SOHO Beyond

In early 1998, when she quit her job at a San Francisco dot-com to return to freelance writing, Lisa Margonelli was thrilled to be in control of her own time. Working by herself at home, she could get up when she wanted to and sleep when she was tired. But within months, her newfound freedom turned against her. Under deadline pressure, she became erratic in her work hours. She might start work at 5 a.m. and then take a nap in the afternoon. She'd fritter away the early evening and then stay up all night at the keyboard. "I couldn't find a schedule," she says. "I was going stir-crazy in my small apartment."

Margonelli turned to friend and fellow writer Laura Fraser for help. Fraser extended an invitation to her to join the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, a cooperative that was started seven years ago by a group of Bay Area writers that included Po Bronson, Ethan Canin, and Ethan Watters. Margonelli says she has since found her much-needed structure in a shared office, where people work independently but together. "I felt alone and disconnected at home," she says. "Now I still work in a room by myself, but there are other people here. I have someone to go to lunch with."

As the home-based workforce has grown, so too has dissatisfaction with the home office. Solo operators complain that isolation, cramped quarters, and familial distractions often cut into their productivity. Although statistics are hard to come by, more and more people are leaving the discomforts of home for shared offices, where they hope to find a more supportive environment as well as cheaper and often superior technical and logistical resources. It's no accident that such collectives are growing increasingly popular in hot real estate markets like San Francisco and New York City. When people live in small spaces, the walls close in that much faster if their home becomes an office, too.

At the Grotto, each member takes responsibility for handling one of the common tasks, which include negotiating with Pacific Bell for additional phone lines, dealing with the landlord, taking out the garbage, and replenishing kitchen and bathroom supplies. With her experience at an Internet company and her stable of techie friends, Margonelli volunteered to be the point person for the group's DSL connection. The task proved surprisingly daunting.

In the spring of 2000, as dot-com fever was strangling San Francisco's already tight real estate market, the Grotto lost its lease and was forced to seek new space. The group eventually rented a former animal hospital, whose examination rooms and kennels were perfect for small offices. The co-op members felt at home in the Civic Center neighborhood and delighted in the roof garden, which was ideal for meetings and parties. But the building's Internet connectivity couldn't have been worse.

The veterinarians who preceded the Grotto contingent hadn't used the Net much more often than their furry patients had. There were just two phone lines in the entire building. And to fill the space, the group had needed to expand from 9 to 21 members, taking in a group of filmmakers as well as additional writers. The upshot: a fairly large group of people who didn't know one another well had to agree on a common plan for wiring the building.

Unlike companies with centralized decision making, the Grotto felt no temptation to build the typical wheel-shaped local area network with lines converging at the seat of power. A LAN would have lowered their costs, but Margonelli quickly discovered that most networking products solved problems that the Grotto didn't have. "We didn't want a server," she says. "And we didn't particularly want access to one another's files."

The group hemmed and hawed for several months until Margonelli discovered that a DSL router would split the incoming line and offer each individual office direct access to the Internet. The members ended up with a decentralized network shaped more like a web than a wheel. After the layout had been set, the group had to decide who was going to wire it. A $5,000 turnkey solution seemed overpriced, and a local techie's offer to supervise a self-installation -- the digital equivalent of a barn raising -- was too risky for some members.

Finally, the community accepted an offer of $70 per office with additional charges for connecting the hubs and routers. "We wanted a network that would allow us to share the costs of Internet access but preserve the autonomy of working in our own little rooms," says Margonelli. "We ended up with a network that precisely mirrored the social structure of the group."

The end result: the smallest offices rent for less than $300 a month, plus $40 for all communal services, from connectivity to cleaning service. Though the group has succeeded in keeping costs down, that isn't its main priority. The Grotto was founded to create community, not to save money. "As soon as I got to the Grotto, I had people to talk to. I could show them drafts of my work and ask for help," Margonelli says. "So while I didn't save money at the Grotto, I've earned more because it's increased my productivity." For co-op organizer Ethan Watters, a magazine and book author, working at the Grotto has also led to greater efficiency. "If I work at home and I stop working, I might never recover the momentum to go on," he says. "Here you have a group of people who expect to see you every day. They keep you going."

Like the Grotto members, most soloists who share offices with other soloists speak first about the psychological benefits of being surrounded by people who have interests that are similar to their own. But that's not always what brings groups together. In Web-development shops, for instance, technical infrastructure plays an important role. Many freelancers rent work space from companies that are willing to provide a high-speed Internet connection such as a T1 line. But renting a space to avoid expensive installation and service charges usually leads to a greater benefit: a nexus of like-minded people who are willing to spend a few minutes thinking about a design problem or checking on code.

"I could put a T1 in my apartment," says Erik Bryan Slavin, a filmmaker and multimedia producer who rents space from JDM Interactive Inc., a Silicon Alley-based consulting company. Like half a dozen other freelancers who rent from JDM, Slavin works there because the others do, too. "I like working in this space because there's always someone around if I have a question," he says.

Renting space to freelancers has often proven advantageous to host companies as well. John D. McGann, the owner of JDM, first took in freelancers because the space he rented was too large for his own company. But he has come to believe that sharing space with Web soloists and even other businesses brings new ideas and capabilities to his company. In fact, he's expanding and redesigning a 25,000-square-foot space to attract more freelancers and start-ups from the Web-development community. "We want to offer them a space to work and a place to hold meetings besides Starbucks or their living room," he says. JDM also offers a virtual private network to enable tenants and clients to share files securely on the Web.

Like the companies who rent to them, some soloists find the greatest benefits in sharing space with people who are not quite like themselves. Jonathan Berman, a film and television director in New York City, was simply outgrowing his home office. Surrounded by camera equipment, research files, and boxes of videotapes, he began to feel as if he were living in an office rather than working at home. He eventually rented space in Little Italy with a magazine journalist, a screenwriter, a documentary filmmaker, and a group of freelance radio journalists. "Everybody is doing their own thing in their own office," Berman says. "We all do different things, but we are all storytellers. Sometimes, when things aren't going forward, what we really need to do is sit down over lunch and talk. That's sometimes when I get the best ideas."

Ironically, the regimented workday that freelancers often seek to escape from can look good to them in the end. "I have all the freedom in the world to set my own hours," says Grotto member Fraser. "But I work from 10 to 6. It's what I want to do. I like not to be working when I'm at home."

Ron Feemster is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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Published on: Jun 15, 2001