In Search of the Water Cooler

Mapping out the hottest hangouts for homebased entrepreneurs.
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the October 1998 issue of Subscribe »

The old-timers at the barbershop; the greasers at the ; the teenagers at the mall--our 's subcultures have long been defined by the places they hang out. And while homebased owners may have gained a reputation as the entrepreneurs who cry lone wolf, they are just as capable of "hanging out" as the next guy. In fact, the ever-present threat of isolation gives these entrepreneurs even more incentive to get out and about, to combine interaction with just plain action.

Consequently, homebased business owners today are often on the prowl for a away from the home office. They want something more casual than the structured networking meeting and more productive than the corporate water cooler--if not someplace where everybody knows their name, then at least a place where they can feed off the of other business owners and get a sense of community.

Got a few minutes? Hang out with us for a while, as we scour the country for the best new gathering places for homebased entrepreneurs.


By Dennis Rodkin

It's a hot, humid afternoon, and educational consultant Phyllis Henry is camped out at a big round table at the Kinko's store in Lincolnwood, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago. Henry has a rush project to get out, so she's been here since yesterday, copying and sorting the various stacks of paper arrayed on the tabletop alongside her can of Diet Coke and a list of what's left to do.

All around Henry are fellow homebased entrepreneurs and others who've come in to use the copying equipment, schedule large copying jobs, or even pick up a bagel at the World Cafe, a snack bar tucked into one corner of the 5,270-square-foot store. At one color copier stands a graphic designer who's making draft prints of color photos she'll use in a client's annual report. At a black-and-white copier, two owners are proofreading the 45 pages they have 10 minutes to copy and sort. An accountant feeds a copy machine with one hand and entertains her 18-month-old son with the other. Another half-dozen people are at the full-service counter ordering and picking up duplicating jobs. "It seems pretty busy in here right now," Henry says. "Ordinarily, I come in very late at night, when I have all the machines to myself. But today I've got this deadline."

Henry's not the only one in a hurry here today. Apparently, everybody is double-parked and doing double time to get the work done. When they stop at the World Cafe, it's not to put their feet up and spin big dreams for their businesses--it's to gulp down a bite between this stop and the next. "The people we get coming through here are mostly very busy homebased businesspeople," says manager Lisa Stiotti. They are often so crunched for time that employees might recognize their faces or know their names, but they're rarely able to find out much more. Networking and idle talk are kept to a minimum by the fast pace.

Over in the self-service computer and typewriter room, Andrzej Wojnar says he appreciates the streamlined setup here. As the head of a small remodeling and construction company, he drives all over Chicago to clients' homes and offices, and often needs to stop during the day to type up or change a contract or estimate. He watches for a Kinko's sign, knowing he can get in and do what he has to do without a lot of interruptions slowing him down. "People aren't going to bother you," Wojnar says. "They just want to help you get finished and get going."

Dennis Rodkin is a homebased journalist who lives six minutes and 30 seconds from the Highland Park, Illinois, Kinko's.


By Mark Henricks

With practice, you can spot them on sight. When they walk into a Starbucks for a meeting, there is something about the homebased business owners that sets them apart from the employees, moms and students ordering iced mochas and double lattes.

But what is it? An air of confidence? Resourcefulness? Self-possession? Their reason for being in Starbucks, at least, is no mystery. It's quick; it's cheap; it's informal; it's familiar; and there seems to be one on every corner. What better place to meet clients, suppliers and colleagues?

Even Susan French, an Austin, Texas, recruiter for the hospitality industry, prefers Starbucks to restaurants. She doesn't want to eat a whole meal while interviewing job candidates. Considering she meets weekly with 20 or more chefs, restaurant managers and other candidates, you can't blame her.

Another consideration: At the coffee bar, she isn't interrupted by servers checking on her or asking for her order, a request French turns down with difficulty. She used to be a waitress, she explains, "and I know it's no fun having someone in your section who's not ordering."

If the woman two tables over in a Manhattan Starbucks looks familiar, it may be Dr. Gilda Carle. The suburban New York City therapist finds herself in a Big Apple Starbucks a few times a month chatting with TV producers who have helped make her a frequent guest on daytime talk shows.

"TV producers have very little time," says Carle. "They always have a phone to their ear and are always being called away." Starbucks' ubiquity, informality and speedy service make them tops on her list of places to meet the harried individuals who hold the keys to her self-promotion locomotive.

In fact, says Carle, sounding somewhat like a starstruck guest on Ricki Lake, "I credit Starbucks with boosting my career. It's given me an opportunity to sit with these people without feeling pressured to go or not go."

For other homebased business owners, Starbucks is a way to help ensure safety. Dallas media relations professional Terri Firebaugh snags a lot of prospects off the Web site for her homebased Firebaugh Communications. "If you're meeting people [you've never met in person]," she notes, "it's a good idea to meet them someplace besides your home."

Clearly, as a meeting place, Starbucks has plenty to offer. But it doesn't serve up the perfect business gathering place. The main problem is privacy. As French says, "When the whole coffee shop is listening in, I sometimes feel bad for the job candidates."

Not therapist Carle, who often counsels producers on personal career issues while seated at crowded Starbucks tables. "It's not stuff like `I'm having thoughts about killing my mother,' " she says. "And we can talk low enough that we get across what needs to be said."

Maybe that's what makes the homebased business owners stand out: They're the ones everybody is leaning toward, to hear what they have to say.

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer specializing in business topics.

Barnes & Noble

By Janean Chun

Once upon a time, bookstores were places where bookworms (like me) would guiltily browse through books and magazines, pretending not to see the "NO LOITERING" and "THIS IS NOT A LIBRARY" signs, squeezing through narrow aisles, never daring to make eye contact with the other notoriously introverted bookworms. Imagine the revelation of my first Barnes & Noble experience: entering the double doors, walking by racks holding every magazine imaginable, heading up the escalator to what seemed to be heaven itself--the smell of new books, the comforting whir of blenders and cappuccino makers, the siren call of plush chairs, fellow bibliophiles reading intently or conversing casually with stacks of books piled on the tables before them. Talk about happily ever after.

I've had a Barnes & Noble fetish ever since. And apparently, I'm not alone. Many homebased owners share my joy--they, too, have discovered Barnes & Noble to be the ideal place to learn or lounge, mingle or isolate, work or play.

On this day, four homebased business owners have agreed to meet and chat about their love of Barnes & Noble at, appropriately, a Barnes & Noble store. Alan Rothman, a Laguna Niguel, California, attorney and author, uses the bookstore for monthly brainstorming sessions with Claire Jackman, president of Bonsall, California-based Network Marketing Speakers Bureau. They once spent a grand total of three hours in a Barnes & Noble store. "We met, had lunch in the [Barnes & Noble] cafe, then talked for another hour," says Jackman. "I believe we even checked out what they had on the dinner menu."

Rob Baker, a former policeman who now runs Executive Matchmakers Online, a Newport Beach, California-based Internet dating service, often hangs out in the computer section, where he takes the opportunity to ask fellow browsers whether they're on the Internet, single and interested in dating.

Tom Justin, a Newport Beach, California, motivational author and lecturer, often uses his local Barnes & Noble as a place to meet associates, as well as browse the self-help and new release sections. He is the sole person in the group who admits to having fallen asleep reading in one of the store's chairs: the sign of a true Barnes & Noble aficionado. "This is a very comfortable environment," says Justin. "Maybe it's the high ceilings--you never feel repressed. And no one ever rushes you."

Ambiance is indeed key to Barnes & Noble's appeal. The mood is trendy yet thoughtful--category killer meets college library. "It's like an upscale coffeehouse but without all the noise and confusion," says Jackman. And with the mahogany bookcases and soft classical music as a backdrop, the scene is always elegant, Jackman adds. "I feel very confident meeting clients here."

"Our corporate office designed the superstores with the stuffed furniture, coffee tables and cafes to make them comforting, inviting places for people to study, meet others and socialize," says Terrie Kelly, merchandise manager at the Barnes & Noble in Irvine, California. "They wanted people to feel as if they were at home."

And it's working. "We often see people with their laptop computers plugged into one of our outlets, accessing the Internet or typing reports right here in the store," Kelly says.

All these homebased business owners consider Barnes & Noble's selection of 150,000 titles great for research. "When you step into Barnes & Noble, you get a feel for what's hot from the celebrities on the magazine covers and the topics of the new releases," says Rothman. "And you know what's not hot by looking at the books in the discounted section."

"Information is key to all our businesses," says Jackman. "Here, we're surrounded by information."

Not to mention the opportunities to meet people. Barnes & Noble offers seminars each month, which Rothman sees as prime time to mingle. "I've met a lot of new friends and potential business clients that way," he says. "Barnes & Noble has gone out of its way to make this bookstore user-friendly. They've really built a community spirit."

Baker admits he once ran into a couple arguing, and ended up enlisting them in his dating service. When asked if he habitually eavesdrops in the aisles, Baker smiles mischievously. "It's not too difficult to overhear conversations," he says.

Not that people mind. In fact, the channels of communication seem fairly open either way. "People are in an inquisitive, information-seeking mode," says Jackman. "They're more into networking than they would be if they were in a grocery store."

In perhaps the most impressive Barnes & Noble tale of the day, Justin recalls the time someone who had attended one of his seminars recognized him. "He ended up becoming a client of mine," says Justin. "That was the most money I got out of a bookstore--I was just standing there looking at a book and ended up getting a job."

Dr. Gilda Carle, (914) 378-1233,

Executive Matchmakers Online, (888) 573-7460,

Firebaugh Communications, (214) 522-4487,

Tom Justin, (714) 753-2777,

Network Marketing Speakers Bureau, (760) 758-4699,

Alan Rothman, (714) 362-9233,

Susan French & Associates, (512) 306-1023, fax: (512) 306-1024

Andrzej Wojnar, (773) 889-0003, fax: (773) 889-0004


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