The Australian - The Deal - - Executive Travel - BY DAVID CAR­ROLL


en­tre­pre­neur Mark Gil­breath had a vi­sion to build an in­no­va­tive, low-im­pact of­fice build­ing that would en­tice pro­fes­sion­als with a port­fo­lio of clever work­ing spa­ces and flex­i­ble pay­ment mod­els. The re­sult, Ven­gaWorks Ven­ture Cen­tre, opened in Boise, Idaho in 2008, just as the US plunged into re­ces­sion.

The project was not quite the suc­cess he en­vis­aged. “The fatal flaw was that in the end it was just an­other busi­ness build­ing with a mort­gage, fight­ing for ten­ants. I re­alised that we didn’t need more el­e­gant build­ings. We needed a mech­a­nism to help peo­ple find the great spa­ces that are al­ready sit­ting there.”

Liq­uidS­pace, his lat­est ven­ture, does pre­cisely that. The web­site and mo­bile ap­pli­ca­tion lets users – in­clud­ing busi­ness trav­ellers – search quickly by date, lo­ca­tion, size and ameni­ties a data­base of more than 1300 workspaces and meet­ing venues in 198 US cities. Book­ings can be for be­tween one hour and one day.

Co-work­ing cen­tres, pri­vate spa­ces within cor­po­ra­tions and ho­tel meet­ing rooms dom­i­nate, but the in­ven­tory has a long tail that stretches all the way to a home owner in Santa Mon­ica of­fer­ing to share his workspace for $US8 an hour. A re­cent sur­prise was a com­mer­cial of­fice-fur­ni­ture com­pany in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia that listed its show­room spa­ces. It has now de­vel­oped a loyal fol­low­ing of at­tor­neys, who use the space for de­po­si­tions.

“We are also unique in that our plat­form can sup­port the pri­vate shar­ing of space. Com­pa­nies such as Mi­crosoft and Sil­i­con Val­ley Bank are now us­ing Liq­uidS­pace to share workspace among their part­ner and in­ter­nal em­ployee com­mu­ni­ties.”

There is no cost for a venue to list its workspace or meet­ing space. Sup­pli­ers name their own price and Liq­uidS­pace sim­ply col­lects a com­mis­sion on each paid rental (50 per cent on the first time an in­di­vid­ual books a space, 25 per cent the next and 10 per cent there­after). If a sup­plier – a cafe or li­brary – charges noth­ing for its space, there’s no com­mis­sion.

Liq­uidS­pace has so far at­tracted about $US5 mil­lion in fund­ing and since its launch in May 2011 the com­pany has fa­cil­i­tated more than 90,000 book­ings, which Gil­breath de­scribes as “not even the tip of the ice­berg”.

“Re­search firm In­ter­na­tional Data Cor­po­ra­tion es­ti­mates there are a bil­lion mo­bile work­ers glob­ally and that the community will grow to 1.3 bil­lion by 2015, so we are just in the early chap­ters. There is no ques­tion we’ll see the same level of pen­e­tra­tion as Face­book. Ev­ery­one will fol­low an app to find a space for them to work.”

Among them, Gil­breath says, will be busi­ness trav­ellers. “A busi­ness per­son trav­el­ling from Sydney to San Fran­cisco might have a se­ries of client meet­ings, but for an­other 20 to 30 hours dur­ing their trip they will need to get work done. If that in­cludes, say, mak­ing a Skype call or meet­ing a tar­get em­ployee, they could use WiFi and an iPhone and try to speak in Star­bucks or do the in­ter­view in their ho­tel lobby, but it’s go­ing to be a bit in­hibit­ing. What we’re un­lock­ing is the great space that’s all around.”

Liq­uidS­pace is also help­ing large cor­po­ra­tions meet the needs of their in­creas­ingly mo­bilised work­forces and at the same time re­duce their fixed real es­tate foot­print. “The sin­gle big­gest driver be­hind the growth of Liq­uidS­pace is the fact that peo­ple are leav­ing work to get work done. With mo­bile com­put­ing, smart­phones and ubiq­ui­tous in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity, the def­i­ni­tion of the work­place has shifted. In­di­vid­u­als are in­creas­ingly dic­tat­ing the where, when and how of their work­place. That’s a rad­i­cal de­par­ture from what we used to have, with the em­ployer alone dic­tat­ing where you worked and car­ry­ing the eco­nomic burden of that real es­tate.”

With com­mer­cial build­ings ac­count­ing for a sig­nif­i­cant share of the planet’s car­bon foot­print, Gil­breath is pas­sion­ate about the ben­e­fits of util­is­ing un­used space. “This is one of the best levers we can pull on to af­fect one of the big­gest threats we have to our planet. At the same time, there is a com­pelling eco­nomic case be­cause to­day the typ­i­cal as­signed desk or cube within a cor­po­rate of­fice en­vi­ron­ment is used only 30 per cent of the work­ing day. Can you imag­ine an air­line or ho­tel or fac­tory sur­viv­ing with that level of util­i­sa­tion?”

Liq­uidS­pace is in­tro­duc­ing new fea­tures, in­clud­ing giv­ing users the abil­ity to view venues rented by peo­ple within their so­cial net­works. The San Fran­cisco-based com­pany is also in­te­grat­ing its ser­vice into the lat­est ver­sion of Mi­crosoft Out­look.

One task it is yet to fo­cus on is ex­pan­sion be­yond the US. Venues any­where in the world can cre­ate ba­sic list­ings for their workspaces (13 have been posted for Aus­tralia and more than 200 in Europe), but Liq­uidS­pace can­not yet process book­ings. Gil­breath ex­pects that to change in 2013. Un­til then, it’ll be Star­bucks and ho­tel lob­bies.

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