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While people puzzle over WeWork, niche co-working spaces continue gaining traction

DATE POSTED:June 22, 2019

This week, a young, New York-based startup called Alma raised $8 million in funding to expand its “co-practicing community of therapists, coaches, and wellness professionals,” which it first launched from a space on Madison Avenue last fall.

As CNN was first to report, the company is charging psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers and acupuncturists $165 per month to become Alma members, which comes with services like billing and scheduling and even a matchmaking service that purports to connect professionals with patients. They also pay an hourly rate to book identically outfitted rooms that can be used interchangeably.

CNN called the company a WeWork for therapists, but Alma and its venture backers are hardly alone in seeing promise in more specialized co-working spaces, which have proliferated as their best-known peer in the co-working craze, WeWork, has itself set up all over the globe. According to one estimate, the number of global coworking spaces, thought to be around 14,000 in 2017, is expected to reach 30,000 by 2022.

One of these outfits — one backed early on by WeWork itself — is The Wing, a nearly three-year-old startup that describes itself as a members-only community full of work and community spaces designed for women. (It dropped its practice of not admitting men as members or guests after a Washington, D.C. man brought a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the firm that sought damages of up to $12 million.) Though the startup has critics who worry that it advances only women who can afford to pay a few hundred dollars per month for a membership, investors have already given it nearly $120 million in funding.

They’re betting that women want to work and share ideas and see powerful female speakers alongside other women who are members. But investors and entrepreneurs are betting on broader trends, too. For one thing, it’s clear that commercial real estate owners need new ways to occupy underutilized space as our lives move increasingly online.

Greater numbers of people are also becoming freelance workers, a trend that shows no signs of stopping. According to the Freelancers Union, 3.7 million more people started freelancing between 2014 and 2018 for an estimated total of 56.7 million America freelancers. That’s a huge segment of the working population.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that Spacious, a three-year-old, New York-based company that turns restaurants into co-working spaces during the afternoon, is backed by some of the best investors in the business, including Baseline Ventures. (Other companies taking advantage of underused space include Breather and Flexe.)

More interesting is a newer trend of spaces built out for specific groups of people. Therapists is just the newest that we’ve heard, but there are plenty of others. L.A. alone is home to Glitch City, a 24-hour co-working space that caters to indie game developers; The Hatchery Press, for writers; and Paragon Spaces, for those working in the cannabis industry. Elsewhere, it’s possible to find with co-working spaces for people in the construction industry, and spaces for tech companies with on-demand workforces, and spaces for people committed to a zero-waste lifestyle.

It’s probably too early to say whether the niche spaces are any more sticky than more general co-working spaces like the fashionable spots that WeWork sells. Having been part of a long-standing, not-for-profit writers’ collective in San Francisco for roughly a decade — and aware that numerous of my former office mates continue to be a part of that community — this editor would guess that they are. They’re also far less scalable, presumably.

But the much bigger question — for WeWork and the growing number of more focused startups to emerge in recent years — is whether enough people can justify the cost of working in their spaces when the economy invariably hits the skids.

It’s easier to imagine this happening with communities of doctors or other professionals who, through sheer dint of working together, can defray their costs and generate more business for themselves. For the rest, only time will tell. Either way, VCs have a lot of money to put to work and plenty are willing to gamble that right now, at least, there are few limits on where the trend can go.