Ask any operator how they got into the flexible workspace business, and there’s always a fascinating story behind it. Whether it’s a family business, a calculated career move or a complete accident, no two journeys are ever the same.
One unconventional approach belongs to Andrew Clough, founder and Managing Director at The Brew in Shoreditch, East London. Andrew entered the flexible workspace industry after selling his magazine publishing business in 2009 and finding himself with spare office space and time left on the lease. It was only after he advertised the space on Gumtree and received unexpected success, that he decided to dig deeper into the workspace market.
Andrew went on to spend the next 18 months sourcing investment for a new brand of flexible workspace and in 2011, launched four coworking hubs across Shoreditch. Today, The Brew has 500 Premium members, more than 1,500 Nomad members (who use The Brew’s Coffice – café you can work in) and almost 15,000 members in its virtual community.
Not bad for a workspace ‘accident’.
Allwork caught up with Andrew to find out more about his entrepreneurial journey into flexible workspace and how he sees the market developing in the near future.
You’ve come a long way since advertising leftover workspace on Gumtree. What are the biggest market changes you have noticed, and what have you learned along the way?
We have seen a move from the traditional perception of coworking as just shared office space, to members looking for creative break-out areas, games rooms, bars, cafes and events programmes as part of their membership.
However, in a lot of cases, members find that these features are included to the detriment of the workspace area itself, which can end up quite limited with small desks and a high density of people. So, once a member has joined a coworking space, opinions can change as they realise they would actually prefer a larger or more private workspace.
This has led businesses to think more carefully about what they really want before moving into coworking, and providers are evolving their offerings to respond to this shift in needs and expectations.
What do you believe are the biggest opportunities within the coworking market?
Developing a ‘workspace-as-a-service’ model is the biggest opportunity of the moment, giving members their private office, alongside the flexibility and community aspect of coworking, and added services on top of that.
We’re also seeing more bigger companies considering coworking, and while there will always be those that want their five-year lease, the flexibility we offer is increasingly attracting more of that medium-sized business segment. Providers who can cater to their needs successfully will do well.
Do you find it’s easier to market your services now compared to when you started out?
There is definitely more awareness of coworking, to the point where it has almost become the default option for startups and small and medium-sized businesses.
We’ve also seen a massive increase in providers, particularly in the last three years, which has made differentiation even more important.
Currently, what are the main challenges you’re facing?
The biggest current challenge comes down to how you define coworking – as an ethos or as a product.
Coworking is typically seen as lots of different companies sharing the same space and is differentiated from serviced offices in its community and collaborative approach. But we’re now seeing this shift to a ‘workspace-as-a-service’ approach, with more members wanting their own private offices, much like you would see in a traditional serviced office, but accompanied by communal break-out areas and a coworking culture.
Providers are cottoning on to the idea that people want their own space and to be able to lock the door, but the challenge is to retain the coworking ethos on top of that.
How are you working to overcome these challenges?
We’re overcoming this by incorporating more private spaces into The Brew, combined with more social areas that help us to retain that community and collaborative feel. For instance, our Coffice (café you can work in) transforms into a wine bar in the evening.
We also have a big focus on supporting businesses to help them grow, with mentoring, business advice, events programmes and networking opportunities.
The other challenge I’ve faced coming into the industry is that it is ultimately a property-based business and the property industry can be very cut-throat and money-orientated.
A big part of my decision to pursue coworking was to create a supportive community and help nurture startups and entrepreneurs. But to make it happen you also have to deal with the cut-throat property side, with lawyers, landlords, builders and agents, who are all trying to make as much money as possible out of you. So, it can be a tough industry to come into from that perspective.
Do you feel the East London market has reached saturation point, or is there room for more coworking spaces?
You would have to be very brave to open a coworking space in East London right now and you would need a big differentiator. But having said that, East London is a very big place so there are still fringes that remain relatively untapped by coworking spaces.
Here at the Brew, we’re now looking further afield as there are opportunities all over London. Our plan is to expand to build a network of business clubs across the city.
Finally, what’s next for The Brew?
In addition to my comment above, we’re also looking to expand the services we offer and position ourselves more as a business club network, similar to private members’ clubs, but with a coworking ethos, giving businesses the support and nurturing environment they need to grow.
As a business for entrepreneurs run by entrepreneurs, we’re in a unique position to provide mentoring, advice and support to our members. This involves developing a wider programme of seminars, cultural events, links to useful contacts and other businesses in the area and enhanced networking opportunities – all the things you need to operate a successful business.