In this edition of “Innovation Spotlight,” we’re highlighting the work and insights of Forrest Fowler, Co-Founder of Cowork. In the first part of a two-part interview, Forrest talks about starting his first business with Tyler Henke, CEO of Zipility, how Forrest and Tyler founded Cowork, how starting a business is as much about discovery as it is a commitment to an idea, and how Cowork’s unique community lends itself to a productive and diverse working environment.
“The first business Tyler and I worked on together was a lawn mowing company he started in high school. For college, Tyler moved away to attend Wisconsin, while I stayed in Bloomington and went to IU. We quickly realized that we liked working together. When we both graduated from undergrad, we considered going to big cities but ultimately decided we wanted to be in Bloomington. We also knew we didn’t want a traditional nine-to-five gig. We didn’t realize we were inadvertently signing up for a 7 to 7 gig!
“We started a web development company called Yellow, which we eventually changed to Sid3car, and were developing UI/UX and software solutions. I loved what I was doing, but I was working from home, and it wasn’t something that I looked forward to. I felt like I couldn’t leave my house, it was hard to make friends, or leave my work at work.
“To combat that feeling of isolation, our third co-founder Aaron White and I started working together at Scholar’s Inn Bakehouse’s on the east side of Bloomington every day. He made a group on Meetup, and we were able to find other people who were remote workers, or software developers. We wanted to make a space where we could work and make friends, and build a community.
“We made a website, and called it Cowork. Not even within a week of making a website, we had someone reach out to us to sign up already! When a remote software developer named Bess gave us money, we were shocked. We tried to give it back to her after our first building/lease fell through but she refused.
“We hadn’t even figured out the logistics, or announced the website yet, we already had people like Bess reaching out to us and giving us money to help make Cowork happen. The initial responses like that took us back quite a bit, and we even tried to give Bess a refund, but she insisted that we keep the money and use it to find a space.
“That was our first big realization that people really want this space, people really want this community, and that there was a market out there for building this kind of community-oriented business.
“I think it’s important to say too that when we started Cowork, it was at the right time. When we started Cowork around 2013, that was where remote work was becoming more of a day-to-day possibility. The technology was making more intensive jobs easier to do remotely.
“We also have members who split time between Bloomington and the West Coast, members who are working for startups, freelance software developers and UI/UX consultants, copywriters, non-profit workers, and so much more.
“What I think we’ve created is a space where people can not only come and work with one another, but be in community with one another as well. Our members really value the flexibility that we offer. They can come as often or as little as they want to, and will always find themselves welcome here in this space.”
“Our community offers a space where people can collaborate and ask for help. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this happen, or experienced it myself, where members have sought each other out for help with a problem, or developing a solution. That’s the kind of creative, collaborative community that we’ve tried to make here. It’s a place where people can work on their own personal projects, but also have the opportunity to reach out to others, or meet people doing the same things that they’re doing. We have weekly community events, but we also really prize the organic nature of people deciding to work with each other. That spirit of community is an essential part of what Cowork means to us.
“I think one of our biggest realizations as to who we were serving, the more that we got to know members, is that some of them were spouses or partners of people doing work at IU, and Cowork has provided them with the ability to form their own community outside of their spouse’s, so that they don’t feel so insulated.
“Others were parents already working from home and just looking to get out of their offices, and others still are people that love Bloomington, and don’t want to leave their city because they love the home that they’ve built.
“I remember when I first tried to have a regular job developing software in a big city. I didn’t like it. I missed home. Bloomington has been my home for so long, that it’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else.
“I think The Mill acquiring us is the next logical step. I think it’s helpful for us to have a space where we still have this wonderful community that we’ve built, but we also get to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
“There are so many people who are involved in our coworking space that are innovators in their own ways. Having a community like Cowork join The Mill takes our community to a bigger, better space that also helps us to build upon the incredible community that we already have. I know that we’ve built something very important here, and I want to do my best to make sure that we continue to grow in a way that’s healthy for us as a community space.”