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Texas expert: Coworking in Houston isn't going away — it's evolving

Austin-based Firmspace opened its Houston location last year. Courtesy of Firmspace

Before the pandemic, Houston coworking demand mirrored that of the rest of the country: shared space was booming, new operators were opening up. Demand was growing in Houston, as it was in other markets.

When the pandemic arrived in Houston last spring, the city was hit with a crisis on two fronts: local public health challenges due to the arrival of COVID-19 were further complicated by a downturn in the price of oil and gas industry — the literal fuel of this city's dominant industry.

But coworking hasn't faded away as office spaces closed or reduced capacity – it's evolved. In fact, the ongoing pandemic has accelerated this changing space and pushed operators to adapt their offerings to meet the market's needs. The result in Houston is the emergence of three major trends that we expect to see persist beyond 2021.

Increased demand for private offices

According to a recent report from JLL, up to 70 percent of all office spaces were primarily or partially open plan in design by the first quarter of 2020. But few of us want to sit in an open plan office with a dozen other masked professionals while fielding Zoom calls, but working from home isn't an option for those who lack the space and privacy they need to effectively work from home.

This combination of pandemic-related stressors has driven more Houstonians to seek out private office space for rent. The basic requirements in the pandemic era look slightly different than what we might have observed a year ago. Professionals want:

  • Private office spaces with doors that close and lock
  • Walls that provide privacy and noise insulation
  • Secure IT infrastructure, chiefly high-speed internet access
  • Enhanced cleaning protocols in common spaces and high-touch areas
  • Closed ventilation loops and as much clean air piped in from the outdoors as possible

And coworking spaces are doing their best to deliver this calm, safe environment where busy professionals can come to do focused work.

More short-term arrangements

The future has never looked more uncertain to professionals and leadership in all sectors. Here at the end of 2020, many companies that have paid nearly nine months of rent on office space that they've been unable to safely use are weighing the benefits of breaking their years-long commercial leases.

Companies are not sure what the structure of their teams will be in three months, nevermind three years, and this is changing how leaders think about their real estate contracts. In this climate, many are turning to coworking spaces that offer six- and 12-month contracts with furnishes and IT infrastructure in place to lighten their financial commitments to physical spaces.

The other trend in short-term leasing that local coworking spaces have embraced is the day office. Given that many of us are planning to work at least part-time from our home offices for the near future, coworking spaces have spotted the opportunity to offer a pay-per-day model to engage professionals that only need a break from the home office one or two days a week.

A private office as a status symbol

The office used to be where we went to get away from home five days a week. For members of traditional coworking spaces in the startup and tech industries, the office often felt like an incubator where spontaneous connections happened.

But in light of the pandemic, private office space has become a refuge where professionals go to feel safe, achieve focused work, and execute sensitive tasks with assurance that they have a level of privacy that can't be achieved at home.

Whether you're looking to speak with clients or prospective employees remotely, private office space and polished meeting rooms have also come to be a status symbol. A video call with chic design elements visible in the background of their office space communicates something powerful – the people in those chairs are invested in the time they spend at work.


Moving into 2021, Houstonians are ready to return to work. Even before the pandemic arrived, commercial real estate was beginning to see that the future of work will be more flexible and more often remote than it was in the past. While we're not through this crisis yet, many professionals are already looking for a new kind of private office arrangement, and local coworking operators are working to deliver the space these Houstonians need.

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Anish Michael is the CEO of Austin-based Firmspace, which has a 32,000-square-foot space in BBVA Compass Plaza in Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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