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Shared-Space Concept Plays A New Role In The Suburbs

By Diane Mastrull The Philadelphia Inquirer

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As the co-working concept continues to boom across the country, many co-working spaces are trying to differentiate themselves in the market.  One company that is doing just that is HeadRoom L.L.C. which is focusing on a slightly older crowd in suburban Philadelphia.  HeadRoom doesn't just rent space, the company offers extras like fee-based strategic-planning and mentoring services. For women in business who are working from home, this could be a great way to make connections and grow in a new, more mature environment.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

An entrepreneur's life can get mighty lonely, especially in the early start-up years, when employees are few. For many, a lot of time is spent with just a laptop for company.

That sense of isolation can be even worse in the suburbs. There, the opportunity to bounce ideas off someone or network isn't as simple as stepping outside and walking a few dozen paces in any direction to a coffee shop.

Also not in abundance are the coworking spaces that have been steadily multiplying in downtown Philadelphia since the first, Indy Hall, opened in Old City in 2007. (An Inquirer count last summer found 16, plus nine more specialized sites for engineering work.)

Into the suburban void Dan Lievens and John Tooher have stepped, with their own entrepreneurial take on the shared-office experience.

With a site in Media that opened in September 2014 and one on the outskirts of Wayne that debuted in October, their HeadRoom L.L.C. has brought the urban virtual office beyond city limits, with a more holistic approach, they say.

Their business model is based on a recognition that suburban clients are likely to skew older and have more-mature businesses and needs.

That also might mean they have more funds to work with than the denizens of city coworking spaces, many of whom are twentysomethings with college debt and an aversion to corporate environments.

So in addition to bottomless pots of La Colombe coffee, its signature acid-green chairs, communal kitchen, open work stations, and private meeting areas, HeadRoom offers two-day, fee-based strategic-planning services for $2,000 to $2,500 and a mentoring program for $4,000 a year at each of its locations.

Access costs $350 a month, which buys you 50 hours of use, a receptionist/phone- answering service, Friday happy hour, and a one-hour consultation with business veterans Lievens and Tooher.

"Nobody is really doing what we do in the suburbs," said Tooher, 54, a resident of Glenmoore, Chester County, and former president and general manager of YellAdworks Inc., a global advertising business based in King of Prussia.

"HeadRoom is focused on providing a resource-rich incubation environment for start-ups and established businesses and helping them develop a plan for growth and diversification," Tooher said. "Space is just one of a three- column support structure."

Many HeadRoom "residents" are service providers, such as consultants, rather than the tech start-ups that seem to dominate the city's shared working spaces, said Lievens, 41, of Media. He is a business and technology consultant with 20 years' experience with early-stage companies.

As testament to HeadRoom's networking value, Lievens noted that 70 percent of its residents are using the services of another HeadRoomer.

Bill Sprague is among them. The 32-year-old father of two from Ridley Park started Risk Averse Insurance in February 2015 and has been working out of the HeadRoom site in Media.

That's where he met Ellen Thompson, owner of Results Repeat L.L.C., a digital marketing firm and HeadRoom resident that Sprague hired to help raise his website's profile.

"There's only so much you can sit home alone," Sprague said in enumerating the advantages of starting his business from a coworking space rather than his house. Having an independent office so early in the game was financially impossible, he said, and if he had one, with no other employees it would be "closed down half the time when I was out on a call."

Results Repeat is further along in its development -- nearly two years old with 10 employees, most of whom are in their 30s. At 47, Thompson has been involved with six start-ups and has used coworking spaces in Center City for some of them.

At HeadRoom, she finds more people with resumes similar to hers than she did at city sites. She has also taken two fee-based strategic-planning sessions "to focus on making us understand we can digest all the work we have to do. It creates a sense of calm."

When she first looked for suburban coworking sites, Thompson, who lives in Ardmore, could not find any "within easy driving distance. It's still not as ubiquitous as it is downtown."

HeadRoom's founders are planning a third location, possibly in Ardmore, Conshohocken or Plymouth Meeting, with expectations of being able to accommodate 150 businesses total (they now serve 70) within three years, and possibly franchising in other metropolitan areas.

Not that they can expect to have the suburbs to themselves. Anthony Maher, CEO and cofounder of Benjamin's Desk, which will have a fourth coworking site downtown by early fall, said there are plans to have a suburban location by second quarter 2017 "in the tri-state area."

When told about that, the founders of HeadRoom were not discouraged.

"We welcome any impetus brought to promoting the concept of virtual office space," Tooher said.

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