WeWork Labs Gives New York Entrepreneurs a Home Before They’re Ready For an Office

4/6/11Follow @arleneweintraub

New York City’s incubator scene has been exploding of late, with Polaris-backed Dogpatch Labs opening in early 2010, and General Assembly setting up in January of this year with help from a $200,000 city grant. Now it’s time to add a new name to that list: WeWork Labs, which opened in SoHo on April 1.

Perhaps it would be more accurate, though, to call WeWork Labs a “pre-incubator.” That’s because it’s designed for entrepreneurs who still don’t have their business ideas fully cooked. They can rent a chair, some space at a long table, and 24-hour Internet access for $250 a month. And they can stay until their business ideas are well enough developed to move into a more traditional incubator. “We’re a feeder for things like Dogpatch Labs,” says Matthew Shampine, a computer scientist who cofounded the space.

Shampine’s cofounders are fellow entrepreneurs Jesse Middleton and Adam Neumann, who Shampine met through WeWork, a rapidly expanding collection of communal office spaces for entrepreneurs. Neumann is the founder of WeWork, which has two locations in New York, and another opening in May (A San Francisco WeWork will open this summer). Shampine rents space for his Web development firm, Simande, in WeWork’s SoHo office. While attending a conference, he met WeWork Labs cofounder Middleton, who is now working on his Web startup, GetMinders, there.

When 3,000 square feet became available upstairs early this year, Shampine jumped at the opportunity to bring his vision for a new sort of incubator to life. The idea fit Neumann’s WeWork perfectly, because WeWork is designed as a co-op for entrepreneurs. It’s not quite an incubator—companies that rent space there are mostly established, and they do get their own private offices—but it is designed to allow easy interactions among residents. WeWork Labs embraces the same culture, but it’s aimed at people who are at an earlier stage of starting up companies.

“We didn’t want this to be a space for people to just work on their startups,” Shampine says. “We are focused on building a community of people with ideas.” WeWork Labs’ 30 or so flagship occupants include public relations folks, IT specialists, and even someone with a dream of starting a fitness company. They all work in one open room, so they can trade expertise and experience. “We were calling this a creative co-op at one point,” Shampine says.

WeWork Labs has pulled in some big-named sponsors already. They include advertising agency Jay Walter Thompson and Boxee. The sponsors are helping keep the desk-rental costs down, Shampine says, and allowing for perks like occasional food deliveries from Fresh Direct.

And WeWork Labs already has one marquis entrepreneur renting space there: Ryan Charles, the former head of Zagat’s mobile unit. He left Zagat and moved into WeWork Labs on its first day, Shampine reports, to work on Consmr—a new social-networking site where people can post reviews of consumer products like beverages and grocery brands.

Shampine doesn’t fashion himself a born evangelist for New York entrepreneurs, but he certainly has transformed himself into exactly that. He launched a Web site called We Are NY Tech, which posts personality profiles of startup execs. He also hosts poker games and ping pong tournaments for entrepreneurs—ensuring they’re intimate enough to foster camaraderie and idea-sharing. “If you go to a New York Tech meetup the biggest problem is there are 900 people there,” he says. “It’s not a good way to develop relationships.”

WeWork Labs is planning several more regular events—some of them clearly designed as support groups for struggling entrepreneurs. There will be a breakfast every other Wednesday, for example, where eight founders of startups can come and commiserate about problems they’re facing.

Shampine fine-tuned his evangelism skills at age 24, when he ran for town council in Palmyra, NJ. He lost by about 100 votes, he says, but he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. “There I was, this introverted computer science major, going door-to-door, raising money, participating in debates,” he recalls. “I really had to sell myself.”

The Web site Business Insider called WeWorks labs the “preschool” of incubators shortly after it launched. When asked to respond, Shampine answers like a seasoned political pro: “No comment,” he says. But he doesn’t hold back in expressing his enthusiasm for his new pre-incubator. “It’s all about community,” he says.

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