One of the first decisions you have to take as an entrepreneur, freelancer, or startup, is where to base yourself.
Working from home is one option, and depending on your setup and your working style it could suit you. But the need for professional facilities, networking and social interaction often pushes people to explore alternatives. Coworking has really taken off in Norway, but is it for everyone?
Firstly I want to point out this article is specifically about coworking spaces, not incubators, accelerators and the like. Coworking is primarily about providing an environment for freelancers, remote workers and very early stage entrepreneurs to connect and/or collaborate. Many coworking spaces such as DIGS in Trondheim and MESH in Oslo also provide small offices big enough for a handful of people - a short-term project, a small service company or a fledgling startup - who can’t justify the cost of dedicated office space or value the connection and collaboration opportunities a coworking space can provide.
As a freelancer I’ve worked in several coworking spaces over the years and have come to appreciate the benefits but also learned the drawbacks.
The main drawback of working at home is the lack of professional facilities, unless you happen to have space for a dedicated home office setup. I’ve had to spend some time at home recently, and found myself sitting awkwardly on the sofa balancing my laptop on my knee, or sat at our cramped kitchen table. Not good.
Plus, what do you do when you need a printer, a scanner, space for a meeting, and so on? At DIGS, I have space for a giant monitor and drawers for my files, all of which keeps my home as my home.
For me, this has to be the biggest benefit of coworking. One of my longest-running clients came directly through being a member at DIGS, while contacts I made at MESH continue to be great sources for news articles years later.
If you’re struggling to submit a tax form, you can ask one of the fifty other members that all submit tax forms. If you’re struggling to find the right term in English, you simply ask one of the native speakers. If you’re wondering whether your next phone should be Apple or Android, you have a whole bunch of power users from whom to canvass opinion. If you need a contact in the fishing industry, you ask on the internal Facebook group and someone will come up trumps.
You get the idea. It's impossible to put a value on this, but for me it goes way beyond the membership fee.
The List, Trondheim’s English-language print magazine, was born because a bunch of DIGS-based creatives (and their friends) pooled their talent, ideas, resources and contacts. It’s fair to say without the community at DIGS, the List would not have come this far.
Maybe a personal one for me, but the community has DIGS has given me an instant social network. Making friends as an adult is tricky, especially when you're living in a culture different from your own. You'll never get on with everyone at a coworking space, but you will quickly find "your people", especially if you're an introvert.
With all the positives of coworking, it’s only fair to mention some of the downsides. It’s important for anyone considering coworking to be aware of the reality of life in a shared office before committing to the concept.
The most obvious downside is the possibility of distraction. In an open plan office, it’s very easy for your mind to wander, your ears to pick up on an interesting conversation, your nose to lure you to the cakes in the kitchen, and so on.
Of course, distraction can be good. Some conversations lead to unexpected possibilities, but it's impossible to know whether a distraction is going to be positive or negative until you are distracted!
Over time, you learn to cope with this. The best method I’ve found is the unspoken headphone rule. If someone’s “plugged in”, then its generally not acceptable to bother them unless it’s important. If they’re headphone-free, dive on in. I've often found myself heading to the nearby library if there's a piece of work I have to finish but I'm struggling to focus on. Yet I value the social interaction, connections and inspiration I get from my membership at DIGS. It's a difficult balance to strike, but you'll find a method that works for you.
The other main downside is the cost. Frankly speaking, I find the NOK 2,500 monthly fee for a fixed desk the most valuable of my business expenses. It's not just "office rent", it's also a big chunk of my networking budget and even some of my marketing budget. Not to forget the coffee budget! But for people just starting out on their entrepreneurial journey, it can be hard to justify the cost.
If you're interested in coworking, my advice is to take a tour, ask if you can have a "test day", and try to speak to other members (but not if they're wearing headphones, remember!). If you want to take the plunge, start with a part-time membership. For a lower cost, you will quickly work out if coworking is for you.
Alongside DIGS there is a new coworking space available at NTNU Accel's incubator, and the gaming-focused Work Work opens soon. The converted factory at Atelier Ilsvika is aimed at creatives, while there are many more venues and programs for more established enterprises.
Photo: Robert McGoldrick