How coworking spaces are growing an entrepreneurial community in Grand Rapids

Coworking spaces in Grand Rapids are creating a place for entrepreneurs, creatives and the community to connect and collaborate. Venues like The Factory, The Space at Start Garden, Left Right Boom Collaborative, and Urban LINC offer more than just a spot to work. They are providing members with the support and educational opportunities needed in a city that aims to be synonymous with entrepreneurship.

The Oxford Dictionary defines coworking as “the use of an office or other working environment by people who are self-employed or working for different employers, typically so as to share equipment, ideas and knowledge." According to the 2017 Global Coworking Survey, by year-end, there will be approximately 14,000 operational coworking spaces worldwide. Additionally, the report shows these coworking spaces will be focusing on increasing membership, generating more income, hosting more events and having a stronger sense of community.


Boasting more than a dozen coworking spaces, and growing, West Michigan is no stranger to either this operating strategy or these initiatives. Whether you consider yourself a small business owner, an entrepreneur, a creative or just someone with a great idea, you are sure to find a space to meet your needs. Coworking spaces are not just for creatives or designers anymore. They now include options such as community kitchens, testing areas and maker spaces.


Jeremy DeRooSmall business owners face a variety of challenges when it comes to growth. From capital and space to employee acquisition and retention, there are a multitude of potential growing pains. Urban LINC launched in 2011 and is part of LINC UP, a nonprofit based in Grand Rapids’ southeast neighborhood that focuses on equitable community development. LINC UP Executive Director Jeremy DeRoo states Urban LINC is generally serving “small businesses, often newer companies that are looking to move beyond the coffee shop but not yet ready to commit to a storefront or permanent location.”


Since opening its doors in Linc Up’s headquarters at 1167 Madison Ave., Urban LINC has served around 30 members and averages five to 10 regular tenants, estimates DeRoo. One of its goals is to “continue to be a low-cost opportunity for entrepreneurs to have access to professional space, provide a space for them to grow, reduce the risk for them to grow and step out,” DeRoo says.


Initially opened in Zeeland as The Garage, The Factory is now based in downtown Grand Rapids. Though they do serve a variety of members, The Factory tends to cater to individuals or companies within the digital space, such as web developers and animators. In addition to business owners, their members include remote workers and employees of other companies that visit Grand Rapids occasionally and need a place to work. Volunteer Community Cultivator, Creator, Curator and member Veronica Kirin shares The Factory has “created a space where young entrepreneurs feel comfortable and feel like they find community.”


Veronica Kirin
Speaking as a member of The Factory, Kirin expounds, “I personally, as an entrepreneur, have noticed that it can be lonely, especially when you’re starting out and you don’t exactly know what that community looks like in general. If you’re working out of a coffee shop or you’re working at home, you definitely can start going stir-crazy or feel that loneliness, that lack of a colleague to talk to.”


“The Factory has set that as the mission and follows through on it beautifully to create not only a place for you to bang away on the keyboard but also to have colleagues and community within the entrepreneurial workspace,” Kirin says.
Working with a view at Start Garden.


Start Garden’s “The Space” is, as the developer of the entrepreneurial ecosystem explains, essentially a “village for entrepreneurs” and a “coworking environment for the community around high tech/high growth startups.” The organization launched its first coworking space in 2012 at 50 Louis in downtown Grand Rapids and in 2015 moved into the second floor of Grand Rapids' historic Michigan Trust Building at 40 Pearl Street Northwest on the southeast corner of Pearl Street and Ottawa Avenue Northwest. The Space is designed for flexible access. Depending on the level of membership, individuals can opt to drop in between 9am and 5pm or 24 hours a day, among other options.


“Startups have a huge hill to climb,” Start Garden says. “The Space is meant to surround them with fellow entrepreneurs, investors and service providers that work within the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The Space is designed to be that additional team member (or two) that you really need when you’re getting started.”

At Start Garden, entrepreneurs and others are able to gain access to the space and amenities they may not have elsewhere: reservable and drop-in conference rooms; common areas, including a cafe; access to events and VIP guest hours; and even plenty to sip on, with coffee service from Madcap and beer and spirits from New Holland.


“The idea of left brain strategy and right brain creative [coming] together to have an impact for your clients” is part of the story behind the name of Left Right Boom Collaborative, shares Partner, Brand Strategist and Design Director Joe Morris. Opened in January 2016, Left Right Boom’s members include creatives in development, advertising, writing and design. Morris elaborates on their vision stating, “the idea is that one person has only so much they can do, but when you group together with others, you’re able to offer your client more opportunities.”


Morris notes it makes a big difference to be able to bring a client to your own space, as opposed to, say, a coffee shop.


Joe Morris
As an entrepreneur, it can be challenging to convey the same level of professionalism to prospective clients without having a solid home base. Additionally, the hustle and bustle of moving from coffee shop to coffee shop, fighting for table space and free Wi-Fi can be hectic. “Sometimes it’s all in your surroundings,” says Rian Morgan, Left Right Boom partner, designer and photographer. “If you’re in a coffee shop, that’s fine, but it’s really great to be able to have someone come in and sit down in the conference room, without all the background noise and being able to whiteboard things. That’s a big benefit.”


Coworking continues to move beyond just catering to the self-employed. Local spaces are also providing solutions for remote workers, small businesses with employees and community members at large. Most all-local venues provide an option to secure a conference room for a business meeting, a desk for a day or a long-term workspace. For instance, membership is not a requirement for securing meeting space at Urban LINC, The Factory or Left Right Boom Collaborative, all of which focus on their community engagement and networking.


“The Factory differentiates itself by being very community-oriented. We’re a community of entrepreneurs and business owners, not just office space,” says Kirin.


The folks behind Urban LINC too stress this idea.


“[Urban LINC] is neighborhood-based, which is a unique feature. For many people, they are looking to be located in a more diverse environment and we’re able to offer that to business owners,” DeRoo shares.


Each coworking space also offers networking and educational opportunities. The Factory has a coLearning program, which offers classes on a variety of topics including: HTML, CSS, design thinking and app development. They also host Coffee With Creators every Wednesday morning, which is open to the public. Both Start Garden and, thanks to a partnership with Start Garden, Urban LINC host 5x5 Nights, providing entrepreneurs with the opportunity to connect with others in the community and gain exposure for their business ideas. DeRoo states Urban LINC has also been working with other local organizations including Grand Rapids Community College, Michigan Works! and Hope Network on a variety of workforce development related initiatives.


In line with the results from the 2017 Global Coworking Survey, local coworking spaces are reporting similar focus areas of increasing membership, generating additional income, hosting more events, and have a stronger sense of community.. Morris’s goals, for example, are to “continue to grow our business with independents and to see how it comes together with other independents. And use the space to make more connections and to network," he says.


Morgan states, “there’s a lot of talent in Grand Rapids.” He encourages individuals to “get out of the coffee shop and try another method of working and freelancing.”


“When you do have a place to go to work or you can share the creative [needs of] a client, it really does give you a sense of pride. It really does make a difference,” says Morris.


Leandra Williams, the owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Gold Leaf Designs LLC, has more than 12 years of experience in leadership, sales and marketing, and graphic design. Through these organizations, she assists businesses with creating strategies for growth and sustainability through: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management solutions and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several boards and committees.

“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable startup-friendly community. Read more in the series here. Support for this series is provided by Start Garden. You can reach the editor of this series, Allison Spooner, on Twitter or e-mail her at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Steph Harding. Photos of Start Garden courtesy of Start Garden.
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