Look around your office. Do you see any unoccupied desks or vacant rooms?

To you those empty spaces may represent a less than optimal lease or, more optimistically, room to grow. But some business owners look at unusued office real estate and see something very different-- a potential co-working space.

This small but growing group of entrepreneurs is converting their excess office space into co-working spaces and becoming dual owners of both their original business and a shared workspace, earning cash, building community, and feeding their creativity in the process.

The Coffee Shop Exile

Take web designer Sam Rosen as an example. As the owner of his own shop, Rosen could work anywhere, but it was pretty clear from the grumpy looks he got at coffee shops that not everywhere was thrilled to host him. Then on a trip to New York a friend recommended a Brooklyn co-working space. It was a revelation. 

"There was fast internet and everyone was really nice and interesting. By the end of the day not only did we have a fantastic place to work, but we had a list of music shows to go to that night with an asterisk next to the ones that the guy could get us on the list. It was like being plugged into a little community," he says.

Back home in Chicago, Rosen looked at his company's newly acquired office space with fresh eyes. Empty desks need not be dust collectors; they could be a revenue stream. The Coop was born. Rosen's original intentions were mainly financial, but "it's been a huge, unexpected benefit for our business," he says. "When we started it, we thought we could make a little cash on the side. What we've been able to build in the end is relationships."

Besides being able to afford a far cooler office than his small firm would have been able to afford otherwise, "we've met fantastic people. Some that we've hired and others have hired us. It's actually brought a lot of work and talent to our company," he explains. Though these positives do come with a fair bit of administrative hassle.

But with developers in-house, Rosen's company has found a way to minimize the logistical burdens of running The Coop. "We built software that we call Desktime to handle the scheduling, the billing and a lot of the common headaches related to managing a space like this," he says, though he stresses that even with the best software solution, "you can't just put some desks in a room and expect that you're going to be able to build a co-working community. It demands more time and energy than just the physical space."

The Passion Project

For other entrepreneurs, opening a co-working space is less about making money and friends, and more about nurturing the local entrepreneurial community. "I've always seen CO+HOOTS as a passion project," says Jenny Poon, a design agency owner who started co-working space CO+HOOTS on the side as "the starting point to shifting perceptions of Phoenix, bringing awareness to the fact that Phoenix is a safe place for entrepreneurs."

"I'm fortunate now to be able to be do what I love, surrounded by people who inspire me daily," she says, but starting the space also has its downsides and has taken a toll on her design business: "When you lead a co-working space you're fortunate to be in the thick of the entrepreneurial world, but that also means making sure you're doing your job as the connector. It's hard to be the connector while focusing on your own work at times."

How does she make it work? "Surround yourself with the people who follow the same values, setup systems to empower members to take the lead, and restructure your businesses to make sure they're both well supported," she advises other entrepreneurs thinking about undertaking something similar. "We've taken to systemizing some of our processes, creating manuals for training in new members, as well as finding the right task management software to keep everyone on track," she adds.

The Portfolio

For architects and office design pros specifically, a co-working space can serve as a showcase. "My long-term goal was to have BLANKSPACES act as a live portfolio. With most private office clients, I'd have to get through red tape to tour a prospective client through the office.  With BLANKSPACES, the space is ready to be toured at any time," explains Jerome Chang, owner of both Los Angeles co-working space BLANKSPACES and architecture firm CODAspaces.  

"Also, the public visibility of BLANKSPACES gives great marketing for the architecture/design, which then potentially brings clients to CODA," he notes. But even if you're not in the design business, co-working can benefit small business owners by, essentially, broadening their portfolio—in the investing sense of the work. This can be especially useful in feast or famine service businesses, according to Chang.

"I'll continue to focus on both," he says. "This way, I have a baseline revenue to afford staff and the basics. For architecture and any other service businesses, it's always about getting the next project, and if you have a stable client, then you fear the day that client leaves." Co-working provides a steady income, reducing stress and allowing Chang to build his architecture business under less pressure.

If the rationale of Chang, Poon and Rosen seems compelling to you and you're thinking of following in their footsteps, check out the the Global Coworking Unconference Conference next month in Austin, where Poon will be speaking, for possible guidance and inspiration. 

Could your empty desks be reimagined as a co-working space?