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Indie Cafes as Startup Offices? Nooooooooo!

Posted by: Rob Hof on February 22, 2006

Fed up with the loud music at Starbucks, Om Malik is looking for new cafes where he can get work done. His post has spurred a flurry of suggestions by well-meaning entrepreneurs seeking anywhere to work but an office.

I have one suggestion: Stay home!

It’s no secret that coffee joints are the new offices, at least for startups. But is there anything worse than walking into a cafe to find a dozen people glued to laptops, usually solo and isolated with earphones, hogging the seating for long periods and turning the place into a dead zone? Sorry, but maybe some of that $50 billion VC overhang can go into real offices so the rest of us can find a seat to sip our cappuccinos in peace.

Hey, I don’t mind a few folks cadging a WiFi connection—done it myself!—but I’ve found that it takes only a few selfish people lingering too long to turn a pleasant gathering place into a—well, an office. As Om notes, the point is to get AWAY from the office.

Reader Comments

Coffee shop lover and laptop user

February 23, 2006 3:03 AM

Such bigotry is surprising in a magazine like BusinessWeek. And even more given the target audience of the column; people interested in Tech.

I have an office, but I sometimes like to take my work outside. I love coffee shops. I sometimes take my laptop to a coffee shop and work from there. It's inspiring. Before, I used to read and write (on paper) in coffee shops. But today, and you should get used to it; tech is everywhere. People carry it. Whether a PSP, an ipod, or a laptop.

I pay for my coffee, too. I take a few drinks while I'm there. I might take a snack, too. It's not like I'm "hogging the seat" for free.

I'd tend to say, if you don't like it, find a coffee shop with different style, one where laptop users are not likely to go. Or, to use your expression: "Stay home!"

Dave Taylor

February 23, 2006 10:09 AM

I dunno, Rob. On the one hand it's very frustrating to meet someone at a cafe and not be able to find a seat, but no the other hand I know what Om's talking about because I have *two* offices and still like to take my laptop and relax at a cafe if I have some documents to review, etc. After all, isn't that the inevitable outcome when coffee shops start offering wifi in the first place?

Maybe it'd be better if the people using their computers looked like they were having fun? :-)

Rob Hof

February 23, 2006 10:18 AM

Coffee shop lover and laptop user: It's not bigotry, but simple observation: A few people--and it is usually a few, isn't it, but that's enough--do monopolize four-seat table with their laptops at at least two local cafes, and I hear from a lot of people who find that annoying. I have no problems with folks like you who display manners.
Dave: Yeah, you're right, the WiFi isn't there for no reason. It's just that phalanxes of people cocooned with their laptops in what's supposed to be a public gathering place isn't very inviting. Just calling for a little moderation.


February 23, 2006 5:03 PM

I agree that moderation is the name of the game. I've been frequenting a coffee shop recently (iced tea for me!) and have increasingly been frustrated when trying to get anything done. It's a good place to sit for 15-20 minutes to catch up on BW magazine but people are rude and speaking LOUDLY in groups, talking on a cell phone, etc. I'd be really pleased if everyone was on a laptop with headphones but not pleased if they were in the cozy seats leaving the benches for everyone else.

BTW, it's not Starbucks because I won't pay to use wifi that I already pay for in my home office.

I've found that the solution is staying in my home office - after a few coffee shop visits it's the place I went to get away from the noise.


February 25, 2006 1:42 PM

I can't imagine anyone going to a coffee shop for peace and quiet or to get some work done. I live in Seattle, and whether it's Starbucks or one of our many independents, the noise from the espresso machine, coffee grinder, banging cups, etc. makes coffee shops a great place to take a short break, but not much else.

I do get annoyed by the people with laptops who hog all the seating for hours at a time (and justify it by purchasing a token drink), so that's why Starbucks, which charges for WiFi, can be a better bet to find seating. But if I was out of town with no access to an office, that cafe with the free WiFi would sure be looking like office space to me...


February 27, 2006 3:31 PM

Rob: You're right on the money. I frequently used local coffee stops as an office, but after a while, I got too dismayed seeing armies of other laptop users surrounding me, and folks holding business meetings.

Maybe I'm just sentimental for the old days -- I've been hanging out at coffee places for 20 years now -- but something about all that serious business at a coffee house just seems wrong. On a pragmatic level, it's gotten tough to find a power outlet, and the noise level makes cell phone conversations difficult.

It's not bigotry, it's *civility.* Working from coffee houses is fine... but like a lot of good things, we're overdoing it.


April 1, 2006 2:39 PM

I frequent an independant coffee shop in Manhattan. And yes, from time to time I do bring this laptop. But I never stay more than an hour and I always buy something. If the place fills up and people are looking for seats, I pack up and leave. I just find it a nice spot to get aways to for awhile and a change of scenery. And in some cases, laptop or no, someone usually strikes up a conversation, which I find enjoyable.

Allison Landa

April 28, 2006 2:59 PM

Do laptops kill the vibe? Depends on what you're looking for. Here in the Bay Area, you'll always find a mix of computers and chatters. I've been both, but as a freelance writer, I'm usually the one working.

I come to cafes to get out of the home office, for a change of pace, for the opportunity to people-watch. I've never gone to cafes to meet people and strike up random -- and often awkward conversations -- so the fact that the guy sitting next to me may be plugged into his high-tech equipment is more relief than concern.


October 31, 2006 1:18 PM

Everyone likes to complain, but few take the effort to do anything about a particular situation. I would like to open up an opportunity to change things a bit. So here is my question: What kind of setting would you prefer as an alternative to the tech-overloaded coffee houses?
The reason I ask this is because I am starting up my own indy cafe. Your comments have interested me enough to try and do something productive that helps out the chatters and the laptop users. What about divided coffeehouse that has only one side available for Wifi and "sealed" with a sound proof glass door? And if there isn't enough space for such things, how about a small "cubicle" type area that has comfy chairs and windows?

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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