Coworking — with a twist — has come to the Northwoods with Northwoods Coworking in downtown Rhinelander.
The coworking space at 33 W. Davenport St., located in a former clothing store, is an intended hub for individuals seeking a dedicated destination for creativity, productivity and community or any combination thereof. Joseph Fehlen opened the facility in May after originally purchasing it as his own away-from-home workplace for Small Town Wanderer, the travel agency he previously ran out of his home.
“I worked out of my house all last year and that got to be a little crazy, so I looked into what was available downtown. This was a vacant storefront and I wanted to move in, but it was just too big for just my agency,” he said.
The solution was something that had been a dream of Fehlen’s for years, including when he lived in Seattle. When he moved back to the Rhinelander area about 10 years ago, he was convinced a coworking space had merit for people in the area, but he knew it would require implementing what he calls a “reverse model” of most coworking spaces given the heavy tourism focus of the area’s economy: catering largely — although not exclusively — to tourists and people with cabins and cottages in the area who don’t call the area home 365 days a year.
“The issue is that we have so many people up here as tourists or cabin owners, but we have really bad internet up here,” he said. “You see people walking with their laptops in restaurants and other places trying to find good Wi-Fi. I had the space and saw an opportunity to make something happen.”
The resulting coworking space features two closed offices and a main space featuring what Fehlen calls “good furniture” (versus odds and ends) as well as the high-speed internet people are challenged to find in the Rhinelander area and a variety of membership options. Fehlen was intentional in his membership options; usage requests have included one hour, one day, one week, several weeks or even several months.
“I set it up as what I call ‘nomadic space’ for people who are in and out of town and need space to conduct business,” he said. Some need a ‘spot’ for a quick Zoom meeting whereas others are in the area for upwards of six weeks and need a consistent business-oriented destination without the distractions they’d encounter at the cabin or cottage, but it’s more than that as Northwoods Coworking is also a friendly supporter of entrepreneurs and startup businesses.
“I just had a lady who is local who needed a more permanent place to conduct business and didn’t want to do it at the house, so I arranged for her to pay monthly for space,” he said. “So, my business has evolved into helping others do their business.”
He’s found that the majority of entrepreneurs who call the area home don’t want to be strapped to a long-term lease, so Fehlen saw an opportunity to ask how he could help them “do their thing.”
“I’m here to help people see if they can make it a go or test the waters with their business idea,” he said. “I love to see entrepreneurs get started and tell everybody, ‘I’ll give you an amazing rate if you want to start a business.’ I geek out on that and want to eliminate all the obstacles possible.”
Northwoods Coworking has also fulfilled something Fehlen really enjoys — meeting people from all over the world, getting them a space to work and talking business and life.
Clients have run the gamut from people in computer technology, headhunters, trainers, a counselor (who uses one of the closed offices) and college students. Summer was definitely a high point as tourists sought a place that “didn’t commingle their recreation and their work,” Fehlen said. “They’re in a house packed with people and want to ‘go into work’ and have a sense of community.”
The space features two closed offices and open spaces that can accommodate up to five to seven people at a time although three to five work well. In addition to Wi-Fi and a variety of office and seating options, there’s 24/7 access, a breakroom and a printer on-site.
“I’ve visited a number of coworking spaces across the U.S., and they tend to be urban and hip and everything we’re not up here,” he said. “I wanted it to be simple and clean and nice.”
Most guests come from 20 to 30 minutes away, although their origins are Milwaukee, Madison, Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago and Green Bay, and most are unpleasantly surprised with the lack of infrastructure in the area that results in not-sogreat internet. Getting the word out hasn’t been difficult since people are talking about it and Fehlen has had some media coverage on the space and they come up when people Google coworking and Rhinelander.
Fehlen’s happy with the awareness and usage Northwoods Coworking has attracted in its short time in existence.
“I could have stayed in the space by myself but I thought I could make some money and capitalize on my love of working with people,” he said.
His travel agency’s travels take Fehlen around the world, but for him, “getting out and seeing what’s out there in the world and then coming back is the best.”
When he returns, he's back to supporting both entrepreneurs/startups as well as “nomads” who need a place to work and then are on their way.
“All the literature on coworking says you can’t make it work in small towns,” he said. “I ask people, ‘What are you trying to accomplish?’ and try to make that happen. Plus, we are a tourist area, and we’re truly grabbing people from out of town to make it work.”