TAMPA — Home was a fine workplace until Toby Martini's three boys grew from the reasons he put food on the table into little bread-winning distractions.
"Daddy what you doing?" they'd say, tapping their fingers on the glass door of his home office.
And they completely shattered their dad's cocoon of concentration when a toy accidentally blew out a door pane.
"My kids got big enough to find out how to get to me," Martini said of his boys, now ages 3, 5 and 8.
He had to get away.
First, the Web developer, designer and marketing consultant tried Starbucks and Barnes & Noble. But all the side conversations proved distracting.
Eventually he found the perfect spot: a workspace in Ybor City inspired by a utopian idea that has swept big cities over the last six years. Here, people with myriad skills and goals share a common work area, indulging in a concept that bloomed during the recession. They call it "co-working."
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New Urban Suites & Business Club is housed in a modern 3-year-old square, white office building at 12th Street and Seventh Avenue. The feel is feng shui, bright and clean, accentuated by light wood floors, sparse plants, big windows, white paint, minimal wall hangings and curvy, Ikea-like furniture.
The business offers fairly normal, furnished, full-service offices for monthly rent, known as executive suites. But on the third floor is the Business Club, a lounge with leather chairs, pub tables, library tables, desks, cubicles, a conference room and flat screens. There are no assigned seats or areas. It's become Martini's office away from home.
"Starbucks meets airport lounge meets an office," is how suites manager Angela Hagerman describes it.
Walt Chancey, who opened New Urban Suites in August 2010 and also owns an architectural and planning firm in the same building, came up with the idea after trying to rent out basic office space in the building during the recession.
"We had a group of people who said this is great, (but) it's a little rich for my blood and I don't really need to come here all that often," Chancey said.
So he and consultants began researching and stumbled upon co-working clubs in Seattle and New York, which inspired them to create the Business Club.
With seating for about 20, the club is available for monthly membership or daily use, offering professionals a shared space that is based on the concept of "co-working," an ambiguous term new to Tampa that's both noun and verb, place and action.
Think of it like this: Across the area, home business owners, independent Web developers, entrepreneurs, IT contractors and tech employees of major corporations are without offices. Some have survived layoffs and office closures but were left behind while their corporate bosses shuttered their workplaces to save overhead.
So they can work from home or telecommute, the trend that swept America in the 1990s. But the practice has grown unpopular as people wrestle with the distractions, domestic responsibilities and isolation from co-workers.
Coffee shops, meanwhile, offer too casual a setting for some. They've also begun fighting back against laptop lingerers in cities like New York, where Starbucks reportedly began covering electric outlets to shoo away squatters.
Enter "co-working," which originated in San Francisco around 2005. Groups of independent professionals convene in a common workspace. If an office is like a hotel room, co-working is like a hostel. Besides saving costs, co-working also provides a way for creative and like-minded people to network and share ideas.
"It's like joining a gym," Chancey said. "You exercise by yourself. But you come in and get out of your house."
Slightly more than half of all co-workers are freelancers while almost 20 percent are entrepreneurs who employ others, according to Deskmag, an online magazine. One in five work as a permanent employee, most in very small companies with less than five workers.
With so many startups and entrepreneurs, sometimes new businesses spring from co-workers meeting together.
"It's like an economic development stone soup," said Ken Evans, co-founder of Idea Field, a 3-year-old Tampa co-working network of tech professionals. "You get together a pot and boiling water and you let everyone else bring something to that mix."
Some cities' economic development agencies are beginning to see co-working as economic incubators. That's true in New York, where grants have helped fund co-working spaces, but hasn't happened yet in Hillsborough.
Still, Bea Bare, vice president of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., recognizes co-working's potential to churn out new businesses.
"The whole concept of co-working is to appeal to entrepreneurs and new businesses and also to network," Bare said. "Our community certainly wants to do all it can to keep and attract those small businesses and entrepreneurs."
Evans of Idea Field hasn't visited New Urban Suites yet but applauds the facility. He knew of no other full-time co-working space in Tampa.
"I support any co-working as long as they keep it affordable and kind of organic," Evans said.
When Evans, a 51-year-old tech consultant, started Idea Field, he held workshops in whatever conference room he could "steal." When his attendees wanted to meet more frequently, the group convened at a local Starbucks and cafe before finding rental space in Tampa Heights and later Ybor City in June 2009. But a year later, the landlord had other plans for the space, and Idea Field was out of a home.
On Thursday, Tampa Bay WaVe, a nonprofit community of web tech entrepreneurs, held a fundraiser in Ybor City to furnish and technologically upgrade an office space downtown. Idea Field is among the groups that want to use it for co-working.
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New Urban Suites has a sleek kitchen with marble countertops, steel sinks and fridges hidden behind white cupboards. The business club has areas to work collaboratively and private corners and cubicles to work privately.
"It's a place you can put your head down and work, work, work," Martini said. "But you can also say, 'Hey Jim, do you know how this works?' "
Martini, who owns Digital Martini, now meets clients here. It's also given him a home for his weekend Improv classes, where he helps people with public speaking.
"You don't want to bring customers or clients to your house, and you can't meet every customer at Panera," he said. "It gets you out of your house and it lets you be seen and see other people and that makes your business seem real to you."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.