Monday, May 13, 2013
Deep Ellum boasts Dallas’ first communal workspace Common Desk
Imagine if your office were more like an indie coffee shop.
DEEP ELLUM Nick Clark holds a black mug with a number three on it containing straight coffee. The Black Keys are playing from his Pandora station throughout the building, but the whistling in “Tighten Up” is drowned out when Clark erupts in laughter. Clark jokes with Dennis Smolek, hiking buddy and client, about business operations in the past. Smolek pulls out a latched metal box from underneath a table where a computer monitor stands. The box originally held the monitor but now contains construction documents. Smolek describes an encounter between Clark and a man in an elevator who questioned the contents of the box to which Clark responded, “I can’t tell you” as the door closed between them.
“We need to come up with something really good,” Smolek says.
“Something really crazy – we sell mannequin arms,” Clark says. The pair burst out in laughter. “That’s really creepy,” Clark says.
Common Desk is born
The two sit at wooden desks on a balcony overlooking the first floor of Common Desk, Deep Ellum’s co-working space founded by Clark. Formally working as a commercial real estate leasing agent, Clark saw the demand among creative start-up companies for workspaces that veered away from typical boring offices. Co-working spaces are contemporary working environments popping up all across the United States since their beginning in San Francisco in 2005. Unlike a traditional corporate office setting, where space and communication is limited, the open floor plan offers a community among independent businesses. It encourages communication among its members of entrepreneurs, startups, freelancers, and large corporations. Common Desk members vary from architects, writers, tech startups, and more. Common Desk’s website says that it is a “co-working community designed to revolutionize the way people work by combining the ambiance of a coffee shop with the functionality of a workspace.”
Common Desk is a 9,000 square foot orange brick building at 2919 Commerce St. Enter code, access granted, and you’re within the walls of what could be a coffee shop, concert venue, or art gallery. In fact, a coffee area lines the north wall of the building. Large, abstract, multicolored canvases hang on the walls painted by a local artist. Everything at Common Desk is local – security system by Kelltech Systems, branding by Caliber Creative, and glasses from Deep Ellum Brewing Company.
The rest of the space is used for business purposes. The bottom floor is for communal use, with a small conference room, training room, phone booth, and rows of long desks. Common Desk membership fees range depending on membership levels from drop-ins to full-time members. All full-time plans include bottom floor access, Wi-Fi, printing, 10 and 25 person conference and training rooms, kitchen, coffee bar, mailboxes, and lockers. The highest level of membership, the “Dedicated” offices on the second level, includes 24/7 access to the building. These are Common Desk’s more permanent members. “We get to know them. They’re our staples in the community,” Clark says.
Smolek is one of those staples. He is a computer technician freelancer and an interactive partner for Zodiac, a digital studio. “The weirdest, or most interesting thing about Nick is that no matter where we go, someone knows him,” Smolek says. “It’s like Norm from Cheers. Norm enters the bar and the entire bar goes “Norm!” We’re at a food truck, bar, on a photo shoot, and someone says, “Nick! Man!”
“It’s a small town,” Clark says.
“It’s Dallas. One of the largest cities in the country,” Smolek says.
“It’s the Dallas bubble,” Clark says.
Clark grew up in Mesquite with his parents and two younger sisters. Four days into 30, Clark would like to have stuck to 25 while having the mind of a 40-year-old. He has a five o’clock shadow and dark hair that twists in a rumpled manner. He’s rolled up the sleeves of a blue-checkered oxford and wears dark jeans.
How he got started
After graduating from high school, Clark played baseball at Lon Morris College for two years before transferring to Southern Methodist University. He graduated from SMU in 2005 with a B.A. in real estate finance. Holt Lunsford Commercial hired him out of college. In 2007 he moved over to Pillar Commercial until December 2011. At the end of his time at Pillar Commercial, the economy changed and leasing demand dropped. Clark was getting regular phone calls from creative agencies and freelancers like Smolek, looking for inexpensive spaces to rent. All he could suggest were subleasing offices, but Clark knew these places to be expensive and boring. “I would call it vanilla. They had no personality. The complaints weren’t that they were too expensive, they just looked boring,” Clark says.
Clark hired Ryan Chaney from Chaney 44, the designer of some of Clark’s favorite bars like Goodfriend, Acme F&B, and Mudsmith, to design Common Desk. Chaney created a warm and cool feeling to support the space’s Deep Ellum foundation with industrial furniture, concrete floors, wood paneled walls, and tall ceilings.
Occasionally the space is used as a venue for entrepreneurial events. “We call it the transformer,” says Merrick Pickens, Common Desk’s community manager. In February, Common Desk hosted Tech Cocktail’s Dallas Mixer and Startup Showcase. Pickens’s current task is brainstorming ideas for a business plan competition for college students in Texas. “We want live DJs, artists. Maybe a battle of the DJs,” Clark says.
A true competitor
Common Desk wasn’t Clark’s first attempt to lighten things up with a sense of community and fun. A triathlon competitor since 2004, he joined with a group of fellow triathletes to create the Dallas Tri Club in 2007. The group, of which Clark is president, wanted companionship within the sport but weren’t as serious as the other triathlon groups in the Dallas community. “We wanted a cool group of guys to train together, drink beer together, and have camaraderie,” Clark says. Clark’s uncle, Ben Clark, knows his nephew’s way of making even the most serious businesses fun. “I really think he is someone that has true joy and that's why he makes anything stressful or intense as in running a race or opening a business, every step of the way, joyful,” he says.
Plans are underway for an expansion of Common Desk. The metal case lying between Clark and Smolek (which doesn’t contain mannequin body parts) holds Clark’s plans to increase the size of the building and add an outdoor porch.
“It’s not cookie-cutter. If it were, we’d lose the good things about it,” says Clark.
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