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The Crypto Coworking Spaces Have Arrived

Blockchain enthusiasts need community building, too—and several new startups are happy to help

Alycea Tinoyan

On an unseasonably cold March afternoon, Byzantine cofounders Jason Kende and Sam Hutch huddled at a cluster of Ikea desks in a brand-new, not-quite-finished 7,000-square-foot Bushwick office. The building, situated at 215 Moore Street, was in the throes of construction for their new coworking space, Liminal. There was no functioning heat or running water, forcing the two New York–based technologists to rely on loud industrial space heaters and bathroom trips to Sey Coffee down the street. Around the time I arrived to see the space, they were expecting their first real shipment of furniture. At least there was Wi-Fi.

“All we need is someone to let us in and water,” Kende, a meandering 39-year-old veteran of the coworking scene said, after instructing me to put on my jacket for the full tour. “And, OK, we don’t have water yet. But all we really need is internet.”

Basic utilities be damned, the tour through the windowless, empty concrete rooms began. “I think our style is kind of like a combination of New Lab and Williamsburg Hotel, plus glitter, hypercolor, and cute things,” Hutch mused. The two envisioned vintage arcade consoles, mini-cafés, a yoga swing, modular furniture, a Harry Potter–esque hiding spot beneath a staircase, light murals, film and audio recording rooms, VR stations, and movement studios in which future members could don Rokoko motion-capture suits. The hallways would be lined with LED panel screens built to respond to building-generated data, but not, as Kende put it, “in a creepy WeWork way.”

For both Kende and Hutch, however, the biggest selling point of Liminal is neither the proximity to good coffee nor unfettered access to state-of-the-art gadgets. It’s the fact that membership to the space will be fortified by the blockchain. “If you’re a member, it doesn’t just mean that you’re just paying rent,” Kende said. “It means that you also gain crypto tokens. And those have whatever value they have on the open market based on what every members contributes to the flourishing of that community.”

Members can use the Liminal-specific tokens they paid for, according to Kende, to reserve space or tools within the coworking space or—because it’s 2018, and at least one meme-inspired cryptocurrency that began as a joke has surpassed a $1 billion market capitalization—publicly trade them. On top of that, member data will exist on the blockchain, allowing them to manage their own information rather than rely on third-party services.

“It doesn’t matter how fancy you make a space if you don’t focus on the people you’re bringing in, how they’re connecting to each other, what they’re doing for each other, and what the organizational structure is,” Kende said at the end of the tour, as we huddled on a newly delivered couch on the first floor, next to a space heater. I looked around the room, which was now filled with decorative houseplants that had not been there when I arrived. Apparently, this was how a coworking space that prioritizes decentralized authority took shape: out of order, in quick bursts.

“We strive not to have ‘employees’ and to really try to be as horizontal as possible,” Kende elaborated.

“They’re allowed to swerve in and out of whatever type of roles they want to be in,” Hutch said.

“Even words like ‘allowed’ are kind of tricky,” Kende said. “The idea of giving people permission to do a thing is kind of like the opposite of what we’re trying to do.”

Over the past year, the surging prices of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum have made instant millionaires out of a cluster of young, tech-savvy investors. The sudden influx of initial coin offerings—and investors’ enthusiasm to take part in them—has inspired both legacy brands and little-known startups to declare their allegiance to the blockchain. As significant investment dollars and dividends have materialized, so have pockets of Bitcoin-inspired culture. “Bitcoin is now a lifestyle brand and personal-identity choice in the same way a Prius signifies environmental awareness or a New Yorker tote shows you’re an aspiring member of the intelligentsia,” Wired’s Erin Griffith recently wrote. “Getting into crypto shows you support a set of ideals: decentralization, anti-institution, revolution.” Bro-topian “crypto castles” have formed in the hills of San Francisco or amid the unregulated storm-torn streets of Puerto Rico. Roving Bitcoin gurus have amassed crypto-curious audiences for their libertarian-slanted TED Talks. The day I visited Liminal, Kende told me he was wearing socks that read “HODL”— an intentional misspelling of the world hold that has become an inside joke among cryptocurrency investors. He’d picked them up the night before at a “crypto bowling” event hosted by a cryptocurrency-lending company called Celsius.

Now, the rush to shape crypto-culture community has intersected with an tried-and-true Silicon Valley fixture: the coworking space. Kende and Hutch are two of a handful of entrepreneurs aiming to open physical spaces suited for a new wave of handful of nomadic, newly wealthy technologists in the U.S. and abroad. Primalbase—an organization that shares, sells, and rents out workspaces using Ethereum and Waves-based digital tokens—has locations in the Netherlands and Berlin, and is planning expand to New York this summer. These organizations aim to be fluid in purpose, limited in size, and—in the true libertarian spirit that inspired the creation of Bitcoin—wholly decentralized. Their services and general branding function as a rebuff to the homogenous, cubicle-lined WeWorks that are rapidly expanding across the globe. And their spaces are designed to accommodate the itinerant lifestyles of the crypto-buoyed youth. At the same time, organizers also feel they have a mandate to shape the fledgling tech sector, emphasizing inclusion, diversity, and a community that is more commune than college fraternity. In a time when owning Bitcoin earns you just as much cultural cred as owning a pair of Yeezys, entrepreneurs now see value in tailoring services that revolve around the charmed lifestyles of the buzzy investment community.

“We call it sort of a modern layover lounge,” said Seth Goldstein, an entrepreneur who co-founded Node, a San Francisco coworking space named after an element of blockchain technology. “We wanted something that was more ephemeral, more itinerant, more nomadic. The vision was ‘How do we create space that is not just for people who are involved in crypto, but one that also reflects fundamental principles of decentralization and the blockchain?’”

Goldstein, whose past projects include Stickybits and Turntable.fm, launched the coworking space in early January, with the help of Orchid Labs CEO Steve Waterhouse and Miriam McGovern, whom he met at Burning Man. A post on the space’s Facebook page describes it as “grittier than Soho House, more fun than WeWork, like Mail Boxes Etc. on acid.” (WeWork did not respond to a request for comment.) The club occupies a small, angular floor of a building at the edge of North Beach, and currently has about 50 members. Its walls are decorated with Macs and Commodore PET computers from the ’80s and ’90s. Rather than serve coffee and alcohol, Node stocks kratom, coca, and kava-based herbal mocktails from Elixart, a tea house based in Nevada City. Members are given personal mailboxes and room to store their luggage. The space welcomes a new cryptocentric speaker every Thursday and guided meditations for investors, in which an instructor leads a breathing exercise for the first half of class then speaks about the cryptocurrency market for the second.

“You see it when the prices go wild, people just get really anxious,” Goldstein told me. “The fundamental paradox here is that cryptocurrency enables people to work independently and alone more than ever, because you don’t need banks and central authorities. And yet emotionally, psychologically, because nobody really knows where things are going, there’s more of a need to meet and create real community face-to-face than ever before. That’s what we are capitalizing on.”

In terms of size, Goldstein has organized Node so that each location adheres to three basic standards: members pay $200 a month for about 2,000 square feet; membership caps out at 200 people; and although members have 24/7 access to any and every Node space through an app, no one is permitted to sleep there. (Goldstein recently expelled a member over this last issue.) The company website lists the space’s core principles as: “No assholes, be real, contribute to the vibe, leave no trace,” and “keep on going.” Though applicants are not required to work in cryptocurrency, it helps to be interested in it.

Goldstein is in the early stages of determining how to integrate a kind of Node-specific cryptocurrency into the membership and is also exploring ways the Node community might be valuable in the realms of product research, content sponsorship, and brand development. Fundamental to the Node model is the idea of maintaining a personal touch among members and encouraging expansion among communities in disparate locations. A community of 200 cryptocurrency enthusiasts—located anywhere from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg—is welcome to form a club, connect to the Node network’s software services, and expand its access to space.

“What excites me economically is the idea of: How do you make physical spaces scale like software?” Goldstein said. “Facebook got better with every new user, because it made the network more valuable because there was a bigger social network. With brick and mortar, usually more people make it less valuable. Well, in this model, every new space that opens up gets capped at 200 members makes the network more valuable for all of their members because you have more places to go now.”

Goldstein is aiming to open about 50 Nodes around the world open by 2020. He can count Brooklyn among the future outposts. By chance, Goldstein met Kende at an early Node party in January. “By the end of the night, I hit it off so well with Seth, he asked me to start a Node in New York,” Kende said. Now he and Hutch are currently looking for a space in Williamsburg to house the coworking community. Though the project is separate from Liminal, their coworking space will temporarily host Node members when it opens later this month. “Node is the crypto lounge, Liminal is the decentralized network of creative studios,” Kende said. “There’s some overlap, but they’re different entities.”

The two organizations join a handful of specialized coworking concepts that have popped up over the years. In 2016, Audrey Gelman launched The Wing, a millennial-pink-tinged women’s club that has staked property in New York and D.C. (and inspired a handful of copycats). A Peter Thiel–backed LGBT coworking space named Yass is set to open in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood this spring. A group called Wayfinder is currently recruiting outdoorsy entrepreneurs to become members and partial owners of its forthcoming Denver-based coworking co-op. In Detroit, the shared office SpaceLab deals in everything from construction to interior design to real estate. But none can compare to the industry giant that is WeWork. Over the span of eight years, the startup has grown as network of 212 locations around the world, and is now expanding into living and exercise spaces. Last year it also began investing in its peer companies, offering up $32 million to help the The Wing expand last year.

Goldstein sees WeWork less as a direct competitor than a jumping off point. “You have a $20-40 billion market cap entity that’s at the height of modern capitalism that’s inspired by some pretty radical, hippie, communist models,” Goldstein said. “We can work off of that and say, what have we learned from Burning Man? For this new kind of creator you need a space that is inspired by what we’re learning from the blockchain in terms of how trust is established, in terms of how authority gets mandated, that is peer-to-peer as opposed to top down.”

Kende, who was an original member of the very first WeWork location on Grand and Lafayette in New York, feels differently. He says he watched the company’s community building die out as WeWork became less inviting and more numbers-driven over the years. His inspiration for Liminal was to offer a WeWork alternative that accommodates the social and practical needs of a burgeoning technological creative class.

“For these massive organizations, it’s all about ‘What can they get from customers?’” Kende said. “And it’s not just an outmoded way of thinking about it, it’s a destructive one. We have much better proven models that can actually help every member of an endeavor thrive. That’s where crypto and blockchain come into it; like that’s the missing piece for finally having really defensible, very, very rigorously well-tested combinations of community and funding. Suddenly the exchange and creation of wealth doesn’t have to be destructive to everyone engaging it.”

Despite Kende’s distaste for traditional capitalism, he still welcomes a bit of healthy competition.

“We would love to destroy WeWork,” he told me. “I would love to pick buildings for its remains.” At this point, my tour of 215 Moore had ended, and I’d followed him and Hutch onto the subway. They were on their way to a “crypto talk” in Times Square.Though Kende and Hutch were not sure of its specific subject, it would be yet another opportunity to meet potential investors or members. And even if they weren’t sure what those potential members would be like, that was part of the process.“It’s up to the people that are coming in to define what it means to be a member,” Kende said. “We shouldn’t be looking to whoever owns the space to be telling us how we should work or how we should live or how we should feel.” That’s what the blockchain is for.