Making Space

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an entrepreneurial experiment.

Entrepreneurship is as much an art as it is a science, with the space in which entrepreneurs work impacting the outcome. In this article I share some of the insights I have gained on the impact of space whilst travelling as a delegate on the Startup Catalyst Community Leaders Mission to Boulder, Denver, San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

The two Scotts (Doorley and Witthoft) state that space sets the context for the work to be done. Modern organisations spend enormous resources hiring and retaining desirable staff, but do they consider as deeply the space they provide in which these people work? Open plan workspaces have become a fad, but do they really “work”?

The answers depend on the desired outcomes. Open plan offices are very effective at providing the space for cross-functional team members to meet and interact, to share ideas and collaborate, to broaden organisational capabilities. Firms have been finding ways to enable these behaviours for decades: Sharp routinely transferred the top 3% of its R&D scientists among its different divisions on a rolling three-year basis, calling the process ‘chemicalization’ to hint at its cross-functional benefits. Contemporary practices such as Atlassian’s ShipIt Days or Nitro’s Hacker Week (to shamelessly use a couple of Australian examples) achieve the same outcomes.

A recent HBR article suggests many businesses have gone too far with the open model, negatively impacting an employee’s ability to focus and achieve flow in their workday. As I was exploring Runway in the SoMa district of San Francisco, I noticed the way in which they enabled a range of differing modes of work. Open areas were partnered with small nooks for individual endeavour. Even in the large event space, workers used the relative security of a corner to provide an intimate environment for a small group discussion.

(This room was roughly 10m x 10m and they chose the corner!)

In true Schumpeterian style, entrepreneurial workspaces are leading the way: responding to their users’ needs by designing efficient innovative environments. In my mind, we are seeing the emergence of Charles Handy’s predictions from the mid 90s in his book The Empty Raincoat. Organisations are becoming beholden to their employees, adapting to ensure they retain the best people in the pursuit of commercial outcomes. This increasingly demands an overarching purpose to which employees align themselves, providing opportunities for them to enjoy themselves whilst at work, and enabling them to do what they do best.

This is where making space for entrepreneurial endeavour is so important. Check out the design which sits behind the layout of Bespoke Coworking:


So let’s look at a couple of succinct examples of targeted workspace design in order to drive particular outcomes:

Startup House was created by Elias Bizannes to be a short-term solution for travelling entrepreneurs to gain a foothold in San Francisco. It delivers exactly that. The accommodation is basic (think school dormitory) and clean, the services shared amongst many but delivered with a care for the individual and a sense of ‘we’re all in this together.’ Most people stay a few days to a couple of months, before moving on to something more permanent. “We don’t want them to stay here forever,” claimed Elias. It is a staging point for people to meet, network, engage, and move on. And it performs this function very well.

SheEO is an organisation pursuing the mantra “women supporting women will change the world.” The fundamental model is enabling 1,000 women to contribute $1,000 to create a $1m fund which makes investments into ten female-led ventures. In this example the space is made by SHeEo activating a community of cause-driven individuals who band together to achieve a common end. Financial resources are provided, along with an aligned network of supporters to assist in bringing the new ventures to life.

Even retail stores are getting in on the action. Workshop Cafe on Montgomery Street is filling an ever-increasing need to enable independent work. Tech-enabled and cleverly designed, the place rocks with activity almost constantly. I met a couple of fresh Aussie entrepreneurs at an Aussies in Tech meetup hosted by Mick Liubinskas from Muru-D and we got chatting. They were bright-eyed and passionate about their startup, having recently arrived from Sydney. “Where are you working?” I asked, to which they replied “out of coffee shops!”

In San Francisco each player in the startup space knows its place and delivers on it. Appropriate resources are provided and the physical space is designed to support the desired outcome. This is the challenge for our local ecosystem: we need to be clear on what we are attempting to achieve and ensure everything is aligned in order to achieve it. We must make the space for entrepreneurial endeavour to flourish.

This article hints at a large body of knowledge sitting behind the “space” construct. I encourage us all to dig deeper and expand our minds. Thanks to¬†Advance Queensland and Bond University for supporting this immersion trip.

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