Work-Bench Heeds Call of Enterprise Startups, Revamps Its Co-Op Space

7/23/13Follow @jpruth

Plenty of shared and cooperative startup spaces pop up in this city, but the crew at Work-Bench thinks they can help a rapidly rising yet somewhat unsung part of the tech community. Like other innovation hubs, New York is brimming with startups that create apps and software for consumers—while the creators of enterprise technology make up a relatively happy few. Monica Chambers, chief product officer with Work-Bench, says six growth-stage enterprise software companies currently operate at her space and she expects more to soon join the ranks.

Chambers says though startups in this niche develop platforms, databases, and software needed by large companies, few resources were available that spoke to their needs. “There’s a growing pool of talent and capital dedicated to enterprise tech here, but there’s really too much friction to leverage the benefits of the ecosystem,” she says. New York enjoys a high density of Fortune 500 companies—potential customers for enterprise tech startups—but Chambers says entrepreneurs must still pound the pavement to find investors and clients. “The scale of the benefits of the New York community really hasn’t been realized,” she says.

Work-Bench thinks it can unlock some of that potential. The cooperative occupies some 32,000 square feet across two floors in the Union Square neighborhood, the stomping grounds for many New York startups. Chambers worked in business development and monetization at Zuckerberg Media prior to joining Work-Bench late last year when it was being formed. She says Work-Bench is still in its beta phase and renovations are underway to tailor the main floor to better suit growth-stage enterprise technology startups.

Open and communal offices may be suitable at some cooperatives heavy into tech development, she says, but privacy becomes an issue during sales phone calls. The revamp will offer the startups room to be discrete when conducting business. The space is also being shaped to accommodate potentially rapid growth of the startups, Chambers says.

For the past few months, in addition to its first batch of enterprise startups, Work-Bench—in conjunction with venture firm New Enterprise Associates—has been home to the NEA Design Studio for companies founded by designers. Chambers says this one-off, three-month arrangement will wrap up at the end of July, though she is open to future collaboration with NEA. “Having the studio has been really valuable as resource to our entrepreneurs, many of whom don’t have dedicated designers,” she says.

Work-Bench is backed by lead investor RR Donnelly, a provider of printing services to book publishers and other media outlets. Startups sign up to use the co-op space for six-month terms, Chambers says, and are offered educational programs and introductions that may lead to business connections. She says Work-Bench plans to present sale days, which are much like demo days, to give the startups the chance to impress potential customers. “We’re going to be hosting dinners, events, salons where we can connect all the CTOs of our companies with later-stage CTOs, and entrepreneurs with decision makers,” she says.

Jon Lehr, who runs the NY Enterprise Technology Meetup, joined Work-Bench about a month ago as its venture director. In addition to his connections in the local enterprise technology community, he most recently worked in technology business development in the IT arm of financial services firm Morgan Stanley. Lehr says cloud computing and the bring-your-own-device-to-work trend have compelled many enterprises to seek technology that their legacy systems cannot match.

Though enterprises need such innovation, he says, it is not always easy for startups to know the scope of the issues that must be addressed. “A lot of times [enterprises] are not open about it,” Lehr says. It can also be difficult for startups to navigate and understand the way enterprises operate, with stacks of nondisclosure agreements and other approvals often required before any action is taken.

He sees Work-Bench as a way to improve connections in this city between startups and enterprises looking for new technology. “When you think about the number of Fortune 500 companies, [New York] has vastly more than any of the other major metropolitan areas in the U.S.,” he says.

The emergence of Work-Bench comes at a time when some critics have questioned the number of incubators, accelerators, and other operations that try to help startups to grow. When Dogpatch Labs rethought its strategy in January, the accelerator decide to shutter its New York (in Union Square specifically) and Palo Alto locations.

Chambers believes demand for low-cost space in this city speaks to the necessity of Work-Bench. “New York real estate is a huge challenge for entrepreneurs and anyone,” she says. “The need for coworking here is more abundant than much more spread out areas such as the San Francisco Bay Area.”

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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