‘Digital nomad’ building community work space downtown

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Juneau Coworking founder Conroy Whitney, left, and his first client, Patrick Courtnage, share a table at the new business in the Senate Building on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

For software engineer Conroy Whitney, working from home means sidestepping productivity land mines.

“It’s easy for a lunch break to turn into two hours because you’re doing other things. You flip on YouTube, and you realize ‘holy crap.’ So you work until 10 p.m. instead to catch up,” Whitney said.

Avoiding distraction and building community is why Whitney started up Juneau Coworking, a new shared workspace in the Senate Mall that opened Oct. 1.

Whitney is what’s called a digital nomad, which means his work — he supports fledgling companies through his company Tandem Labs — can be done anywhere with a strong internet connection. Clients video-stream meetings with him. Computer servers and file cabinets don’t tie him down as his work is saved on remote servers.

He loves the flexibility. He could do without the isolation.

“This is my third winter in Alaska. The first one was terrible,” Whitney said. He moved to Juneau in May, but spent his first two winters in Anchorage.

“I didn’t know anybody, I worked from home, I just started freelancing, and I was floundering. Depressed, cabin fever,” he said.

He would travel two hours round trip by bus just to be around other people at a shared workspace. It plugged him into a network of like-minded tech workers, and the communal energy inspired him.

Co-working spaces are popular in areas with bigger populations, but before now, there was nothing like it in Juneau. A winter of coding on his couch, alone, didn’t appeal to Whitney, so he decided to start a co-working space in Juneau.

The business model is simple: good internet, interesting coworkers and a clean, well-lighted space. He hopes it will eliminate distraction and provide community for Juneau’s side hustlers, freelancers, small business owners and gig economy workers.

“I know there’s a lot of people who do this … we just don’t know where they are. Our goal is just to be that beacon and get them out from all the different corners of Juneau, to get them out in one place and meeting each other,” Whitney said.

A hub for tech workers

On a Thursday, Whitney and accountant Patrick Courtnage worked on laptops in a small conference room. A group of hobbyists set up sewing machines in the main room during a workshop.

True to Whitney’s millennial brood, Juneau Coworking embraces the sharing economy. Co-workers share tables and desks in a space that takes up the whole third floor of the Senate Mall. There’s a smaller conference room for meetings. Six private offices down a hallway are available for professionals who visit often with clients, or whose work might need to remain confidential.

Modular furniture and an open office make it easy to fit different needs, Whitney said, and encourage collaboration and socialization.

“It’s a really flexible space, and that’s kind of the whole point. It’s that medium size between meeting at a coffee shop and renting out Centennial Hall,” Whitney said.

Co-working takes a little getting used to, Whitney said, but it’s worked well for him and he’s confident others will find it helpful, too. If it’s done correctly, he said, he believes it can instill accountability in freelancers who might not tackle a larger project without group support.

The style works for Courtnage, too. He does his work through what’s called “cloud accounting.” Traditional accounting software requires companies to store financial data on dedicated hard drives — meaning he would have to visit each of his clients to access the data he needs.

But instead of working on-location, Courtnage works with clients who store their financial info remotely.

Though Courtnage is soon moving to Los Angeles, the move won’t disrupt his work schedule, he said.

“My business travels with me,” Courtnage said.

Despite its distance from tech hubs in San Jose or Seattle, Courtnage and Whitney said Juneau is particularly well-suited to draw in remote workers who could use a co-working space. Internet speeds are exceptional in Juneau, Courtnage said, and the outdoor lifestyle is alluring to people who work at computers most of the day.

Juneau could serve as the sight of an outdoors-centered sabbatical for tech workers from Seattle or San Fransisco, and Juneau Coworking could be their tech hub, Courtnage said.

Seattle tech startup Tune, which employs over 250 people in offices worldwide, has brought its annual retreat Geeks in the Woods to Valdez, and may soon come to Juneau. Software engineers and programmers work in high-tech tents in the middle of winter, a strong internet connection and well-placed heaters making it all possible. Instead of getting caught in traffic in Seattle, the employees can clock off and step right into the wild. According to a promotional video, the company is looking at doing the same thing in Juneau. Founders Lucas and Lee Brown travelled here earlier this year and met with Gov. Bill Walker, according to the video.

Right now, Juneau Coworking is free to use. Whitney wants to learn what works for people first before he establishes pricing options. There will likely be different levels of membership, with some people electing to pay for more storage or a reserved desk, others choosing just to pop in.

Space is limited, and anyone who wants to join early can visit juneaucoworking.com to get in touch with Whitney. They’re also holding an open house for First Friday starting at 4:30 p.m. Whitney said he plans to start charging in January.


• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and kgullufsen@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.




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