“I felt like I was the family dog,” Benji Wade remembers, summarizing his seven years working from home as a web developer. “I just couldn’t wait for my roommates to come home. When they’d walk in I’d be like, ‘Hey guys, what’d you do today?’ — sort of overwhelming them.” He laughs, his voice taking on a jittery, over-eager tone, mimicking his afternoon-coffee-fueled mannerisms at the end of each day.
“Seriously though, I was depressed,” Wade says. “I was the classic case of someone who needed a coworking space.”
Eventually, Wade found a coffee shop with good wifi that would let him camp out for hours (and where he met his wife — bonus!). But years later, he got involved with a project that asked the question: could the remote-working and self-employed humans of Spokane benefit from more connectedness than just good wifi? Along with friends Luke Baumgarten, Alan Chatham and a few other early adopters, Wade wanted to find out.
In November 2013, Baumgarten launched Fellow Coworking in a small office space in downtown Spokane, taking over the lease from a local architecture firm. “I just wanted to get in and get started,” Baumgarten says. By February, Wade was not only a member, but a partner in the effort. (Chatham joined as a partner in late 2015.)
With the rise of technology and the gig economy, coworking has embedded itself in the culture of many cities. When it’s done well, the benefits are obvious. There’s the inspiration and productivity that happens in a beautiful, well-designed space. There’s the straightforward, off-the-cuff collaboration that is often available from the designer or code-writer sitting next to you. There’s the less-boring water-cooler conversation because of the diversity of work happening. But the best is perhaps the simplest: community. Even introverts benefit from side-by-side presence.
“One thing we try to do more than anything is build community,” Chatham says. “If you’re just looking to work in an empty room, you probably have one of those at your house.”
The feel and energy of the space is something members point to: when everyone actually wants to be somewhere, the productivity vibes are palpable. That’s certainly true at Fellow — now housed in a much larger, beautiful, purpose-built space in the Washington Cracker Building. All over the 5,000 square-foot space, people sit at desks, lounge in custom-built sectionals or gather around conference tables and break-out spaces. They stare at screens and take phone calls and chat at the breakfast bar. It feels like the bustling office of a growing startup, except that the members all work for different companies, or for themselves.
And for Fellow, something deeper is happening: in addition to wanting to work in the space, its members also want to live in our broader shared space: Spokane. While Fellow welcomes members in many lines of work, there is a strong core who share the desire to make our city an excellent place to live. This culture can be especially helpful for remote-workers and small business owners who have recently relocated to Spokane.
Take Alex Gramling, a mechanical engineer who works for her Seattle company out of Fellow. When her partner got a job with the Spokane Police Department, it was time to head east. After ten years of loving Seattle, she wasn’t excited. Early on at a “Mixed Bag” lunch — a weekly sandwich potluck Fellow hosts for its members — her disdain for her new city was on full display.
“Yeah, she was sort of dumping on Spokane,” says Wade. “We were pretty worried that she might not find a way to thrive here.”
“That would probably be an accurate description,” Gramling says, laughing. “It is crazy to think that was less than a year ago. My attitude about Spokane has pretty much completely flipped. It was rough at first, but I’ve been able to meet great people and get really involved in a short time.”
She points to relationships formed at Fellow as one of the catalysts for putting down roots in Spokane. “Everyone was so helpful, always checking up on me to help me get settled, from work-related things to recommendations for shows and hikes and things to do. I still hang out quite a bit with people I’ve met here, and I enjoy talking to Amanda [Fellow’s Community Manager]. She’s so connected with the arts scene and always knows what’s going on.”
The arts is one of the major sectors Fellow serves. Baumgarten and his wife, Ginger Ewing, are eminent arts organizers in the city. Initiatives they founded — like Terrain, Window Dressing, and Pop Up Shop — are all headquartered out of Fellow. Chatham runs Laboratory, an artist residency program in downtown Spokane that focuses on interactive, digital, and performance art.
Ryker, a young entrepreneur who owns a media management and entertainment company called directINFLUX, meets with clients and taps away on her laptop like the other coworkers, but she also brings in her clients, like the emerging hip-hop artist Jango, after hours to test new beats, rhymes, and performance choreography.
The space becomes an incubator of sorts, both creatively and practically, by helping new ventures have a place for a couple of employees to thrive before they’ve grown enough to rent their own office suite. From individuals to growing companies, Fellow has made the space scalable, starting with a one-day-per-week membership for $49/month. That’s about what you might spend at coffee shops anyway, and there’s free coffee available from Anvil, which roasts downstairs. More inclusive plans offer amenities like dedicated desks and even rooms. Meeting booths and enclosed conference rooms are accessible to members, but lots of interactions happen informally at the kitchen counter or on the couches.
When their original much smaller spot in the Black Building on 1st Avenue filled to capacity in 2014, it was time to start dreaming about a new space. The dreaming stage is when INB entered the equation.
“Before INB even banked us, [Senior Vice President and Commercial Banking Team Leader] TJ [Brill], took on a mentor role, and he really didn’t have to do that,” says Baumgarten. “We told him how much money we thought we needed and he told us exactly what they wanted to see as far as membership numbers, expected growth, lease terms, and other details.”
“It was really helpful,” remembers Wade. “It was sort of this year-long homework assignment. We followed through on all of those things, proved the concept.”
The team then went back to INB — and did due diligence at other banks — and Brill was happy with how the business had grown the numbers he saw. “No other bank we talked with even got close to the level of care INB took,” Baumgarten says, “In the construction world, our project is probably pretty miniscule, but [TJ] took extra time that no one else did.”
The team then called in every favor they could think of, Baumgarten says, adding that the interior design team of Kat Tibbetts, Jonathan Vanderholm and Crystal Hooker moved mountains to complete the space. “Kat and Jonathan were here nights and weekends, sawing, staining, building. It was incredible,” Baumgarten says
Fellow has gotten a lot of support because it is a project that supports many more. Over seventy members pursue their passions here, with about fifteen distinct companies operating out of the space.
More difficult to quantify is the ongoing ripple effect: the stories are piling up of new ventures and projects and friendships that have started at Fellow, and it’s just a few years in. As people continue to gather, work, network, and create in spaces like this, Spokane will keep making progress, continually reinventing itself through the citizens who choose to build their lives, careers, and relationships here.