A convergence of creativity

New Uptown co-working hub attracts eclectic mix of businesses

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There are still plenty of open desks at the month-old CoCo in Uptown, which provides an open floor of work space for small businesses. But the desks are filling up as quickly as they did two years ago on the Grain Exchange trading floor, another CoCo location.

The new neighbors are wide-ranging: A startup called Spontaneous Education! designs improv games for classrooms. General Blood, a company that sells blood donations to hospitals, arrives in December. Davis Law Office has a “campsite” specializing in business law. Spark Devices just launched production of 13,000 Spark Cores, which are small Wi-Fi development boards.

At CoCo, members can rent an onsite tap room, make a pitch to investors in a mini movie theater, take a call in a private phone booth, or play Donkey Kong in the billiard room.

The auto garage below CVS Pharmacy was transformed by architect Heather Keena and builder Todd Stenson from St. Paul-based Machine Scenic. They designed a bar to complement the pipes and water meters they couldn’t hide, and kept the floor’s old oil stains.

“We had to embrace those things,” Keena said. “We left the cracks.”

Office renovation isn’t the type of work Machine Scenic normally does. They primarily design film sets and make props for commercials. But they also designed the Tilia restaurant in Linden Hills, and the landlord at 1010 W. Lake St. is a big fan of Tilia, Keena said.

The design team punched out a large wall of windows, made chandeliers out of imported beads, scoured eBay for vintage lighting and salvaged chairs from the Uptown Theatre.

Part of the garage will serve as a “maker space” perfect for companies like Spark Devices. Spark is building Internet-connected hardware, and staff say there is “nothing you can’t build with the Core.” Examples are web-connected coffeemakers, fridge magnets with a live Twitter feed, or smoke detectors that can text. The company recently raised $567,000 on Kickstarter, greatly surpassing its $10,000 goal.

“We all live in Uptown,” said Zach Supalla, Spark founder and CEO.

Supalla considered living in New York, but decided he and his wife couldn’t afford to live there and forego his salary while he started the business.

Supalla met his company’s co-founder, a freelance software developer, at CoCo during a weekly beer and chat session. Another employee came from CoCo as well.

“It’s a great example of what can happen,” he said.

Supalla said they watch for new employees who aren’t challenged enough in their day jobs.

“Minneapolis is pretty risk-averse because there are so many good jobs,” he said. “We look for people who are bored. It’s easy for us to cherry-pick.”

CoCo Business Manager Tiamo Wright said many of CoCo’s members started out working from home.

“In my personal experience, you’ve got your regular job, and then you’ve got your passion,” she said. “Passion has made more people hunker down here.”

Spontaneous Education! founder Blake Wanger’s passion is improv. He’s a licensed teacher with training from Brave New Workshop, and he teachees improv after-school classes at Sanford Middle School.

Improv has a “yes, and” mantra of accepting new ideas and building on them, he said. It’s a helpful philosophy for teachers with inattentive kids — Wanger once taught an econ lesson based on the video game World of Warcraft — and it helps students’ communication skills.

“Improv is a great exercise in building confidence,” he said. “You accept the fact that what you do is good no matter what, and it plays into other aspects of life.”

Education isn’t a common field at CoCo, but Wanger said everyone he meets has connections to schools. Plus he met his graphic designer at CoCo, and she’s taking the desk across from him.

A similar story plays out at Davis Law Office, which helps small and growing businesses with issues like acquisitions, business structure, leases and contracts.

“It’s almost like having a small town Main Street,” said founder K.M. Davis. “Here’s the accountant, here’s the lawyer, here’s the person who helps you with PR.”

Davis has taken the collaborative concept a step further, and now shares her own campsite space with an accountant, commercial tenant rep, web developer and social media expert. Davis hires the other businesses to delegate work and relies on them for quick “gut checks” — for example, she’ll ask the commercial tenant rep whether a client’s rent price seems reasonable.

“Almost every day something comes up,” Davis said. “For us, the nicest thing is you can grow as you want to grow. If I had been officing in a traditional office, I would have had to move my practice in order to bring someone else on. Now, I just get them a membership.”

The potential for fast growth is also appealing to General Blood, a company based in the North Loop that’s relocating to CoCo in December. General Blood has blood banks across the country, and its client base of hospital systems is growing quickly.

“Either we can be by ourselves in a Class B office building, or we can go to a really cool spot with other fast-growing companies,” said Ben Bowman, co-founder of General Blood. “It’s the real future of commercial real estate.” 

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At a glance: Uptown CoCo

What: A new co-working space with lots of fun amenities: the “Garage” for presentations and brainstorming, a billiards room and a small movie theater.

Where: Lake & Lagoon

Website: www.cocomsp.com/locations/uptown