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Five Years Running: Roanoke CoLab Promotes Entrepreneurship /  Collaboration With Non-Traditional Workspace

The CoLab, an unassuming co-working facility on Grandin Street nestled between a Middle Eastern restaurant and a bank, provides workspace for entrepreneurs, freelancers, small business owners and remote workers. The space celebrates their 5-year anniversary this year, further cementing the work they’ve done to provide resources for entrepreneurs, and foster a collaborative community among Roanoke business professionals.

CoLab first opened its doors in 2014 and has since grown to include more than 150 members. The space will likely have a celebration in May or June, says Director of the CoLab, Brad Stephens.

“We want this community to thrive. And we’re always looking for where we can play a part and help other folks do things, facilitate connections, play a part where things can be amplified. We do have a financial bottom line we have to meet. But what we want is to be that connector and a neutral person to advocate for our entrepreneurs, and also to help connect everybody that’s in this space.”

CoLab celebrates its five-year anniversary as co-working sits as the second largest contributor to office space leasing nationally. This space is part of a national trend with this alternative workspace, another option for business owners and employees outside of a traditional office space. (Between 2015 and 2019, the number of co-working spaces worldwide almost tripled, according to data from the Global Coworking Unconference Conference.)

CoLab is based on a membership model where, in exchange for a monthly membership, members receive amenities such as coffee and wi-fi with a selection of access to fixed and floating desks, conference rooms, huddle rooms, and a podcast recording studio.

“We’re seeing a trend toward fixed office space and not quite as much with open space,” says Stephens. “We have the bigger offices here and the smaller offices in the back. We see a lot more folks these days looking for closed spaces,” says Stephens.

Roanoke’s low cost of living and low employment rate contribute to CoLab’s unique membership makeup, which includes a number of freelancers who also have daytime jobs, he says.

According to Zillow, the average cost of a home in Roanoke County is $181,300, which is lower than the average cost of a home in the United States, at $230,100. Additionally, Roanoke’s unemployment rate is 3.1%, lower than the national average of 3.8%. Both numbers come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Folks we have here are looking for a network. And they’re more established. The freelance market in Roanoke is very different than in other communities. We have low unemployment rates. Those who want full-time jobs find it. A lot of folks who do freelance have a daytime job as well—full-time freelancing is not as big here,” Stephens says.

In addition to providing workspace, CoLab continues to nurture, and has nurtured, Roanoke’s local entrepreneurial community through members-only events and events open to the public. Star Tank, Meet Roanoke’s Decision Makers and CityWorks (X)Po Live are recent events promoting entrepreneurship among Roanoke professionals.

Star Tank, which was held in January, for example, is inspired by the hit show “Shark Tank” and allows entrepreneurs to pitch their business idea to investors, encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation in the Roanoke Valley region.

Another focus of the space since opening is to connect entrepreneurs to resources and partners such as Roanoke’s Small Business Development Center, which promotes and advises small business in the Roanoke region.

From providing a downloadable entrepreneurship guide on its website, to pro-bono business consulting, the Roanoke SBDC also points entrepreneurs in the direction of office space. The SBDC will suggest space based on a business’s needs.

“It depends on their business. If it’s retail or has a retail component, they’re looking for a different space. The answer lies in determining what specific niche they occupy and helping them match up their niche with the correct space,” says Keith Hartman, Director of the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center.

For someone who’s looking for an opportunity where they can collaborate with others either directly or indirectly, a co-working space is a good idea, he says.

As CoLab celebrates its five-year mark, it has opened the door to what a workspace can look like, providing an office space option for those seeking collaboration, built-in amenities, business resources and flexibility.

Obinna Morton

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