Collective achievement

CREATIVE AND CASUAL: CREATIVE AND CASUAL: Members of the Bridge St Collective hard at work – Lynley Lee (consultant at Peritia Consulting Limited and Effectus Limited), left, Edwin McRae (The Fiction Engine), Petra Scheuber (Lucid Design) and Galen King (Collective founder, Lucid Design, Kiwipay). Alden Williams / Fairfax NZ

Alden Williams / Fairfax NZ

Nelson co-working space the Bridge Street Collective has developed a strong community in its two years of operation, and now hosts about a dozen Nelson businesses. But it has yet to break even, and some similar operations in other parts of the country have closed. Adam Roberts takes a look.

Look around, and you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a normal, modern, albeit aggressively minimalist office.

Light streams through the skylights, the concrete walls feature designer-friendly posters, and people sit or stand at their unvarnished wooden desks, tapping away on a variety of shiny aluminium computers, mostly created by the famous company that took its name from a type of fruit.

Quiet, mostly inoffensive indie music plays in the background, and when the automatic doors open, the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts through the room.

But the Bridge Street Collective is slightly different to a normal office. The co-working studio could be thought of as being many offices all at once.

According to the small pile of business cards I picked up during a day spent at the collective a fortnight ago, the two-storey space is home to the following businesses: Lucid Design, Kiwipay, The Fiction Engine, The Box Brownie, Airsquare, Cube Architecture, Pagemap, Canopy, GrabOne, Mondo Travel, Effectus, and Peritia Consulting. As their names suggest, they span a variety of fields, from architecture to travel.

Some have offices upstairs and are staffed every day. Others rent desks on a week-to-week basis, or come in once in a while for a day.

A cafe caters to the collective's residents and others, as well as those wanting to spend a few hours using the free wi-fi to get their own work done.

During my day at the collective, I found happy, friendly residents, who were keen to discuss how the space had changed their working lives.

Let's keep it simple by looking at the two who were sitting next to me.

On my right: Edwin McRae, a former television writer who made the move to writing for video games under the name The Fiction Engine.

McRae produces everything from the overall story of a game to dialogue for the characters, to descriptions and histories of items.

His current project is Path of Exile, a multiplayer action role-playing game set in a dark fantasy world, produced by Auckland-based developer Grinding Gear Games.

The game features seven playable character classes and hundreds of items, so McRae has his hands full coming up with backstories, lore, and appropriately dramatic names and titles. When he pulled up the latest version of the game's script on his computer, it ran to about 200 pages.

The game was officially released on Thursday, but his work is not over: expansion packs are to be released every six months, and he has to come up with the content. He is also working on other, educational games.

McRae moved to Nelson from Auckland for the lifestyle, bringing his three daughters, and moved into the collective because he found working from home quite isolating.

The collective has also led to "cross-pollination", he says. He has collaborated with Pagemap, and has picked up storytelling techniques from watching how Lucid Design approaches programming and website development.

He recommends the collective to anyone who is being driven "insane" working from home.

On my left: Lynley Lee, an experienced IT consultant who worksd under Peritia Consulting and Effectus Limited.

She recently moved back to Nelson after nine years at government-owned food safety and biosecurity company AsureQuality, formerly AgriQuality, where she reached the rank of chief information officer.

Now she contracts out to organisations that are not quite big enough to have their own CIO, doing risk management, IT strategic planning and other services.

She moved into the collective in September, and says it was the atmosphere that attracted her.

"It's casual, but it's business-like. It's easy to come into; people are really friendly."

This atmosphere was not created overnight, and developed organically, founder Galen King says.

Mr King - who runs two businesses from the collective, Lucid Design and Kiwipay - took over the 300-square-metre commercial space in Bridge St in November 2010, and spent about a year renovating and earthquake-strengthening the building before opening in September 2011.

He says the collective is the culmination of a long-held dream.

Mr King started Lucid Design as a 20-year-old, and initially felt like "an only child", with no team around him.

He had always dreamed of having a space that was shared with other people, and building a "working family" to stimulate and inspire each other.

With the movement in its infancy in New Zealand at the time, Mr King says he did not really know what he was achieving.

"I didn't realise it was a movement . . . I just did it because I thought it would be really great for us, and for Nelson."

The space has a small, core group of permanent members and a larger number of more temporary freelancers and companies.

Casual passes, where people pay for a week at a time, and "hot desking", where they pay for a day at a time, are alternatives that help to keep the collective busy.

"We've realised the busier it is, the better it is," Mr King says. "The more people you have, in some ways the noise just becomes noise and it's not distractions."

The only criteria for a business to join is that it fits into the collective's culture.

"If they are friendly, outgoing, enthusiastic, and will bring something to our wider community in the collective, then generally we're happy with that."

The only business that has been turned away was someone who wanted to "lock themselves in their office and do phone sales", he says. "That didn't feel like a good fit."

Most have come because they wanted to be part of the buzz.

"That's what we're working on. It's sort of chicken and egg - we've got to keep growing that culture to attract people."

While the collective is relatively new to Nelson, to look at the history of co-working you have to go back a bit further.

In the 1980s, with the arrival of technology like the personal computer, people began talking about how the advent of a "knowledge economy" would allow them to work from home, ushering in the age of the "electronic cottage". As the Industrial Revolution brought people from the fields to the factories, this new wave would take them back home.

In reality, it's been a little more complicated than that, with mobile technology encouraging people to work from wherever they like.

Think of the cliche of the struggling writer spending weeks in a Starbucks, drinking two lattes a day while leeching the free wi-fi, or of the middle manager remotely accessing his email while on holiday, to send a few messages away from the pressure of the office.

Of course, people can and do choose to work from home, often freelancers or those in charge of their own start-ups or small businesses.

While they have the advantage of being able to wear their pajamas to work, those who go down this path can suffer from feelings of isolation and loneliness, as well as a lack of networking opportunities.

Enter co-working. This can be defined in a number of ways, but in its broadest concept it means working alongside, and in some cases with, people who would normally be in a separate office or at home.

Unsurprisingly for a movement that is so appealing to entrepreneurs and start-ups, co-working is considered to have begun in San Francisco, when "geek hippie" Brad Neuberg created a space with five to eight desks at "home for well-being" Spiral Muse in 2005.

Under his version of co-working, days began with meditation and included communal lunches and short healthy activities like bicycle rides.

Since these contemplative beginnings, the concept has developed and spread worldwide.

According to Desk Mag, a co-working magazine, in March this year there were 2500 co-working spaces worldwide, catering to 110,000 people. Most are in the United States, but Germany and Spain also have significant numbers.

In New Zealand, co-working has been around for about four years., an online directory of shared office spaces, has hundreds of spaces listed, mostly in Auckland but also in other cities like Wellington, Hamilton and Christchurch, and smaller centres like Tauranga.

Social enterprise organisation Enspiral has a space in Wellington, and Auckland space Generator hosts the likes of Eftpos, Lion and Expedia.

But one of the first to open was BizDojo, co-founded by Nick Shewring and Jonah Merchant in 2009, with spaces in Auckland and Wellington.

Mr Shewring says the co-working sector moves fast, with time measured in "dog years".

He is passionate about co-working - during a 40-minute phone conversation, he apologises many times for ranting. He is particularly passionate about a "holistic" approach to co-working, and uses that word a lot.

BizDojo was built off his and Mr Merchant's experience leading Air New Zealand's innovation team on a project to reinvent long-haul travel, working out how to set up the airline's 787 Dreamliner fleet.

They led a multidisciplinary team, from psychologists to marketing experts to engineers, and once the project was over they decided they wanted to create their own space to connect with such a broad range of people.

Mr Shewring believes co-working goes beyond lumping people together in one place, and he advocates taking a - yes - holistic approach to structuring the working environment.

"It's about, how do I generate a balanced community that adds value beyond the walls of the space?"

Within three months, BizDojo outgrew its original location, with 15 members. Now it has more than 80 companies using its spaces in Auckland and Wellington.

The community has an active social network of about 300,000 people nationwide, he says.

Most shared space users are early adopters, the type of people author Malcolm Gladwell describes as brand mavens - people who are quick to pick up on societal trends before they hit the mainstream.

Co-working spaces are among the most complex, difficult and yet rewarding businesses in existence, Mr Shewring says.

While normal businesses involve a single transaction, co-working spaces involve ongoing, complex relationships that need to be managed, he says. Community managers need to arrange useful conversations between members, make sure there is a mix of disciplines, and connect members.

Spaces geared towards one type of person have a lower success rate than those with a mixture of disciplines and personality types, he says.

Mr King, who recently visited BizDojo and Enspiral, says the trip made him appreciate the enviable position his space is in: halfway between a large, corporate space and some of the more "garage" spaces that exist overseas.

But the Bridge Street Collective has been around for only two years, and has yet to break even.

When asked about his vision for the future of the space, Mr King immediately cites financial self-sufficiency as the primary goal.

"It's not first or foremost a profit-making venture at all, but I want it to be sustainable. I want the rents to be affordable."

Overheads are expensive, he says, so the key is to work out the right mix of residents.

This year The Kitchen, an Auckland co-working space for social entrepreneurs, closed after user numbers fell.

This was only months after the New Zealand Centre for Social Innovation, established in 2009, closed after its corporate partners pulled out, citing a lack of measurable results.

Mr King says the Bridge Street Collective has not broken even since it opened, and is "not quite" sustainable at the moment. But it is going in the right direction, and another six months along its current trajectory will get it to the break-even level.

"It's scary to see others closing down, but it also gives us more strength to persevere and to feel OK about charging properly, because otherwise we won't survive."

There is a fine balance between charging members fairly and not charging too much, he says.

"That's probably the thing I lose sleep over the most: are we offering real value for money?"

While the collective's membership fees were initially priced around a full occupancy rate, over time it became clear that this would not be the norm.

It is now assumed that a certain percentage of desks will be empty at any one time, due to the short-term nature of the membership.

Mr Shewring says there is nothing wrong with a space not being financially sustainable, as long as there are support mechanisms in the community.

BizDojo has been profitable from its first year, but is in a big city and is focused on constant expansion, he says.

"In the smaller regions, just due to the human density, it requires a more holistic approach by the local councils and authorities to work with those early adopters who actually support them."

But Nelson Regional Economic Development Agency chief executive Bill Findlater disagrees.

His agency has already supported the collective in a small way, sponsoring three desks, allowing businesses or individuals who could not afford the fee to use the space.

The collective provides a good service for those who use it, although not everyone wants a co-working space, he says.

Overall, the collective and co-working spaces in general need to stand on their own two feet, Mr Findlater says.

"Shared spaces, incubators - generally, they're a challenge to make them pay their way, but I'm not convinced that it's something [the Nelson City] council should be paying."

While the Bridge Street Collective is still in its infancy, co-working spaces work on a different time scale to other ventures.

If, as Mr King says, the collective is just six months away from becoming self-sufficient, I can think of at least a dozen businesses that are crossing their fingers and hoping this will be the case.