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Chamber program offers entrepreneurs communal space


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Entrepreneurs who need a place to brainstorm and dream are taking advantage of a new Chamber program that invites collaboration but has a quirky name — Fish Tank.

Designed to encourage a free exchange of ideas among chamber members, the cutting-edge concept has become a gathering place for the region’s business owners.

The Fish Tank provides a free co-working site for chamber members. Entrepreneurs and young professionals find the space particularly inviting.

Many in these groups are just starting out in business, and their client-focused work is performed either at home or from a customer’s office. Leased space is non-essential and expensive overhead.

There is still a need, however, to have a space to meet clients on occasion, or brainstorm and collaborate with like-minded professionals, which the Fish Tank provides at no cost.

At a recent Wednesday afternoon session, Anthony Blair and Melissa Morrow of Live Pixel Marketing were brainstorming at one end of a long table. At the other end, Steven Riche and Jonathan Earley of Joust Multimedia were collaborating with John Laswell of Full Stack Web Solutions.

Riche, 30, said the Fish Tank is a good fit for the three-year-old web design and video company.

“It has really worked better for us to not have an office, which lowers our expenses quite a bit because we are able to work from home and so are our employees,” Riche said. “Having a place like this that we are able to work from and chat with people who are in similar industries and network is really nice.”

The shared-work space for chamber members is located at the Indiana University Center for Art and Design in the 300 block of Jackson Street in downtown Columbus.

Chamber president Cindy Frey said the response to the Wednesday afternoon gatherings that are patterned after similar concepts elsewhere, including the Speak Easy in Indianapolis, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We went to visit a couple of them and interviewed the leadership there,” Frey said. “What we learned about the Speak Easy, which is so popular, is that there were people who were (previously) working independently at a local coffee shop. They started talking to each other and collaborating and they sort of created a community before they had a physical building.”

That concept intrigued chamber leaders because Columbus is a small community and they wanted to find out how many people there were doing this kind of work who might utilize a similar space here.

“The chamber’s role is to foster innovation and create an ecosystem where entrepreneurs can thrive and businesses can grow,” Frey said. “It seemed like a natural extension of our work, and if we can do it at no cost, we didn’t see a downside.”

Riche and Earley met Laswell through the Fish Tank and already have begun to work with him on some projects.

“One of the challenges we have had is finding really good developers that we have a good relationship with and we can trust,” Earley, 29, said. “We have been doing a lot of online outsourcing, which hasn’t been the best method, so it was really great that we found someone who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic. This is a skill set that is hard to find in this area.”

Laswell, 23, said the Fish Tank also has been great for his startup company.

“I started dabbling with web design in high school and decided I wanted to run with it and work with local businesses,” Laswell said. “I read about this one day, and it seemed like a good opportunity to find people who could benefit from using my services. I have done that, but there is also a nice camaraderie among everyone here who is scrapping and working hard, and I have been able to take advantage of those resources as well.”

The Fish Tank is an ideal work space for young professionals with startups but is available for use to all chamber members.

The corner location is enclosed by glass on the sides that face Jackson and Third streets. It has a long table that can be used for conference discussions and smaller spaces for private conversations.

A large white board along another wall is well-suited for brainstorming. The space is large enough to host guest speakers, which the chamber has begun to incorporate into some of the weekly sessions.

Live Pixel has an office, but Blair, 44, still regularly comes to the Fish Tank for the networking opportunities and to support a chamber initiative.

“I’m here to support collaboration between the local businesses and I know a lot of the people who come down here,” Blair said. “I like the idea of having a space where creative people and entrepreneurs can come together and build a network to promote new ideas. I think the chamber came up with a great idea and I would like to see it grow.”

Live Pixel was developed last year as a division of Pentzler Printing to provide one-stop shop marketing, online and offline, to help businesses identify their customer base. At that time Blair owned Dependable Advertising, which had been in business for five years and was purchased as part of the plan to launch Live Pixel.

“We are looking for the customer who will support our client’s businesses in every way,” Blair said. “When we find that out we can create the best message for them to make a decision that will help support their business.”

The Wednesday Fish Tank sessions started in January, and Frey said there are about 23 people on the mailing list who show up at one time or another.

“Many of them are part of this younger demographic and this group of people, and this profile, is essential to the future of our area,” Frey said. “We need to have a place where our innovators can find a community of like-minded thinkers.”

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