends, and strangers who soon would be friends, to a classroom run by her brand forecasting firm, Culture Brain. "Hawaii is my spirit place," she says.

Lee is working with Atwater Crossing's Bromberg on rebranding the building where Maker City L.A. occupies a floor, a multistory design showroom formerly known as L.A. Mart but now called the Reef.

In addition to a room of conventional desks, Maker City L.A. features a textile studio, a wood shop, a spray booth, a laser cutter, a 3-D printer, a podcasting studio, a soundstage, edit bays, a shooting kitchen, a roll-away catwalk and an art gallery designed to look like an Asian street market.

A few co-working spaces claim to be the biggest in town, but Maker City L.A. is physically the largest and WeWork, near Hollywood and Highland, has the most members: 418, at last count. WeWork looks more like a typical office than the artists' playground at Maker City L.A., but it has an Xbox lounge, a kickball team, fruit-infused spa water and three kegerator beer fridges.

On a Tuesday afternoon last month, WeWork's visibly overextended senior community manager, Eyad Zahra, points out the flat-screen TVs showing scrolling posts from the private social network for members: "where is the pretty lady I talk to on wine Wednesday," one man wrote. "Us publicist need to stick together lol."

WeWork members might socialize at evening events such as weekly Wine Wednesdays or this past summer's technology roundtable with Mayor Eric Garcetti. But the winding halls of glass-doored offices on the top two floors are separated from the open space for freelancers downstairs, making WeWork more conducive to private work than collaboration, with a more hands-off approach to mixing members.

"The best kind of networking is organic networking," Zahra says, jabbing the elevator's "door close" button despite a fast-approaching pair of co-workers.

Some spaces base their design on research in how to facilitate interaction, from people like MIT's Otto Scharmer, considering acoustics, outlet availability, furniture layout, natural light and chair density.

Cross Campus CEO and co-founder Ronen Olshansky, 37, says people naturally gravitate toward a room's perimeter but are less productive when facing a wall — they should face in toward activity and other people, so that what they're looking at is inspirational. But Cross Campus' main room is cavernous, so only a small percentage of spaces is on the perimeter. To solve this problem, he strategically positioned bookshelves and couches to create multiple "zones" within the room, and now more workers can feel as if they are sitting on the outside of a space, facing in.

Cross Campus also plays wordless music with a slow beat, like white noise meets Skrillex, because researchers at the University of British Columbia have shown that a moderate amount of ambient sound makes people more creative and productive.

Olshansky, a gregarious schmoozer who wears monogrammed button-downs and has experience in finance and tech, might look over a member's business plan or help facilitate connections with investors at both formal pitch events and informal drop-bys. But unlike traditional startup incubators, Cross Campus has no financial stake in the success of its member companies.

So how do these places make money? Membership typically starts around $150 a month if you just want to plop down with a laptop at a communal table but rises if you want an assigned desk or private office. Olshansky calls his year-old business a "flagship" — his space, like most of them, plans to franchise, while WeWork and Hub L.A. are already offshoots of work spaces in other cities. The Hub started in London in 2005; now there are 35 worldwide.

Hub L.A. co-founder and CEO Elizabeth Stewart, a blonde with a tight smile, spent a few years working on rural water and sanitation at an NGO in Africa and now speaks in nonprofit buzzwords incomprehensible to those not trying to save the world one Toms shoe at a time. Hub's lengthy application process is "high-touch," meaning it involves multiple, in-person conversations; they ask you to "think about your give" and "share best practices."

"We're actually looking at different members across what we call change sectors, where there's a lot of disruption happening, blurring the lines between profit and nonprofit," she says.

Translation? Hub L.A. looks for entrepreneurs who care about social justice and sustainability in addition to the bottom line.

But not everyone wants to be part of a bustling community with hundreds of entrepreneurs. David Henderson, 31, runs a small company that uses database systems to maximize social outcome for nonprofits and government organizations, but when he toured Hub L.A. he didn't feel at home.

"I didn't want to be in an environment where people are trying to launch their million-dollar ideas. Their ideas suck," he says. "I don't really dig the hustler mentality."

Instead, he prefers the laid-back environment at a small co-working space in Chinatown, called Kleverdog, established by even-keeled David Oshima, a marketing and web-development freelancer who keeps raccoon-head slippers under his desk. "He's a really unpretentious dude," Henderson says.

Because more than anything else, the personality of the person in charge determines the vibe of a co-working space.

And the best thing about L.A.'s sudden proliferation of shared office spaces? If you don't like one, another probably is about to open down the street.

Reach the writer at amanda.chicago.lewis@gmail.com

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