Just off of Charlottenstraße and not far from Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin's Mitte stands a nondescript bar and cafe. From the outside, along a strip of storefronts that includes both a balloon store and the discount grocery Lidl, the cafe is easy to overlook. But once inside, if you go up a few stairs and peek behind some deep red velvet curtains, you'll find one of Berlin's most unique coworking spaces hidden away.
This unique place brought cofounders Pauline Roussel and Dimitar Inchev together to found Coworkies, a platform for coworking spaces and the people that work in them. Based in Berlin's Kreuzberg, the startup has brought 633 coworking spaces from 276 cities onboard, offering freelancers, startups and small businesses working out of coworking spaces a way to network and build community. Their work for Coworkies has taken Pauline and Dimitar around the world, visiting and working from hundreds of coworking spaces to get a first-person view of what the "future of work" looks like from over 380 coworking spaces.
This week, the pair is launching the first Hack Coworking hackathon in London to explore and develop the future of working in shared spaces. Participation is free and open to all. I connected with Pauline and Dimitar to learn a bit more about the Coworkies story and the upcoming hackathon, held in conjunction with London Tech Week.
Hi Pauline and Dimitar! Thanks for joining us today on tech.eu! To get started, can you tell us a little bit about Coworkies and how you two came together to start this initiative? Why do you think coworking is so important to the future or work?
Pauline: Hi Natalie, thank you so much for having us! It’s a long story but I will try to keep it short. Back in 2015, I was managing a coworking space in Berlin where Dimitar was an Entrepreneur in Residence for a startup accelerator. This coworking space was a bit special because it was focused on early-stage startups, meaning no freelancers, no service providers were part of the community and the entire content was structured around the needs of an early stage startup.
Working with early-stage founders every day, Dimitar and I realized that, to grow, they constantly needed professionals they could not find in the space, like accountants, lawyers, SEO experts, creatives. They were wasting a lot of time finding them.
Meanwhile, there were about 5 other coworking spaces around us which we knew very well but there was no collaboration between our members. So we started to think, if there is a way we can add even more value to a coworking community by empowering members to extend their coworking network in the city and beyond.
To make it happen, we went outside of our space, met with quite a few coworking founders and managers in the city and started discussing this idea of an extended coworking network. Before jumping into cold water, we also wanted to hear what coworkers had to say. For that we created the first coworkers focused survey, which got shared in 20 countries across 100 coworking spaces. The results pushed us to start traveling to understand other coworking ecosystems and build a community around our idea. And “just” like that Coworkies was born. The progression of the platform as a dedicated coworking job board was natural and came from the feedback we got from the founders and community managers we’ve met. I believe we are still in the very early days of what Coworkies can be for coworking spaces and their members around the world.
Dimitar: To understand why coworking is important, we should look at how technology is shrinking our world to fit in the pocket of our jeans. With that, social isolation becomes a big problem. For freelancers working from home, for remote workers and digital nomads hopping countries every few months. For them and the many others who now need just a laptop to do their work, coworking spaces come as the needed meeting point to create social offline life that most of us need. Coworking spaces are part of the future of work, of course they are not for everyone, but do support a large group of people that needs them.
With that said I start to read a lot of opinions against coworking spaces. The most recent one was from Sam Altman from YC, who sees coworking only as startup accelerator amenity, which they are not. Coworking has way bigger implications. From small villages to large metropolitan cities, those shared workplaces are becoming the new social spots where work meets life. With the rise of AI and machine learning coworking spaces are going to be the places where independent professionals and small companies find the much-needed environment to work, learn, network and be social with other humans.
In your travels for Coworkies, you have visited over 380+ different coworking spaces around the world. What, have you found, are some of the most integral aspects of building a successful coworking space?
Pauline: This is such an interesting question and topic! I should say that building a community is probably the hardest thing in a coworking space. So many times we’ve heard the stories of people who underestimated how hard it is. To be successful as a coworking space, there are several things you need to know about yourself and about your space, starting with:
- Why are you doing this?
- What kind of space do you have? I believe it is extremely important to understand the physical space you have in order to connect people in it the best way you can. We hear often size does not matter, which is somehow true for coworking as we’ve seen spaces that are 25 m² big and have a very strong community, but understanding your space and the usage you can make of it is.
- What is the added value you’ll bring to your members? As Dimitar was saying previously, many people currently work from their home. Ask yourself, what would make them go out and (most importantly) start paying for a desk.
Dimitar: Depending on how we define success, this question has multiple answers. One can look at coworking spaces as a business, as life enhancers or why not both. What I believe is common in all successful spaces is the team, for me, it's the most important part of a coworking space. And the team is dependent on the founder. Strong founder foundations translate to the team and to the coworking space itself. Every space is built in the reflection of its founder.
How did your work with Coworkies lead to the development of Hack Coworking? Who is the Hack Coworking Hackathon for?
Pauline: After travelling the world for the last 3 years, we’ve seen different challenges faced by the coworking market. Instead of writing an article about it, which might get lost with time, we decided to do things differently by bringing together professionals of different backgrounds who share a common interest on the topic of the future of work and workspaces. Thus, Hack Coworking is not just a tech hackathon, it is also for architects and designers who are creating / designing physical products for the workplace of tomorrow.
Dimitar: To build on what Pauline said, Coworkies as an idea came from our own need to connect to other coworking members from the city. In essence we call this “member driven innovation”. With Hack Coworking we want other coworking members to start thinking and innovating on the problems they face at their workspaces. Coworking spaces sit in the middle between cities and people. They are the dot-connectors. The hackathon is for everyone who wants to improve the future of work environments. For example I would love to see few philosophers in the mix of participants. The more diverse the pool of people participating the better.
Hack Coworking has three main tracks: Cities, Spaces and People. How did you settle on these tracks, and what are some of the key challenges in coworking and the future of work that you hope teams will take on in the hackathon?
Dimitar: Having an active coworking community means you are empowered to be a doer. You can be active in a neighborhood, supporting local initiatives or be global and connect to other like-minded spaces and communities. At Hack Coworking we want to see people solving their own problems through technology available at the hackathon. The problems I see might not be the same as someone else sees, so I would love to be surprised! Personally, if I have to give a concrete answer it would be nice to see more solutions connecting our digital work with the physical space. For example, data-enhanced furniture.
You’ve pulled together a great group of sponsors and supporters for Hack Coworking. Can you tell us a little bit more about them?
Pauline: Sure! London being our first edition, we wanted to find a local community partner who could support us in building the event. We’ve found HubHub - a coworking brand from central Europe who recently opened their first space in London. As Dimitar mentioned earlier, we set up 3 tracks we believe will influence the workplace in the future: cities, spaces and people. When looking for sponsors, we’ve looked into companies who are innovating and impacting those 3 pillars. Thus, we partnered with:
- HB Reavis - an international workspace provider with a mission to create personalised experiences through real estate and well-being solutions
- SALTO Systems - One of the world's top manufacturers of electronic access control systems
- Cobot - Management software for coworking spaces
- Nook Pods - A mobile modular huddle pod, designed originally to help introverts and those on the autistic spectrum in the workplace
- SiteGround - The leader of Wordpress hosting in the world.
We should also mention all our community partners who have been of tremendous help in gathering the London community around our event!
How can people get involved with Hack Coworking Hackathon, and what should attendees expect?
Pauline: If some of you reading this article are interested in joining, hurry up and grab a ticket here! By joining, you can enter a chance to:
- Connect with amazing professionals.
- Enter a chance to win incredible cash and non-cash prizes, like 3 months of free coworking in London!
- Most importantly, have fun building new ideas that can lead to new opportunities.
After the Hackathon, what’s next for Coworkies? How can people follow your work and get involved?
Pauline: If you wish to follow our work with Coworkies, you can check our platform if you promote jobs in coworking spaces or if you are looking for one. Also check out our upcoming book: Around The World In 250 Coworking Spaces which gathers stories from 3 years of traveling to cities like Tokyo, New York, Bordeaux, Berlin, London, Delhi and many others. We will co-write it with coworking spaces we’ve met and you can already pre-order it on our website.