Going it alone, together
Lebanon’s co-working landscape is changing
Samar Ibrahim doesn’t like her current office. Since February, necessity has forced her into a small space in the bowels of ABC Mall, Ashrafieh. She suggests meeting for an interview instead at Urbanista on the top floor. It’s fitting that she’s chosen a coffee shop as a setting – she sounds like her own ideal client. Ibrahim manages the temporarily closed Coworking +961, a shared workspace. An 11-year-old concept with activism in its genesis mythology, co-working is gaining popularity from Los Angeles to Singapore and even boasts its own unicorn in WeWork (valuation as of writing: $16 billion).
In 1989, Mark Dixon observed demand. The official Regus story has it that Dixon saw so many people in Brussels working from coffee shops and hotels, he opened a serviced office business. The idea was simple: the professionally homeless (be they travellers in town for a few days, the self-employed or a small business who cannot afford a long-term lease) need a professional place to work. A private desk (or desks, depending on the size of the venture), shared office equipment, meeting rooms for rent, flexibility and reduced overhead costs were the main value propositions. And it worked. Regus went public in 2000 and reported 1.9 billion GBP ($2.77 billion) in group revenues for 2015. In 2005, Brad Neuberg was working for a startup company out of a Regus location and thought of a way to change the model: socializing. He called it “community” in a 2012 interview with Deskmag, a publication that dedicates most of its coverage to Neuberg’s increasingly successful concept. He was pitching work meets activism in a casual setting with a startup mentality, not a business center with beanbags and an open bar. When a reporter with the left-leaning US magazine TheAmericanProspect covered co-working in 2007, there were but 12 or so co-working spaces globally (all in the US, compared to the estimated thousands around the world today). The author described a social movement, not a business model. Taking a dig at ‘fly-by-night commercial coworking spaces,’ the author questioned how long the “communities” being created would remain authentic, warning that “relentless commerce is the solvent that loosens the ties that bind us.”
The “community” aspect of coworking is still an integral part of the concept. A “Coworking Manifesto” – which explains that the people who use these spaces “envision a new economic engine composed of collaboration and community, in contrast to the silos and secrecy of the 19th/20th century economy” – continues to garner signatures, but disdain for the coworking space as a profit center seems to be on the wane. There’s no shortage of advice online about how to make a co-working space commercially viable. Karly Nimmo, founder of a failed space in Australia, offers concise guidance on the importance of marketing: “Build it and they will come is bullshit,” she writes on Deskmag.com. Lying just below the surface of Nimmo’s advice is again the notion of creating the right sort of “community” for the space one is operating.
As for interior design, co-working spaces tend to be open plan. The “community” is all about mingling, sharing ideas, networking and, for some, generating new business. Many spaces bill