Editor’s Note: This guest post is by Shawn Matthews, an oDesk client who runs a creative agency and a coworking space in Springfield, Missouri.
I am a workplace nomad. I have spent 20 years as a creative freelancer; I have shared office space with a motley assortment of characters in makeshift offices that include various recording studios, coffee shops, television sets, copy centers and tour buses.
When I bought my first Mac Powerbook in 2002, my life literally changed. My work became supercharged — I could work from anywhere in the world and still deliver professional results. It was during this period that I first realized the importance of infrastructure to support independent creatives, and that the provision of flexible shared resources like office space, studio space and expensive equipment would become a viable business model over the coming decade as others realized this too.
The Price of Freedom
Inspired by the emerging creative scene but deterred by the prohibitive costs in popular metro areas, my wife and I moved from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Missouri to build our future. We both had ties to the area, but more importantly we both saw opportunity. My wife created a t-shirt business here called Swagbot in 2007 that would have cost $250,000 to start in DC, factoring in long-term leases, loans and brand awareness. She started the exact same business in Springfield for $5,000, and seven years later she now counts Wikipedia amongst her list of her clients.
I realized very early on that I could do the same professional and recreational activities in Springfield that I once did in LA, DC, or New York. The only difference is, I do them at a discount. In fact, I once figured out that the monthly toll bill for one friend’s commute would pay for my mortgage.
We have found that the culture of the Ozarks and of the City of Springfield is very supportive of small businesses and “solopreneurs.” I recently interviewed city manager Greg Buriss to get his thoughts on the rise of the creative class in Springfield, and he said, “In Springfield, we are focusing on the things that give communities personality and entrepreneurs an advantage…and even though Springfield has a low cost of living, the city can provide small business development loans to help kick-start an idea.”
He had a good point — one clear advantage for entrepreneurs in considering smaller cities and rural areas around the country is the economic incentives that the city, state, and even federal government may provide. From tax abatement to state-funded grants to USDA rural business loans, there are resources that are readily available and, in some cases, underutilized in these smaller communities.
We Can Cowork it Out
In 2011, after meeting my now business partner Jim Michels at a Chamber of Commerce event, we built our first of three iterations of a dedicated coworking space called The Creative Foundry. (Coworking spaces are shared working environments where independent professionals, remote workers or even early-stage startups can rent desk space, giving them access to the coworking community as well as office resources.)
Two years after that, we moved into a 2,800-square-foot, purpose-built space that was formerly an art gallery. This beautiful new space is located next to the Zagat-acclaimed Coffee Ethic, and is now home to members who include Rackspace, Wikipedia and McGraw Hill employees.
Jim is the engineer, instigator and financier of the Foundry, and also provides structure for all of my creative randomness through our venture Tractive West. Over the past few years, we have aimed to build an amazing place for independent professionals, creatives, freelancers and solopreneurs. We now have professional meeting space for client presentations, an idea lab, a thought lounge and our Talk Box, a Skype booth-styled space which people can use for things like phone calls and video conferencing.
The primary function of the Creative Foundry is to provide a hub through which clients can connect, create and cowork. We think that through collaboration and networking, independent professionals and entrepreneurs can engage with a variety of like-minded people to discuss their projects, create new ventures, or just to get some much-needed feedback on an idea.
Is There Life Beyond Silicon Valley?
I have had the chance to meet a number of inspiring thought leaders in our Midwest startup space over the past few years. In March our team made the cut as one of the top 25 finalists for Chicago’s Techstars accelerator, and though we didn’t make the final 10, we did get an amazing behind-the-scenes look at Chicago’s bustling startup scene. Cities like Omaha and Des Moines are right behind Chicago, while pioneers like Herb Sith from Think Big KC are leading the charge here in Missouri.
These are exciting times for anyone who has ever had an idea that they wanted to explore. Today’s tools allow a team or individual to rapidly validate, prototype and distribute a product or service, all from their laptop anywhere in the world.
For example, we’ve been using oDesk for about two years at our creative agency Tractive West, primarily to manage talented contractors who work with us on our video production, brand development and marketing projects.
We have developed an internal, proprietary distributed workflow for video that allows us to rapidly build a production with the global talent pool that oDesk provides. In a lot of ways, the access to talent has leveled the playing field for small firms like ours. We can be very agile and scale quickly based on a project’s scope and budget. We can literally find world-class talent on an à la carte basis, 24 hours a day, as we need it.
Living in a Freelancer’s Paradise
In the past five years there has been an amazing shift in work culture around the world, and Springfield is no different. Tractive West has built a model where we market our services outside our region at a slight discount against market rate, then scale to meet the needs of the project using a distributed team via oDesk, and finally spend the revenue here in Springfield, improving our local economy in the process.
In Silicon Valley terms, Springfield’s startup culture is really just beginning to take shape. But when it comes to entrepreneurs starting and growing successful businesses, the city is already booming, and I have high hopes for where it will go from here.
Shawn Matthews is a Creative Director from Springfield, Missouri. He is a connector, promoter, agitator and disruptor whose credits include projects for Wikipedia, Fox Television Studios, Universal Pictures and MTV, ranging from fundraising strategy to music composition. He is co-founder of The Creative Foundry, a 2,800-square-foot coworking space, and Chief Creative Officer of the boutique creative agency Tractive West.