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Project RHINO, a Toronto Coworking Space, Helps Startups Find Their Feet

A King Street West coworking space offers starting entrepreneurs affordable and welcoming offices, plus a keg fridge.

Aspiring entrepreneurs attend a panel on “the mobile revolution” at Project RHINO.

On Wednesday night, near King and Bathurst streets, 80 people gathered a few floors above The Banknote pub in the offices of Project RHINO. They were there for a talk on “the mobile revolution.” A panel of four startup founders discussed mobile devices, social media, and the ripples they send through the business world.

This type of businesslike camaraderie is typical at Project RHINO, a coworking space that launched in August 2011 that has since become regarded as one of the best in the city. Founded by Queen’s University buddies Jeffrey Howard and Neil Martin, it was made by startups, for startups. It currently occupies 2900 square feet, and the plan is to expand it to 5000 square feet within the next month.

“We just want to match demand,” says Howard. “Neil and I are entrepreneurs. If someone comes to us and says they have an idea and we were full and could not accommodate any more people, I would feel really bad.”

“Coworking” is a catch-all term for any sort of arrangement where a number of small-business owners or freelancers pitch in on the rent for a large, shared office space. Toronto has a handful of coworking spaces, some of them specific to one profession, others deliberately eclectic. Project RHINO caters to young entrepreneurs.

© Corbin Smith

The idea came to Martin and Howard while they were working out of a living room in Toronto, toiling away on their own startup. One day they spotted an old “office space for rent” ad on the side of a building through the living-room window. It looked weathered and too good to be true, but they decided to check it out anyway.

“Toronto does have a lot of shared office spaces. We couldn’t find anything we liked, though,” says Howard. “Things were either too expensive or too restrictive.”

“We had no intention of starting a coworking space business,” says Martin. “We had our own startup that we were focused on, and we just fell in love with the space: the exposed brick, the skylights, and the whole top floor of this King West building. We just got into our heads that we’re going to work here. We didn’t know what it was going take. We didn’t have any money. Let’s just sign the lease and figure it out.”

They started out with just one other startup, Asterisk Media, whose founders they knew from their university days. Today, Project RHINO has 16 companies ranging in size from one to five employees, and working in various fields from IT support to fashion design. Getting more tenants on board was necessary to pay rent, and the space grew organically though word of mouth. At $250 a month, Project RHINO is one of the cheapest coworking spaces in the city.

© Corbin Smith

Another defining feature of Project RHINO is a small room with couches, which functions as an art gallery. Right now the works of Jen Mann are on the walls, but RHINO has been receiving calls from local artists looking for space to show art, much to their surprise.

“We want to keep it fresh,” says Howard. “We want to give exposure to people. Essentially it becomes like a gallery or showroom in downtown Toronto. It benefits us and it benefits them.”

In Project RHINO’s boardroom, Howard and Martin will soon paint one wall with Idea Paint. It’s a special type of paint that, when applied, turns a wall into a whiteboard. It’s more cost effective than getting a white board of equivalent size. And it’s cool.

Project RHINO is also a place where startup founders can unwind and have fun. This is made easier by a keg fridge with Conductor’s Craft Ale on tap, and a foosball table. Neil Martin is currently the office champion.

“I think one of the most important things you can do when your building a community is to have events that bring your community together,” says Martin. “Otherwise you’re just like every other startup space.”

CORRECTION: June 17, 2013, 10:40 AM This post originally listed Steam Whistle as the beer on tap, it has been changed to Conductor’s Craft Ale. Also, Neil Martin is the foosball champ, not Jeffrey Howard.

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