PariSoma “Innovation Loft” Is Movin’ On Up; A Taste of Parisian Startup Community in San Francisco

Let’s say you left the Bay Area in 2009 and spent all of 2010 assisting ornithologists in Antarctica, or writing cookbooks in Provence, or whatever it is that adventurous startup types do on their getaways. Arriving back in San Francisco today, one of the first things you’d notice is the explosion of incubators and coworking spaces. In 2009, there were only a handful. Now there are at least two dozen—I know because I spent a whole day last week compiling them into Xconomy’s Guide to Bay Area Coworking Spaces.

One of the old originals on the scene—though its pedigree dates only to 2008—is the pariSoma Innovation Loft. Myself, I work alone from a home office in the Potrero Hill/Dogpatch neighborhood, so to get an up-close view of the SoMa coworking life, I went over to pariSoma’s Howard Street digs a couple of weeks ago and spent some time with coordinators Julian Nachtigal and Anne Gomez.

I liked the vibe at pariSoma’s funky, cozily cramped third-floor space at 1436 Howard—I even came back a few days later to play in a kickass Settlers of Catan tournament (and lost badly to WePay co-founder Rich Aberman). But what Nachtigal and Gomez seemed mainly excited about was the organization’s impending move to a building at 11th Street and Natoma, just around the corner in SoMa’s western reaches (three more blocks west and you’d be in the Mission). And when Gomez showed me around the 11th Street building, previously occupied by the Great Place to Work Institute, I understood their enthusiasm. In the new two-story space, pariSoma will have 10,000 square feet to work with—enough room to host 100 or more coworkers, compared to the 25 or so who fit into the current 2,200-square-foot space.

“We have close to 50 members who use the space right now, across eight companies, which is a pretty high number for the amount of space we currently have,” says Nachtigal. (These 50 rotate in and out on a casual basis—it would be impossible for all of them to cram into the space at once.) “I really anticipate that in March and April a lot of people will be signing up, because of the look and feel of the new space.” (See the pictures here.)

Nachtigal’s official title at pariSoma is business manager, but he seems to function more as an impresario, ringmaster, and den mother for the resident entrepreneurs, who include employees of Vidcaster, AwayFind, Intridea, VidSF, and DoYouBuzz. Nachtigal told me he got the job through his roommate Clément Alteresco, an employee of Paris-based faberNovel who moved to San Francisco in 2009 specifically to transplant an idea faberNovel had developed in Paris to San Francisco.

FaberNovel is a digital innovation agency that also invests in other technology companies—you can think of it as a French version of the Palo Alto-based product design firm Ideo, but with a tighter focus on the Web and user experience design, and with its own portfolio of startups. In Paris, the company is one of the major backers of Silicon Sentier, a regional association devoted to fostering software startups, and the heart of Silicon Sentier is La Cantine, a coworking center in the 2nd arrondissement. “It’s a coworking space but primarily they host events every single day,” says Nachtigal. “It’s been wildly successful for them.”

To build a similar community in San Francisco, and to provide a base for its own portfolio companies as they expand to the U.S., faberNovel set up pariSoma. A month after Alteresco moved into Nachtigal’s apartment, “I gave him two words of advice: hire me,” Nachtigal says. The advice was accepted, and Nachtigal spent the next year and a half “getting pariSoma on the map,” primarily by hosting and co-sponsoring a dizzying series of events for the tech startup community.

The first was TEDxSoMa in January 2010, which attracted a relatively small audience of 65 people (that’s standing-room-only in the tiny Howard Street space) but drew another 110,000 viewers online. Another 100 events followed in 2010 alone, from informal “startup mixers” to ask-the-expert sessions to parties promoting specific companies like GetJar or events like Demo and Mobilize. The idea is to make pariSoma a community hub, but also to put a rotating array of resources at the fingertips of coworking residents.

PariSoma’s membership model is pretty simple: there’s a sliding scale of monthly fees depending on how much time an individual plans to spend in the space. “Virtual members” can have a mailbox at pariSoma for $50 per month. “Community mobilizers” can come in one day per week for a monthly fee of $100. “Coworking masters” get full-time access for $275 per month, which also entitles them to 2 hours of time in a private meeting room. And at the high end, “Coworkaholics” get a full-time private desk and 6 hours of meeting-room time for $500 per month. Everyone gets free Wi-Fi, coffee and tea, kitchen access, and printing/copying/scanning/faxing. For an additional fee, pariSoma offers on-site help with accounting, bookkeeping, legal, immigration, and human resources issues.

But those are just the mechanics of the space—you’ll find similar services on tap at San Francisco coworking facilities like Citizen Space and Nextspace. Nachtigal says that it’s all the activities at pariSoma, and the camaraderie they foster, that distinguishes pariSoma amidst the growing crop of coworking spaces. There’s a formal group of “pariSoma gurus” who drop in to give advice on subjects like marketing and dealing with venture and angel investors. There are Taco Tuesdays, weekly happy hours, and frequent birthday parties with cake and champagne, often organized by the coworkers themselves.

“One thing I hear a lot from people is they feel more of a sense of community than at other coworking spaces in the city,” says Nachtigal. “People know each other and are actively interested in what other people are doing. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say ‘How do you do this in PHP or MySQL?’ and get immediate help. People in the space have hired other people in the space to do contract jobs for them. That’s what coworking is all about.”

I’m not sure whether a coworking environment like pariSoma right for me; unlike Jean-Paul Sartre, I tend to have more trouble writing when there’s a lot of activity going on around me. But one thing is for sure: in the new building, pariSoma members will have a lot more room to spread out and perhaps hole up in a quiet corner. They’ll also have additional lodging options—private offices accommodating two to six people, for $1,035 to $2,000 per month. There are a couple of big conference rooms, and three whole bathrooms (compared to the single one at 1436 Howard). There might even be room for a ping pong table.

Moving to a nicer space with more amenities is probably a necessity for pariSoma, given that it has a lot more competition than it used to: in 2010 alone, I/O Ventures, Nextspace, AngelPad, KickLabs, SOMAcentral, Founders Den, and The Hub all popped up within a mile or two. Nachtigal doesn’t seem worried about filling up the new space—in fact, several new clients, including Papaya Mobile, Work4Labs, Proton Radio, and Chugulu, are just waiting for the March 1 move to begin their memberships. And Nachtigal says faberNovel has plans to clone pariSoma in more cities over the next 12 to 24 months. For pariSoma, he says, the coworking explosion in SoMa “was just validation that there’s definitely a big market for this—especially here, but in lots of cities.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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