When Bill Bennett started his first business in 2007, he began to search for a bright, vibrant office space. With a growing company, he was eager to be located in Chicago’s Loop, but brokers turned him down when they learned he wasn’t interested in a long-term lease.
“I didn’t know yet whether I was going to have one employee or ten,” he says, “and I didn’t want to start a construction project or make a long term commitment.”
After looking at a few dingy sublets and several “very 1980s-feeling” Regus centers, Bennett settled for an affordable but basic coworking space at The Incubator in Evanston. He soon realized that without a sense of community and common space to interact with other businesses, he was spending ten hours a day in his office without speaking to anyone.
“In the end,” he says, “it was just space.”
Meeting other entrepreneurs who felt similarly dissatisfied with the available options, Bennett decided to use his expertise in niche real estate (his first business focused on student housing) to found Novel Coworking and create budget-friendly, amenity-rich office space to help small businesses thrive.
An exhaustive three-year search and $8 million in capital led him to 73 W. Monroe, which had everything he was looking for in a building: a central location, a good price, and historic elements that could be revitalized and incorporated into a contemporary office space.
“When Bill first showed me the building, it was totally trashed,” says investor Michael Brown, who is a stakeholder in many of Bennett’s ventures. “But Bill can walk through an empty building, see what the problems are, and show you the vision for it.”
Unlike other national workspace providers, Bennett decided early on that he wanted to own each Novel Coworking building in order to invest in the infrastructure in a bigger way and to create more amenities for clients. Features of Monroe’s five-floor building’s include original wood beams and Edison lightbulbs, a mix with contemporary amenities such as glassed-in offices, and dedicated 100 mbps internet.
A high-ceilinged common area serves up custom lattes and local draft beer, as well as offering workspace for interns and visiting employees. Novel Coworking also features over the top amenities that few others have, such as bike rooms, showers, movie theaters, recording studios, storage units, and event space. “We want to be able to offer small businesses access to all the amenities that firms like Google are offering,” says Bennett.
The Monroe building opened in September 2013, followed by two more locations in Chicago’s Loop in 2014, two locations in downtown Houston in 2014 and early 2015, and one in Dallas in the winter of 2015. Bennett expects to open 50 Novel Coworking locations in cities nationwide by 2019. Novel Coworking’s current users range from law firms to growing marketing agencies to non-profit organizations looking for inexpensive space. Rates for a fully furnished small office start at $499 a month and include utilities as well as access to collaborative opportunities such as happy hours, guest speakers, and “Lunch and Learn” events where new clients can discover ways to do business with their neighbors.
“There is a real sense of community,” says Brian Lauterbach, founder of the fundraising website DonorPath. “It’s as simple as borrowing a power cord or recommending a quarterly report template for investors.”
For Bennett, the lonely hours in an insular office are a distant memory. He likes to leave his door open for serendipitous drop-ins.
“Today I went out and sat on the couches and ended up in conversation with an organic food distributor,” he says. “It feels like a dream to know all these smart, interesting people.”