Drive past 541 Wiley Parker Road and you’ll see a bustling parking lot and four colorful buses. Come inside and you’ll find entrepreneurs and makers, all sorts of creatives working in the same space. Someone will hand you a flyer on workshops, give you a tour of the space, and tell you about the events coming up. theCO is flourishing, from robotics summer camps for kids to a vast variety of workshops on anything from grant-writing to iPhone photography.
But five years ago, theCO was just starting out and not nearly as well-known. Austin Thompson, one of theCO’s earliest members, sat down to tell us how he got involved all those years ago and why he continues to stick around.
Austin has two companies, Thompson Industries, where he does social media marketing and small business consulting, and Random Pieces of Wood, which he started while at theCO, where he crafts laser engraved gifts. However, his nickname is “the best unpaid intern at theCO” because he’s always helping out around the place.
“I do a lot of things.” Austin laughs. “It just depends on what day it is.”
Austin became involved with theCO when he drove past the building and became curious about the sign. While attending theCO’s “Bring Your Own Business” workshop, he met a client who needed help with social media, and earned enough in their first meeting to get a month’s membership. “I’ve been here ever since then.” He reveals.
He remembers the early days of theCO, recounting how much the building has changed, from the phone booths that used to be curtains, to the stage they built in the event space. Even theCO sign didn’t exist at the start, crafted later by Dan Drogosh using theCO’s CNC router in the makerspace. “The building was green,” Austin recalls with a laugh. “I can say it now, this terrible green color.”
Austin’s favorite thing about theCO has been watching the evolution of the robotics program, CO:bots. “I would have loved to have had a place like this when I was a kid. theCO cultivates different groups of people and provides a space for people to use their imagination and explore different ideas with very few limits and boundaries, that’s really, really cool.” He’s also a big fan of the TN Driving Innovation buses, which equip rural communities in Tennessee to support small business owners, advance STEAM education, and enhance their community’s spaces.
Austin shared how theCO cultivates a unique environment because of the variety of professions involved. “Here I’m around people who are selling things, people who are making things, people who just have big ideas, even people who created theCO. You don’t realize how segmented you go through most of your life until you come to a coworking space. On any given day you could be sitting here and ten different types of people walk in, in a thirty minutes span.”
He says he’s noticed that since the formation of theCO, people in Jackson have become much more receptive to new ideas. “I tell people all the time, I moved here 17 years ago and if you would have ever told me that theCO would exist, I would have laughed. I would still be laughing at the idea of theCO, a coworking space in general, a space where people are free to have ideas, you know, or where the ideas aren’t laughed at. Instead it’s, “you have an idea -- we may not think your idea is that great but instead of laughing you out of the building we’re going to try to help you with your plan.”
As an example, he recounts the story of a high school student who came in with a business concept that involved 3D renderings of car dealerships. Austin, who sold cars for 15 years, wasn’t sure it would succeed with dealerships and suggested some changes. The student decided to pivot the idea to real estate, and began doing 3D rendering of homes. This transformed into a partnership with a local bank, where they had him 3D render all of their listed properties. Honest feedback allowed the student to adapt the idea into a viable business model that could succeed. Austin explains that this type of constructive community is what makes theCO such a great place to work.
“I have ideas all the time, like four or five daily, and I have people I can run them past,” Austin says. “But if you’re sitting in Starbucks working on your idea with nobody to talk to, you don’t get that kind of input. You do here, and it’s free! It’s not even the price of membership, you can come by here and get advice from entrepreneurs and people who have done things. We have people who have been CFOs of companies, people who are running their own companies now, and you’ve got crazy entrepreneurs like me, who are always willing to listen to an idea and then give feedback and that’s been super beneficial.”
Last December, Austin was invited to be one of the first CO:members to join theCO’s Board of Directors, bringing fresh eyes and new ideas to the discussion. Austin says he is so invested and involved because he has wanted theCO to succeed from the start.
“I feel like I wouldn’t be where I’m at without theCO.” Austin admits.
This summer marks Austin’s fifth year of membership, as well as theCO’s fifth birthday! So come on down on July 24 and join us in celebrating how far theCO has come!