Finding a Sydney co-working space for your Aussie startup
Some of the best ways to stay motivated in a startup is to look for like-minded entrepreneurs. But why just have coffee with them when you can work alongside them? We take a look at some of the co-working spaces in Sydney that house some of the best Aussie startups.
Staying positive and motivated about your fledgling business can be tough if you're working in a vacuum, but networking events are hardly the conducive place to get work done. Or are they? More and more startups are seeing the benefit of having instant access to a network of their peers by sharing the same workplace — a practice called co-working — instead of waiting for their weekly or monthly meet-ups for that burst of inspiration.
Although some tech startups, such as Bugcrowd, purely serve the tech industry, that doesn't necessarily ring true for all startups. We've seen this in the case of PocketBook, which could equally be about personal finance; 99designs and DesignCrowd, which are all about the creative design space; and Solamor, which focuses on renewable energy. Likewise, co-working spaces have their own culture, whether they focus on creatives, students, mass marketing, social change, or business types.
This has led many co-working spaces to band together rather than see each other as competition. The more intimate boutique design and creative studios like Protein Studio or Homework may have more to offer a startup that doesn't want to get lost in a large array of desks, but a tech startup that has a target market of corporations with large suitcases of money may see Tank Stream Labs' proximity to the Sydney CBD as critical to its operations. Similarly, an entrepreneur who recognises that marketing is their weak point may opt to place themselves at Desk x Space, drawing on the experience of well-established marketing and advertising experts to complement their technical strengths. If a startup is less of a team and more of an individual who's fresh out of university with a bright idea, but no road map to get there, Vibewire's networks might be exactly the support they're looking for.
Whether you're an individual who just has an idea and wants to experiment, or a startup with a small team looking to get to the next level, we've done the research for you. We visited some of the most popular co-working spaces in Sydney, hitting the following eight along the way:
Spread over two floors in Darlinghurst, Desk x Space is a New York-inspired space that welcomes entrepreneurs, startups, and creatives alike. Showing us around the place, its director, Steven Arthur, said there's a real mix of tech-based businesses that call Desk x Space home.
Like all co-working spaces, people move on, but Arthur said that thankfully, it is because they tend to start off as fairly transient teams — then, as they grow to four-person teams or more, they outgrow the space and have enough momentum to stand on their own.
On the other end of the spectrum, Arthur said there are still one- to two-person operations that have been working from the space for over two years.
As a co-working space that isn't dedicated specifically to tech startups alone, Desk x Space also sees a number of businesses that are heavily involved in advertising and marketing. Arthur, who has a background in advertising and is a front-end designer by trade, highlighted that although most tech startups have the technical side down pat and already have the developer networks they need, where they sometimes struggle is getting their product in front of faces.
To tackle the myth that you can build it and the masses will come, Arthur said that Desk x Space is an ideal place for startups if they need to understand public relations, how to align themselves with the media, and how to put that polish on their users' experience. In addition to the businesses that are well versed in these areas, Desk x Space also holds regular events and workshops, such as those on how to establish a brand.
Arthur is part and package of the space, and likes to sit in with other tenants when he can find the time, to give advice if it is asked for or share his network. He also encourages businesses to be open about their ideas with each other.
"I quite like having businesses that are interested in sharing their ideas, rather than closing off and being protective of their intellectual property," he told us, saying that a closed attitude often slows down a project, while an open one allows concepts to be developed further.
Desk x Space has further support for entrepreneurs on the horizon. Arthur plans to pool talent from Desk x Space tenants into an advisory board of sorts, with each member having different experiences and expertise. Some examples he mentioned could include a VC partner, a legal representative, and a senior technical officer, with plans later down the road to help become equity partners in startups in the community.
If tech startups were made of iron, Fishburners would be a giant electromagnet. It's difficult to get your toes wet in the Sydney startup community without hearing from someone who has worked from, gone to a coffee meet, or listened to a speaker from Fishburners. And that's not without good reason. With two workspaces split between Ultimo and Darlinghurst, it houses over 100 Australian tech startups over 1,100 square metres of space.
It has previously housed startups like OrionVM and AirBnB, and is currently home to GradConnection, Tapestry, and PushStart.
Fishburners is a not-for-profit organisation that evolved from a former co-working space called Project Hollywood, but its current form didn't truly take shape until April 2011, when it took hold of the building on Harris Street. At first, it was a single floor, but as Fishburners gained momentum, it expanded to another floor and eventually to the "EngineRoom" in Darlinghurst.
Despite its not-for-profit status and being one of the least-expensive options in Sydney, its large membership base (of about 220 entrepreneurs) means that it has been able to attract some significant support. The NSW government previously provided AU$20,000 to help the space out, and Fishburners receives support from one of its sponsors, Optus, to run its event space in the lower floors of the building.
BigAir provides connectivity to the building, including wi-fi services to each member's computer, and Fishburners even has the beer for its weekly events covered, with Anchor providing two cases.
Members' own businesses also benefit from partnerships that Fishburners has with various organisations. Such partners include PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which has recently been increasingly dipping its toes into the tech development industry, with free business accounting advice; up to AU$2,000 in cloud storage from Ninefold; a free year of GitHub's silver code hosting plan; and AU$75 in credit for Google AdWords and Consumer Surveys each.
An important distinction that Fishburners Executive Director Peter Bradd made is that although Fishburners may have some big names under its roof, its focus is on the entrepreneurs behind them, not the businesses themselves. It doesn't invest in companies, so the success of the business isn't a significant consideration when approving membership. Instead, with the focus on the entrepreneurs, members can use the space to figure out and experiment with whether their ideas are feasible.
Although Bradd would undoubtedly cheer for the success of another Australian startup, he said that sometimes success at Fishburners could mean that an entrepreneur realises they need to go back to their day job first, or that they are forced to pivot their idea into another.
Suite 2, Level 2, 66 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, NSW
Nestled away on Oxford Street, Homework co-resides in the same building as Fishburners' EngineRoom, putting members within close proximity of other tech startups in Darlinghurst. Its unassuming space is one of the smallest that we visited, but by no means cramped.
About a quarter of the tenants fall within the tech-related space, running a startup that is either online or tech-product related. With the space being more intimate, so too are the teams — tenants tend to be individuals or small groups, sometimes with members being independent freelancers, who, while always on the go, need somewhere to call home for a day or two.
With the majority of tenants not being in the tech startup space, it offers those that are a unique insight into how others operate their businesses. Each month, Homework has a monthly event called Class, where a co-worker explains their line of work and the challenges they encounter. Given its intimacy, Homework founder Josh Capelin said that startups are less likely to feel isolated, as their fellow co-workers tend to be very community minded.
In fact, Capelin has no plans to create a focus on tech startups, or pigeon hole the space to any specific industry, instead seeing the space's diversity as one of its strengths.
"Right from day one, I've implemented an open-door policy. I do like to know what someone is working on so I can help or suggest others to help, and because I like the idea of being able to promote an awesome group of people in the one space (industrial designers, global movement campaigners, tech startups, carbon pricing, digital media, music managers, etc) to the outside world.
"The only criteria currently employed is that a person is normal in the sense they understand spatial awareness, noise levels, and appropriate exchanges of conversation, information, and value."
Like many of the co-working communities in Sydney, it, too, is playing well with its competitors. During our visit, it was even hosting Hub Sydney co-founder Ehon Chan, who flew up from Melbourne to help set up the Sydney co-working space.
Although small, Homework has gained the support of the City of Sydney, which helps to promote Homework and subsidise the lease for the space. Its current deal ensures that support for the space will be around for at least another two years, but Capelin has been entertaining the idea of possibly expanding the space out to Bondi.
"There are high numbers of freelancers and creatives who live in the area, and it combines two of my favourite things, being work and play. But some people like the idea of at least 'heading' to work in the direction of the city, so it would be an interesting experiment."
101 William Street, Sydney, NSW (opening April 2013)
Hub Sydney will be one of the many branches of the main Hub franchise originally founded in London. The Hub group has already set up hubs in 35 other countries, including one in Melbourne, and will be opening the Sydney space on William Street later this year.
The Sydney team is quite small at the moment, but the plans for the space are huge. It has held a number of design events in the past few months, allowing interested co-workers to provide input into what the "clubhouse" will look like when it is finished. It has hired Hassell as its design partner, which will help fit out its space of about 500 square metres.
When the clubhouse does open, it won't be alone. Desk Space is located just down the road, and there's space within the same building for another local council-supported co-working space. It is also working with Vibewire to later this month host an open co-working event in Hyde Park called "Cowork in the Park".
Like its other spaces in the world, Hub Sydney won't be purely tech focused. Hubs are typically geared toward use by anyone, whether they are in the tech space or not, and it expects its clientele to include people from startups, corporations, non-profit organisations, and government entities.
Since the culture and work environment vary significantly between one person and the next, Hub Sydney plans to have separate areas to support the activities that it expects its members will use the space for. This includes meeting rooms for discussing more serious matters with clients, open spaces for planning and creative activities, and quiet areas for those who need to "wire in" to what they're doing and simply get work done without outside distractions.
Members also benefit from it being one of the only co-working franchises in Australia. Startups that regularly travel between Melbourne and Sydney will be able to use Hub Melbourne's facilities while they are there at no additional cost. Its international hubs also mean that larger startups or companies that have an international presence have access to a consistent workplace and support network.
Hub Sydney has yet to finalise its pricing and access terms, but supplied the following indicative pricing at the time of writing:
Access to space and learning/social events
Individual co-working membership:
From a couple of days per month to a full-time desk
AU$105/month to AU$625/month
Team co-working membership:
Includes permanent table for up to five people to use
Protein Studio is not quite your typical co-working space. Just as it sits in a quiet corner of Surry Hills, among the fashion and fabrics trades and creatives, the co-working space runs alongside its main digital innovation and branding business, Protein.
Well aware of the Fishburners of the co-working world, studio manager Karen James said that Protein Studio isn't aiming to go up against it. Instead, she said that the space is more for boutique startups that want somewhere quieter, or for the on-the-go freelancer who wants a relaxed place to get their work done.
It provides startups with the ability to watch and learn from an already established company, with their own design and development teams, while focusing on building theirs to the same level.
In addition, James said that it helps smaller businesses by taking a lot more of the office administration tasks away, which at a startup phase are likely to be distractions from their goals.
There are typically no limits to what kind of business an entrepreneur is running to be eligible to become a member, other than the general prerequisites that it show it can pay the rent and isn't disruptive to other tenants. So far, it houses teams of about three to four entrepreneurs, each with their own areas within the studio.
The studio also runs a number of workshop sessions, such as how to get projects recognised on Kickstarter, and has regular semi-informal events for its tenants, to encourage open discussion.
Tank Stream Labs is a relatively new outfit in town, but is already attracting lots of attention from startups. If being close to the money is a startup's concern, it doesn't get any closer than this — Tank Stream Labs is located across the road from Sydney's Exchange Square, and, as such, it is one of the only co-working spaces that can truly bill itself as being in the heart of the city.
Although the buildings around Tank Stream Labs have traditionally been filled with a startup's worst nightmare — cubicle farms and accountants — the space has been radically transformed. Partitions have been knocked down, the carpet ripped up, the windows better used for natural light, and the entire floor converted into open-planned space.
Airtasker, an Australian startup itself, is one of the players behind the space, but the co-working space wasn't necessarily a commercial venture. Airtasker co-founder Tim Fung told us that at one point, he found that it was his business all alone in the corner of the floor, and that on occasion, when startups visiting Sydney needed space, they would often loan out some of the level, much like mates letting visiting friends crash on their couch. Together with Bridge Lane Capital, they took control of the entire level and began to put it to better use.
Along with Airtasker, it houses a number of other tech startups, though not on the same multi-level scale as Fishburners. Despite the smaller scale, it has still garnered the support of PwC and Anchor, which is great for helping businesses learn which assets are most liquid and obtaining cold liquid assets, respectively.
The current tenants at Tank Stream Labs tend to be slightly bigger teams of about four to six people, although smaller groups should fit in fine. Fung said that he wanted the space to be fun, but serious, and not simply a place to hang out. It shows, with the space kitted out with beanbags and table tennis courts, but during our visit, minds were hard at work. Given its location in the CBD, Tank Stream Labs has a fairly good balance of being relaxed, while also professional enough that tenants' clients can walk into a meeting room and not feel out of place.
Having only opened its doors just six weeks before Christmas, Tank Stream Labs is still in its infancy, but it has some significant plans on the horizon. Airtasker and Bridge Lane decided to hire a manager for the space, and placed Balder Tol at its helm. Tol is no stranger to startups, having been AirBnB's first employee, and instrumental in paving the way for its Australian presence.
Tol said that although his job would be to make Tank Stream Labs a success, it is also about giving back to the community. Having Bridge Lane on board means that more successful startups will be in a better position to seek equity funding when the time is right, or use Tank Stream Labs' networks to obtain advice on their funding options.
According to its executive director Omar Samad, Vibewire was one of the first co-working spaces to open in Australia. It was founded in 2000, with the co-working space opening in 2006 by then university student Tom Dawkins (now Start Some Good co-founder). Dawkins saw that there was a disconnect between university life and that of the working world, and wanted to create a stepping stone for young entrepreneurs.
In keeping with this theme, Vibewire has been more of a transitional co-working space for young entrepreneurs who are interested in creating social change. In particular, businesses residing at Vibewire have included the United Nations Youth Australia, Oxfam Australia, and Pozible.
Omar said that Vibewire isn't necessarily the final place that startups will settle in. Instead, he sees it as a place where individuals with ideas can figure out what they want to do before moving on to larger co-working spaces. That means there is a wealth of support for young entrepreneurs who need to build up contacts in their particular areas, or find a mentor to help kick start their journey.
It is also focusing on running workshops each week to help equip young entrepreneurs with skills such as communications, development, and marketing.
Vibewire hosts a number of events itself, including FastBreak, a series of five-minute breakfast talks from prominent speakers; the monthly Young Entrepreneurs Meetup; and co-working Jelly days, where those interested in co-working can give it a try for themselves first. Later this month, it will work with Hub Sydney to run a Cowork in the Park event. Hub Sydney co-founder Ehon Chan has also been one of Vibewire's FastBreak speakers, along with Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, whose council is supporting the space.
The City of Sydney helps subsidise the space, and often hosts larger events that spill out of the Harris Street building and into Surry Hills Library.
The Workbench may not be a tech-focused co-working space, accepting entrepreneurs from all industries, but it seems to have the pull of one. It's located directly across the road from Fishburners in Harris Street, meaning that morning coffee runs inevitably result in running into another tech startup founder at one point or another.
It has all the hallmarks that tech-startup offices have: New York-inspired internal architecture, the option for standing desks, a decked-out kitchen, and the requisite retro table video-game machine.
Residents include, or have included, startup growth organisation The New Agency; food blogger Irena Macri of Eat Drink Paleo fame; and the private car-hiring company Uber.
Uber is one of Workbench's largest tenants at the moment, but it represents a slight exception to its rules, as it has a limit to the number of full-time desks it will permit. For part-timers, it has an upper limit on teams of three to four at any one time; however, Workbench partner Simon Wright said that it has agreements in place with businesses, such as Alpha Shack, to provide Workbench accounts for their staff, so long as they don't turn up "en mass".
Part of the reason for the limit on teams is to ensure that those working in the space continue to interact with each other, rather than form cliques. It also indicates that if a startup is at the stage of needing more space than they could accommodate, the business is probably ready to take it to the next level.
That doesn't necessarily mean that Workbench is packed to the rafters. Wright said that startups that find themselves stuck at the last minute can simply drop in without a booking, and can almost always get a desk.
He said that most people come in once or twice a week, and that they tend to have a fairly strong flow of people through the place, such that people are always meeting someone new. In addition to using the space, many make use of their Workbench membership to attend the various events it holds, free of charge.
Past events have included Ruby on Rails hack nights and helping host Port80 Sydney meet-ups held by the Australian Web Industry Association. In addition, Workbench hosts its own brown bag talks and show-and-tell events to familiarise members of the rest of the community with who they are, what their business is about, and where they want to go.