Space race

As recently as a few years ago, the future was being built by those entrepreneurs who navigated the business world with a staunch individualism. These were mavericks never thwarted by the divergent and challenging ideas of a partner nor slowed by clinging to the bygone comforts of a physical office.

Give me a BlackBerry and a latte, these pioneers said, and I will build nations.

Now backing away from that edge is a new wave of young business leaders and start-up generators who are once again acknowledging direct collaboration and networking and pursuing workspaces that best facilitate both.

No entrepreneur is an island.

Wendy Overton is the assistant executive director of LSU Continuing Education and a key member of the newly formed Regional Innovation Organization. It is her mission to be a catalyst for entrepreneurial networking through new events and progressive workspaces. In May she coordinated LSU’s StartUp Weekend, a 54-hour competition in which teams developed and pitched new business ideas.

“I’m keen on supporting the creative ecosystem,” Overton says. “I want more entrepreneurs coming together and forming high-growth start-ups instead of working anonymously in a coffee shop.”

A few days each week, Overton puts in time at Entrepreneurship Headquarters South, the Perkins Rowe coworking office managed by Louis DeAngelo, Jared Loftus and Chad Ortte. An EHQ North is in the works for downtown. The first of its kind in Baton Rouge, EHQ South adheres closely to the model found in other cities. Entrepreneurs can rent desk space or a conference room in the office that has an open floor plan, natural light, a bustling location and no cubicles. The concept is attracting a vibrant mix of businesses, taking root in Shreveport with CoHabitat and New Orleans with Launch Pad as well as in Baton Rouge.

As one of the earliest tenants of EHQ, Josh Ford—owner of Giraphic Prints and co-owner of Ninja Snoballs and Taco de Paco—says the collaborative space is a relief from distractions. “At the house, my mindset can wander too much to housework, and at the print shop I get pulled in different directions and employee issues,” Ford says. “Here I can focus, and ideas get vetted. It’s like a real-time Shark Tank.”

Ford’s latest venture with Loftus is the collegiate sportswear website CollegeDistrict.com—think Threadless with even more highly incentivized crowdsourcing—and he says the site’s logo would not be what it is today without the instant feedback he received from other creatives who rent space at EHQ. This type of face-to-face crowdsourcing is similar to a CEO like Mark Zuckerberg sitting at a desk just like every other employee in the center of Facebook’s egalitarian headquarters.

Offline workspace is changing to mirror online interaction.

“That sort of flattened hierarchy is definitely influenced by technology and social networking,” Overton says.

Even the Louisiana Tech Park, a big box-style business incubator and office epicenter built in 2001 with a vast parking lot and separate workspaces connected by a series of gray, cavernous hallways, is finding ways to adapt to an evolving creative climate. The Tech Park hosts regular socials, CEO luncheons—with required nametags—and roundtable discussions to spur engagement among tenants. Its Tech Park U program is a business boot camp that uses the kind of open-space work environment that helps EHQ thrive.

“There certainly were a lot more cubicles when we first opened,” says Tech Park Executive Director Stephen Loy. “People don’t seem to want those high walls anymore. With rapidly developing technology, the office has become just an extension of our homes.”

In this way, modern workspaces can be, like good schools, parks and nightlife, a key quality-of-life generator that attracts businesses and young entrepreneurs with creative capital. So says Pat McGuinness, CEO of Trumpet, a New Orleans-based advertising agency that operates a 12,000-square-foot shared entrepreneurial workspace called Icehouse in Faubourg St. John. They do not call it a neighborhood, but an “ecosystem.”

“Architecture can inform creativity—absolutely,” McGuinness says. “Some traditional spaces are simply not conducive to collaboration, and it’s our human nature to need interaction to spark creativity and continue moving forward.”

Icehouse is home to a string of creative and green businesses—including Rehage Productions, founders of the Voodoo Music Experience and the Essence Festival—and yet, well-designed, creativity-boosting spaces are becoming multigenerational, drawing in others besides young entrepreneurs and start-ups.

Kean Miller, the largest law firm in Baton Rouge, relocated in January to more than 80,000 square feet of new downtown office space in Mike Wampold’s II City Plaza. With help from Chicago-based design firm Nelson, Kean Miller created a work environment that more closely resembles an art gallery or one of New York City’s high-end boutique hotels than any of Baton Rouge’s more traditional law offices.

Studded with communal spaces like coffee bars, kitchens, dining halls, den-like lounges with sofas and flatscreens, a sleek, centrally-located servery and multiple modular conference rooms, the office was designed to make 125 attorneys and their staff feel more at home and more connected. Steve Boutwell, the firm’s director of client services, calls the space collaborative and modern. “Moving here really put a spring into everyone’s step,” he says.

Both Icehouse and Kean Miller use their facilities to draw in the community. Icehouse holds art events and a popular speaker series and even hosted all of the recent New Orleans mayoral candidates. Local non-profits often use Kean Miller’s conference rooms for presentations and gatherings.

As more businesses and entrepreneurs investigate ways to use their spaces for personal and civic connectivity, Overton hopes business leaders and city officials alike will find ways to support the trend for the sake of economic development.

“It’s all about intersecting groups of influence,” Overton says. “The more you can bring people together, the more innovation has a chance to blossom.”