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An economic bright side: Entrepreneurs working in shared space

Entrepreneurs work the day away at NextSpace, a co-working space in Culver City.
Entrepreneurs work the day away at NextSpace, a co-working space in Culver City.
Shereen Marisol Meraji/KPCC
Entrepreneurs work the day away at NextSpace, a co-working space in Culver City.
A sign at the door to NextSpace, a co-working venue in Culver City.
Shereen Marisol Meraji/KPCC

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If the economic situation in this country makes you “mad as hell,” you’re “not going to take it anymore” and you’ve found yourself poised — black sharpie and white poster board in hand — to join the Occupy protesters, you might want to make a quick pitstop at NextSpace first. It' a Culver City business that serves as home base for a disparate group of entrepreneurs and small business owners who are making a go of it in a rough economy. There’s hope in the air and it's contagious.

Dozens of freelancers, small business owners and entrepreneurs come to work at NextSpace instead of their home office or the local coffee shop. For a fee they have access to a conference room, WiFi, lots of coffee and other like-minded entrepreneurs to bounce ideas off of. It’s called “coworking,” and people have been doing it officially since 2005.

NextSpace employee Sara Vainer shows KPCC's Shereen Meraji around and stops at a wall of photos with pictures of NextSpace members next to descriptions of what they do. There are illustrators, Web designers, entrepreneurs of various kinds, furniture makers, app designers and writers.

Fresh faced 20-something Mike Kai has a photo up, with “entrepreneur” written next to it and the name of his company, “Lifeyo.” Kai said he learned a lot about entrepreneurship at Yale, where he was part of a team working on a social media site called Scape at the same time Mark Zuckerberg was developing Facebook. “Mark Zuckerberg beat us by about four weeks,” Kai said with a shrug, “and ever since then, I definitely recognize how fast the world can change and that opportunity is right around the corner.”

Kai found a glimmer of opportunity in these dark economic times. He knew job seekers and small business owners with little capital needed websites to showcase talent or products. So he and a partner created Lifeyo to help normal people, not tech geeks, make websites.

A basic one is free. You want a slicker one, you pony up for the upgrades. So far, he’s not making money off Lifeyo. But the site has more than 20,000 users and Kai says ideas like this are what venture capitalists are ready to fund.

“There’s less people going after the really big ideas, trying to create the billion-dollar business," Kai said, "and more people who are trying to create the business that can employ 10 to 20 people. When you have young entrepreneurs who are focused on creating sustainable businesses, then that can push our economy forward.”

Richard Janes is another NextSpace member with an office off the main cafe area where his six employees are busy managing celebrities' “digital footprints.” His company, Artist Web Management (AWM), launched eight months ago and is making money by helping famous people build and maintain a strong Web presence. Janes is confident his company will have 300 employees in two years time and says his investors are “very happy at the moment.”

Without NextSpace cofounder, CEO and entrepreneur Jeremy Neuner, Kai and Janes might not be sharing office space and talents. Before becoming a small business owner, Neuner used to work on economic development for the city of Santa Cruz in 2008. He says it was a difficult job, “when the economy is crappy and you don’t have a lot of the incentives to give to businesses in the forms of tax breaks or tax credits.”

So Neuner thought of another way to stimulate economic growth in Santa Cruz: Open a coworking space and get entrepreneurs to share resources, inspire one another and maybe even work together.

“The way we think about is that instead of trying to recruit one 200-person business, we’re recruiting 200 one-person businesses. If we can get those 200 one-person businesses to each add one employee and all become two-person businesses and two-person business become three-person businesses — that’s real economic growth, that’s real job creation,” Neuner said.

There are about a dozen coworking businesses in Southern California, including Jeremy Neuner’s NextSpace. Across the country, about 450 coworking spots are up and running.