Heigh-ho, it's off to co-working spaces we go

  • Lack of co-working businesses to meet the growing community of startups
  • Successful co-working spaces are a centre of gravity for the community: Joffres

Heigh-ho, it's off to co-working spaces we goTHE recent shutdown of Fluent Space in Kelana Jaya, pending relocation to a new address, meant my colleagues and I were nomads again on a never-ending search for a suitable meeting place within the Klang Valley.
The perk of our regular venue was the simple fact that it had proper meeting rooms – four walls and a door. Turns out, many co-working spots we’ve been generously invited to crash at don’t have that as a feature.
To date, it has been slightly uncomfortable needing to remember to dial down on not only the volume during team discussions, but exchanges of juicy industry news picked up during the week. Let’s not even talk about the foul language.
But as a news portal startup, our needs were unique and recent adventures with various venues got me thinking about the current state of co-working in the country: How are startups faring with what’s out there today?
Ikhwan Nazri Asran, chief executive officer at Amanz.my and curator of OfficeKami, a blog that chronicles co-working locations, believes that the number of venues is growing – but mostly within the Klang Valley only.
“The first co-working office in Malaysia I believe was Paper + Toast, but that was four years ago. Since then, not many more have been established, and we still have fewer than 20 – which is not an indication of rapid growth.
“By now, as co-workers, if we’re going outside of Kuala Lumpur, we should be able to identify at least one place for each state, but that is not the case,” he adds.
Ikhwan feels one reason for the lack of co-working businesses to meet the growing community of startups is because of culture, with co-workers here accustomed to working out of cafes.
“They can’t spend much to rent a desk so they instead buy a frappes and sit nine-to-five. Most prefer this as for less than RM15 (US$4.64) a day, you can sit and have access to speedy Internet,” he says.
Ikhwan adds that existing spaces might be affordable for top executives but remain cost prohibitive for “worker bees,” a problem that could be solved if the company is able to reimburse fees or has a scheme for employees such as co-working allowances.
Of course, it must be pointed out that when it comes to finding office space for a budding company, there are plenty of options.

[Amended to correct the name of office space provider] 
Better funded ventures, or international startups making their market debut and wanting a professional sheen to their operations, have options such as White Space, The Nomad Offices and Regus.
Other options include working spaces allocated under the multitude of accelerators and incubators active in the country – both government-funded and private sector-led – along with standalone venues such as MakeSpace, Paper + Toast and The Nest.
Up in Penang, I know of a co-working space called Work Palette that aims to meet the needs of the entrepreneurs based there. There’s another two located in Johor Baru according to workspace rental marketplace Coworkify.
For startups already running onward to growth and sustainability, many rent out apartments or join a few other startups to pool rent on a house.
Heigh-ho, it's off to co-working spaces we goBut a fair few pointed out that the challenge isn’t only about real estate or price tags, but rather the people.
Tandemic director Kal Joffres (pic) thinks the difficulty with co-working spaces in the Klang Valley is that they often don’t have a community around them.
“Finding real-estate to work in is easy enough. Finding a place where entrepreneurs gather to exchange cool ideas and collaborate – I don’t think that exists yet,” he says.
Joffres points out that creating a community means that you’re building something that goes far beyond the people in the four walls of a co-working space. If a space isn’t a frequent host to community events and if random people aren’t popping in all the time to check things out, it’s probably not a community space.
“If you look at successful co-working spaces, they are a centre of gravity for the community and they have brought the community together. The people who are there aren’t just paying for a couple of square feet, they’re paying to be part of a community that’s happening,” he adds.
He points to Hubba in Bangkok as a successful example of community building, despite the co-working venue being a relatively small space.
“Community builders are the missing link. A lot of people think that building a co-working space is just about setting up a space with exposed concrete floors,” he laments.
As the Malaysian startup ecosystem matures, one can hopefully assume that the situation would only get better when it comes to venue options for entrepreneurs to meet, work and grow.
In the meantime, as Chris Leong, director at Soft Space notes, it’s not a major deal-breaker for determined entrepreneurs.
“Why would you need a space first? If a startup can’t afford a true setup, you might as well work in a garage … well, a Malaysian-style garage … to get things going. The Carlist guys worked out of an apartment for the longest time,” he points out.
So perhaps that’s the message for today’s column: Never mind the headaches that go with figuring out where to work; If you are dead-set on being an entrepreneur, you just make it work.

This column originally appeared in the Metro Biz section of The Star and is reprinted here with its kind permission.
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