A few months ago, I was at a free trial day at a coworking space in downtown L.A. when my friend Aaron friend dropped in. He took a quick look around, leaned in, and whispered, "Umm...so what’s the difference between working here and working at a Starbucks?"
Aaron had a point. If you’re a location-independent freelancer, all you need really is a power outlet and some reliable wi-fi, and you’re set. Why would you fork over dough each month to essentially pay for what you escaped from—an office?
Depending on your freelancer needs and preferences, budgeting to get a membership at a coworking space might be worth the cost. After six months of the #freelancelife of coffee shop hopping and working at my "home office" (aka dining table) I looked into getting a membership to a coworking space myself. Here are things I considered when mulling over whether the cost of a membership would be worth it:
I considered getting a membership because I felt cooped up working from home. Hopping from coffee joint to coffee joint without the guarantee of an open table near an outlet was starting to get old. Plus, trekking to different places around town and having to readjust to different "commute times" and environments was draining. Some of my freelance friends signed up for coworking memberships because they got isolated working by themselves, wanted a separate space from home, or are more productive working out of an "office."
If you’re paying to work out of an office, and get to choose where your office is, you’ll naturally want to pick one that’s in a convenient location, close to public transit, open when you need it to be, and so forth. Some coworking spaces are only open during regular 9-5 business hours, and others are open 24/7. However, depending on your package you may only have access during certain times of the day.
While there was no shortage of coworking spaces in West L.A., primarily in Culver City, Santa Monica, and Venice, my conundrum was that the ones I liked the most were on the other side of town. I’d have to commute about an hour each way to get there.
As the L.A. organizer for the free coworking event Freelance Friday, and a frequent attendee of Freelancers Union Spark meetups, which usually take place in coworking spaces around town, I’ve seen my fair share of coworking spaces and the vibe and culture of each. And it’s called a coworking membership for a reason: you’ll be part of a community of fellow freelancer rogues. Some coworking spaces even require that several current members vouch for you before you’re eligible to apply.
There are spaces that have a more laid-back vibe where you run into solopreneur types, like the screenwriter or documentary filmmaker, freelance writer or web developer. They’re usually there just to get out of their house and get lunch with people they can talk about their latest story pitch or side project with.
Then there are spaces that are more for small startup companies. These usually have more private office space and conference rooms, with entire teams working out of them. There are also "niche" coworking spaces exclusively for writers, such as The Hatchery or Suite8.
You’ll get a sense of the vibe and culture simply by spending a bit of time there. Most coworking spaces offer a free trial, whether it’s a day pass, week pass, or even a month-long free pass to check out the space and see if it’s a good fit for you. They may offer a free coworking day each month so you can drop in and get a feel for the space.
The coworking spaces that I jived the most with were the smaller, more laid-back spaces. Unfortunately, they were mainly on the other side of town.
Not all coworking spaces are alike in the types of networking opportunities and educational workshops. Some of the smaller, low-key collaborative spaces have fewer events, while the larger ones geared toward those who work in tech and startups host them more frequently. Some professional mixers and community talks might actually be open to the public, and some are sponsored by an outside organization simply using the space. Ask to see a calendar of networking events when you drop in, or see if one is available online.
As I do a lot of my professional networking online and at professional conferences, I figured I could network IRL in Los Angeles by attending professional mixers that are open to the public, such as Built in L.A. for startups, Think LA for marketing creatives, and Creative Mornings.
Most coworking spaces have essentials such as wi-fi, printers, scanners, and fax machines, and conference rooms. They also supply you with unlimited tea and coffee. Some of the pricier upscale ones go all-out and may have a decked-out kitchen with free snacks, water that’s been filtered 300 times, a kombucha bar, happy hour Thursdays with a selection of local craft beers—you get the picture. I’ve visited coworking spaces that boast designated meditation rooms and sleeping pods.
It’s important to know that you’ll be paying a little more for these amenities. To me these are nice-to-haves. At most, I might need to schedule an in-person conference room.
The costs for coworking spaces can run the gamut, depending on the type of space and what package you’re going for. Do you want a first-come, first-served communal area, a dedicated desk space, or a private office? How many days will you come in? How long is the contract?
In terms of actual cost, it depends. Kleverdog Coworking in L.A.'s Chinatown offers a daily drop in rate of $25, 10 days of working at a flex desk for $150, a dedicated desk for $375 a month, or a team office for $1,200 a month. More luxe spaces are a bit pricier. If you’re looking at WeWork’s downtown location, a flex desk starts at $350 a month, a dedicated desk at $460 a month, and offices start at $590 a month.
If you poke around, you might find more affordable ones. There’s a cozy collaborative space called Camp in my ‘hood in West L.A. that’s only 700 square feet. A day pass is $20 while a monthly pass is $250. My friend Melanie also clued me in to Epiphany Space in Hollywood, where a monthly membership is only $150 a month.
One way you can gauge whether it’s worth it to you is divide the monthly rate by how many days you work a month. If you work on average 20 days out of the month, and the monthly rate is $350, then your day rate is $17.50 a day.
How would I justify the expense? Besides the basic question of whether or not I could afford it, I thought about what value I would be getting for $17.50. Would it help me be more productive? Unlimited tea and coffee? Help me make professional contacts? Do I need a professional space to meet in-person with clients? Would I be traveling a lot of the year?
After weighing the pros and cons, and the fact that some of my favorite coworking spaces are on the other side of town, and given that there are less-expensive alternatives to getting a membership, I decided against buying a membership for now. If a coworking space doesn’t fit your needs or budget, here are some alternatives:
Alternatives to coworking paces
Work parties. Work parties are essentially just getting together with a few of your fellow freelancer pals and meeting up at someone’s place. I usually schedule a block of time, and we all bring snacks. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. That this could easily turn into social hour. But it doesn’t have to. If you’re concerned that you’ll just start talking job or getting lazy, try structuring the work into the Pomodoro Technique: section off productivity time into 25-minute blocks of focused work followed by 5-minute breaks.
Free coworking days. Many coworking spaces offer free coworking days. You can check out their websites, or do a search on Meetup. In Los Angeles, there’s Cowork L.A. which lists free or cheap—we’re talking $5 admission—ways to check out a day pass.