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The Boardroom offers new workspace in Anchorage

Posted: October 27, 2013 - 8:35pm

By NATHANIEL HERZ

ANCHORAGE — On Thursday morning, Ryan Kingrea was working on a laptop at a downtown Anchorage Starbucks, doing an estimate for his family’s construction company.

Kingrea would rather have been in an office, he said. But he wouldn’t use one enough for a rental to make financial sense for his company.

One floor above him, two Anchorage women were working to give him another option: a new shared office space called The Boardroom. After driving to Anchorage from Seattle last week with a U-Haul of furniture, the pair is preparing to launch their business on Nov. 4, on the second floor of the Key Bank Plaza on Fifth Avenue.

The women, Brit Szymoniak and Katherine Jernstrom, think there are enough people in Anchorage to sustain what’s known as a “co-working space” -- essentially, desks and private offices for consultants, freelancers and entrepreneurs who want to be somewhere more professional than a coffee shop or kitchen table.

And they’re confident enough that they’ve quit their jobs and raised more than $100,000 for start-up costs from friends, family and their own bank accounts.

They’re not the first in Anchorage to rent out single offices -- the Midtown Executive Office Suite has been around for 20 years, with tenants that include engineers and psychiatrists.

But with 5,300 square feet, The Boardroom, by contrast, will offer open desk seating -- not to mention free coffee, a lounge with a big-screen TV and video games, and weekly mixers over wine -- to provide members with a feel that’s closer to Silicon Valley.

“It allows you to have people to bounce ideas off of, and to work with every day, so that you’re not working alone,” said Szymoniak. “You’re working with other people -- but independently.”

The idea for the business has been percolating for the last two years, since Szymoniak, formerly the Port of Anchorage’s director of public affairs, took a leadership course with Jernstrom, who used to be the community outreach director for Bean’s Cafe.

Szymoniak, 26, had spent a year as a consultant, working out of her house and a small office downtown -- with occasional trips to coffee shops and a wine bar to help her get through lonely stretches. Both women also serve on nonprofit boards, which sometimes struggle to find good meeting spaces, said Jernstrom, 29.

They weren’t aware of the co-working model, which has taken off in areas like New York City and California’s Bay Area. But, “we started Googling,” Jernstrom said.

“And we found this model of co-working, all across the U.S. and across the world,” she said.

They did market research, which they said showed that a city can support one co-working space for every 85,000 people.

Jernstrom visited CoCo, a workspace in Minneapolis on the trading floor of an old grain exchange. Szymoniak went to New York, where she saw a business called WeWork on Madison Avenue.

And they started raising money, with the biggest investment coming from friends: a couple that lives in Azerbaijan, where the husband, who met Jernstrom’s husband in college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, works for BP.

Over the summer, Szymoniak and Jernstrom quit their jobs to work on The Boardroom full-time. Ultimately, they plan to pay themselves salaries, though they’re not making money yet.

“We have very supportive husbands who are willing to let us step out of the workforce,” Szymoniak said.

Revenue will come from membership fees that start at $350 a month for access to the open desk space, where there’s room for 25 people at a time, Jernstrom said. A shared office costs $900 a month and a private office is $1,100.

People can also use the space for a day at a time, with a one-time fee of $25 -- and organizations can rent meeting rooms.

The test for The Boardroom is whether the market will support it, just like it is for any other start-up, said Joe Morrison, who manages the municipally run 49th State Angel Fund -- which invests in new businesses and other funds but hasn’t put money into The Boardroom.

“That’s going to be their biggest challenge: Is the market ready for it, and how soon will customers show up?” Morrison said. “I suspect that there will be a lot of users of the space. I suspect they’re on the right track. But you can’t say that with 100 percent certainty. You just don’t know.”

The Midtown Executive Office Suite has survived for 20 years, said owner Sharon Kelly, but it’s a different style, with 10 private offices and just two open desks, which are in separate rooms.

Their rates, Kelly said, start at $165 a month, which covers the use of a desk and computer.

The Boardroom is “another type of company,” for “the real young folks,” Kelly said.

“The theory being that they don’t need an office -- they just need a big bullpen,” she said.

Anchorage Community Works, near Ship Creek, also offers a co-working space, though theirs is geared more toward artists, said Brooklyn Baggett, a co-founder.

That space opened in August but hasn’t been actively marketed yet, so it’s hard to gauge demand, Baggett said.

Morrison said he would like to see The Boardroom become a gathering place for Anchorage’s start-ups and entrepreneurs. That’s something the city lacks now, he added.

“It does have the potential to connect the efforts that many disparate people are working on in the community,” he said. “I’m excited to see them open their doors.”

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