Thinking of building your own coworking space? Here’s the story of how we built Burleigh Space coworking office, warts and all.
“Coworking” is a new word (for the Gold Coast)
We can’t count the number of awkward blank stares we received from friends, family, landlords and strangers when we told them we decided to launch our own coworking space.
It’s easy for the seasoned coworker to forget that “coworking” is somewhat of a new and fascinating concept to the general population.
“Great idea!” and “I can’t believe you thought of that” are common responses to a concept that has been around since at least the early 2000s.
Oddly in 2017, with practically all of Australian enterprise leveraging remote workers in some capacity – not to mention over 2 million self employed – the banding together of diverse workers under one roof still seems like an original idea.
In fact, there are dozens of coworking spaces across Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and a handful on the Gold Coast.
Why build a coworking space?
For consultants, small business owners, freelancers and entrepreneurs, the idea of sharing workspace makes a lot of sense.
After all, you get all the trimmings of a professional office without the huge financial investment required to find, lease, fitout and maintain your own.
The “no commitment” month-to-month arrangement common to most coworking spaces provides a level of flexibility that suits small businesses and individuals.
For those of us who also want to avoid working at home in our pyjamas all year, there is the opportunity to talk face-to-face with humans too.
Joining a coworking space is a great way for businesses in diverse industries to learn, share and collaborate with their peers and even gain insights (if not customers!) in industries never before contemplated.
As owners, we get all the benefits mentioned above, plus the opportunity to be a part of the wave of disruptive innovation flowing through the world of business. We get to build the kind of place where we want to work, and let others join us in the journey – how cool is that?!
But, committing to building our own coworking space was just the first step. The big question was, where should we setup shop?
Selecting a location
One thing we knew right from the start was that we were not fans of Gold Coast’s self-proclaimed Silicon Valley, Varsity Lakes.
Having all spent over a year working in Varsity Lakes, we knew that even getting to Varsity was a bit of a mission (especially from anywhere to the east); the parking situation was terrible (and getting worse), and the suburb seemed to be in a gradual state of decline.
Struggling cafe owners were lasting sometimes no more than a few months on the deserted main street before closing their doors – some of our favourite eateries included (looking at you Los Hombres 🙁 ).
For a suburb punctuated by a large and prestigious university, there was a distinct lack of atmosphere / activity / culture around the place.
After considering a number of commercial premises around the Miami – Nobby Beach – Burleigh Waters areas, including some that were stupid cheap, we discovered a dilemma; even if we could get a good deal and fix up these tired old premises into dream workspaces, we didn’t want to work in any of these locations, so why would anyone else?
We decided to re-evaluate our criteria. We asked people “why did you move to the Gold Coast?”. The unanimous answer was simple – “lifestyle”.
As small business owners who can setup anywhere with an internet connection, we have the luxury of working anywhere we want – and given the option, the obvious choice is next to the beach!
Enter Burleigh Heads
By mid September 2016 we came across an interesting prospective location; 100 sqm on Connor Street, Burleigh Heads.
Burleigh stood out from the pack as the evergreen eclectic hub of the southern GC, with a bohemian atmosphere that seemed compatible with the transient nature of many coworkers.
With James Street around the corner offering a huge selection of foodie options (Steve claims to have already eaten all 8 of the bacon and egg rolls on offer in Burleigh), and one of the best beaches in the world viewable from the large easterly windows for the inner surfer/beachbum in every Gold Coaster… this was our location!
Whilst the existing fitout in the old legal office was far from desirable, the timeline was good, the numbers seemed to add up, and we decided to pull the trigger!
Next, we braced ourselves for the unenviable task of transforming a totally retro (in a non-cool way) solicitors’ office into an open plan workspace promoting innovation and collaboration.
From legal office to open plan workspace
We got the keys in the last week of October 2016 with an expectation of completing refurbishment and fitout within 4 weeks and a planned launch date in early December.
Just 3 days later we encountered the first of many delays and setbacks.
A closer examination of the condition of the existing fit-out led to changes in our floor plans, followed by delays in approval from the owner, and a dispute with the owner’s builder over an agreement to remove internal walls and floor coverings.
On top of that, it became apparent that close to 100% of the existing fitout was problematic if not downright absurd:
- The concrete slab had a large number of large cracks, protruding nails and chips which required patching prior to sealing
- For reasons unknown, a false wall had been installed which was simply too unstable to leave in place
- Some extremely odd power requirements for the previous tenant resulted in huge clusters of power outlets in some areas and none in others
- Network cabling and an impressive antique serial cabling system from a bygone era ran rings around the walls and ceiling, often stripping paint upon removal
Over the course of November, we collectively reached boiling point on a number of occasions as our planned launched date was pushed back past Christmas, largely due to unforeseen work delays beyond our control.
The small matter of the fitout
We had no shortage of great ideas from our research on the best coworking spaces around the world, plus plenty of suggestions and inspiration from other sources on how to fitout our space.
What we found was that by the time we had patched and polished the concrete floors, built a meeting room, re-sheeted the storage room, installed floating timber flooring in the kitchen, and transported mountains of 1980s decor to landfill, we had blown our entire stage 1 funding and were still nowhere near a finished product.
It was around this time where we made one of several mistakes; rather than reassess our position and commit funding to “get it done”, we adopted a tit-for-tat approach to purchasing.
The upside was it gave the illusion that we were not burning through all our cash, the downside was that it was just that – an illusion – and the delayed realisation of how much this was going to cost did us no favours.
The other problem with tit-for-tat purchasing was that we overlooked an opportunity to go with a single supplier and bulk purchase almost everything we needed, which would likely have resulted in a better overall deal.
While we chipped away toward a launch date, the bills started to roll in. We had spent upward of $1,300 on a kick ass commercial grade internet connection that sat idle for a couple of months before getting its first use.
We spent hundreds more than expected on painting, dividers, patching; virtually everything we did cost more than budgeted and our contingencies were inadequate.
Our bank account suffered a death by a thousand cuts during the fitout stage.
The doors are open! …Now what?
In the closing days of 2016, we finally managed to move ourselves into Burleigh Space and get things up to scratch for our first members who were expected in the first week of January.
Thankfully our early adopters were very patient with us and didn’t give us a hard time about the little bits of work we were still squeezing in before breakfast, during lunch breaks and into the late evenings.
Collectively, we were spent. When we should have been creating a lot of noise and working hard on marketing and brand awareness, instead our attentions reverted back to our existing businesses that we had placed on life support over the past 3 months.
To top things off, we had a series of unforeseen issues:
- Our air conditioning system blew up in the peak of summer
- The hot water system burnt out
- The weathered windows were leaking when it rained
- We encountered bill shock when our first electricity bill arrived (running AC is expensive!)
Despite all this, we did have some prospective members and our discussions yielded some fruits; we had 4 paid up members in the first 2 weeks; plus we had what we thought was a promising list of enquiries and drop-in visitors who pledged their intention to join in the near future.
What we quickly discovered was that the majority of those prospects who for reasons of travel or other paid-up office space had to delay joining us, instead disappeared into to the ether.
It became painfully apparent that we needed to pickup our game on lead development, visitor follow ups, digital marketing and onboarding processes; in short, we had to become a real business, fast.
The road ahead
Developing a community, hosting events and crafting a shared workspace culture are all things we have no experience with. We are still in the early stage of this process learning about our members’ interests and finding ways to add value to their memberships.
There are a few bits and pieces to finish off, such as artwork and pieces to complete the look, a keyless entry system and some additional furnishings.
Finally, we need to cement ourselves in the local coworking scene, building a strong brand in the Gold Coast and continuing the work of raising awareness for the coworking concept.
What we learned
- Try to avoid “feature creep” on your original plans
- Don’t rely on 3rd parties to care about your timelines
- Try and come up with a really accurate total cost for the project, and then add 20% for contingencies.
- Fully fund the project before you start incurring expenses
- Don’t forget to budget for rent and outgoings during the construction phase, including scenarios where the timeline blows out
- Splitting time between businesses is not only hard, it is risky too
- There is reward for effort, but the reward part tends to typically take months to come to fruition
- Effort has to be consistent and constant