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Brave New Co-working World

The rent-a-desk movement matures.

Brave New Co-working World
From left: Hub SoMa members Matthew Wise of and Adam Archer, CEO of GamesThatGive .net, in one of the fully equipped conference rooms at their coworking space. Inset: Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop, handles a plasma torch at one of the company’s welding tables. | Photography by Dustin Aksland

THE IDEA OF renting a desk at a communal space has been in vogue for nearly a decade in tech hubs like San Francisco or New York because it allows like-minded creatives to socialize and collaborate. But lately, coworking offices have evolved into mini networks themselves, where entrepreneurs, freelancers, and small-business owners can travel from space to space and build projects as soon as they sketch them.

One of the most prominent examples of this is the 5M project in San Francisco, where in April 2010, developers unveiled a four-acre campus that features three inaugural tenants: Hub SoMa (a desk-for-rent space for social entrepreneurs), TechShop (a DIY workshop), and Intersection for the Arts (a not-for-profit arts incubator). The facility caters to those looking for both traditional office space (for emailing, writing, strategizing) and a workshop (for sewing, designing, welding). "It's not creating a Starbucks," says Alexa Arena of Forest City Development, the lead firm on the project. "It's creating a center of gravity that's constantly going."

Already, the tinkerer's paradise has piqued the interest of more than 800 members who work for companies such as Ideo, Foursquare, and Kiva. Membership prices vary depending on which spaces people use: from $25 to rent a Hub desk for five hours to $1,200 to access TechShop equipment for a year. So far, the model is attracting entrepreneurs from hot startups such as Square, which manufactures credit-card readers that plug into smartphones. One of the company's founders, James McKelvey, even visited a TechShop outpost to build a Square prototype.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.