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Laid Off, Inc.

In the ranks of the unemployed, groups of Valley corporate castaways are getting creative and finding that the last thing they need in order to survive is a job.

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: Times Publications, June 2009


It’s mid morning on a Wednesday, and the workplace is buzzing at Gangplank, a 5,000-square-foot facility located in a quiet business park on East Elliot Road in Chandler.

Directly inside the glass doors, in the warehouse-size main office space, about 35 workers are spread out on 24 utilitarian IKEA tables, busily tapping away on their laptops. Down the hallway, inside each open-door office, pairs of entrepreneurs lean over one another’s desks, comparing ideas and sharing strategies.

It could be any busy office building from a few years ago – when buildings of this size were actually filled with employees. Nowadays, many of the large commercial properties anchoring suburbia’s once-thriving business parks have become vacant – “underperforming asphalt,” in developer’s parlance – and any business that can keep one of these behemoths full of busy employees is regarded as part of the recession-proof elite.

Only most of the people buzzing about the bullpen on this typical weekday are not employed by Gangplank itself. Half, in fact, are not working for anybody.

“The back tables are reserved for Integrum people,” says Derek Neighbors, a stocky, goateed computer engineer in a bright red gamer’s t-shirt who works for the successful East Valley software developer that also runs Gangplank, and keeps the building’s light on.

“But the front tables are open to anybody – first come, first served,” Neighbors says. “They might be tele-workers, doing projects for other companies, or freelancers working on their own things. Anybody, really, who works on a computer but maybe needs to get out of the house.”

It’s called “co-working,” an emerging business model that’s quietly building think tanks and incubating start-up businesses out of the growing population of like-minded, skilled free agents left office-less by the unemployment wreckage.

Technically, what’s offered here doesn’t sound much different than what you’d find at your average coffee shop or Internet café. Circles of regulars – primarily self-employed or laid-off tech and creative professionals – drop into Gangplank daily for the free desk space, Wi-Fi and a collaborative environment.

Only Gangplank’s not selling coffee, or even charging drop-ins for the use of the facilities. Even the hallway offices are offered rent-free to any entrepreneur with a start-up idea the Gangplank guys deem worthy of backing.

“What we’re really trying to do is just provide a space for creative stuff to happen,” explains Neighbors, who says the 12-member Integrum team, whose clients include Valley Metro, have done well enough in Web developing to cover operating costs themselves. “We’re funding everything, out of the belief that the minute you make it a real estate transaction, it really changes the community. We want people to come here to participate, not to be tenants.”

Ironically, it was a savvy real estate transaction that made the space available. Neighbors says Integrum took advantage of the economic slump to move into the larger digs – double the size of their original locale a few blocks away – for roughly the same rent.

The added square footage gave the unconventional creative crew room for the Google-esque touches geeks thrive on – air hockey, pool and foosball tables, a full Rock Band instrument set and a battery of Wii controllers. But more importantly, it opened up the environment to a whole new pool of displaced digital professionals, forced into working from home but missing the synergetic spirit of a large office.

With its cool pirate motif reflected in t-shirts and stickers personalizing the MacBooks and Dells lining the tables, Gangplank is the LAN party model writ for the workplace. Dozens of computer geeks tote their own rigs to link up and interact with others – only in this case for work, not play. Befittingly, Gangplank stays open beyond its usual 9-to-6 hours each Wednesday for an informal “Hacknight,” offering free pizza and gaming to its primarily youthful community.

“What we really want to do here is just get a lot of smart people together to try new things – explore ideas, feed off each other – without having to stress over business if a few of the desks go empty,” says Neighbors.

“Hopefully some businesses will be started out of this, and they’ll put money behind the next guys,” he adds. Already a couple of other co-working groups have sprung up around Phoenix: Collab Lab, near the Deer Valley Airport, and Thrive, currently working out of various downtown coffee shops but planning to open its own central Phoenix location soon.

“This really is the new economy,” says Neighbors, whose tongue-in-cheek title at Gangplank is Pragmatic Idealist. “If cities really want to create jobs, they should just open up some rent-free spaces. This is where the new small businesses are coming from.”

Laid Off and Loving It

Rachel Reese found out she was being laid off from her last job in the most callous corporate fashion: via a voicemail message left while she was away on vacation.

Fortunately, the young computer programmer didn’t check her messages until the Sunday night before reporting back to the office. By then, she was almost relieved to learn she’d been freed from the cubicle farm.

“Honestly, I was feeling burned out at my job and was getting tired of all the office politics,” says Reese, a regular drop-in at Gangplank. “So when I first heard the message, I was happy!”

It took a few days of sleeping in and taking the puppy to the dog park for the panic to set in, Reese says. Filing for unemployment insurance online ran into complications, and the calculator showed her severance pay only afforded her about a month to generate more income.

But by that time, the naturally sociable Reese had already hooked up with a community of other similarly skilled professionals through Twitter and Facebook and had scored enough referrals for part-time contract work to cover the bills – at least for the following month. Realizing she could generate a couple thousand dollars on her own empowered Reese, even if she didn’t know where her next paycheck was coming from.

“I decided I really liked the freedom of working on my own,” she says, smiling broadly. “I like having other people around, but I don’t like having a schedule. So I really, really treasure the freedom of being able to work independently.”

She’s not alone. As unemployment periods drag on for more and more Americans, and frugal living becomes increasingly in vogue, many are discovering they can market their skills and, surprisingly, pay the bills using little more than their cell phones.

“I’m always on Twitter, and everybody knows me as the dot-Net girl,” says Reese, referring to the oft-maligned Microsoft software framework in which she specializes. “I’m the butt of a lot of Mac-and-PC jokes,” she laughs. “So whenever a dot-Net contract comes their way, they all tweet Rachel. I’ve gotten so many referrals that way.”

Like many of the LinkedIn, Facebooked generation, Reese discovered her social networking pages were already working for her as her employment agent. It’s a new set of tools that’s igniting a new class of unemployed worker, a linked-up network of freelancers, consultants and start-up entrepreneurs who prefer the term “nontraditionally employed.”

“In my mind, no one’s really unemployed anymore,” says Chris Hutchins, the 24-year-old founder of LaidOffCamp, a free, upbeat gathering for laid-off workers focusing less on strategies for landing that next big corporate gig and more on helping attendees rediscover what they’re passionate about doing, and then learning how to make that pay. Hutchins, a laid-off San Francisco business strategist, held the first camp there in January. Since then, events have been held in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami and Dallas. A LaidOffCamp Phoenix, organized by Reese, is scheduled for Saturday, August 8th at Gangplank.

“I mean, okay, a lot of people don’t have jobs,” Hutchins says. “But there’s so much you can do to make money without employment that you couldn’t really do years ago. Whether it’s consulting, freelancing, odd jobs, part-time work, blogging, public speaking – all you’ve got to do is keep building your ‘personal brand’ online, and you’ll find work. You don’t need a store or an office anymore to launch a business.”

Interestingly, when Hutchins was offered what he calls his “dream job” after three months of being laid off, he turned it down.

“It was an incredible offer. I couldn’t imagine a better job,” he says. “But I found out by then I didn’t want a job. I like my flexibility. I like the fact that I can go rock climbing at two in the afternoon, as long as I stay up late enough to finish my consulting work. Do I really want to give that all up to work nine to five? Or do I want to keep the flexibility to do what I’m passionate about?”

Re-Tweet Business

Of course, being in the tech field certainly helps in navigating the Blackberry jungle for work opportunities. But as more people from all walks of life embrace social media (75 percent of Internet surfers now belong to some social network, according to Forrester Research), folks in every profession can find a community sharing tips, leads and – okay, a lot of random thoughts, too – all on devices that fit in their pockets.

Nurses, for example, faced with hiring freezes at the hospitals, are reportedly finding spa gigs in cosmetic nursing, thanks to personal blogs and social networking links that are suddenly sparking referrals.

“My girlfriend’s a nurse at an ICU in a hospital, and she didn’t really ‘get’ what I do,” says Chuck Reynolds, another programming geek and Gangplank regular who’s made a name for himself – and so far, a living – as a Web and social media guru.

“But she got into blogging about her work, and now she’s being asked to write a book about it – just because she’s found online whenever someone Googles her specialty,” he adds with a grin.

Tweeting for three years already, an eternity in the young technology, Reynolds has mastered the science of getting positive returns for his name in a Google search – valuable knowledge he now markets for a fee as a “search engine optimizer.”

“Your name has become your best marketing tool,” he says. “Whatever your field is, somebody’s gonna Google your name before contacting you, and it’s extremely important to ‘own’ your name and represent yourself well. It’s all about reputation management.”

Relying on clicks and tweets to drum up business may seem unstable, but then again, nowadays what kind of work is stable?

“So many people who thought they were on the 40-year plan at their job are showing up one morning to find they don’t have work,” says Neighbors. “At least when you’re building and marketing your own skill sets, you know when you’re facing a slow month and can step up your efforts. You have more control. It’s a different kind of scary!”

Like it or not, the way we work is changing. In fact, some of the current crop of college grads may already be ruined for the conventional nine-to-five workplace.

“I would give myself the label of ‘psychologically unemployable,’” says Joshua Strebel, a 31-year-old Web consultant and business strategist who’s been one of the lucky entrepreneurs offered a standing rent-free office at Gangplank.

“I could never, ever work for somebody else again,” says the NAU visual communications grad who has already run a few start-ups and considers himself a serial entrepreneur. “It does take some discipline, because nobody’s telling you to go to work. But once you get over that hurdle, you start seeing the direct correlation between your input and your wallet. And that’s so much better than feeding someone else’s bottom line.”

Strebel says having a place like Gangplank to come to strengthens the sense that you’re running a real business, not just surfing the Web in your pajamas. While Strebel spends much of his time working from home in Goodyear, he says he still makes the 51-mile commute to Chandler two or three days a week, “just to hang out here with all these cool guys.”

“We’ve created gravity here,” Strebel adds. “A lot of smart people who’ve been tossed off by their employers are being pulled toward us now. And it’s working. We’re working!”

”–

 
Photos by Ross Mason

With its cool pirate motif reflected in t-shirts and stickers personalizing the MacBooks and Dells lining the tables, Gangplank is the LAN party model writ for the workplace.

Circles of regulars – primarily self-employed or laid-off tech and creative professionals – drop into Gangplank daily for the free desk space, Wi-Fi and a collaborative environment.