When DeShawn Brown was studying computer science — while building an app development agency in his spare time — at North Carolina State, he sought out a community that was interested, like him, in entrepreneurship, innovation, and collaborating together to “make magic happen.”
He found all of those things at a place called the Garage, a makeshift university collaboration space that NC State was testing in MVP mode. While working at the Garage, Brown launched his development agency, Lithios.
When Lithios quickly grew large enough to move to their own office, Brown was initially excited. But that turned to disappointment.
“We got our own office, and it kind of lost its magic,” he tells Hypepotamus.
“That’s when I began my search for what would become universally known as co-working.”
Brown loved the co-working concept and the community it afforded his growing company. But as he spoke with community owners and managers, he realized that the magic was supported by a lot of tedious work behind the scenes.
“Community managers couldn’t spend enough time actually building their community, because they were just spinning their wheels staying on top of operations,” he says.
Independent spaces used messy spreadsheets and paper-based systems to track members; disparate emails or Slack messages to communicate with their community; and additional software systems to schedule events, collect payments, and track incoming leads.
“There weren’t any great products that embodied the community and entrepreneurial aspect of co-working, and delivered a great experience for both managers and members,” Brown says. With his brain wheels turning, he decided to build it.
Coworks was founded in 2017 as a co-working management platform for smaller, independent spaces. It has two components: a mobile app for the community members and a web app for the space owners and managers.
The member’s app allows users to create a profile and book conference space, see who else is in the community, communicate with other members and the management team, and RSVP to events.
The managers can do all of the above — communicate, explore their member base, share events, etc. — but also get robust data on the health and makeup of their community. Managers or owners can extract reports from the platform to stay updated in real-time.
As Brown was building the software, Tanner Hallman entered the picture. A technologist with a business background, Hallman stepped in as CTO of Lithios and Director of Technology at Coworks.
The small team bootstrapped the business, first getting into local independent co-working spaces in their hometown of Raleigh, including Brown’s own co-working space, HQ Raleigh.
“We sold it as the operating system for these independent spaces,” Brown says. “We can put them on the same playing field as the co-working giants.”
They now have about 20 clients with over 30 locations on the platform, representing 4,000 members. Brown says he was excited to land Switchyards, a well-known Atlanta-based community, as a client.
“[Switchyards co-founder] Michael is super, super strict — we were told that he’d said no to half a dozen software providers before us,” he says.
They’re targeting additional spaces across the Southeast during their time in the Techstars Atlanta accelerator. Coworks is part of the program’s fourth cohort, joining nine other startups in a three-month business-building sprint.
“Building this product taught me the power of building a network. I wanted to work with an accelerator, like Techstars, that is known specifically for its global network,” says Brown. “We wanted to be a part of a brand that’s on-brand for us.”
While completing Techstars, they’re beginning to talk with investors about an upcoming seed round. Though Lithios reached $1 million in revenue without taking in outside capital, Brown says he does believe Coworks will benefit from connected, industry-knowledgable investors.
That’s because the vision is much bigger than powering individual co-working spaces, he says. Eventually, Brown foresees Coworks as the glue connecting a network of independent spaces across the country, creating even more added value for clients.
“Then we’d build this much bigger, maybe even global community. That’s the lifeblood of this whole thing,” he says. “You’ve got to have a community or you’re just a building.”