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Innovation through collaboration: Life at The Factory

The Factory, a quickly growing coworking and colearning space in downtown Grand Rapids, is designed to facilitate collaboration, openness, community, accessibilty and even serendipity.
Ben Clowney

Ben Clowney /Eric Tank

Abigail McClurg

Abigail McClurg /Eric Tank

Tom Engelsman, Fred Polk and Bob Orchard

Tom Engelsman, Fred Polk and Bob Orchard /Eric Tank

The Factory, situated on the fourth floor of 38 Fulton St W (better known as the building that houses San Chez), is an office space. But --not really.

"We are a coworking space located in downtown Grand Rapids," shares Annie Klooster, Operations. "We focus on technology, design and entrepreneurship. Our membership is composed of like-minded individuals primarily in those fields."

Coworking, hyphen intentionally eliminated, is a space where people who value collaboration, openness, community, accessibility and sustainability go to play. The open work environment is very intentional. It's designed to be flexible, moveable, and to spark conversation. Weekly community lunches provide time for catching up with fellow coworkers, sparking new friendships or sharing new ideas, and there's even Beer:30, a late Friday afternoon unwind.

The high ceilings, large common areas and general feel of the place seem to draw people in. They actually want to be here. Membership at The Factory can be defined to best fit an individual’s needs. If you are a freelancer who wants to pop in every now and then- there is a 'Lite' package, which, at $75 a month, includes access two days per week during normal business hours. In contrast, a ‘Resident’, at $275 a month, has 24/7 access, their own dedicated desk space and numerous other perks.

"This is a better place for people to work than a coffee shop or a couch." Klooster says. Though there are couches here, if that's where you happen to work best.

Aside from dedicated Resident desks, space is fluid and available to everyone. The kitchen supplies free Rowster Coffee, an open-device portal, used for testing apps or viewing webpages on various techy interfaces, is available for use, and there are cozy chairs in one of the gathering areas. Despite appearances, there is a lot of work getting done. A lot. Individuals who gravitate towards The Factory do so because of the layout, as well as because of the sense of community. As Klooster explains, innovation thrives here because of the collaborative nature.

"It's really helpful to work around people who are like-minded- there's a certain vibe here. It just makes you feel more creative," Klooster states simply. "I would never be able to go back to the corporate world's cubicle farm."

Connections are now made, boundaries are crossed. For example, someone working on a new app may speak with a freelance writer. This writer happens to be working with a nonprofit who expressed a need for just that sort of technological device. This sort of thing happens all the time at The Factory.

"Of course members research and work on their own, but having someone to talk about their product with makes a difference," Klooster says. 

Communication lines remain open, and a simplistic but effective code is put into place to let others know how much time you have to chat: headphones. Two headphones, or ear buds, in means "I'm really busy and can't talk right now," one means "I can chat, but make it quick" and none means "feel free to come up to me with questions."

There are traditional aspects of an office here such as conference rooms available for private meetings with clients, whiteboards everywhere and even more unique features like Skype rooms for long distance networking. The Factory says they have what many traditional offices lack- serendipity: plenty of opportunity for unexpected encounters, happenstance conversations and moments that provide benefits for entrepreneurs or startups.

"I wanna say, 'it just works,' and have everyone take my word for it," Klooster laughs. "When I talk to people that are new to the concept, they immediately don't think it’s feasible. They think that everyone needs their privacy; everyone needs their own space. It's hard for people that are used to a more corporate environment to see that not only does it work, but it makes your work better."

And The Factory takes it even further. Events such as the upcoming Startup Weekend promote the entrepreneurial and innovative vibe for the next generation of design geeks and tech gurus. Participation at the fifth annual event is $99.00. Billed as a 54-hour event for "hackers, hustlers and designers," Startup Weekend offers an opportunity for anyone to pitch an idea and receive feedback from their peers. Top ideas are voted on, teams are formed and organized chaos ensues as business models are created and brand new startups happen before your eyes. Startup Weekend provides an understanding of what it's like to bring a company from idea to market.

Klooster is also one of the organizers behind Startup Weekend in GR.

"If you are interested in connecting with other people that do cool things, or just want to be part of something exciting, we invite you to come," she says.

The newest part of The Factory is colearning, designed to promote better employment and provide increased employment opportunities for folks in West Michigan. The same concepts exist here as in coworking: the idea that we learn better together and derive more value from shared experiences. Classes are facilitated by experts in their chosen fields, ranging from Computer Programming to Human Centered Design functionality in various scopes. Cost depends on where the student is personally and professionally, and interested individuals should contact The Factory directly.

With 82 members, The Factory has grown from humble beginnings as The Garage (yes, it was in a garage) in Zeeland to almost outgrowing their now 5000 square foot space in GR. Of course, there's still room for you here, if you are interested.

For more information, visit their website.

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