From the March 2001 issue of Startups

Kevin Yen thought he was done with having roommates. Then, in 1998, he opened Designer Body, a food supplement store catering to the fitness-minded. The location he found on a busy street in Kaneohe, Hawaii, seemed ideal. There was a problem, however: The space was too big, and the rent too high. Easy solution: Yen approached a friend, Joey Aukai, 35, who was looking for a location to practice physical therapy. Aukai agreed to share the space and related expenses.

Although Yen moved out of the space in January, both parties agree the time spent sharing an office was beneficial to both businesses. Designer Body's customers, because of their inclination toward physical activity, often get injured, so when they learned there was a physical therapist on-site, they became interested: "Many [ended] up seeking treatment from Joey," says Yen. The reverse was also true: Aukai's patients or their family and friends often became Designer Body's regular customers.

Furthermore, since the companies kept different hours, they covered for one another during absences by answering questions and taking names of prospective clients. "This cuts staffing requirements," says Aukai.

It's Not Just for the Money

"This synergy from sharing space is a benefit often more important than the actual expenses saved," suggests business and economic consultant Chuck Wolfe, principal of Claggett Wolfe Associates in Auburn, California. Wolfe's firm shares space with an affiliate, fellow business and economic consulting firm Agricultural and Community Development Services (ACDS), based in Jessup, Maryland. By having phone lines in each other's home base and sharing other facilities, they're able to bring each other work and collaborate on projects. Whereas ACDS specializes in rural communities, Claggett Wolfe covers a broader market and relies on ACDS for its expertise in agribusiness.

"Sharing can give a small business the same benefits of a larger and more diverse one," says Duke Burruss of ACDS. "Claggett Wolfe is across the continent. By sharing, our network develops and allows us to act like a larger, more diverse entity with a greater presence."

Whose Turn is It to Mop?

There are disadvantages to sharing-as with a roommate, you've got to tolerate certain differences of opinion and habits. One person might like carpet, while the other likes tile. Or, on a grander scale, there's the potential for complete incompatibility-making it very important to carefully choose the person you share office space with. Should one party decide to move out, that could cause a sudden drain of funds for the one remaining. Aukai and Designer Body solved this problem by agreeing to give one another three months' notice before leaving. "This gives the other party time to find someone else or to prepare in other ways," says Aukai.

All told, however, sharing office space can be ideal, as long as you adhere to these principles:

  • Synergy. Businesses that naturally complement each other work best.
  • Respect. Try to tolerate differences and communicate openly. Keep business and personal relationships separate.
  • Compatibility. Besides the obvious personal compatibility, you need ethical compatibility. "The relationship cannot violate the privacy and other rights of my patients or ethics of my profession," says Aukai. For instance, Aukai does not make dietary recommendations; he appropriately referred such queries to Yen when they shared space.
  • Responsibility. Understand and uphold all agreements. All responsibilities, even the most simple and obvious, must be clearly defined and followed.

"The bottom line is that we must communicate and work it out," says Aukai. "It's hard work but worth it-like having a roommate or being married."


Gerald Kinro lives in Kaneohe, Hawaii, where he writes and grows grass-he's a horticulturist with an interest in turf.