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Affinity Lab in D.C. offers small and new businesses room to grow

Joey Coleman, left, and Krishna Patel of Design Symphony work at their desks in Affinity Lab's Adams Morgan location.
Joey Coleman, left, and Krishna Patel of Design Symphony work at their desks in Affinity Lab's Adams Morgan location. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010

At a time when small businesses are going under in record numbers, Joey Coleman's D.C.-based marketing and branding firm, Design Symphony, is booming. Amid the worst economic downturn in generations, Coleman said, revenue doubled in 2008 and tripled last year.

Coleman attributes his growth in part to his location in a crammed but bustling communal office center called Affinity Lab, where he rents a 6-by-4-foot space on the second floor of a former auto parts shop in Adams Morgan consisting of a desk and file cabinet for himself and his one employee.

At Affinity, he said, he has kept costs low and established a symbiotic relationship with the two dozen businesses with which he shares space -- offering advice, support and contracts to one another and teaming up to go after larger projects that he couldn't do on his own.

"It has the feel of a comfortable family room or a coffeehouse," Coleman said.

Demand for the space has grown throughout the recession from start-up micro-businesses with 10 workers or fewer. Organizers of Affinity Lab are expanding this week by opening a second location, in the U Street corridor in Northwest, that at 4,000 square feet is nearly twice the size of the original space.

"It's a step up," said Coleman, a 36-year-old former criminal defense lawyer who is moving into Affinity's new storefront space, which had been occupied by an architectural firm.

He's looking forward to the new building's large meeting room, which is wired for multimedia presentations. His multimillion-dollar company designs logos and develops market plans for corporations, start-ups and nonprofit groups seeking to introduce new products and services.

"A big part of my business is doing branding workshops. Currently, I end up speaking at hotels when I do presentations," Coleman said. "Now I'll be in my own office, which is appealing to me."

High success rate

Affinity Lab was started in 2001 to accommodate small businesses that had outgrown their owners' homes but had not grown enough to be able to afford a typical office lease. Interest in the space has been driven largely by laid-off people -- or workers fearing they will lose their jobs -- seeking to reinvent themselves.

"Membership has increased in the last year with people taking the chance to start a business," said Affinity's president and founder, Berit Oskey. "The security at their current jobs is less than it used to be, and so the risk of starting a business is not as steep as it was."

Oskey said the tenants at Affinity have an 82 percent success rate, a stark contrast with the difficulties experienced by a growing number of small businesses. About 595,600 small businesses closed in 2008, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, up from 541,047 in 2004. Bankruptcy filings among small businesses rose to 43,546 in 2008, up from 34,317 in 2004. And self-employed business owners close their doors at three times the rate of firms with workers.

In a survey in December by the National Small Business Association, 64 percent of owners said they had experienced revenue decreases, compared with 45 percent the year before. "That's the highest level since 1993, when we began asking that question," said Molly Brogan, spokeswoman for the association.

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