Hi Folks! Thanks for tuning in to the Coworking Values Podcast. This time our guest is Gareth Jones of Town Square.
Gareth started his first Coworking Space in 2011 — Welsh Ice in Caerphilly in South Wales and now with Town Square where their mission is to create town centre meeting places, community spaces in town centres all across the UK.
Gareth tells us all about how at first they didn’t consider -Welsh Ice, a coworking space or what they’re doing as coworking. He also shares about how coworking is an essential piece of urban infrastructure and how it helps the community around a coworking space thrive by bringing in people.
What is your goal for Town Square?
So, you know what we found Coworking is one part and Coworking more describes the kind of ethos in the business model, rather than really describing the community of people that end up emerging and meeting there. So, yeah, that was the kind of where we developed it and then three years ago, there were four of us as directors, two of us left to start Town Square looking at, you know, we did it in one place, and it’s not, you know, Caerphilly.
Most people listening probably don’t know work for the IRS, they might not have heard of it unless they like cheese. And so it wasn’t a place where people expect spaces like this to exist, especially at that scale.
And what we really felt quite passionately about was that, and I think this is what’s being highlighted during this period right now is that there are amazing, talented, passionate people who live in every corner of every community. Across not only the UK, but the world. And I think a lot of the kind of political rhetoric at the minute is about this sense of being left behind. That’s just not the case, these communities exist.
And what we really wanted to prove with Town Square as we did with Ice, is that no matter where we go in the UK, we meet amazing, talented people. And our goal really is to help generations of people to realize you don’t need to leave for the big city in order to feel creatively, you know, emotionally fulfilled, get your potential kind of fulfilled and work on exciting projects.
So yeah, that was the real test for them and that’s what’s been really fun through what we’ve done since then.
Bernie J Mitchel 0:03
Hello ladies, gentlemen, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Coworking Values podcast. And before we leap into this week’s episode, a word from our delicious smelling sponsor Cobot.
Zeljko Crnjaković 0:16
This episode is brought to you by Cobot, a leading management software for coworking spaces, office hubs and flexible workspaces around the world. You know, one of the best things about Cobot is that it is produced by people who manage a coworking space and know the ins and outs of the main problems and issues, bugging coworking managers. So, if you want more time for your co-workers and community, check out Cobot at cobot.me and take your coworking management to the next level.
Bernie J Mitchel 0:51
And thank you for that. So, on the line today is a chap called Gareth and there’s lots of other stuff he does, but he definitely has the best coworking space promotional video in the world ever, which we’ll put in the show notes. So, other than that, Gareth, what are you known for? And what would you like to be known for?
Yeah, well, that video was a lot of fun. And at least being known for jumping on tables and dancing around. That’s all fun. So, I started my first coworking space back in 2011, which is called Welsh Ice in South Wales. And then we exited from that business and started a new chemical Town Square. And our mission really is about how we create these meeting places, these community spaces in town centers all across the UK.
Bernie J Mitchel 1:40
Can you say a little bit about what Welsh Ice was and is because what always attracted me to it, and I know a lot of good people there, like Andy Brown and Steve, the (anti-sell) guy. It’s more than just a coworking space.
Yeah, you know, I’ve been a little uncertain of, that definition of coworking? We never really publicly called ourselves coworking. Coworking is probably the industry that we best match with. So, yeah, for us, it’s much more about community. And what we found, I think was that coworking sometimes seemed like quite an exclusive thing, so we really focused on how to create a really inclusive environment. There are people who are kind of passionate about what they do and everything that we’ve focused on was how do you help people to align with what matters to them so you know, what we found – Coworking is one part and coworking more describes the kind of ethos in the business model rather than really describing the community of people that end up emerging and meeting there. So, yeah, that was kind of where we developed it. And then three years ago, there were four of us as directors, two of us left to start Town Square. We did it in one place, Caerphilly, most people listening probably don’t know where it is, they might not have heard of it unless they like cheese. And so, it wasn’t a place where people expect spaces like this to exist, especially at that scale. And what we really felt quite passionately about was that, and I think this is what’s being highlighted during this period right now, is that there are amazing, talented, passionate people who live in every corner of every community across not only the UK, but the world. And I think a lot of the kind of political rhetoric at the minute is about the sense of being left behind. That’s just not the case. These communities exist. And what we really wanted to prove with Town Square as we did with Ice, is that no matter where we go in the UK, we meet amazing, talented people. And our goal really is to help generations of people to realize you don’t need to leave for the big city in order to feel creatively, emotionally fulfilled, get your potential kind of fulfilled and work on exciting projects. So, yeah, that was the real test. And that’s what’s been really fun through what we’ve done since then.
Bernie J Mitchel 4:17
One of the reasons I wanted to do this with you today is because, you know, I discovered the 15 Minute city a few months ago, seems later than everyone else in the world. And I really believe that in that – I’ve always wanted that kind of, leaving my house and wandering around the corner and everything there. And it always annoyed me. I was always confused at why people insisted on going to the center of the city every day. And being in a train and, slowly dying doing that. And kind of like hope that people will, now they’ve tasted the fact now that they don’t have to do all this unnecessarily traveling and can engage in the local community more. I know who lived in Rochester, and they would travel into London to do something they could do with their laptop in Rochester. And I know people in Rochester who tried to start a coworking space, but it wouldn’t work. Because all the creative people wanted to go into London, and I get why they did. But it’s kind of like, you don’t actually need to do that. And there are people like you in your area. And that’s why I hope will come out of this. What do you think?
Yeah, that’s exactly the way we’ve been seeing things. I think more people are realizing now the kind of quality of life stuff that comes into having a lot of architects and cities designers and things we’re talking about. We don’t need big living spaces because we live outside of the home. And that was great when we could all go to coffee shops and restaurants and street food festivals and things with our spare time. But now we’re realizing that actually having that little bit of extra space for ourselves or just to kind of go and sit outside in our gardens or even just get out of the house is super valuable, and chances are if you’re in an urban center, it’s a lot harder to have some of those kind of things within your budget. So, we’re seeing a lot of people who are talking about moving back to the communities we’re talking about. And I mean, we had to give an interesting story of one of our members whose husband… they were based in London the husband had taken a job in the North West, so they were forced to relocate to go up there and they moved to Wrexham which is where we have one of our spaces.
Again, most people don’t know Wrexham. And it was one of those kinds of feelings, and I’m sure a lot of people can relate where she just felt like that was it, like she had an idea for a start-up but it was never going to happen now because you know, she was going to the arse-end of nowhere and that’s it. And what she got in our community was her first members of staff. We connected her with investors, we connected her with this kind of community that pushed her on and now she’s ticked over 20,000 sales on Amazon last month. She’s raised investment, she’s working with high street retailers to list her product. And I think it’s just that sense that a lot of people have the idea of moving home, if your home isn’t one of these major urban centers, is that that’s the end of it, that your life is over. And for a lot of young people, they feel like, you’ve got to get out to get on. I put out a survey on Twitter this week about how people have used that spare time from not commuting and it’s really cool to see people who are spending more time having breakfast and bedtime stories with their kids, that they never could have had before and seeing those kind of milestones through to people who just like having a lie-in because it means they can stay up watching movies the night before. People use it in different ways. And, like, what I see as being the future for coworking is really playing to that lifestyle elements. And helping people realize that being able to walk to work, and spend time with equally cool people who live in your community, but otherwise have to commute outbound. And it just doesn’t make any sense to carry on that path. I think it’s a deeply tragic time for us as a society, but there will be moments of change that come from it.
Bernie J Mitchel 8:23
So, what I kind of mean, this next segment can go two ways. What are the steps coworking space community managers, owners can take? And I know there is stuff you can point us to. Because as you run around talking about this, some people need to see evidence of, for instance, someone in our local area said the other day, coworking didn’t work. And I looked like somewhere between offended and shocked. What do you mean coworking didn’t work? And he said, there’s this company called WeWork, tried it in the states and they all fell apart. I was like, man that is not coworking. And I sort of picked him up and thumped him against his van and set him straight on the topic. I put a message in the neighborhood app saying: does anyone know somewhere to work around here? And if I had said plumber for sale or put a slightly racist comment in there, everyone would have jumped in, but no one reacted to my “anyone know of a coworking space in our local area” post. I’m a weirdo but partly, they don’t know that way of working or they don’t know what that means. I didn’t put workspace in there.
I think your example there is one that everyone involved in coworking will know of, as soon as they say coworking, people, it’s just human instinct, they go to WeWork. And it’s an issue. And we were avoiding using the term coworking from the early days, because It had this association with hipsters, and unicorns and all of this stuff that is not real, none of it is real. And what we’re really interested in is working with real people who are passionate about what they do, who’ve got great professional experiences and careers, and who are working hard to feed their kids and pay their mortgage. And I think coworking has a brand issue. Right now, coworking is seen as being a luxury or it’s seen as being a trendy thing. And we need to work together to move it towards people realizing this is an essential piece of urban infrastructure. All this is why we went with this kind of name of Town Square, is that all of these pieces of civic meeting spaces are gone. They don’t exist anymore. There’s no way you can just go and sit and meet with friends unless you’re buying a coffee or buying lunch or anything like that. And so, this idea of a coworking space feeling intimidated because you don’t have the right round glasses or your beard isn’t quite stubbly enough. And I’m saying that from the perspective of its predominantly white men as well. And I say that knowing the kind of irony of us talking about that, but this is the image that coworking has and, in my opinion, unless we can show that coworking has a place in the rebirth of communities, of town centers as destinations, and that’s the opportunity, right, because there are a lot of people who are tackling this issue. Unless we can do that, there’s just no point of sending any more conversation.
Bernie J Mitchel 11:38
I really agree with that. And when people talk on websites about coworking spaces of like, overdoing the entrepreneur, creative, collaboration, community – It’s like, what do you mean by that? Did you ever read the book Rework By the Basecamp, folks.
Yeah, no, I didn’t read Rework.
Bernie J Mitchel 12:05
Yeah, in Rework, there’s a line widget, which is about eight years old now. And it says enough with the term entrepreneur. It’s loaded with privilege and class and a dynamic and why not just call people starters. I’m going to go and post that in a minute. There’s one I know who’s an IT support company for schools. And they wouldn’t say I’m an entrepreneur and a coworking space. They serve their local community with IT support and the list goes on forever, but I’m making it into this like super clicky, and often I’ve ranted about this forever, you know, there’s a lot of imagery as it has improved now. I don’t think it’s just because I’ve been talking about it. I think people became more aware, but I’d like to think that was me. So much of the imagery in the early days, like five years ago it was beautiful white men drinking coffee and staring at Apple computers, doing coworking and coding.
Apple computers, which by the way, cost about two grand right. So, even the idea of that is a step of privilege rich people can’t relate to. So, we’re a B Corp, I should say this so you know our kind of social environmental impact is as important as I can have commercial impact. That’s the way we see the world. And we do impact reports, impact surveys on a regular basis and we did one during the kind of lockdown on our space in Wrexham and we had members saying they feel more proud to be of the town and now that this is something which is really important, because a lot of town centers, there’s a bit of a reputation of there being a big problem of homelessness and drug addiction and things and people feel more proud. And then there’s other stuff like one of our members who’s an accountant as well by the way, he tracks this stuff, saying he now spends half as much on Amazon as he used to before he was a member of the space, because next day is never going to be as good as same day. And so that kind of stuff that gives you a good reason to have these spaces in your town centers, because it delivers tangible value to communities. We’ve had so many businesses in the area; cafes, restaurants, small businesses, saying your community has saved our business. We would not be in business if it wasn’t for the people you bring into town. But no one wants to almost put that on a poster, right? Because they don’t want to create the impression of being vulnerable. But that’s the picture we’re seeing. And that’s the story we need to start telling. I saw that there was some really interesting kind of guidance put out by New Economics Foundation about how they think there should be 100 new coworking spaces created across the UK to help self-employment in response to COVID. And we all know what will happen if this was a government initiative, we all know what would happen, it would fail. And it would fail spectacularly. And we know as community managers, as community leaders, as designers of spaces, the things that work and the things that members see through and we don’t want to create the 21st century Job Center for Entrepreneurship or for starters, or for freelancers. That’s not the answer. The answer is trying to build something which is much more community focused.
Bernie J Mitchel 15:31
I love it. There are two things to back up those points. Like Kofi has, as we’ve been talking about the 15 Minutes City and locally and everything like that. We’ll link to his podcast in the show notes. He works with young people in Hackney on a program called Urban MBA, which he’s just launched. He’s launched this on a cohort, if you like, with Ark, which is a coworking space in Hackney Downs. So, they’re going to run those programs together which is a great thing to do. But when young people are being local and have something to do, they have more, and the crime goes down in the area because people’s commitment or any age goes up, and it becomes a safer environment. In London, which I’m sure you’re aware of Gareth, is the affordable workplace scheme run by the Mayor of London and yeah, his LinkedIn and Space4, run that together in Islington, and we’ve been doing some calls, finding out more about how to get that going in other areas around London. And one of the things that came up there that stuck with me is that for every time someone spends a pound in the local area with a local business, that pound goes around four times. And when you go spend it with a major chain, that pound goes in the cash register and then disappears to probably the Cayman Islands or something. Okay, so to back-up your points, and the more we spend locally, the more wealth stays in the high street. I was quite taken with the Amazon claim there. I never thought of it like that.
Yeah, I think people broadly get the whole kind of buy Local thing. I think there’s a really difficult conversation right now about what good work is, whether you’re a freelancer or an entrepreneur or whether you just have a kind of regular nine to five everyday job. And, in a lot of these communities, working in McDonald’s is a good job. It’s a stable job, it’s safe, it’s legal, and they’re on a good career progression and training opportunities. It’s a good job, but if we look at that from exactly what you’re saying; how much money stays in the local community, how much of what they do is ethical, how much of it is not taking into consideration the externalities from the impact of selling this scale of burgers and coke? It’s a really difficult balance for communities that need good work. And I think this is part of what we see in our communities, is that you allow people an opportunity to see what a successful filmmaker in a town like Wrexham or Bogner Regis, Caerphilly looks like. So, hang on, so you’re a filmmaker, in Bogner Regis, you’re a designer who works on global brands that I know and I recognize, and you’re based a two-minute walk away from my college campus? And there was a joke in Wrexham about how the army recruitment center was the most successful in the UK because it was right on the doorstep of the college and people left college thinking, well, I’m not going to get a job locally, so what else am I going to do? There’s that sense of hope, within a lot of people in our communities, right? Everyone listening to this will know this, they’ll look around the room or they’ll think about the members who use the space and they’re inspired every day. And for me, that was my main motivation with creating our spaces. I just wanted to work with people who brought out the best in me and made me feel like I could take on the world. That was my gap. My challenge to take on. Since the crisis hit, we’ve literally got a list of about 30 plus spaces that we have been invited to take a look at or open up, and for us, we don’t want to turn into the cluster or the McDonald’s of creating coworking spaces. We want to use our models of community management and the tools that we give local community managers to create these spaces because I don’t think the answer to this is a cookie cutter: let’s open the same coworking space in every town center, it’s about understanding what the needs of that community are and how you enable people to create the conditions that they want to succeed.
Bernie J Mitchel 19:57
I’ve always thought there were more people in an area that were interested in doing something than you might think. So many people think they need to leave town and go to the Big Smoke, and I was one of those people. And then I would love it if we ended up with lots of independent coworking spaces that are all on the same frequency, because it’d be very easy for Town Square to sort of have, you know, 9 million sites across the country and it would just, like you say, turn into a cookie cutter thing, but there’s a massive opportunity for people to find their voice in their local community and connect with other people and do that. I absolutely believe it will generate this massive connected local hub and that place of religion used to serve you know, probably when we were kids. We’re going to have extensive show notes, but where can we send people? What do you want people to pay attention to? And anything you’d like to shout out about?
Yeah, our big thing that we’ve been working on is we really want to try and lock in some of this commute change behavior. That’s the thing where we see this being a big opportunity. So, we’re going to be launching a campaign pretty soon called Boot that Commute, and we’d love to get people’s feedback and thoughts on that, so the best place is Twitter. So, @TownSq is our Twitter handle or for me, it’s @Captain_Gareth squared or Townsqusre.co.uk. I’d love to hear any thoughts or feedback to what we’ve talked about this, the need for us in the UK to be better connected as a community, but also better connected to what’s happening all over the world. That’s where the magic happens, in realizing that this is not an issue or this is not what we see in our communities. What we’re seeing in our communities and in our neighborhoods is being echoed all over the world. And that’s super exciting.
Bernie J Mitchel 22:08
It is. And I completely forgot to say if you go to coworkingassembly.uk where we were holding back at the moment because that was part of the European Coworking Assembly family that is always growing. And we have the UK Coworking Assembly, and any reason I’m holding back is because the website’s not quite ready, but just go there. There’s lots of good stuff going on. And we’re bringing together people around the UK. Thank you for spending your time with us today. Ladies and gentlemen, go to coworkingassembly.eu and wait 10 seconds, and a little box will pop up saying join our email list. And do that. We email all the content, and blogs, and podcasts, and everything else. We publish stories from around Europe and coworking every week. And you can always hit reply to those. The best way to get in touch with people is we send the email out and we say hit reply if you’ve got a story, and so many of you are, and we’re really, really grateful for that, that’s what’s bringing all these stories and connections together around the coworking family. So, say goodbye, Gareth.
Thank you very much. Goodbye.
Bernie J Mitchel 23:13
Take care, folks.