Jackie Menne is a CEO — that is, a Chief Empathy Officer. It may sound touchy-feely, but Menne, owner of a Minneapolis co-working space called Joule, doesn’t just provide virtual office space for entrepreneurs and independent contractors. She also makes it her mission to introduce users of that space to each other if they might benefit from the introduction, and to find ways to let them connect on their own. Her role as an entrepreneurial matchmaker has helped to make Joule a success, if a quiet one.
Menne opened Joule the same year that CoCo, a co-working space with a much higher media profile, opened in St. Paul and later Minneapolis. Located at I-35W and Washington Avenue in Minneapolis, Joule (the name is a scientific term for a unit of energy) offers many of the same things that CoCo does. But members say that Joule, with its free parking and opportunities to connect with other similarly minded business owners, was the better choice for them.
Joule and other co-working spaces are riding the wave of what’s nearly an underground economy. No, it’s not a drug cartel or a barter community; it’s nonemployers and microbusinesses.
The smallest businesses — a big business
Nonemployers and microbusiness aren’t so much underground, of course, as under the radar. Because their receipts are so small, nonemployers (business firms that have no payroll) aren’t even included in most business statistics. But the U.S. Census Small Business page says that no less than three-fourths of all businesses in the United States have no payroll.
“Most are self-employed persons operating unincorporated businesses, and may or may not be the owner’s principal source of income,” the page says.
Of the nearly 118,000 firms in Minnesota in 2010, nearly 71,000 of those firms had between zero and 4 employees. Many of them have home offices. They’re freelance IT contractors or developers who work for a company across the country out of Anodyne Coffeehouse in Minneapolis, or business owners who get all their work done through contractual relationships with other small businesses instead of employees. And lest you think they’re all laid-off employees who would be at regular jobs if they could find them, Menne says, a member put it beautifully to her recently: “An entrepreneur is someone who works 80 hours a week so they don’t have to work 40.”
It’s these people who come to connect and work at Joule.
A tale of two Joule-ers
Joule’s members have their virtual offices in Joule’s 4,000-square-foot space. Many work at the tables in front of a large-screen TV or at the coffee bar. They hold meetings with clients or collaborators in the building’s conference room, or one-on-ones in the armchairs near the fireplace. They might choose to work more privately in one of the five semi-private offices. With a monthly fee or a yearly membership, members get access to all of Joule’s facilities (which include two high-speed wi-fi lines) and the building’s upstairs patio, which overlooks the Metrodome. They can even use Joule’s Twitter feed to scare up a game of ping-pong in the building’s fitness room.
Although Joule has about 150 members, about 10 percent of which are organizational members, the space usually isn’t crowded. In fact, member Colette DeHarpporte says that she prefers Joule’s quieter atmosphere to CoCo’s hustle and bustle.
DeHarpporte is the founder of Laser Classroom, a business that creates and sources products, curriculum and other offerings for teaching about light, lasers, and optics in elementary and high-school classrooms. She bought a laser pointer business from her father in 2008, and then took it in the direction of education, because she saw a vast opportunity in the provision of education in photonics. DeHarpporte explains that light is now being used as ubiquitously as electricity in many technologies. “The photon is the new electron,” she says.
DeHarpporte became a Joule member in 2010, and says that she spends between half and two-thirds of her working time at the space. She works in the public space and occasionally holds meetings with clients in the meeting room.
Although she considered CoCo, DeHarpporte says she’s found that she meets more people at Joule, with Menne introducing members to each other when she thinks they’ll benefit from it. DeHarpporte explains that she also liked Joule’s lower price and free parking. “I work from home because it’s easy,” DeHarpporte says. “I don’t want anything complicated.”
Kevin Whinnery, on the other hand, was sold on Joule when he saw how fast the wi-fi connection was. Whinnery is a developer evangelist for Twilio in San Francisco. He travels the country to teach developers how to use the company’s API. He works at Joule less consistently because he’s on the road so much, but in the year and a half that he’s been a Joule member, he’s found that Joule has the connections — both technological and personal — that he needs. Also, with three kids at home, “It’s a way to enforce work-life balance,” he says.
A microbusiness plan
Owner Jackie Menne was ready to open Joule several years before she did so. She says she first started thinking about another source of income after finishing a catalog project for a home-furnishings company.
“We got the catalog done on time, and then 9/11 happened two days later and it never went out,” she says. So she started on a business plan, and even got as far as build-out, when asbestos was discovered in the building she had chosen. A family illness intervened next, and Menne’s plans went on the shelf until 2009, when she finished another catalog project. She saw how many of her advertising colleagues were out of work, and decided it was time to diversify. “There were tons of me out there,” she said.
Menne runs monthly events for members, which she learned to make smaller when all-member events drew exactly nobody. She also has groups for similarly-minded members, such as SPITE, which stands for speakers, presenters, instructors, trainers and educators. “You get tired of talking to the mirror,” she says. “So we practice on each other.”
Joule broke even in its first year, but Menne still makes significant income from other sources. But just like the members she serves, Menne (whose business has no payroll) hopes to make Joule her main source of income. “This is my year to make [Joule] more than a hobby,” she explains.
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.