Inside a small building on the corner of 14th Street and Harrison in downtown Oakland on a recent Saturday, eight people soldered chips to a circuit board, while 10 more fashioned camp stoves from soda cans and a group of teenagers worked with multicolored LED light wires under the watchful eye of supervisors in goggles and luminescent cowboy hats.
Welcome to Tech Liminal, a shared office space for professionals who work at home and a DIY workshop for office workers, founded by technology consultant and web developer Anca Mosoiu. Tech Liminal is one of two “coworking” spaces in Oakland registered in the Coworking Wiki, a world directory of these alternative offices.
Tech Liminal offers clients shared space in a 1,600 square two-story area with Wi-Fi. Customers can rent a desk by the hour, day or month to use their laptops, or a workstation with a desktop computer where they can edit photos, videos and audio as well as write, create graphics and presentations, process data and surf the web. Tech Liminal renting options include a conference room for 18 people and the whole space for meetings of 25 people. Tech Liminal also offers business-related workshops and consulting and web design services.
Since graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 17 years ago, Mosoiu, 38, had worked on freelance projects for clients such as Nike, Sony and interactive marketing agency Razorfish. She living on planes and in hotel rooms, and she was successful but lonely. “I like to work with people. I wanted to be part of a community,” she said.
So Mosoiu created Tech Liminal, which bills itself as a tech “hotspot and salon” that meets the needs of isolated professionals. “It’s a place where people from different backgrounds can share ideas and be creative together,” she said.
The name Tech Liminal was inspired by the psychological term “liminality,” or the threshold between two states of mind or existence. “Technology can help individuals and organizations cross thresholds of perception, efficiency and connectivity,” Mosoiu said. “This was only possible for big businesses, but with technology changes over the last 10 years, a lot more is possible for small businesses and individuals.”
Coworking spaces have sprung worldwide as an alternative to coffee shops and home offices. According to a survey conducted by Deskmag, a German magazine specializing in work spaces, there were more than 650 coworking spaces operating in 2011 worldwide, 300 more than in 2010.
After two years of planning, Mosoiu opened Tech Liminal in 2009, a year when coworking spaces in Oakland were greatly needed, she said. “The economic crisis was at its worst, the unemployment rate was really high,” Mosoiu said. “So many people who were laid off decided to start their own businesses and new careers, to work on their own.” New entrepreneurs and self-employed professionals were some of Tech Liminal’s first clients, Mosoiu said.
The slow rise in employment has not decreased the demand for Tech Liminal’s services. The business built websites for three costumers in 2009, six in 2010, 10 in 2010 and 15 in the first quarter of 2012. Mosoiu said about 300 people have attended workshops at Tech Liminal and about half of them enrolled in more than one workshop. “You would think it would go down because the situation is improving,” Mosoiu said. “But our customer base keeps growing.”
The business is also growing financially but at a moderate pace. Mosoiu has invested approximately $60,000 in Tech Liminal, the salary she earned for working on a two-year project for a web company. Most of Tech Liminal’s income (75 percent) comes from its web and business coaching workshops and technology consulting services and the remaining quarter comes from coworking rentals. Mosoiu said Tech Liminal broke even in their first year and made a little more than breaking even in its second year. “In 2011 we lost a little money because we spent some time applying lessons learned in 2009 and 2010,” she said, “but 2012 is looking like it’s going to be nicely profitable.”
Web Developer Michael Enslow, 38, moved from Brooklyn to Oakland 10 years ago. He is a regular customer at Tech Liminal’s coworking space, which is within walking distance from his apartment. Although he works mostly at home, he visits Tech Liminal a couple of days a week to meet other people in the Oakland’s tech scene. “Working at home can be very productive,” he said. “But it tends to be kind of isolating. I sometimes come down here to socialize, to have other people around me. I also manage to get a ton of work done.”
Enslow owns Mister Machine, a web design and developing company, along with his partner Jesse James Arnold, who lives in Brooklyn. He said their company doesn’t have a physical location because it doesn’t need one. “My partner works mainly at home and I work mainly in mine,” Enslow said. “We also work with other web developers who could live anywhere in the world.” His relationships with clients are mostly online as well. “Sometimes I don’t even meet my clients personally,” he said. “That’s the nature of our job.”
But when Enslow has to meet with his clients face-to-face, he arranges his meetings at Tech Liminal. “It’s fine if we meet at our apartment,” he said, “but this place is nicer and more professional.” Tech Liminal has also helped Enslow find new clients. “I have built a great relationship with Anca,” he said. “She’ll pass jobs to me and I’ll pass jobs to her.”
Tech Liminal is not only a coworking space, it’s also a tech consulting firm. Mosoiu hasn’t given up her career as a web developer, but now her clients are mainly small local businesses or professional freelancers. At Tech Liminal she and her staff give workshops on web design, social media, blogging and other tools local entrepreneurs and freelancers can utilize to improve their businesses and be updated about tech trends.
This is something that small and local businesses don’t do as often as they should, Mosoiu said. “In the corporate world every time a new technology or a new process arrives employees get training,” she said. “I thought that was kind of missing in the small business world.”
The software and tools introduced in the workshop are usually free and the instructors avoid using complicated tech jargon, Mosoiu said. “I can talk to them without getting all technical,” she said. “The idea is to create an environment that is not intimidating so they can use technology in the best possible way.”
Mosoiu is not the only one who shares her tech knowledge in these workshops. Techies who use her coworking space, like Enslow, volunteer to help other customers with their tech and web inquiries and conundrums. “I help them run the website or customize something on them, or I just answer their questions,” Enslow said. Enslow said this is one of the reasons he prefers Tech Liminal to other places where he could just hook up his laptop and work. “I feel like make a difference here,” he said. “That’s kind of nice.”
Tech Liminal also provides web design services for their costumers. Mosoiu and her team have built websites for local businesses and organizations, including the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, Hey Day Books, a Berkeley-based book publisher specializing in California history and culture, and New America Media, an association of ethnic news outlets based in San Francisco.
Small businesses and local entrepreneurs are not the only ones in need of Tech Liminal’s services, Mosoiu said. She also gives workshops for tech and web development freelancers about how to sell their products and services. “They have great ideas but they don’t necessarily know how to run their business,” she said. “Knowing the craft is not enough.”
For Mosoiu, Tech Liminal’s biggest asset is that it provides a place where people can share ideas and make connections. “One of our customers is a script writer for corporate videos and he met a PR representative from a company who was looking for someone to do a corporate video,” she said. “People from different backgrounds share ideas and projects and create that synergy.” She said that one of her goals with Tech Liminal is to prove that Oakland professionals and entrepreneurs don’t need to leave the city to find people to create new projects and share ideas. “Everything you need is here,” she said. “Someone who has an amazing resource or an idea will show up at the right time.”
Every three months, Tech Liminal becomes the rendezvous for Workshop Weekend, a two-day event at which Bay Area residents can take more than 20 workshops in one place. Microchip soldering, electroluminescent wire creations and Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP) web development scripting language are among the most popular workshops, but the themes are not limited to technology.
In addition to high tech and electronics, other trades taught during these weekend events include workshops teach such diverse skills as DNA sequencing, stop motion animation, and making photo albums with origami. They even teach lock picking, a workshop that guarantees students they won’t have to stand outside their homes every time they forget their keys.
Mosoiu and the organizers of the event search the web and look for experts on interesting trades and invite them to give a workshop. Most of the experts they recruit to teach workshops participate for free. “These people are really passionate about their work,” said Workshop Weekend creator J.D. Zamfirescu. “It’s a turn-off for them when it’s a commercial event.”
The next Workshop Weekend will take place on June 23 and June 24. Participants pay a general fee of $30 plus any fee for required materials. They can take as many of the workshops as they want, but they must enroll in the workshops online before the day of the event.
Gil Zamfirescu, J.D.’s brother and co-organizer of Workshop Weekend. said the event is designed for people to taste a little bit everything without being obligated to pay a large fee or continue the course for more than one day. “We want to create an environment where kids and adults experiment, explore and get inspired by what they learn.”
Among the hundred or so attendees at the march Workshop Weekend was East Oakland Resident Marjorie Kidwell, who attended the electroluminescent wire workshop with her 8-year-old son. “It’s a great idea,” she said. “I’m an accountant. I’m definitely not in the tech world, but this is fun.”
Tech Liminal is located at 268 14th Street in downtown Oakland.