Coworking is about more than just challenging the notion of the traditional workspace – it’s about community, collaboration and camaraderie. Sara Lewis takes a look at three unique coworking spaces in Singapore.
Michaela Anchan, founder of Woolf Works, a coworking space for women in Joo Chiat. (Photo: Susan Richman)
Considering its ubiquity, it’s hard to believe that coworking is a relatively new phenomenon. The past decade has seen a boom in shared working spaces all over the world, and the trend really taking off in Singapore over the last two or three years with The Hub opening in 2012 and a slew of others that followed suit.
Favoured largely by tech startups but adopted by all manner of businesses, coworking benefits anyone who wants to save on office rental and whose work doesn’t necessarily lend itself to more traditional business models. Freelancers, independent contractors, startups and other small businesses alike have been jumping aboard the coworking bandwagon everywhere, no doubt facilitated by the advent of cloud computing (internet-based computing that allows remote access from any location) and the mobility that comes with it.
‘I think business is becoming more casual and more authentic,’ says entrepreneur Darius Cheung, founder of mobile security startup tenCube (acquired by McAfee in 2010) and current CEO of 99.co, a property search website in Singapore, currently in beta stage, that will be officially launched later in the year.
Darius Cheung outside 13 in Geylang. (Photo: Sara Lewis)
‘If you look back to 20 years ago, IBM had this model of what a business like IBM should look like – it has to be formal, you have to wear a suit and tie, and this is the only way business is done. Nowadays it’s not like that – business is becoming more authentic, maybe because of the internet and social media and other cultural changes, and you don’t need the pretence of a full office,’ says Cheung.
It was this idea that inspired Cheung to start a coworking space of his own. Set in a residential shophouse in one of red-light district Geylang’s less seedy laneways, ‘13’ – named simply after its street address – is an experiment in blurring the lines between the residential and business spheres, with residents living in the house as well as startups and hot-desk users working out of it.
Inside 13 in Geylang. (Photo: Sara Lewis)
‘13 is where we merge living and working together. The residents of 13 live and work here, and the concept is that they mingle with each other, allowing the cross-pollination of ideas and fostering creativity in the arts and entrepreneurship,’ says Cheung, who used to be based at 13 but now runs his growing business out of the well-known tech startup ecosystem at Ayer Rajah Industrial Estate, ‘Blk71’.
The house, designed by local architects HYLA, is a feat in itself. Its four floors are connected by a bright red spiral staircase with an indoor water feature at its base. Though originally conceived as a residential space, the house’s compartmental nature and generous common areas lend themselves to the current coworking setup.
‘I think 13 really blurs the lines between work and living,’ says Cheung.
‘A lot of people really like that feeling – it’s a space for work but it’s also somewhere you can make food and cook dinner.’
WHAT: Co-living and coworking space for entrepreneurs
WHERE: 13 Lorong 24A, (Geylang)
Inside Woolf Works in Joo Chiat. (Photo: Courtesy Woolf Works)
WHILE SPACES LIKE 13 aim to blur the lines between the domestic and business spheres, other coworking ventures exist purely to separate them.
Opening in June this year on the second and third storeys of a Joo Chiat shophouse, Woolf Works is a coworking space created exclusively for women. Inspired by the novel A Room of One’s Own (and named after its author, Virginia Woolf), Woolf Works shares the classic feminist text’s philosophy that ‘a woman must have … a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
Its New Zealand-born founder, writer and mother of two Michaela Anchan, came up with the idea for the space after relocating to Singapore from Mumbai and finding it difficult to write in her home environment.
‘I found it a struggle to write at home with the kids around, and even when they weren’t there it was difficult,’ says Anchan, who was a stay-at-home mother for five years before starting Woolf Works.
‘I wanted to rent my own office so I could have a separation between work time and home time, but I found it to be really expensive in Singapore. I’d never heard of coworking before, so started googling terms like “shared studio space” before realising that other people do this all around the world! It was sort of a surprise.’
In her research, Anchan found out about a coworking space in California called Hera Hub, which is exclusively for female entrepreneurs and professionals. It wasn’t long before she decided to create a similar space of her own.
‘I liked the idea of women working together and sharing the experience, plus I was reading A Room of One’s Own at the time, and even though that book was written in 1929, I still think it’s true now that we all need a space outside of the house to create art.’
Though Woolf Works has been open for less than six months, it’s received a lot of attention from both the media and networking groups such as the Athena Network, which have been instrumental in the project’s rapid success.
‘I think it’s an idea people are interested in, and there’s quite a supportive community of women in business and women entrepreneurs [in Singapore],’ says Anchan.
The space itself is designed to be an escape for those who use it. Brushed concrete floors are counterbalanced with clean, crisp furnishings, most of which are able to be easily packed away to make room for events when necessary.
‘I wanted somewhere that was very calm and quiet, and quite minimal, but that still had a warmth and wasn’t corporate,’ says Anchan, who holds monthly social events (‘Woolf Works Wednesdays’) in the space.
With a handful of permanent members, Woolf Works holds up to about 40 people, the rest of whom have the option of being members for one, two or three days a week, with flexible hours. Currently Woolf Works houses all kinds of members – from photographers and personal trainers who need somewhere to do their computer-based work to writers and sole traders who don’t want to work from home. The majority of members, says Anchan, have young children.
As a single-sex environment Woolf Works does have its critics, but Anchan stands by the philosophy behind the project.
‘Woolf Works isn’t anti-men – it’s pro-women. It’s important to have a space for women that recognises they need somewhere to put themselves and their work first, because often they’re at home with the kids.’
WHAT: A new coworking space exclusively for women
WHERE: 176 Joo Chiat Road #02-01
A meeting room at Collective Works. (Photo: Courtesy Collective Works)
ANOTHER COWORKING SPACE that has experienced rapid growth since its inception is Collective Works – a multi-level operation in Singapore’s CBD that opened in 2012. Over the last two years, Collective Works has become home to more than 80 companies hailing from over 20 countries.
Its founder and CEO, Jonathan O’Byrne – originally from Ireland and educated in England – moved to Singapore from Oman with his partner in 2010, leaving behind what he says was his ‘dream job’ in marketing.
‘When I arrived in Singapore I was introduced to the term “trailing spouse,” which I think is a wonderfully derogatory term. I thought: I’ve just gone from being the head of marketing at a billion-dollar company to being someone’s plus-one in the space of a week,’ says O’Byrne, who eventually decided to start a PR agency from the guest bedroom of his Singapore home.
Though the business was profitable, after two years O’Byrne began to realise that he was ‘financially very successful but personally very unhappy – I was spending 16 to 18 hours alone per day and travelling half the year. I had been in Singapore two years and didn’t really know anybody.’
‘I realised that there had to be a better way to do business. There had to be a way that you could do business socially, collaborate and meet people. When you’re moving halfway around the world you lose your support, you lose your family, you lose your network, and I thought there has to be a way to reform that.’
O’Byrne searched for somewhere to base himself, but quickly realised that most serviced offices are designed to separate people – which doesn’t exactly lend itself to rebuilding complex networks lost in an overseas relocation.
‘There was nothing that would actually replace the natural networking that takes place around commerce, so I decided to create it myself.’
In early 2012, O’Byrne shut down his agency to create what he considers his ideal working space. Having also studied Fine Art at university, O’Byrne brought not only his PR and marketing expertise to the task, but an eye for design – something that’s clear when you step into the space that now occupies multiple levels in an office building in the heart of Singapore’s CBD.
Jonathan O'Byrne of Collective Works. (Photo: Sara Lewis)
A creative layout with a complex IT infrastructure enables a number of work modes, encouraging collaboration between members but also providing privacy for those who need it, thanks to clever usage of soundproof glass dividers on each level. As well as a regular stream of hot-desk users, the sleek-looking space has attracted a wide range of businesses from digital media, accounting and corporate services businesses to architectural textiles specialists, interior designers and IT startups.
‘I’m humbled every day by what [the businesses at Collective Works] achieve and what they can do,’ says O’Byrne, who until recently enjoyed the company of the hugely successful restaurant reservation service Chope at Collective Works.
‘They planned to stay for three months but stayed for eight – they have such a great energy and are such a lively company,’ says O’Byrne about Chope, which left Collective Works after raising $3.2 million in funding, breaking Stage B funding records in Singapore.
‘It’s great when your neighbours have done things like that!’
Such is the nature of Collective Works – a veritable ecosystem of extremely varied yet largely complementary businesses.
So what advice would O’Byrne give to someone wanting to launch a startup in Singapore?
‘Avoid the DIY mentality,’ he says.
‘The approach of assuming you have to do everything by yourself is the best way to kill a business. It can come from thinking “I have to create it myself for it to really be mine” – and that’s not true. It can come from the need to prove yourself, or it can just come from not being aware of how many amazing businesses or support structures are out there for you,’ he says.
‘My best advice would be: don’t do it alone.’
WHAT: Large-scale, multi-level coworking space in the CBD
WHERE: 100 Cecil Street, #10-01/02, The Globe