What The World's Smallest Office Says About Durham's Big Innovation Ambitions

Durham taps three sisters to represent the city's commitment to entrepreneurship by moving into an office about the size of a bathroom.

The prize must've seemed irresistible: free office space (plus Wi-Fi and a nearby condo) for six months to help one lucky startup open shop in the entrepreneurial Promised Land of downtown Durham, North Carolina. One catch: At just about 30 square feet, it's by all conventional measures the world's smallest office. Even just calling it an office is a stretch. More accurately, it's the front window of a coffee shop on Main Street.

On Tuesday, the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Durham, Inc., unveiled the winners of the Smoffice, short for, you know, a really small office: The Makery, a flash-sales site created by three sisters who grew up in Durham. The announcement ended a month-long competition to lure entrepreneurs as part of Durham’s proudly oddball push to expand its startup culture. Downtown Durham has 70 startups located within five blocks of the Smoffice, including mobile app developers, health IT companies, and online marketing platforms. The coffee shop itself, Beyu Caffe, has long been an informal meeting place for the neighborhood's startup set. It's just three blocks away from the American Underground, the 26,000-square-foot basement of the historic American Tobacco Campus that’s dedicated to the kind of flexible, low-cost leases entrepreneurs are unlikely to find in more expensive cities. With the Smoffice, Durham wants to put the city's commitment to entrepreneurship literally on display. 

The Smoffice was the brainchild of Adam Klein, the Chamber of Commerce's startup strategist, and Matthew Coppedge, the director of marketing and communications for Downtown Durham, Inc. Last year they partnered on a program called the Startup Stampede, which similarly offered two months of free working space and networking opportunities in a communal office. Twenty-eight companies went through the Stampede. Afterward, 17 opted to stay in downtown Durham (an impressive windfall for the city from a program that cost just $12,000 to run, thanks to in-kind support from local businesses).

With other cities now copying the Stampede concept, Klein and Coppedge decided they needed to come up with something new (something bigger… but also smaller?). Fittingly, they hatched this idea from the cramped interior of a car. It is admittedly a bit gimmicky (please note the allusions to The Office on the Smoffice’s website). But the project also aims to convey that Durham is willing to go pretty far out there to attract entrepreneurs.

“Essentially we were saying we’d love to highlight the importance of the coffee shop in the entrepreneurial world,” Klein says. “It’s a place that gathers a lot of interesting and creative people together, there’s constant energy, it’s open all the time. How could we use something like that to really engage an entrepreneur? We felt like having this tiny office in the front window of a coffee shop speaks to the fact that you don’t need the fanciest office to get a company going. You need the right environment.”

Tech, design, and software entrepreneurs all applied, enticed in part by the fact that the world’s smallest office required the world’s shortest application: just a one-page business plan and a 60-second video. The Makery, which will sell handmade North Carolina arts and crafts with a model that is part Etsy, part Fab.com, went for humor (showcasing a quality that will surely be required in a 30-square-foot office space).

“We are really good at packing together in a small space,” Makery founder Krista Anne Nordgren laughs.

“Like the back seat of a car!” her sister Sarah Rose adds.

The Makery was selected from 22 applications. Starting May 1, the rest of Durham is invited to watch the sisters launch a company in a public space about the size of a bathroom.

So what exactly do they get out of it? Klein jokes that downtown Durham feels a lot like having your Facebook network dumped into the real world; everyone you’d want to interact with is here. That’s a huge advantage of a mid-sized city, like Durham. “There aren’t a lot of layers that you have to go through to get to the people you want to meet,” he says. “You can very quickly meet a CEO of a multi-million-dollar company in Durham, or the founder of another tech startup.”

The Nordgrens will also get to live in the area as part of the Smoffice deal. It comes with a spacious downtown condo an 8-minute walk from Beyu. The apartment looks like a pretty tempting place to set up a home office, but Klein says the program has asked the winners to commit to actually using the Smoffice space. Half of the idea, after all, is to publicize the city’s big innovation ambitions. The Nordgrens, all coffee-shop denizens themselves, say they’re looking forward to working in what will amount to a fishbowl back in their hometown. “We were so excited when we found out that we weren’t going to be staying in our parents’ basement,” Sarah Rose says.

That would actually be a more common startup story. But Durham is trying some novel routes. “We’re doing it in a way that’s accessible and interesting and creative,” Klein says, “that’s not just the typical business incubator program that’s tucked on the fourth floor of an office building in some office park.”

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #USInnovation.

[Top image: Center Studio Architecture]

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  • Nordgren Sisters

    Thanks so much for this lovely article, Emily. We're very excited about moving into the Smoffice on May 1 and getting to work, and also excited about reconnecting with Durham and taking part in the vibrant entrepreneurial and arts scene there. 

    And Caitlyn, we hope you'll stop by Beyu to say hello once we move in!

  • Caitlyn Kroll

    Emily, what a great article! I recently moved to Durham and find it such a fascinating city. I've been to the Beyu Cafe recently and didn't realize this is what was going in that small space. 

    I am actually working for a woman who has started a business in Durham herself. We are an event planning, marketing, public relations, and group travel firm and we are in the process of renovating a historic building on Main Street in downtown Durham that will become our event space, 300 East Main. 

    I've noticed there have been several articles written recently about Durham and all of the businesses that are coming to the area, so I was thinking that maybe you, or a fellow writer might be interested in writing something about our company and/or the new event space that an entrepreneur (not a large development company) is opening in Durham.