· Published: December 1, 2014 Updated: August 03, 2017
Toiling happily at several screens full of computer code, software engineer and business creator Wesley Smith is part of an emerging trend in downtown Salt Lake City.
A former University of Utah student, Smith left school for real-world experience and started his own company. The 22-year-old entrepreneur is CEO and chief instructor for Isomer, a 10-week programming boot camp for people motivated less by money and more by a desire to learn and help others.
He now is pursuing his dreams with help from Sustainable Startups, one of several business incubators and "co-working" options newly opened in the city's urban core.
"I'm very interested in using technology to give back to the community and make that difference," Smith said recently above a hum of activity at Sustainable Startups' 400 South offices. "Unless you have that passion and really love what you're doing, you'll just never be as successful."
At least six of these workspaces have launched in Utah's capital in the past two years within a few downtown blocks of one another. They take various approaches, but all offer affordable access to desks, support and basic office services such as Wi-Fi, phones, printers, conference rooms and coffee machines.
Often remodeled from existing office suites, these spaces combine youthful business drive with decidedly new visions of the workplace: open, collaborative and fun. They also represent another way downtown is evolving to suit the needs and preferences of 20- and 30-somethings, known as millennials.
"This is the new generation of business for our state, in its infant stage," said Jesse Dean, director of urban development for the city's Downtown Alliance, an arm of the Salt Lake Chamber.
Though common in high-tech hubs such as Seattle, Portland, Ore., and California's Silicon Valley, co-working is relatively new to Salt Lake City.
Some of the city's new spaces provide nurturing advice as well as a sense of community and camaraderie to a clientele commonly drawn via the ranks of recent business graduates from the U. and Salt Lake Community College.
Other sites are simply cool, cooperative, spacious settings, where you can stop by, turn on a laptop and work, whether for a fledgling business or as a one-person branch.
Office Evolution, part of a national franchise based in Colorado, unveiled its first co-working space two months ago on the fifth floor of Salt Lake City's historic Walker Center on Main Street.
"We think of it as a place to land for a few hours that isn't a coffee shop and is a little more professional," said Natasha Kunzler, business center manager. The company already plans additional locations in Centerville and Ogden, she said.
Last spring, two brothers, John and Daniel Might, sought shared office space downtown for their own consulting startup, but nothing caught their interest. So, with the help of the building owner, they modernized most of a lower floor of the old Firestone Building on 200 South and opened a co-working site of their own, called Holodeck.
It boasts a large central work area, wood floors, modular furniture that can be rearranged around the room and huge, synchronized presentation screens on the walls. Smaller meeting rooms and rows of desks flank the main space, all with a casual, friendly and high-tech feel.
"We really just wanted to create a fun place that we could work out of," said John Might, 29. The broader potential benefits for startups soon became clear.
"Rather than spending tons of money and getting locked into a lease or a tiny little office somewhere," Might said, "they can come down and work in a really awesome, collaborative environment."
Landscape architects Mark Morris and Shalae Larsen, proprietors of Work Hive in Salt Lake City's Crane Building on 200 South, also are tenants in their own co-working space, which caters primarily to creative professionals.
Work Hive has since expanded to an additional floor. Its trendy, more intimate environment seems to appeal to those with an artistic bent, Larsen said. "Nobody ever asks for cubicles."
Other settings such as Impact Hub and Sustainable Startups provide formal mentoring and in-depth education programs for new Utah entrepreneurs. Their spaces are also built around a central, communal work area without walls, with the intent of encouraging interaction and idea sharing between occupants.
Young entrepreneurs "need each other," said Troy D'Ambrosio, executive director at the U.'s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.
"They need to socialize, share experiences and build their skill sets. That's synergy, creative density," D'Ambrosio said. "It makes them more powerful."
And in contrast to the more predatory world of venture capital, several of these new incubators take a philanthropic approach to their startups, charging zero or nominal rent while encouraging tenants to contribute services. Some of their missions also focus on promoting social responsibility, in keeping with prevailing millennial values.
During the summer, Los Angeles native and businessman Thomas Lee bought the 121-year-old red-bricked Central Christian Church at 300 East and 400 South. He has gutted the interior and turned it into a business hub named Church & State, a project Lee recently described as "an altruistic play."
"In a way," he said in September, "we're gifting the building back to the community."
Impact Hub pushes what it calls social entrepreneurship, CEO Dustin Haggett said. Sustainable Startups, meanwhile, fosters sustainable commercial ventures and nonprofits by grounding them in responsible, green-oriented business principles, according to founder Ian Shelledy, son of former Salt Lake Tribune Editor James E. "Jay" Shelledy.
"We have so many people here, doing so many different kinds of things," Ian Shelledy, 27, said. "But they're all making the community more resilient and stronger."