Inspired by an Illustrious Past, Coco Adapts to Serve a New Generation

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A landmark Minneapolis building that housed the industry that became the foundation of the region’s economy now cultivates a new and equally vital role area’s future.

Built in 1903 and spanning an entire city block, the Minneapolis Grain Exchange was a marketplace to promote fair trade of wheat, oats and corn. An essential element in the making of modern Minneapolis, it spurred the birth of major corporations such as General Mills and fueled the area’s development and growth of railroads, the banking industry, and personal and philanthropic fortunes.

It rang its last trading bell in 2008, when transactions became purely electronic, and sat unoccupied until then-Minneapolis mayor Archie Rybak reached out to partners Don Ball and Kyle Coolbroth to help him realize his vision to grow the region’s economy for the next generation.

Rybak felt technology and entrepreneurship represented the next economic boom, and Ball and Coolbroth had established a coworking space to encourage exactly those drivers in St. Paul the year before.

“We believed when we started COCO (for coworking and collaboration) that there was a fundamental shift going on in the way people work, how they worked, why they worked, what they expected out of their work environment,” said Coolbroth.

And so began the adaptation of a building with roots in the industrial age and a place on the National Historic Registrar to an accelerator in the information economy to support the 21st century workforce and new collaborative ways of working.

Matching Mindsets 133 Years Later

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“The Grain Exchange is what made Minneapolis St. Paul what it is,” explained Coolbroth.

“It’s where generations grew up and where the city gathered to see commerce conducted. The reason it sat empty for years was because nobody matched that same mindset and intent of the space.” Moreover, with a membership-based model like that of the Grain Exchange, the partners felt a certain kinship with their forerunners.

“We said we want to take this history and bring it into the future.”

Old Meets New

COCO honored the building’s legacy by integrating numerous elements into modern service.

Tall arched windows that allowed buyers to judge the quality of the grains stream in natural daylight, creating an optimal atmosphere for workplace wellness.

Substantial wood tables that once presented pans of grain samples transported by railcar serve up strong coffee all day long (COCO goes through 8 to 9 pounds a day).

What was once a VIP room for cigar-smoking senior executives now functions as a classroom while the former futures pit is a quiet area surrounded with beanbag poufs that comfortably accommodate individuals and their laptops.

Original phone booths were equipped with landlines and provide a private conversation area away from the large open workspace and its soaring 34-foot ceilings.

Stretching nearly wall-to-wall is the massive former trading board, which serves as a modern-day message center, delivering COCO’s Twitter feed, breaking news, weather, an event calendar, and even birthday greetings.

Soon, a classic, historic building full of grandeur and detail was home to a casually dressed crowd connected by 1 GB fiber internet.

An Evolving Clientele and Workspace

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Founded to foster community among independents, employees and small businesses and support their shared, collaborative workstyle, COCO quickly became home to not just entrepreneurs and startups but enterprise firms that were looking to be more innovative, according to Coolbroth.

“Hanging with the cool kids” as he describes it was their way of experiencing the startup energy, community, and flexibility coworking offers.

“The gap between what enterprise wants and entrepreneurs need is narrowing,” he said. “Technology is the great equalizer,” and allows individuals, small businesses and enterprises to co-exist in a collaborative community.

To serve a growing and diverse population, COCO expanded its product offerings accordingly.

“Other than meeting rooms, when we first started we did not have any enclosed workspaces. Everything was open.”

“We realized that people needed a dedicated place to retreat to do their work, but wanted retain the social element that facing outward provides.

“That was the genesis of our campsite,” he said, a semi-private group workspace with three walls, developed to promote collaboration within the confines of the space.

As resident companies grew, and more enterprises came aboard, additional needs emerged, particularly for healthcare, financial and other industries with regulatory compliance requirements.

“That's when we added private offices and suites for teams of four to 20. They provided the enclosed meeting and conversation areas and lockable rooms members required, as well as the ability to leave stuff up on the walls which we can't do in a wide open collaborative space,” he said.

More is More

In September, COCO added an additional 15,000 square feet to its flagship downtown location, bringing it to a total of 37,000 square feet. COCO now serves a network of 1,000 members at various levels across three other Minneapolis locations and one in Chicago’s West Loop.

An annex to the adjacent building connects to the trading floor by private skyway. Designed to meet the needs of small businesses and startups, it can accommodate an additional 250 people in teams of 2 to 10.

Within the new space are dedicated and individual team workspaces and suites, plus a 50-seat commons coworking area, a new event space, phone booths, kitchen, coffee bar, mother’s room and fitness center.

A unique event space was created on the trading floor by relocating open workstations to the annex.

Like many coworking spaces, COCO presents regular social, business and educational events for its members and the community. It caught the attention of Google, which made it one of 10 partnerships in North America, providing numerous support and visibility opportunities for tech entrepreneurs.

But serving the membership and helping support and scale businesses continues to be the underlying goal at COCO, which calls itself a dream accelerator.

“Our whole spectrum of membership is looking to become more productive, so anything we can do that takes away the risk of a lease, the headache of buying and designing furniture, setting up networks and brewing coffee, we'll continue to do,” Coolbroth states.

“We’ll work to take away those speed bumps out of these business’s way,” he added, noting the team also strives to maintain a delicate balance within the community.

“We're always mindful of having a good mix of the individual freelancer and the larger teams. So, we mix our space with a blend of semi-private, fully private, and wide open collaborative spaces.

“We think that having both within the space is what makes it magic.

“One thing we've learned over time is that when people become a member they're not really buying a desk or chair or real estate. What they're ultimately buying is belonging.”

At COCO, those connections not only go way back in history. They go deep, too.

This post originally appeared in The Business of Furniture/Workplaces Magazine.