Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the spring issue of Business Leader. To view that magazine and other special publications created by the Leader-Telegram, go to leadertelegram.com/magazines.
Jamf grew from a small startup into a major software company while it was tucked into offices on the second floor of a downtown Eau Claire building.
When it began renting space in spring 2010 above Redeeming Grace Church, 312 S. Barstow St., Jamf had 18 employees. Its business flourishing and ranks growing, Jamf moved about four years later into a new office building next to Phoenix Park.
Early leaders of the software company hope other local tech entrepreneurs can find success where they did, in their former offices overlooking Barstow Street.
“There’s some good business and startup juju in these walls,” said Nick O’Brien, who was hired to turn Jamf’s old offices into a place to foster new business ventures.
In mid-March that space officially reopened as CoLab, providing budding tech entrepreneurs with space to work and opportunities to turn their ideas into reality.
What is CoLab?
CoLab looks like many other offices – desks, chairs, meeting rooms, printers, bathrooms and a break room.
A difference is that individuals pay membership fees to use desks there — be it for months or days — to further their own business ideas. This greatly lowers the cost a fledgling business would otherwise have to pay for renting its own office space.
There are about 60 spots for people to work within CoLab, ranging from a quiet desk to communal areas to chat with others about ideas.
But it’s not simply a place for people to plug in their laptops, tap into Wi-Fi and grab coffee.
CoLab also looks to provide help along what can be the lonely journey of entrepreneurship.
Connecting members with experts in business, finance and marketing is an intangible perk of the co-working space.
As he prepared to hand over the reins of the co-working space, O’Brien gives Elaine Coughlin a pop quiz on the most important things that CoLab is going for.
“Environment, community and culture,” she responds.
O’Brien congratulates her on answering correctly.
Leading the lab
O’Brien spent months getting the right furniture, creating a plan for CoLab and taking other steps needed to get it started, but a job opportunity for his wife lured the couple away to Milwaukee recently.
Taking over for him is Coughlin, who joined CoLab at the end of February to serve as its community manager, handling the day-to-day business, planning events for members and being a resource for them.
She’s also inheriting a strategic plan that O’Brien created for CoLab, but said the facility will be flexible based on those interested in using its space.
“We’re all about being what the members need,” she said.
Coughlin had been handling marketing for the Pablo Center at the Confluence recently, but her new position at CoLab brought back memories of her 2½ years working in the city of Eau Claire’s economic development division.
“My favorite part of that job was working with entrepreneurs and people looking to start new businesses in Eau Claire,” she said.
The passion that entrepreneurs have for something they believe in, which can improve the community and possibly the world, is what Coughlin found so enthralling.
Testing it out
Before it opened to the general public, CoLab had a few “beta testers” — a software industry term for people in a product’s intended audience that help iron out any problems before launch.
UW-Eau Claire seniors Greylan Larson and Alex Stout have been running their software development venture, Clearwater Labs, from CoLab since January.
“The space is really interesting,” Stout said.
Their company has already launched one product, a notification system that alerts university students to city parking rules put into place due to snowstorms. The duo is working on an energy dashboard system that will show power use throughout UW-Eau Claire’s campus buildings.
Aside from their own software inventions, the pair also are working to connect tech companies with groups of university students they would hire to complete specific projects. Larson said this differs from an internship because the student-led teams will take ownership of creating and delivering a specific product.
“The idea is to give students a broader experience,” he said.
Where CoLab fits into that is providing a downtown setting where Clearwater Labs can focus on its business venture away from the stresses and pressures of campus life.
Instead of staring at books in the campus library or their dorms, students coming to Clearwater Labs can get views of the downtown businesses on South Barstow Street or gaze out on the Chippewa River from the windows in CoLab’s break room.
Prior to CoLab, Eau Claire did have a smaller coworking space in the basement of The Local Store and Volume One building, 205 N. Dewey St.
Nick Meyer, owner of those businesses, said the big push to get WorkSpace going was in spring 2013.
He’d seen the concept succeed in larger cities and knew Eau Claire had creative freelancers in need of a place to work.
Large tables, a printer, wireless Internet, conference rooms, restrooms and a shared employee break room were among the amenities. Along with that came the intangible benefits — chances to mingle and collaborate with fellow WorkSpace tenants as well as employees in the businesses upstairs.
Though there were times when WorkSpace had few clients, Meyer fondly remembers when it was busy with people sharing ideas and working together.
“It can be a neat thing when it clicks like that,” he said.
But Meyer said WorkSpace was a smaller version of what he’d hoped to see Eau Claire’s co-working scene become.
“We knew that our space was a starter for the idea in this community,” he said.
At the start of 2018, WorkSpace stopped accepting new users and closed down. The lower level of the building became Volume One’s video production studio.
Aware of the plans for CoLab, Meyer deferred to the new co-working space — sharing advice from his experience and spreading word to his former WorkSpace clients of the new place.
O’Brien noted that CoLab was intended to be the next step after WorkSpace.
“This is the bigger and better version of that,” he said.
Meyer has been to CoLab numerous times and said it has the larger space, gathering spots and natural light that co-working spaces should have.
“It’s the way that sort of thing should be done,” he said.
Starting the lab
CoLab is one of the creations of Pablo Properties, a group of early Jamf leaders that has made a name for itself in recent years through downtown redevelopment projects. Their wide-ranging credits include thoroughly renovating an old downtown hotel into The Lismore, making major donations to a downtown arts center, renovating older buildings into new housing and operating a trio of coffee shops.
Pablo’s partners are Jamf co-founder Zach Halmstad, and two others who were integral in the software company since its early days, Jason Wudi and Julia Johnson.
The idea of CoLab, O’Brien said, is to create more Jamfs and other startup businesses by providing a resource for people with big dreams.
O’Brien had contemplated creating his own coworking space last year in Eau Claire when he met with Pablo Properties and learned the company already was cooking up something in that vein.
Instead of creating two co-working facilities that would compete for the same pool of users, O’Brien opted to join up with Pablo and the company hired him in October to begin creating CoLab.
While most of its resources will be geared toward the tech world, CoLab doesn’t want to be exclusionary. The space would be open to those who want to rent a desk to start another kind of business or for one-time projects, such as preparing tax filings.
CoLab’s conference rooms, which are equipped with large TVs and easy-to-use videoconferencing technology, are available for the public to rent for $45 to $60 an hour. Members get some conference room time included with their dues.
Prior to the current trend of co-working spaces, Eau Claire already had some facilities with similar goals, but for different sectors.
Known as incubators, two facilities provided space, equipment and expertise for new business ventures.
Chippewa Valley Technical College’s Gateway Campus is home to the Applied Technology Center — previously known as NanoRite — which has a clean room, laboratories and advanced equipment to help along business ideas in high-tech manufacturing.
The Eau Claire Economic Development Corp. runs the Chippewa Valley Innovation Center on the city’s north side, providing warehouse space, technical assistance and access to financial programs for new businesses.
O’Brien also noted there are numerous facilities in Eau Claire that could be considered artist incubators.
Both Artisan Forge Studios and Banbury Place rent studio space to artists and host events showcasing their work.
And just down the hall from CoLab, another coworking space — Ivy Creatives — also opened in mid-March to make a space for artists to work and collaborate.
“The goal is to provide a hub of creativity,” said Ivy founder Alak Phillips.
His facility has the co-working basics of desks, lounge space, Internet access and round-the-clock hours. But he’s also got private studios for rent, a photography studio and equipment rental.
Even before opening, Phillips said seven people signed up as members, including one that turned a rental room into a recording studio.
The intangible benefit of a co-working space is that having a bunch of creative people in one location allows collaboration that wouldn’t happen if they were all working alone, Phillips said.
“The challenge is to meet other people in the same fields and do projects together,” he said. “This space brings them all together.”