Co-working spaces spark collaboration in Detroit

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Northwestern University graduate student David Visintainer and Amy Sacka, a freelance copy writer and street photographer, co-work at Bamboo Detroit. Both are from Detroit.

Just off a phone call, commercial interior designer Justin Morelock worked on a project at a table. Nearby, a tech entrepreneur developed what he hopes could be the next Spotify. A freelance photographer with a camera bag draped off her shoulder gathered her gear on the opposite side of the room.

Although they make their livings doing very different things, they all share office space. Bamboo Detroit is one of about 15 co-working centers in the city.

Co-working centers are where people from various businesses, nonprofits or organizations work in a shared space. Typically open in floor plan, co-working centers promote collaboration.

As real estate prices increase in Detroit, especially downtown, co-working is an option for entrepreneurs or small companies that desire to be in the city. Monthly membership rates around Detroit vary from $40 to $350.

“You can turn around and talk to a lawyer or an accountant,” said Amanda Lewan, co-founder of Bamboo Detroit. “There’s such a great community.”

Morelock, who is the owner of NXT Design, enjoys co-working for its social aspect and because it has the feeling of an office: “Bamboo Detroit is a community, and you’re not going insane from talking to yourself all day at home.”

He said he’s benefited from his co-workers’ knowledge. They have helped him learn to use software programs.

Bamboo Detroit opened in 2013 on Brush Street when four friends, including Lewan, went looking for a place in downtown Detroit to work.

“We found out there was a need for affordable space and inclusive community,” Lewan said. “I was really drawn to the creative environment in Detroit. I knew I would pay for that.”

Bamboo Detroit started with 10 members and now has more than 100 who share space. By the end of the year, Lewan said it hopes to open a second downtown space, offering more private offices and dedicated desks. The expansion is made possible by a Motor City Match grant, a program administered by the city of Detroit that was generated during a discussion of entrepreneurs at Bamboo Detroit when Jill Ford, the city’s head of innovation, visited.

Bamboo Detroit is named for a plant that takes a couple of years to grow. Its mission is to do the same with startup businesses, which is one of the reasons why it selected Morelock’s company to design the new space.

Lewan added that Bamboo Detroit is also looking into expanding to other cities as well.

Space is tight

Expansion is not limited to Bamboo Detroit. Katrina Turnbow acquired An Office in Detroit, a co-working center near Cass Park, in February. Although daily occupancy of the space varies between five and 20 people, she said co-working space is becoming tight in the city.

Mitch Rubin, left, co-founder of Purple, a business card scanning service, and Justin Morelock, NXT Design owner, share space at Bamboo Detroit.

“Due to that demand of what is happening, in terms of growth in Detroit, co-working spaces are actually becoming limited,” Turnbow said.

In response, Turnbow said she is planning to open a second, 3,000-square-foot location later this summer in the Boston Edison District that will be the heart of her business.

Between 2006 and 2012, co-working centers doubled worldwide, according to a survey by Deskmag. In 2013, reported in its Global Coworking Census that there were 781 co-working spaces in the United States and 2,498 worldwide.

The expansion comes as teleworking and telecommuting are on the rise. In 2014, nearly 3.7 million U.S. employees teleworked at least half the time, more than double than in 2005, according to an analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey done by

Co-working centers host a variety of workers from freelancers to startup tech companies to clothing and accessories businesses, all of whom have flexibility about where they can operate.

Gabriel Kwakyi — co-founder and CEO of Incipia, a mobile app development and marketing business that works from the Grand Circus, a co-working space near Grand Circus Park — likes how co-working allows for a professional setting to do work and meet with clients.

“It offers legitimacy we couldn’t otherwise get,” Kwakyi said.

Sharing advice

Most co-working centers offer Wi-Fi, a mailing address and private conference rooms to take a phone call or meet with a client. They typically have trendy interior design and a snack and coffee bar. Some include printing services and other benefits.

It’s the people, however, that make the space.

“Collaboration is huge,” said Jennifer Cline, senior marketing manager for Grand Circus, which also offers tech “boot camps” to teach people how to use technology to their advantage.

Cline said the best benefit of co-working is the ability to provide and share advice with other innovators. Co-workers provide assistance to each other, from swapping social media campaign ideas to working on projects together.

AMBR Detroit, a software company, moved into Grand Circus in 2013, though since then it has grown from two employees to five and moved into its own space. Collaboration with other co-workers helped grow the business, AMBR Detroit co-founder Anthony Montalbano said.

“It was helpful to be in an atmosphere where there were other budding entrepreneurs,” Montalbano said.

AMBR Detroit found clients in its co-workers, helping its desk neighbors with apps and websites. Furthermore, Montalbano said the resources and events at Grand Circus offered him opportunities to meet other professionals, future clients and two individuals the business would eventually hire.

Beyond tech startups, artists and nonprofits, Detroit’s co-working community extends to the hard sciences. NextEnergy offers labs and testing facilities in Midtown to share among businesses and organizations that are creating innovations in energy and transportation.

Jim Saber, NextEnergy vice president for business and technological development, said the collaboration at NextEnergy helps co-workers contribute to other projects and develop new uses for their own ideas.

Saber said co-working is a way to get exposure. NextEnergy has guests come from universities, businesses and organizations to tour and use its facility.

‘Entrepreneurial spirit’

Being in the city, Ken Porter said, made him fall in love with co-working at Grand Circus. Porter is the president and founder of Porter Media Group, a print and design company.

“I wanted to really be a part of what was happening in Detroit,” Porter said. “Being in here gave me a really good opportunity to get a contract with the city of Detroit. I feel here, I’m a part of the thread that is the fabric of Detroit.”

Cline said she sees the startups at the co-working centers as examples of the city’s resurgence.

“The entrepreneurial spirit is definitely thriving here. Collaboration is growing in importance,” Cline said. “Co-working allows you to do to both things.”

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