Local Is Global: PodcasterCon Activist Turns Coworking Entrepreneur

Feb 7th, 2009 | By | Category: Citizen Media, New Media Organizations, Podcasting, The New Media Update

Brian RussellIt was a nice surprise last week to hear podcasting event pioneer Brian Russell being interviewed on American Public Media’s Marketplace program.

As you may remember, Russell organized one of the first “open space” podcasting conferences, PodcasterCon, back in January 2006 (about 8 months before the first of dozens of PodCamps debuted). He was also an early adopter of podcasting, at Audio Activism.

In addition to setting the stage for volunteer-organized conferences with agendas determined by participants, Russell is also founder of Orange Networking, a nonprofit working to foster equal access to the Internet.

But the focus during the Marketplace interview, however, was Russell’s newest community-centered venture, Carborro Creative Coworking. CCC calls itself a “professional shared workspace with a community atmosphere.”

I talked with Brian recently to ask him about CCC, to have him explain the connection between podcasting, podcasting unconferences, and the more entrepreneurial work of founding a coworking center.

The link to Brian Russell’s interview on Marketplace (and a transcript of the piece) is here.

Elisabeth McLaury Lewin: I was so happy to hear that you’d been interviewed for Marketplace Innovations’ story about coworking. For me it was that glad feeling of connectedness with someone I know, getting recognized for the creative things they do.

Brian Russell: Thanks :)

Elisabeth McLaury Lewin: I’ve been reading on Twitter for awhile about your preparations and plans to put together a coworking space in Chapel Hill (well, Carborro, actually).  What inspired you to launch Carborro Coworking?

Brian Russell: I’ve been primarily inspired by Tara Hunt, of Citizen Space, and Alex Hillman, of Indy Hall. Plus the Coworking Google Group has been amazing.

But my main inspiration has been the community of Carrboro and Chapel Hill. When I moved here, I was immediately immersed in local activism by Ruby [Sinreich, activist, writer, and Brian's spouse]. So as my relationship with her grew, so did my love of these two towns. They have three things that Richard Florida says attracts people to communities: Technology, Talent, and Tolerance. I associated these values with the people who live and work here. The big force that brings people here is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

So as I grew to really LOVE Carrboro, I fought hard to retain its tolerance. One incident of blatant racism by a out-of-town property owner convinced me I needed to be more involved.

So to add to my personal activism, I became a business owner. This may seem a contradiction. But people who want to do good in this world have some powerful tools at their disposal if they can build successful companies.

Because Ruby and I plan on raising children here, and making this place our home for many years, I decided to think in decades instead of just years. This helped my ability to be tenacious. It is because of my new family that I take risks and plan to participate in my community for many years to come.

Elisabeth McLaury Lewin: How did you segue from organizing PodcasterCon to this latest project?

Brian Russell: It wasn’t a straight path. But the practice of organizing a community event like PodcasterCon taught me a lot. Right now, one of the most important things I do is set up many little recurring unconferences. (aka meetups). This way, many more people get to learn and have fun all year long.  As opposed to the one weekend a year.

I just like to party with geeks actually. :)

Elisabeth McLaury Lewin: How long ago did you begin planning this venture? Who else was involved, and how did they help?

Brian Russell: I spent over two years planning and preparing. I’m the sole “business” person. But Ruby has helped me a lot by listening to me go on and on about the idea and the stress of running a business.

Carrboro Alderman Dan Coleman was the person who suggested I investgate my idea further. Jamse Harris, the Economic Development Director for the Town of Carrboro convinced me to write a business plan. It was through his help that I made it through the Town’s revolving loan fund.

Elisabeth McLaury Lewin: What pieces had to come together in order to open your coworking office?

Brian Russell: A plan, funding, a lease, furniture, customers, and lots of work.

Elisabeth McLaury Lewin: Can you tell me a little about what a typical day looks like at Carborro Coworking?

Brian Russell: Right now no day is “typical”. But some similarities between days do exist. I come in and brew coffee every day we’re open.

Often, regular Office Coworkers come in early and get to work. Then, part-time and full-time coworkers sit down and do their work. Its a real ebb and flow.

In the evenings, the space keeps going with events several nights a week. Often weekends are busy, too, with different kinds of trainings, code sprints, and parties. All in all, it’s quite active and professional. I expect it to become even a bigger hive of activity in the months ahead.

Elisabeth McLaury Lewin: What kinds of work do your coworkers do? Do most of them come in every day?

Brian Russell: We have freelance and full time software developers, a few small Internet startups, several freelance writers, one international businessman, a few real estate agents, and even a documentary film maker.

Elisabeth McLaury Lewin: The Marketplace story talked a little about how the place lends itself to collaboration and sparks cooperative projects among otherwise unconnected coworkers. Could you talk a little more about the working environment, and some examples (formal or incidental) of when coworkers pitched in together on a project?

Brian Russell: There is a lot of collaboration going on. Some of it involves sharing information and work on various software programing tasks.

Other folks are asking each other for leads on people to interview for articles. During lunch time there are often energetic conversations that inspire us. Several of us are collaborating on business ideas in various stages of development. Then in the evenings people learn from each other and develop friendships.

Community and trust building is key.

Elisabeth McLaury Lewin: What else do you want Podcasting News’ readers to know?

Brian Russell: Local is global. Getting involved in your community is a great way to make a difference. Not just for others but for yourself. If you want something help someone else find it. That will bring it to you that much quicker. I’m living this and its true!

Photo credit: Abbyladybug

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