Thursday, February 23, 2012

Laptopistan is getting crowded

This is purely anecdotal, of course, but on the occasions when I've ventured out from my home office to get some fresh air or avoid being pestered by my dog, I've seen more and more people working remotely. Your average Starbucks is completely overrun with laptop-facing contractors, remote workers, and students these days, as are most other public areas with seating and free WiFi. Getting a table all to yourself is becoming rare, and forget about finding an open power outlet!

This says to me that there is a serious hole in the co-working space market. Assuming these Starbucks campers order an average of a $4 latte per day (some get black coffee, which is cheaper, but some add a muffin), and the cost of a dedicated desk at Affinity Lab is on the order of $900, that works out to a price differential of $800/mo. Surely there must be a point somewhere in the middle for which one could add certain beneficial services while keeping the cost enough to attract customers.

Starbucks, after all, does not exactly inspire loyalty - the seating is functional, but rarely comfortable; there are never enough outlets; the coffee is okay but somewhat expensive; the WiFi is often slow; the environment is noisier than a worker would prefer; and the venues themselves hardly encourage hard work. If I could pay $200/mo for a similarly casual but better-outfitted space in which I could work, chat, and drink coffee, I would jump at the chance. I've been trying to check out DCIOLab, but they haven't emailed me back.

Makes me think there's a definite business opportunity here, but certainly a risky one. Timing is important - is NOW the inflection point in density of remote workers, or a year from now? You can quickly go broke renting a commercial space for a year with not enough customers. Is there enough consistency in the office support requirements of the proposed customers? A good coffee pot or two (or a Chemex or Aeropress, maybe) is definitely necessary, but a copier? Fax machine? Phones? A conference room?

These are ways to differentiate a workspace from a Starbucks, but I think they may raise the cost too much and get too little use. I don't need any of those things besides the coffee-making apparatus. In fact, all I want is coffee, power, internet, good light, and preferably high ceilings. Could one provide those things, pack people in as tightly as they do at Starbucks, and make money charging $200/mo?

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