Molly Miller of Sift Gluten Free at City Food Studio

Shared work spaces give companies jump-start

Places like Nordeast Makers, City Food Studio, and Collective Spaces are helping Minnesota entrepreneurs easily launch new ventures – and network a bit, too

By Caitlin Hill
Thursday, August 21, 2014

Have you ever had a great business idea but just couldn’t muster the resources to get it off the ground? You’re not alone. Many entrepreneurs have stumbled due to lack of space, capital, equipment, and so on. It’s an age-old problem. Luckily, it’s becoming easier to do something about it. From co-working offices to commercial kitchen facilities, entrepreneurs are taking advantage of an increasing number and variety of shared work spaces offering flexible, low-cost access to room and equipment. That, in turn, makes it easier to start a venture with relatively little capital. The upshot? More people can afford to be entrepreneurs: to experiment with ideas, build upon ones that work, and then continue on to more advanced stages of business, such as moving out of shared spaces and into more traditional commercial real estate. Below, a sampling of such entrepreneurs and the shared work spaces they inhabit — for now. 


On the recommendation of a naturopath, Molly Miller started following a gluten-free diet to alleviate some of the symptoms of Crohn’s disease. After being on and off the diet for four years, she decided to take it more seriously and go completely gluten-free. 
An avid baker, Miller then started adapting all of her recipes to be gluten-free. After she tested the results on her friends and family, they encouraged her to start her own gluten-free baking business.
That’s exactly what she did. In the summer of 2013, Miller started bringing her products to local farmers markets under her new company, Sift Gluten Free. “People were excited to have options like that at the market,” she says.
At the end of the farmers market season, Miller started talking with local companies such as Peace Coffee and Dunn Bros Coffee about providing baked goods for their stores.
Soon, she realized she needed a commercial kitchen space to keep up with the demand. Miller found one in Minnetonka, but it quickly became too small. 
After hearing about Minneapolis-based City Food Studio from a friend, she contacted the shared commercial food production space and started baking there in February.
“I had so much more space for storage and prepping, and more oven space, a dishwasher, and a 30-quart mixer,” Miller says. “It made a huge difference in how fast I could work and how much I could produce.” 
City Food Studio boasts more than 4,000 square feet of food production space and is set up to accommodate multiple people at a time. Entrepreneurs using the kitchen have easy access to a commercial range, ovens, mixers, refrigeration, stainless steel and maple tables, and other equipment. It also offers a small retail space that connects artisans with customers. 
Miller spends about 12 to 15 hours a week at City Food Studio, baking up things like gluten-free cookies, brownies, and scones.
Along with the increased space and resources for baking, Miller says, the collaboration with other City Food Studio tenants has been valuable to her business. For example, she’s working with local ice cream company Froz Broz to provide cookies for ice cream sandwiches. “Something like that I never would have done [without City Food Studio],” she says. “And we’re talking about future experiments, like a waffle ice cream sandwich.”
Miller says that another benefit is being able to share general business information with the other entrepreneurs in the kitchen. One might be able to recommend an accountant, for instance, or suggest a local label printer.


Aprés-skiAndrew Murray kicks back at CoCo Uptown 


After meeting now-CEO Joel Gratz at a startup happy hour, Andrew Murray quit his full-time job as a meteorologist to create a snow-forecast service called Opensnow for ski areas around the country. The duo have maintained the service on a website for the past three years, and in February they took their offering into the mobile space, releasing an app version.
After making a move from Colorado to Minnesota in August 2013, Murray wanted to join the local startup community as soon as possible. While looking for entrepreneurs to connect with, the sociable CTO came across the co-working space CoCo and thought it would be the easiest way to get involved with others who were also working on interesting new ventures. “I joined for the social aspect,” he says. “I wanted to hear what other people are doing — and see it. For me, it was more about the community than the work environment.” 
CoCo provides co-working space for individuals, groups, and organizations. Since its first location launched in January 2010 in St. Paul, its co-working spaces (three in the Twin Cities, one in Fargo) have become hubs for the independent high-tech and creative markets.
The Uptown branch opened in the fall of 2013. The 15,000-square-foot space features 160 co-working seats, a garage that can be used for prototyping and presentations, conference rooms, private booths for phone calls, and a common area that can be used for evening events. 
Murray spends almost every workday at CoCo Uptown and likens the atmosphere to the coffee shops he previously frequented in Colorado. But CoCo, he adds, is an even better place to share knowledge with other entrepreneurs. “It’s great: You can have a beer or lunch and pick their brain about how they solve different problems,” he says. “And you realize you’re not the first person to go through that problem.” 
While working at Coco, he adds, he’s been able to call upon the coding talents of fellow members — particularly helpful when trying to veer around programming obstacles at high speed.


Opened in 2005, University Enterprise Laboratories in St. Paul is a biotech and life-science incubator that provides high-end wet-lab space and shared equipment for startups and entrepreneurs. 
Joe Shaw, senior partner and founder of St. Paul–based International Life-Sciences Enterprises, has taken advantage of the shared work spaces more than once. While serving as the CEO of vaccine development company Syntiron, he utilized the shared equipment, deep freezer, and laboratories at UEL for about five years. 
“We used three laboratories and an office area, and it was easy for us to move back and forth,” he says.
The wet lab features chemical resistant counters, natural gas lines, and a chemical fume hood. UEL also provides access to shared scientific equipment that would be costly for entrepreneurs to purchase on their own.
“The core issue that entrepreneurs find in this field is that when they get their first piece of money — whether it’s grant money or through angels — they have to enter a difficult real estate market where the type of space they need is difficult to build,” notes UEL property manager Greg LaSalle.
That’s where UEL comes in. The shared biotech and life-science facility provides an opportunity for startups to lease wet-lab space and focus on their science, rather than gathering funds to invest in real estate (a process that can tie up both capital and time). 
For the past two years, Shaw has been using the shared space at UEL for International Life-Sciences Enterprises, which works with companies in the field looking to introduce new products or services domestically or internationally. Although he hasn’t needed the laboratories recently, Shaw still uses the conference rooms extensively for hosting clients. (It helps that UEL is next to rapid transit.) 
Shaw notes that getting to know other businesses in the shared space has proven useful, too. For example, in the case of Syntiron, he conducted business with other people using the space. And he’s also directed current clients to other businesses at UEL: “You know them and their quality and what they’re doing.”
Shaw is convinced that the facilities at UEL have been extremely beneficial for his businesses. “With Syntiron, we closed a relatively large deal, and I think the quality of the space at UEL helped us to prepare ourselves,” he explains. “I believe it was at least 10 to 15 percent responsible for our being able to close that deal.” 


With a background in costuming, Sheila Heil started her costume design business Tulip Design, in 2011. After maintaining a storefront in downtown St. Paul, Heil experienced something that might seem like a good problem to have — too much business. 
“The space was too big for us, and we couldn’t handle the amount of business coming in,” Heil explains. “It wasn’t what we wanted to do, and the cost was so much higher than [we required] for our needs.” 
In May 2013, Heil set out to find a new space, or even a shared one. After two friends saw an ad for Collective Spaces, a shared costume and sewing space in Minneapolis, Heil decided to check it out — and she’s glad she did. 
Amy Kaufman started Collective Spaces in 2011 as a way to provide opportunities and support for independent designers, local artists, and community members. Tenants have access to a variety of sewing and costuming equipment, such as cutting tables, an industrial surger, a blind hem machine, a tailoring machine, an industrial stitch machine, domestic machines, dress forms, and cabinet space to store everything. “The space allows people to move faster and get more done,” Kaufman says. 
Today, Heil is a regular tenant at Collective Spaces. She and her assistants use the cutting and sewing equipment, including the cutting tables, dress forms, and eight to 10 sewing machines, along with fitting, hanging, and storage areas. Spending an average of 30 hours a week at Collective Spaces, Heil is able to get much more done than when she works at home. 
“One of the great things [about Collective Spaces] is that sometimes there are other designers and stitchers there and I can ask them to work extra hours for me,” she says. “That’s really useful to have other people right there so I don’t have to hire someone for a quick-turn job.” 
Heil says her customers like the location because it’s close to the freeway and easy to find parking nearby. 
“It’s also nice when we have larger groups like a bridal party or whole show to cast because there is more space and I can do it more efficiently,” Heil adds. “And when I have larger things going on, like the Renaissance Festival or Halloween, I can have more stitchers working at the same time, and I can help everyone with what they’re doing.”


William Donman with one of his creations 


When Sam Buss and Derek Dahl were sitting around in their college dorm room dreaming up ideas for new products, they never guessed they really would be turning one of them into a small business. The idea? A mini beer pong set that’s easy to carry around and use just about anywhere. 
Last year they made a prototype in a friend’s garage, using a stencil to drill holes, and that first step led to their small company Scienz soon becoming a reality.
At the time, Buss worked across the street from The Mill, a maker space for woodworkers and manufacturers in Northeast Minneapolis that opened in 2012 but abruptly closed for financial reasons. So Buss, Dahl, and some other business-driven makers decided to create their own shared maker space for people just like them. The group slowly pulled money together, purchased machinery, and in May 2013 opened Minneapolis-based Nordeast Makers, which now provides access to manufacturing equipment and shared space. 
“With our equipment, makers are able to design and build stuff that wouldn’t be possible with resources available to individuals working alone,” says Nordeast Makers co-owner Tyler Cooper. “Our mission is to attract makers from across the Twin Cities. The whole purpose of a maker space is to create a place that members are excited to be a part of.” 
Currently, Nordeast Makers has about 20 members and provides 24-hour access to such tools as a large CNC router, an ultra-precise liquid-cooled laser cutter and etcher, a CNC mill that cuts through aluminum, high-resolution 3D printers, and a full woodworking shop. Some members are hobbyists who don’t profit from the items they produce in the space; others make their living off the equipment. Some do contract work for outside companies and use tools like the CNC routers and laser cutters. 
Nordeast Makers also offers free, ongoing one-on-one training on the equipment — the founders learned that doing so helped to retain members and keep the equipment in better shape. 
Today, Buss and Dahl use Nordeast Makers for a variety of activities. They take advantage of the space’s manufacturing runs, routing machine, and laser engraver to make their company’s mini beer pong sets, which they started selling last fall. 
As with many entrepreneurs using shared spaces, they believe the opportunity to learn from other tenants is particularly valuable. “It saves you from a lot of headaches and [product] iterations when you can learn from other people’s mistakes,” Buss says. “We make a quality wood product that we are crafting ourselves. We didn’t know how to make anything out of wood [when we started]. These guys taught us everything we know — and we’ve been able to make a small business out of it.”