I’ve been spending approximately one day a week for the last couple of weeks working out of Panera in Smyrna, I can’t help to think that coworking places would work here in Atlanta. Throughout the day, the place is frequently visited by laptop toting patrons that can’t get enough of good food and free wi-fi.
Panera seems to do a decent job of damming the flow of us wi-fi leechers by limiting the access to power sockets, but the demand is still strong nonetheless. But I wonder: can you make a profit from a place that has unfettered network access?
Some ideas that could make it work:
Offer more office services. Offer some basic Kinko-esque services like printing and faxing. Also, some basic networking and VPN services could make it easier for people to connect to other coworkers or to their actual office.
Provide a variety of work environments. While I do like the coffee house environment of Panera, I think it would be important to offer areas for people to work in private. You could offer some on a first come, first serve basis, and offer others on a permanent allocation or time-sharing plan. Something else that would be appealing would be conference rooms with teleconferencing equipment available for rent, because every time I’ve been at Panera I’ve seen people having some kind of interviewing session or having work/lunch meetings (today I actually saw someone using a projector pointed at the back of an executive pad).
Offer opportunities for companies to access your patrons. A healthy coworking place could be a healthy focus group for companies to do introduction to or research on their products. Of course, the trick would be to introduce this without alienating your patrons.
Get subsidies from the state and/or local governments. Atlanta annually ranks high in terms average commute time; the average miles per Atlantan per day has been estimated at approximately 30+ miles. The city has been funding all kinds of projects to lighten the transportation burden - opening coworking places across the suburbs of Atlanta should be cheaper than most of those projects. Also, governments could encourage the usage of coworking places by offering tax benefits for participating companies.
Sell the employees on the idea. This idea have been experimented many times, but my belief is that they haven’t really stuck because they were too much like offices, except without the coworkers you know and with strangers instead. Coworking places should to some extent resemble coffee houses (but with the office amenities detailed above) to encourage socializing and the feeling of community. If you can convince the employees of its benefits, they will sell it to their employers.