Long before there was a co-working space on seemingly every corner, Boston had Workbar. Started nearly a decade ago — in what was essentially an abandoned space in the Leather District — Workbar today has eight locations around Greater Boston where startups, freelancers, and independent sorts of all stripes can lease a place to work by the month. Lately, this flexible approach to office space has taken off nationally — witness WeWork’s furious expansion in recent months — but Workbar helped to pioneer the concept locally. The brainchild of Boston startup veteran Bill Jacobson, Workbar has grown into a collection of group homes for often-isolated solo workers, where one membership buys access to all the offices and everybody knows your name (because when you check in, your picture is posted on a screen at the front desk). Now Workbar, too, is riding the co-working boom, with a large new location in Back Bay, and investors who not only want to double the firm’s Boston footprint, but also expand to a second city. The Globe recently caught up with Jacobson to talk about the startup life, Workbar, and the growth of co-working.
1. Jacobson is something of a serial entrepreneur, having launched a series of tech and Internet companies in Boston through the 1990s and 2000s. Before Workbar, he co-founded PickupZone, a startup that helped online retailers ship packages for pickup at local brick-and-mortar stores — instead of just leaving them on the front steps. He eventually sold the company to one of Amazon’s chief competitors. But before he did, PickupZone played a key role in the creation of Workbar.
“We had eight people working for us, and were subleasing 1,500 square feet in an office on South Street. On Halloween 2009, the main tenant we were leasing from just folded overnight. They took whatever they could fit through the door and left the furniture and all the rest. There was no Internet, nothing. Just 5,000 square feet.”
2. After the tenant fled, PickupZone had three times more space (and furniture) than it needed. Jacobson knew people in the startup world who, he suspected, would love an office that wasn’t a coffee shop, didn’t require a long-term lease, and allowed them to be around other entrepreneurs. So he asked the owner of his building if he could take over the whole office and run it as short-term shared space. Workbar was born.
“It wasn’t the greatest time in real estate, so they let us try it. It started doing really well. We drew people from all over. They’d come in from as far as Route 128, even 495. A spark went off in my head saying ‘There’s probably lots of people who’d like to work this way.’”
3. After a few months, Jacobson moved Workbar into its own space nearby, and it grew quickly from there. Today, the company has eight locations in the area — three of them inside Staples stores, in a partnership with the office-supply giant. It also has agreements with 11 other co-working spaces — from Dorchester to Amherst to Pawtucket, R.I. — where Workbar members can work for free. This deep regional network is key to the company’s approach. It recognizes that many people roam all over Greater Boston for work each week, and may appreciate a desk in almost any location.
“If I’m just going to be in downtown Boston, where people have to commute 45 minutes to get to work, that’s going to be not very appealing for a large set of the population. So why can’t we take this network and apply it regionally? That’s the experiment we’re trying.”
4. Jacobson isn’t just the CEO of Workbar, he’s also a client. Like all of the company’s 35 employees, he works out of Workbar locations, full time. Workbar doesn’t have a corporate office. As the company has become larger, Jacobson has been bouncing around from place to place more than he used to, but his main office — if you can call it that — is in the original Workbar near South Station. When he’s there, his picture pops up on the video board at the front desk, just like everyone else’s.
“I live in Charlestown, and South Station is the easiest place for my commute. That’s important. When I can, I ride my bike to the office. It’s a good lifestyle, a good work-life environment, and that’s what we’re trying to build for people.”
5. Workbar recently received a major investment from Japanese real estate firm Apamanshop Holdings, which Jacobson expects will fuel further expansion in Boston and growth into a second market. He hasn’t decided exactly where yet, just that it will be in North America. But he acknowledges that re-creating in another city what Workbar has spent a decade building in Boston will require care, and local partnerships.
“It’s about building networks, and building them over time. You can’t just come into an environment and pop this sort of thing up. You have to show up, and go to work, and build up that network. Meanwhile, we’re trying to apply some science to our setup and figure out how to keep that organic community going.”