ON THE ROAD AND NEED SOME ROOM TO WORK? THE SOLUTION COULD SOON BE IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND.
A FEW YEARS AGO
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.