A man and a woman smile while standing next to a sign that reads 1Q1 launch party. There are balloons and each hold a ribbon.

Coworking Comes to the Copper Country

Two Michigan Tech alumni opened 101 Quincy Coworking in Hancock on May 30. GrandBridge Properties plans to open a business center with a coworking station in Houghton.

Two coworking businesses aim to enhance community while creating a culture of collaboration and professionalism in the Copper Country.

Depending on whom you ask, the lack of people in the Copper Country is the best or the worst part about living here. Despite the low population, residents and tourists feel a sense of community. Likewise, Michigan Technological University alumni who decide to stay or move back to the area after graduation often cite the feeling of community as what they value about the Copper Country.

Two new coworking businesses—101 Quincy Coworking (1Q1) in Hancock and the forthcoming Grandbridge Properties’ Business Centre in Houghton—seek to extend a feeling of community and remedy the sense of isolation or displacement professionals may be experiencing.

Hancock's newest business  

1Q1 cofounder Lynn Makela ’07 explains coworking as a blend of “collaboration, inspiration, environment and location” for individuals whose professions don’t require or offer access to a traditional office setting.

On May 30, Makela and business partner Jake Northey '04 cut the ceremonial ribbon on 1Q1. They began offering membership-based amenities the next day.

Both Makela and Northey moved away from the Copper Country to chase careers. Since moving back, both saw a need for a coworking space.

"I've talked to so many people who work remotely and they're like, 'It'd be cool to be back in an office environment. I kind of miss it. I want to interact with people on a daily basis; I want to sit down and get my work done, but I want to take a break, go to the water cooler or go get some coffee and chat.' There are so many people up here that are remote workers or solopreneurs that need a (coworking) space," Northey says.

Northey and Makela collaborated and formed 1Q1 after an introduction by a mutual contact. Makela explains: "I had been looking for an opportunity to have a coworking space, but it was just not an option to buy and renovate an entire building; then I met Jake. Eventually that evolved into deciding to partner into opening the space together."

More coworking options on horizon

GrandBridge Properties, which owns professional office and retail spaces in Houghton-Hancock, plans to open the GrandBridge Business Centre at 902 Razorback Drive, suite 5, in Houghton. Though no opening date is set, property manager Sierra Johns says the concept for the Centre is "to cater to anyone in the area who's going to need an office space. We're super flexible, so if you're in the area meeting with someone you can rent the office for the day, or there's a conference room that you could rent out."

The Centre layout includes both coworking stations and open spaces for members to collaborate.

Both 1Q1 and the Centre offer several membership types, all of which include amenities like printing and faxing, coffee and snacks. 1Q1 will also host events for professional development, such as classes, social events and guest speakers.

A brief history of coworking

Although coworking businesses are new to the area, coworking as a style of work—or a name for a shared space paid members can inhabit—is more than a decade old.

Journalist Kiera Butler explains "coworking" was coined by software programmer Brad Neuberg in 2005, who created a space in San Francisco for people working in a variety of fields.

Writer Laura Bliss categorizes the history of coworking into waves. In the first, groups of independent workers congregated in shared spaces, free of charge. The second wave, brought on by the financial crash of 2008, gave rise to the "gig economy."

Gig economy is a term among many that describes people making an income through contract work, which is typically remote, characteristically niche and offers short-term, part-time employment (think Uber driver). In the second wave of coworking, "giggers" began looking for places other than coffee shops to work outside their homes. Makela and Northey both identify as giggers.

Another Michigan Tech alumni, Jake Timmer ’16, worked in a coworking space in southwest Michigan shortly after graduating with his BS in computer science. He describes the experience as “interesting,” and says he’s glad his coworking days are over because it’s an indication that his business is booming. As a partner at Superior Technologies, his company has grown and relocated to the Copper Country in order to hire Tech graduates. Timmer says, “Michigan Tech teaches students better than any other university I’ve come across, so it makes sense for us to be positioned up here.” He also enjoys the sense of community and access to the outdoors the area brings. Superior Technologies worked a stint in the MTEC SmartZone Technology Business Incubator, but now rents an office in the MTEC SmartZone. 

Coworking is big business

To get a sense for coworking’s growth since 2005, look to the biggest coworking franchise, WeWork, which has an international reach. Founded in 2010, it now has 207 locations in 20 countries and plans to double in size this year.

Results from a 2018 global coworking survey indicate new coworking spaces are created every year and existing coworking businesses plan to expand. In fact, “1.7 million people will be working in around 19,000 coworking spaces around the world by the end of 2018,” reports DeskMag.  

While giggers comprise a large percent of coworking members, employees of large corporations like Amazon and Microsoft are moving to coworking spaces to increase employee productivity. Owners of Copper Country coworking spaces hope local employers will follow the lead and give employees the option to cowork outside of their cubicles.

Coworking equals productivity

Researchers suggest individuals who cowork excel because they feel more in control of when, where and how they do their job, and feel part of a noncompetitive community they can interact with on their own terms. 

In other words, socializing in a coworking space isn’t forced; it's completely self-initiated and often work-related. Instead of chatting about a colleague's sick cat, coworkers swap strategies for marketing new clients.

The potential for conversations with people from different professional backgrounds is precisely why Matt Ellison ’13 became 1Q1’s first member. Ellison, who majored in computer networking system administration and computer science at Michigan Tech, moved back to the area last summer to launch a network security company he started from scratch.

Matt Ellison smiles at the camera.
Arroyo Networks owner Matt Ellison ’13, is renting out an office space at 1Q1.

“I wanted more of an open, do-your-own-thing kind of atmosphere,” Ellison says, “so one of the reasons the coworking space really appealed to me was the ability to have others around with different talents who are just available to talk with; and it really helps to grow a network of people who are all trying to do unique, awesome things in the area.”

Northey says a conversation with Ellison helped him solve a problem he’d been working on for days. “To think if he was not there and I didn’t have that quick conversation, I could have been working on it for three or four more days,” Northey says. “It’s amazing to think that just those small interactions with creative people can create so much value for everybody without having to be part of the same company, without sharing trade secrets or anything like that but little things. You get real interactions.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.