Creating sparks at The Hardware Store. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Mark Musolino was born in a commune in the early 70s. At the same time in New England, Dale McNutt was living in one of the 20,000 communes in the country. Fast forward four decades later and they are both in Pittsburgh, leading the movement in the commune’s modern day entrepreneurial parallel: coworking.

Coincidence? Maybe not. At its core, those dwelling in communes were motivated by the desire to live in a community where the collective defines a new group, beyond the conventional nuclear family.

In this new collective, individuals have access to resources—think people and ideas—while contributing to the larger community at the same time.

It’s a win-win for all. Or at least that’s the goal.

When Dale McNutt founded StartUptown five years ago, he envisioned an entrepreneurial campus with the ethos of “understanding what the creative experience is really about.” He also wanted to create a culture that not only supports the entrepreneur but also supports the growth and stability of his adopted community, Uptown, located between Downtown and Oakland. He bought the building, moved in, and renovated it for living and work spaces.

Mark Musolino was driven by a similar motivation. He founded Revv in Oakland to provide an anchor for emerging entrepreneurs—fostering an environment that offers a culture and network that stimulates the group which in turn contributes to the city’s growth.

What is shared in a commune versus a coworking environment may be different but the motivation is the same: the common lifestyle, the social interaction and the economy of shared resources. (And yes, the term coworking without a hyphen is the preferred form.)

Dale McNutt at StartupTown. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Dale McNutt at StartUptown. Photo by Brian Cohen.

In Deskmag’s 2013 Coworking Report—a survey of over 2000 individuals who work in coworking spaces—social interaction, community, value and shared resources were the top reasons for joining.

That’s true for Clark Slater, a serial entrepreneur whose third company, Scalient, works out of The Beauty Shoppe in East Liberty. Clark’s previous companies, including a mobile applications company that was eventually acquired by Nokia, were all housed in traditional offices.

Cool space at The Beauty Shoppe in East Liberty. Photo by Rob Larson.
Cool space at The Beauty Shoppe in East Liberty. Photo by Rob Larson.

Throwing all that money into rent was crazy, he says now. “It made what was already risky [a startup] and doubled that risk. It wasn’t a good thing but we had to do it—there were no other options.”

Another downside? “Then you get the keys and close your office door, and you’re in an island.”

The isolation worsened after he sold the company to work on his own projects. “It was amazing how disconnected I became—with trends in technology and what people were talking about and working on.”

Kwany Liu, who works out of BrunoWorks in downtown echoes that. Kwany co-founded with a business partner located in New York City which can make her feel “very siloed.” Both of them now work out of coworking spaces.

When Clark co-founded Scalient, he explored coworking and found The Beauty Shoppe. “Right away, it was awesome. We had a cool space that we didn’t have to worry about.”

And it provided an energy that was lacking. “There’s a buzz. People are working and creative. I think of biology and things growing when the environment provides the right stimulation. When there is good energy, things grow. It was a big deal to be in that environment coming from an isolated one.”

Mark Mussolino, who was born in a commune, at Revv in Oakland. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Mark Mussolino, who was born in a commune, at Revv in Oakland. Photo by Brian Cohen.

That’s exactly the environment that Beauty Shoppe co-founders Matthew Ciccone and Rabih Helou want to nurture for individuals and small companies. “With big companies like Google and Facebook, you are surrounded by other people that are stimulating you, that are moving you forward, that are inspiring you. Interactions bring new ideas,” says Helou. “Just because you are a new company, a small company, why would you not have access to these benefits? The idea is to gain the benefits of being part of a large organization without having to give up the benefits of being independent.”

As the Deskmag survey showed, 71% of those who work in coworking spaces say their creativity had increased since joining, and 62% say their standard of work had improved.

But The Beauty Shoppe wants to take it to another level. Their goal is for the environment to spark interactions, from getting help answering questions to collaborating on ideas. “There have been connections that have been made here amongst at least 3 or 4 different organizations. Those are not just random collisions but actual collaborations—those who work in larger organizations know you can make that happen by just walking down the hallway,” says Helou.

Clark Slater’s company, in fact, now works with and is an equity partner with Thrive, another startup at The Beauty Shoppe. The connection was made by a fellow coworking member, Shift Collaborative that worked with both companies.

Similar to the commune’s goal of building a new culture, the economy today has spurred the growth of a subculture of the workforce—namely, the freelancer. According to Forbes Magazine, one in three Americans identify themselves as freelancers, and many are seeking alternative work environments that would give them a sense of community, social interaction and value in shared infrastructure and resources.

By 2020 freelancers are expected to make up 50% of the full-time workforce, according to Forbes magazine. And  according to the Census, over 90% of firms in the US have fewer than five employees and those numbers continue to grow.

Coworking spaces provide a completely new structure that responds to these trends and with that, a work culture. Even physically, coworking spaces are typically open spaces, a clear counterpoint to the cubicle structure of traditional offices.

And 50% of coworkers access their space around the clock, demonstrating a work philosophy different from the typical confines of a 9 to 5 schedule.

An artist and entrepreneur, Dale McNutt is driven to provide a space that “understands this new way of work. Young people will have 20 different jobs by the time they retire. You don’t have a job for 30 years and then retire. It doesn’t compute in the larger world at this point. So how do you build that entrepreneurial culture? That’s what drives me.”

Startuptown courtyard. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Startuptown courtyard. Photo by Brian Cohen.

StartUptown is expanding its space to another building in Uptown and looking for a third space. The Beauty Shoppe is also expanding to another floor of the Liberty Bank building where it is currently housed. And there are many other coworking spaces in Pittsburgh including CatapultPGH in Lawrenceville, The Hardware Store in Allentown, even 21st Street Coffee in the Strip which now offers its model of a coworking space, giving an elevated option to those who work in coffee shops.

Interesting to note is that, according to a Stanford University study, communes as a social structure phenomenon eventually declined partly due to a lack of diversity and failure to evolve as high performing individuals opted out.

The same is not true of coworking. Coworking spaces attract high-performers from diverse fields. And the most successful coworking spaces are constantly shifting to respond to market needs.

Matthew Ciccone reflects on the continuing evolution. “When we started, it was more like a real estate experiment. It has changed a lot. It’s more of a community experiment now. How can we change the way people go to work? We are always thinking of how we can improve.”

Leah Lizarondo

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment. She is the Chief Veghacker, recipe creator and curator at The Brazen Kitchen, where she writes about food and food policy. She writes about the intersection of food, health, innovation and policy.