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Originally published September 11, 2013 at 3:55 PM | Page modified September 11, 2013 at 10:41 PM

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Co-working spaces feed innovation in the millennial generation

Cubicles are out. Collaboration is in, writes columnist Thanh Tan. Seattle entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s are redefining modern work habits in spaces designed to generate ideas and spark innovation.

Times editorial columnist

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When I think of why young people are leaving the security of company jobs to venture out on their own, my mind goes to a scene from the 1999 film “Office Space” where three frustrated software employees take a constantly malfunctioning printer out to a field and beat it to pieces. Their fury is an act of defiance against a cubicle culture where everyone is considered replaceable — yet the broken machine is allowed to stay.

In the real world, various estimates indicate that by 2020, at least 40 percent of Americans will be their own bosses. Here in Seattle, more than 20 different co-working spaces now rent to people working on different ventures.

Flexible hours, communal kitchens and fast Wi-Fi cater to a mobile workforce of independent programmers, writers and social do-gooders. What happens when creative minds collide in a single place? Collaboration starts. Ideas flourish.

Any business looking to stay on the cutting edge should embrace the evolving work habits of these twenty- and thirty-something entrepreneurs. They’re not unfocused dreamers. They hustle.

Alex Mondau, 32, is a high-school friend who leads business development for Community Sourced Capital, a startup that allows people to invest in local businesses. He works with two partners at the Impact Hub Seattle, a Herman Miller-furnished co-working space in Pioneer Square with more than 500 paying members.

“If I didn’t work here, I’d be bouncing around all over the place and wouldn’t have a routine. That’s sometimes what holds back early-stage entrepreneurs,” Mondau says.

Their office changes daily, from a conference room on the Hub’s second floor to the sofa near the lobby where they can meet potential investors and mentors. Some of the trio’s best connections have come from being overheard by others in the building.

Of course, striking out on your own requires sacrifice. Mondau teaches part-time, works with two companies and sold his Belltown condo this year to support himself without a steady paycheck. He moved in with his best friend to save money.

“There’s an element of privilege being able to work on an idea for an extended period of time,” he acknowledged. “And all of us on our team are supported by our network, meaning our immediate friends and family.”

Caitlin Agnew and Lana Morisoli, both 32, opened the Makers co-working space a year ago in Belltown. With backgrounds in accounting and interior design, both were casualties of the economy and laid off from previous jobs. The lesson? They wanted to be self-employed.

“I don’t care if I'm not getting paid a lot. I want flexibility and to meet interesting people,” says Agnew.

While retuning their careers sitting in coffee shops, Agnew and Morisoli resolved to create their ideal office and event space. Family members helped with finances, legal advice and construction.

Today, boutique-ad firms, freelancers, tech startups and services like Sidecar and Living Social base their Seattle offices inside Makers’ retro-themed warehouse. Renters come and go. Hours are long. Targets and goals change.

“It’s not just about us anymore,” Morisoli says. “It’s about the fact we’ve affected all these people and how can we make that community better for them?”

Co-working spaces are essentially incubators where ideas are nurtured.

So important.

In the opening pages of Seattle-based technologist and author Ramez Naam’s book, “The Infinite Resource,” he argues Charles Darwin’s studies on evolution don’t just apply to biology. Facilitating the exchange of ideas generates variety and constant improvement.

That’s how hunter-gathering tribes learned how to farm, which led to villages. And how engineers found ways to condense information once stored in bulky computers into tiny smartphones.

The point is when people connect, innovation spreads.

Couple this notion with co-working spaces, and we get a new generation of millennial entrepreneurs who gladly take risks, even if the payoff is uncertain.

They adapt to survive, accept help from others and find glory in the process, not the result.

Success and failure are shared experiences.

That’s the only way forward.

Thanh Tan's column appears regularly on the editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is ttan@seattletimes.com On Twitter @uscthanhtan


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