In this interview with Thom Wernke, CEO and co-founder at StartDock, we discuss the current state of coworking and what is in store for the near future. Don’t have time to read through the interview or have a preference for hearing people talk? You can also listen to this interview via Spotify!
What is the name of your coworking space?
The name of my coworking space is StartDock.
How many members does StartDock have?
In total, we have 1170 members, and we facilitate 644 companies.
What type of companies work at StartDock, and is there a more prevalent group among them?
Actually, the strength of our concept is that we host and facilitate a great variety of companies. We try to focus on not having any competitors within the same building because we believe that you are less transparent towards a random competitor than towards a stranger that might add something to your company or to your concept.
So instead, we focus on variety, which is why we have many kinds of sectors, many kinds of entrepreneurs, and many different businesses within our spaces. But most of them are focused on the online environment. For example, online marketers, app developers, and traditional start and scale-ups in any kind of sector.
Is there a reason why ‘online’ is such a big focus group for StartDock?
It’s not necessarily a focus group for us. They just organically find us. These kinds of professionals tend to work more from environments like co-working spaces. And so they find us in Amsterdam, or in Rotterdam, or any of our four locations.
It’s always good to have clients come in themselves without you needing to do the reach out. Perhaps a follow-up question to what we discussed earlier: what makes StartDock unique? You already mentioned that part of your strength is the diversification of the type of members that you have. But maybe you can add something to that?
Yeah. So next to that, we only have monumental classical buildings which are, well, really beautiful buildings, obviously. Typically, this type of building is reserved for high-end companies. Actually, one of the reasons why we started StartDock is that we wanted to facilitate these kinds of buildings for entrepreneurs like ourselves.
Why do you need to be a banker or a lawyer in order to work from the most beautiful buildings? We believe that it’s also feasible and possible to have the startup culture and start a startup ecosystem working from buildings like this. So that’s also one of our, I would say, unique selling points.
That, and the fact that we focus on limiting competition between members within our buildings as much as possible in order to create a more open and vibrant community. And of course, every co-working space says they have the best community or the densest community. So I try always try not to focus too much on that when I talk about what makes us unique.
But I honestly believe that we do have one of the densest communities in both Amsterdam and in Rotterdam. People really know each other by name. They visit each other’s birthday parties. They have parties together. So yeah, it really is something we focus on a lot, and we think that’s one of our unique selling points as well.
There’s a good reason why a lot of co-working spaces also mention their community because, indeed, that is one of the core values of coworking, right? Having that community and having like-minded people in the same environment. Compared to pre-pandemic times. Do you notice a change in your community and membership base?
So, the biggest change that we have noticed since then and now is that we see more individuals working for bigger companies that visit our co-working spaces on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. This didn’t happen very much before the pandemic, but now it happens more and more often. We see that a lot of corporates give co-working passes to their employees.
They say, “you don’t have to work from our headquarters; you can also work from any of these co-working spaces.” So we have seen a big increase in that part of the demand. For our own members, we don’t see a lot of difference, actually. Well, in the beginning, we did notice a lot of people in the retail sector and events sector struggling.
They really had a hard time. And we, as part of their network, try to think with them about how they can survive. They could still stay in our co-working buildings, but some of them didn’t survive. These were then replaced by other companies. That’s about all the change that we have seen recently.
What you said about larger companies is something that I hear a lot, actually. The fact these companies are allowing their employees more flexibility in where to work from. Such as at co-working spaces which they can use as a satellite office, for example.
Yes, and this is a brilliant solution to decrease the amount of travel time that you have from home to work. Let’s say you live in Utrecht and your daily commute is to and from Amsterdam. It doesn’t make sense. You’re much better off just picking a co-working space in Utrecht four days a week and one day a week going to your office to see your colleagues.
This has really changed since the pandemic. So this type of hybrid way of working is increasing indeed.
With this hybrid way of working becoming more common, have you changed your offering in the last few years, and if so, how?
Well, we constantly change our offering, because you have to be flexible in this market. We have probably experimented with every type of offering. This includes day passes, hourly passes, and any other type of passes. We constantly keep adapting when we see demand changing or when our back office says, “Okay guys, in the beginning, we had 100 members, now we have 1000. So we probably should stop with this model because it takes us too much time in order to keep handling it.”
What changes do you see happening in the flexible workspace market right now?
The rise of hybrid work is noticeable in all co-working spaces. Another thing is that you see more and more coworking chains in the market, rather than individual co-working spaces. Also, when we started, there were a lot of individual spaces, each with their unique angle. Nowadays, we see more and more of these spaces merging with each other or being taken over by chains.
We see the market as a whole becoming more mature, which I think also carries benefits and added value for the customers. We also see a big “niche-ification” from various chains and individual spaces, with some focusing their offering on sustainable companies, some on women, and some focusing on tech companies.
You can cater to an individual type of entrepreneurial business, but we try to stay away from that. We cater to everybody. Having a variety of businesses inside your buildings is a strength on its own. But the “niche-ification” of these chains also makes sense, I think.
The rise of remote and hybrid working, as you mentioned, is noticeable far and wide. It’s changed the way that we perceive the function of the office. What does this mean for coworking spaces?
It impacts us in many ways, both positive and negative. One change that I’m not particularly happy with, is the impact it has had on coworking communities. You have people using your spaces for very short periods of time. They don’t always stick around.
We see a lot of people in Amsterdam, for instance, working for Nike, the sportswear company. Their headquarters is in Hilversum, but almost all the employees live in Amsterdam. So they have this possibility now, to work from co-working spaces in Amsterdam, such as ours. They come in one day, and then never come back again. And that’s a shame, because they meet our members during lunchtime, exchange LinkedIn information and say things like, “Oh, we should probably work together in the future.” And then the next day, they’re gone.
These are also the type of members that you don’t see very often during lunches, or during events and drinks. And this is specifically what we are trying to build. We try to build a community of people that know each other, that take care of each other, and do business with each other as well. This is probably one of the side effects of remote and hybrid working. People see a workspace as just that, a space where you just hop in and out again to work.
On the positive side, we also see more individuals coming in, and this gives a lot of vibrancy within the building. That is definitely good.
So there’s a flip side to it? If I reiterate correctly, people used to come to co-working spaces more so for the community part of it, as it was a really big benefit, it still is, but people now also see it as just a place to work at sometimes, and that causes a lot of churn, but also an influx of new people.
Yeah, pretty much. That’s right.
What do you wish you had known about the flexible workspace markets six months ago?
At the beginning of our concept, I would say six months was a long period of time. Now I would say it’s a short period. Six months ago was probably when we came out of the COVID pandemic. There weren’t that many things that I couldn’t already foresee or predict. I knew that the way of working would change during the pandemic.
We adapted to this hybrid way of working, which was probably the most important change for us. But I noticed that some of our competitors who are more focused on renting offices to corporates have had really hard times due to the pandemic. For them, the pandemic was way more impactful than for us.
Compared to them, we didn’t have that many problems due to the pandemic. Except for the fact that people mostly had to work from home and thus it was not as vibrant as usual in our buildings.
While we’re on the topic of making predictions, let’s close with a final question about one: what does the future of co-working look like?
I think this maturation of the sector will continue. In the beginning, you saw a lot of chains taking over individual co-working spaces. I think more and more chains will also integrate with each other or take over each other.
The “niche-ification”, I think, will continue as well. We will see more variety in the type of coworking spaces. Such as startup-focused coworking spaces, ones focused more on high-end clientele, female-only coworking spaces, and more. I think this will continue.
I’m also curious to see what the large organizations and the mid-sized organizations will do in regards to coworking spaces. I think for the upcoming years, especially the large organizations will definitely increase their use of coworking spaces. But I can’t predict where this will stop. In cities like London, about 60% of office space is already flexible. So they’re way ahead of cities like, well, you’re in Antwerp, I’m in Amsterdam. They’re way ahead of us. So I think our cities still have a large margin for growth in this.
There are a lot of possibilities for our sector to grow, which also makes this sector more flexible. This was one of the reasons why we wanted to begin a coworking space. Before we founded StartDock, I had an IT business. I remember very early on, we were looking for an office environment, and had to sign a contract for five years with a landlord.
We were like, “We don’t even know if we still exist next year. How can we sign a contract for five years ahead?” So I think coworking spaces offer a vast advantage to businesses when it comes to that. I see the future of our sector as very positive, and there are still a lot of fun things to do in this sector for all of us.
So, I’m happy to work in the coworking sector together with you guys.
I believe that’s a great way to end the interview on a positive note. Tom, thank you so much for doing the interview with me