The Download: GeekEasy closes incubator, strikes deal with MLK Jr. Library for space

Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business - An open house last October at the GeekEasy incubator at 1328 Florida Ave. NW.

GeekEasy, a co-working space that opened on Florida Avenue last October as a place where start-ups could commingle, will close its doors today after being unable to pay the rent sought by the building’s owner.

The incubator was an experiment from the start. The city’s entrepreneurs often complained of a dearth in office space where they could work for cheap alongside other fledgling firms, so a corps of volunteers opened GeekEasy in the Manhattan Laundry building.

Other incubators have also responded to the call. The Dupont Circle Business Incubator, for instance, provides offices for a mix of young businesses. The Fort and soon-to-open Acceleprise offer select firms space as well as seed-stage investments.

But GeekEasy provides a lesson in the risks of attempting such a venture. With a revolving door of renters and uncertainty about the longevity of their businesses, selecting the right amount of square footage and setting a feasible rent becomes a challenge.

“We had more space than we needed and not the same number of customers there all at the same time in order to fill the space,” said Stacy Smith, one of the incubator’s managers. “It’s kind of a guessing game that you play when you’re establishing real estate for something like that.”

GeekEasy’s occupants paid rent on a sliding scale based on the amount of space they required and the frequency of their visits. Entrepreneurs could pull up to one of the free-standing tables for just $90 a month or have a designated office for $1,325 a month.

Many business incubators in the area are organized and hosted by universities or municipal governments, an arrangement that tends to provide more-stable funding and less turnover in tenants.

Douglas Development, the building’s owner, made the space available rent free for the incubator’s first three months. Norman Jemal, a principal at Douglas, said in October that they then planned to charge “aggressively low” rent in subsequent months.

A spokesman for Douglas confirmed the incubator is vacating the space. He would not say what the developer had planned for the building.

“If we’re not at break-even pretty soon after 90 days, the space won’t survive,” GeekEasy co-founder Jamey Harvey said at the incubator’s open house in October. “There have been people talking about an incubator for years. We’ve basically taken a chance. We’ll bootstrap ourselves, and entrepreneurs are the right people to do that.”

And like with most entrepreneurial ventures, failure isn’t always an endpoint. The experience offered several key lessons, Smith said.

“The most important thing that we learned is you need a space arrangement that is not commercial space in order to make it work the best way you possible can,” she said. “The sense of community is the most important factor in what we’re trying to create, and we managed to do that.”

Smith said the incubator has struck a deal with Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library to host start-ups in a portion of the building at 901 G St. NW. The space will open in early June.

 
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