Interview: Yvonne Woodley

Yvonne Woodley, manager, The Seed Works Coworking Space, Hamilton, Ont
Yvonne Woodley, manager, The Seed Works Coworking Space, Hamilton, Ont
How would you define specifically a coworking workplace relative to traditional shared office workspaces or incubators and accelerators?

I would say it is similar to a shared work space as the facility is managed but the responsibility of running the place is taken care of by one person or a small staff. This frees the members from having to deal with daily machinations, such as issues with the telephone, the Wi-Fi or something that isn’t functioning properly. That wouldn’t happen in the old share model where someone in the admin function of the member companies would have to deal with problems as they arise.

Incubators and accelerators are different again in that their raison d’etre is to develop, promote, coach even mentor start-ups. While coworking spaces can offer networking, helpful workshops and lunch and learns, these are largely helpful add-ons rather than the main purpose of the coworking space.

Is the concept of membership rather than a lease arrangement key to the coworking concept?

Yes, but it depends on the facility. This place, for example, doesn’t offer a reception and relies on a self-service mail system, although there are lots of opportunities to have lunch together or have a conversation. For some people who have come through on inspection tours, the fact we do not have a reception is an issue; but, others love the fact. The space is there to use when it suits them and the rest of the time they are not answerable to anybody.

What are the important services that you provide in The Seed Works?

One thing they have is 24/7 access to a managed, secure facility. They have their own dedicated desk with lockable file storage and an Ethernet port as well as Wi-Fi. They have access to a shared printer with their own member code.

They are not locked into a fixed term as you are with a lease. Definitely, culturally there is more of that feel of sharing, of being part at The Seed Works of something bigger. We have social events and workshops. Also, we have an agreement with a coworking kitchen, the Kitchen Collective. Different members of the Collective provide prearranged lunches with voluntary participation. We get really good turnouts from our coworkers and from other parts of the building that do have leased spaces.

It is entirely managed which is the big difference with the old model of a shared office. You are paying for managed services that you can dip into and out of.

Seedworks. Photo: Revelateur Studio
Seedworks. Photo: Revelateur Studio
I was interested in the fact you that members have dedicated desk rather than first come/first served spots. Do you find that dedicated desk is now more the norm in other coworking spaces?

There all different approaches depending on who they are trying to appeal to and what works for that demographic and for the size and type of building they are trying to fit their coworking space into. Most coworking spaces are bigger than ours; we have only a total of forty spaces. It would not work to partition off our floor as it would take away from the space. This is an old carriage factory that then became a seed workshop. It is an 1850s building but now has a very modern interior with lots of light and exposed brick and timbers. We couldn’t then enclose it in and make it into private office. Some of
the coworking spaces have what they call hot desking where where they have one area where they have just hot desks, tiny little spaces, often just space on a counter.

We do have a $25 day rate when there is a vacancy [where someone may use] the kitchen or counter areas where there are Ethernet ports. But we have not yet got beyond the point of capacity where we have to make room regularly. Some day-users want to be out of the main space, preferring a counter space because they face the street; they want to make a series of phone calls and they want to look at the outdoors and feel separate.

In Hamilton it is probably a little different than in other cities because we are smaller and the concept has been slower to catch on here. Downtown we have just three main coworking centres and they are all very different. In ours, we have anchor members– architects – and they have probably 15 desks and then we have a building restoration company with about six desks.

When you talk about designated desks, physically are we speaking about separate desks and not a long table?

Yes, they are actual desks with a rolling pedestal underneath with a glass partition defining where it ends, shelving above and drawers.

Are non-day workers members of the coworking space and what length of membership do they sign?

Yes, they are members and they pay a first and last month. Essentially they must give a month’s notice only. It is this flexibility that has driven them here; they have not wanted to sign a lease. An example is a fellow who spends the majority of his time in Bali and comes back for three months to sell his products purchased there on his on-line store. If you have a seasonal based operation it is ideal.

We are the most expensive; we charge the most. But we would argue that we are the most professional. It’s reasonably quiet in here; the meeting rooms are very stylish and cutting edge design including a comfortable, ten-person boardroom. You can present yourself in a very professional way. Not that the other spaces are not professional, but I think they are going for a different demographic. They want to fill up the space with start-ups with youthful businesses which suits them well because they have smaller spaces and they have more packed open spaces which tends to get noisy. There is a little partying going on and if you are an older seasoned professional you might find it hard to get your work done in some of these places.

We have a flex pass that allows you to get five days for the price of four ($100 rather than $125). We offer a culture and atmosphere of like-mindedness that appeals to many of our more casual members. We all tend to be into music so there is a shared sound system and yes we do have sound wars!

Seedworks. Photo: Revelateur Studio
Seedworks. Photo: Revelateur Studio
Who are your main users?

We are in the core but away from [busy] James Street, so we are kind of ideally positioned for say someone who has been running a business from home for years but are now ready to grow but need that interim step without a big lease and expensive office equipment. We are for a business that is maybe in year three or four that is just starting to turn a profit and needs to get away from the dining room table piled high with files as well needs to have a space in which to meet clients.

We have a few digital-based workers, non-profits, training manual writers and video production developers. Many like to be able to come at any time in the day or night and have conference calls with others from around the world. It is a good space for people who want to or need to work at night giving them full band width such as the video producer. We have a lot of small building related companies where they simply are not in the office a lot. Most are owner/operator or 1-2 employees.

Where do the day workers tend to come from?

Some check us out on the web, some come from Tourism Hamilton because we ensure our pamphlets are supplied at their office, some are referred from the City of Hamilton small business centre and some originate through word of mouth.

We have one or two who come regularly but they don’t need a full membership as they are only in town for two or three days a month.

Do you see a role for Apps like LiquidSpace?

Yes, definitely; it remains to be seen which Apps, however, are likely to succeed.

I get approached regularly by management systems people trying to sell their facility management services; but, we are not big enough to use this kind of service such as coworking networking organizations from another country that is trying to drum up interest in their blog. But an AirB&B-type App is probably the one we will need to sign up to. So far, social media and our web site have been bringing in enough, but I am sure there will come a day when everything will be done through an App.

Seedworks. Photo: Revelateur Studio
Seedworks. Photo: Revelateur Studio
One of the things the HOK study suggested is that one of the largest markets for coworking spaces is corporations looking for supplemental space for a short term contract workers, etc.. Have you seen this?

I am just beginning to see this actually. Last week I had a ridiculous number of people Tour our facility. A number of these worked for larger global organizations and they are were looking for spots for contract workers for three to six months or just maybe for a trial. Each of them told me that I will need to fill in a questionnaire and go through their legal and accounts departments. So, they are rather hanging in the air, moving slowly but if they accept our model there is no reason why it cannot work.

If you were to identify the three or four most key aspects of a good coworking space, what would they be?

It is amazing to me when I do tours for our coworking space with possible clients just how different the requirements are. What are the key draws? There is a huge range. It depends on the individual, not only the individual person but the individual company or type of industry they are in. For example, for some of them it is the meeting rooms if they are going to conduct interviews. They want a quiet space with a door. Some must absolutely have a private office and we are just in the process of finishing off two such offices for this very reason. One recent member absolutely had to have parking.

One new member bikes in from a neighbouring town so he absolutely needs shower facilities. And we do have a bank of showers on the main floor.This is also useful as we have a bank of shared bikes – the [bike sharing firm is actually in our building – and some members want to go for a ride at lunch or for a jog. We have a bank of lockers where you can keep a change of clothes.

Corporate vs collaborative relationships – have you thought about working collaboratively with the other Hamilton based coworking spaces?

We started that ball rolling last year. There is what is called The International Day of Coworking although we heard about it a bit late to organize anything. I got together with the other two managers of the two main coworking spaces, however, and we put together our own Hamilton coworking day; and, it went swimmingly well. We had free day memberships, breakfast, yoga, lunch/learn and tours of all three. It was hugely successful and it was on that day that we did talk about maybe having a voucher system that would let you try out a day in another space. But it has not been formalized yet.

Most of the large corporate coworking companies have given Hamilton a miss, which is lucky for us. So we are really only in competition with coffee shops, libraries, hotels, etc. I do feel sorry for coffee shops that have people come in and sit at their tables for hours with a single coffee. But collaboration [with the other spaces] may only be a question of time.

Is there room to grow or will it remain a limited niche market? Hamilton is on the cusp of rapid expansion with many people moving to Hamilton from Toronto. What is your growth potential over the next few years?

The problem with the move is that more Torontonians are coming for the cheap residential real estate thus driving the cost up; but, they are not working here but rather travel to Toronto during the day for work. But there are a lot more companies moving here or Torontonians freelancing who are coming here. So yes, I think that trend will continue. They have just finished the new Go-train terminal but don’t yet have trains running all day, only in the mornings and evenings.

I have noticed that the downtown is getting more and more packed. There are more and more food and restaurant operations everyday opening in the downtown. This is one of a number of signs that growth is going to continue. Things like how walkable the downtown is will help.There is something to be said for smaller cities. We are using social media to sing the praises of these types of urban amenities to attract people both to the city and to our space.

If the global trend is that coworking space is peaking, we may be bucking the trend. Here, we are a bit behind the curve, maybe because we are so small and we have not had the large international firms jumping in which has worked to our advantage as a small coworking space. The difficulty is keeping it filled because by its nature it’s flexible. At times it is packed and it looks wonderful and then suddenly you lose one or two members. Then you get to the situation where you have 8 or 9 desks free again and it is one of those things where your costs are fixed but your incomings have altered significantly. What is going to happen to the model and what is going to continue serving members business needs is something we do not know, although your question about the App got me thinking.

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