The time is right for Leicester to have a large city-centre co-working space.
Co-working spaces are large, mostly open-plan offices which provide somewhere for freelancers and early-stage entrepreneurs to work cheaply and without commitment. They are a common sight in cities across the World. As well as somewhere for people to work, they also provide a ‘village hall’ for a wider constituency of event organisers (whether involved in business or not.) They are typically open to everyone throughout the day, with evening and weekends access to paying members.
Support for the first couple of rungs of the entrepreneurial ladder (conceiving ideas and finding other people to work with) is patchy in Leicester as I have touched upon before. Public sector support has historically only kicked-in once someone has a business plan and is ready to commit to renting a proper office.
A co-working space would help fill that gap, creating a fertile environment where a diverse bunch of people from different backgrounds can mix, share ideas and plan enterprises. The potential as a vehicle for graduate retention through getting recent De Montfort University and University of Leicester graduates to stay in Leicester rather than brain-drain to London or elsewhere is significant. It also creates a nursery for new business which compliments existing provision like LCB, Dock, Makers yard and Phoenix which are aimed at more established businesses.
DMU’s Innovation Centre co-working space has been a success in terms of the actual facility and helpful support staff and there is a lot that can be learnt from it. However, the 9-5 opening hours are unworkable for anyone involved in a serious startup and the on-campus location creates a perception of belonging to DMU rather than the wider community.
Other venues such as LCB Depot, Phoenix and local coffee shops can work on a casual basis but they tend to be noisy, have patchy opening hours and aren’t big enough to achieve that ‘critical mass’ that lends itself to frequent serendipitous meetings with interesting people.
There are potential locations at Pioneer Park or Friars Mill but these sites are too far off the radar of students who would be a key potential user group.
Having nurtured Leicester’s startup community and also been involved with other groups such as Creative Coffee, it’s my belief that such a space needs to be situated within or near the triangle formed by Cultural Quarter – DMU – University of Leicester. The proximity of the railway station is also relevant for connections to London and other local cities.
My understanding is that co-working spaces tend to be comparatively low-cost re-fits compared to new build spaces such as Dock. They don’t need to be glamorous Grade-A office space, indeed the Berlin-style ‘shabby-chic’ can often be an attractor to the sorts of people who typically use them.
I don't know what the finance numbers look like but this feels like something that might need public sector funds to get off the ground but should fund the on-going costs itself through membership fees. This seems to be what happens elsewhere.
Having an independent organisation responsible for the day-to-day may also be desirable to avoid any financial dependency or ownership perception issues. It may be worth exploring some of the established franchises out there such as Impact Hub, WeWork, TechHub or Innovation Warehouse. It might also be worth looking at Antenna in Nottingham as a comparison with a similar-sized city.
I note that Leicester Hackspace are currently looking for a new venue and there is an obvious attraction to having them under the same roof as more software or design-orientated users.
This is not a particularly radical idea. There are hundreds of examples of such spaces in cities of a similar size to Leicester and worldwide and there are any number of franchises, models and providers from which best practice can be gleaned.
My personal interest is as A) a space to run events for the Leicester tech startup community which I organise and B) as a place to meet people with great ideas for win-win joint ventures for my web and app development business.
I have already had positively-received discussions with a number of organisations and groups including the two universities, the city council and the LLEP as well as the grass-roots business communities that I am involved in. If you're interested in being involved in this discussion with potential stakeholders then please drop me a line at email@example.com
If you think a co-working space might be somewhere you would want to work yourself then I would encourage you to joing the new meetup group created by Edward Woolley from our local startup community: http://www.meetup.com/Leicester-Co-working/.
UPDATE 21/04/16: If you are interested in using a potential Leicester co-working space, please fill out this brief survey to help understand current demand: http://goo.gl/forms/QfZsAQ2q2p