On a bright, late-spring day at his sun-bathed desk near the front window of an office in downtown Buffalo, Ben Allen has much to do. Noon comes and goes, then 12:30, then 12:45, and finally 1 o’clock, and still Allen hasn’t touched his lunch--a banana and several other items wrapped in a handmade product grocery bag behind his laptop computer.
The slender entrepreneur, a former SEO specialist for a digital marketing company, recently started his own business and is now laser-focused on building it up and making it work. That’s why he has eschewed working from home today, where a dog and other distractions might derail his train of thought. nztead, he's come here—to a Spartan leased desk inside a cavernous Main Street storefront painted with the words “CoworkBuffalo.”
CoworkBuffalo, which leases workspace under a single roof to everyone from computer coders to attorneys from other states who are in Buffalo working remotely, is an office for the 21st century—a shared haven for lone-wolf professionals and self-employed entrepreneurs who increasingly dot America’s career landscape in their shorts and polo shirts. It’s also one of Buffalo’s growing number of startup incubators and accelerators for hundreds of grassroots and high-growth entrepreneurial ventures.
Working at "The Dig" at The Innovation Center.
Western New York’s five largest incubators have almost 450 members between them, according to an April 2017 ranking by Buffalo Business First. Those incubators are LaunchNY; dig at the Thomas R. Beecher Jr. Innovation Center; the Harvester Center; Harrison Place; and the Foundry. Other Western New York incubators include the Incubator at the University at Buffalo, Incubator at Z80 Labs, and Tri-Main Center.
As those numbers suggest, Buffalo’s come a long way since 2012, says CoworkBuffalo partner Michael Macaluso. “There were no incubators here and really no startup culture” when CoworkBuffalo started that year," he says.
“Buffalonians have been creatively making opportunities for themselves against the city’s economic challenges for decades,” says Tamera Knight, education coordinator with the Foundry, a 501c3 business incubator and community makerspace on providing educational opportunities. “Their entrepreneurial spirit has helped forge a supportive business environment which has allowed new businesses to rise and prosper in Buffalo.”
Located in an old brick building painted white with a gray scale wheat-paste mural by Max Collins on the front, the Foundry provides affordable workspaces for small business who are just starting out, Knight says. It also has four public “makerspaces” with tools that can be used to prototype manufacturing products.
Among those using the Foundry are Western New Yorkers who do glass-blowing, graphic design, upholstery, woodworking, screen-printing, and candle-making. The Foundry also has an Alpaca wool-spinner, a metal artist, and a pyrographer—one who decorates wood or other materials with burn marks with a fireplace poker and other tools.
The Foundry assists small businesses by providing affordable workspaces, access to tools, business mentoring services, and numerous networking opportunities in a supportive and inclusive environment, Knight says. Its membership now includes 32 small businesses and 50 makerspace members.
Makerspace membership at the Foundry starts at $50 for those looking to gain access to tools. Rental spaces for those starting a business are $100 for 100 square feet. Residents have 24/7 access. Makerspace members have access to the woodshop from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays.
The Foundry was created in 2012 when two small businesses began renting space inside what was an abandoned brick building, according to Knight. They put a call out for more artists and small businesses to join them.CoworkBuffalo partner Michael Macaluso.
“The Foundry discovered a need in the manufacturing and handmade-product realm, with people looking for a place where they could affordably produce a product that wasn’t in their basement or garage,” Knight says. “For new small businesses, finding the capital for a brick-and-mortar location while trying to build their products, clientele, and everything else involved with starting a business is challenging.”
Like many of the startups they now serve, incubators such as the Foundry and CoworkBuffalo also were small once, with uncertain futures.
When it started in an office suite above Spot Coffee in May 2012, CoworkBuffalo numbered five people, eight IKEA desks, one Wi-Fi router, and a Chemex for making coffee, recalls partner Kevin Purdy. Now it boasts about 24 members who pay $125 monthly for unlimited access and a dozen or so regular buyers of “10-pack” punch cards that allow for daily use at a rate of $12.50; and a drop-in rate of $15. In all, 170 people have bought some type of pass to CoworkBuffalo, whether a drop-in, multi-pack, group reservation or monthly subscription, Purdy says.
The idea for CoworkBuffalo, Purdy says, “came from a local mailing list that had a number of programmers, entrepreneurs, and other folks interested in startups and technology.”
“‘When will Buffalo have a co-working space?’ was a common refrain,” he recalls. “A small group of those list members decided to pool some deposit and IKEA money together and start small.”
Now users like Allen, in his shorts and blue t-shirt, would have a hard time doing without CoworkBuffalo.
“It’s a great, productive place,” says Allen, for whom CoworkBuffalo is both an office and a professional petri dish. “You see people working here. You see people succeeding here. Everything we need is here.”
Among those who lease space at CoworkBuffalo are University at Buffalo professors who otherwise would work at home during the summer, says Mike Macaluso, one of CoworkBuffalo’s four partners. “Among the many draws of a workspace away from home are camaraderie, group energy, and a fresh focus."
“If you’re working from home five days a week, it’s really tough,” says Macaluso, whose bike stands against an interior wall of CoworkBuffalo. “It helps to get out of the house a little bit."
“A lot of remote workers here have team members come into town and you don’t want to meet them around the kitchen table.”
Dan Hubbell, who works remote for a Boston software-development firm, recalls having to stay at home and work for a couple weeks after recently undergoing surgery. “I couldn’t wait to come back here,” he says. “It’s comfortable. It’s cool.”
Some choose to work at CoworkBuffalo instead of home simply because it has air-conditioning and their houses do not, Macaluso says; the number of CoworkBuffalo users is higher during the summer.
When the place is full it can be chatty “with people exchanging encouragement and ideas,” Macaluso says.
But at other times it can be quiet as a library. “When everybody’s in a zone,” Macaluso says, “you can hear a pin drop.”