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Welcome to Southwestern Ontario’s co-op revolution

By September 24, 2018 No Comments
Li Vijayabalan, a co-founder of Sarnia's TMRRW Inc.

Author: Louis Pin, Post Media

Li Vijayabalan, a co-founder of Sarnia’s TMRRW Inc., is modeling the company’s downtown space into a collaborative, co-op space for solo entrepreneurs and startups. (Louis Pin/The Observer)

Li Vijayabalan is onto something.

Last week he and other members of the Sarnia-based TMMRW Inc. toured London and St. Thomas, stopping by a half-dozen cooperative working spaces. The idea is simple: give entrepreneurs a flexible space to do business, in a collaborative working environment.

Most offer meeting places and internet. Some offer free coffee and tea on tap, or parking and bike locks outside. The more flexible, the better.

Vijayabalan wants to transform the iconic Taylor’s Furniture building into a collaborative non-profit space for people starting out in Sarnia. TMMRW Inc. already shares space on the third story of the building, and plan to convert the bottom floor into the newly branded AltSpace by late fall.

“Everyone has different needs,” Vijayabalan said. “At the end of the day there’s no risk. If they want to pay month to month they can . . . at the end of the day if more people are sharing everything the price is going to go down.”

When AltSpace opens — expected to be in November this year — it will be the fourth collaborative workspace to open in Southwestern Ontario since the start of 2018.

Christopher Misch, co-founder of the collaborative workspace Collide. It’s one of numerous similar businesses starting up in and around Southwestern Ontario. (Louis Pin/The Observer)

Nearby on Front Street the space Collide is operating near capacity after opening in early September.

“There was this need,” Christopher Misch, co-founder of Collide, said. “(About a year ago) we got our hands on a feasibility study that said basically, a co-working space in Sarnia was very needed and would be viable.”

“It provides the ability to collaborate as well a working environment for like-minded people,” Scott Palko, owner and president of tenant CCI Studios and co-founder of Collide, added.

The business model makes sense, Vijayabalan said. Because more people can run businesses remotely there is less demand for big production facilities and downtown storefronts. This model splits the difference between running a business from home and incurring large expenses as a storefront startup.

TMMRW Inc., operates beside an online sales company. Combined, the collaborative third-story space on Christina Street has three companies and a collection of freelancers that come and go as they please.

Brandon Olsen is a founder of The Atrium, a coworking space in St. Thomas modeled off similar businesses in London. Olsen says the Atrium is already expanding to meet demand in the small city south of London. (Louis Pin/The Observer)

It’s a similar story in St. Thomas and London.

“I wanted to do it because I needed the office space,” Brandon Olsen, founder of The Atrium, said. “It’s just explosive. It’s obviously a model that works; it’s tuned toward our generation of Millennials.”

“I just finished working a different job before I started working here at the end of May . . . I absolutely love it,” Emma Richard, volunteer and tenant at Innovation Works in London.

Other places could see the model take off as well. Strathroy-Caradoc recently hired an economic developer and stressed the need for “business incubators” before a recent trip to sister municipality Mbizana.

Co-working spaces could soon collaborate as well.

“We’ve had some really great conversations ,” Vijayabalan said. “When people are commuting between say Sarnia and London they can use their memberships interchangeably. There could be some actual partnerships there.”

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Co-op workplaces in Southwestern Ontario

AltSpace (Sarnia, to open in November 2018)

The Atrium (St. Thomas, 2018)

Collide (Sarnia, 2018)

Hacker Studios (London, 2013)

Innovation Works (London, 2016)

Kowork (London, 2011)

wrkhub (London, 2018)

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