“Welcome to the art gallery”, she said. “We have free desks, free coffee, free wifi and we do classes on coding, social media, building your business, knitting, yoga and you know, the usual stuff. Plus Hoxton FM will be streaming music from here. And there’s art.”
This, of course, is an art gallery-co-working-space.
A leafleteer had caught me by Old Street station in that split second before I’d activated the mask of “not-interested-in-what -you’re-selling”. A few yards further on, by the bin I glanced at what the leaflet was advertising. And this was when I learned about the artgallerfice, the workallery, this multiple-personality space that was neither one thing nor the other.
I confess that alongside the novelty of an art-gallery-co-working-space the word “FREE”, caught my eye. I reoriented my flaneuring in a new direction.
There’s no need to dwell on the weirdness of working at a gallerdesk because you can imagine it. The things on the wall might be modern art. On the other hand they might be a startup’s SWAT analysis. Or they might be a SWAT analysis of modern art. Indeed I might have made the crushingly un-hipster move of sitting not at a desk and chair but upon a Tracy Emin deskxibit.
Schizospaces are a thing. My favourite cafe is actually a bicycle workshop. The coffeeshop side of the business has grown ever more popular but you can’t avoid the observation that you are sitting at a bench that has several bicycles on it.
This is the nature of the area. Every leaseholder is trying to max their chance of paying the rent by placing several bets on their floorspace. By night, offices and shops become yoga studios, cooking schools or poetry slams.
This scrabbling around to pay the rent, this forced openness to new ideas is at the heart of any entrepreneurial, creative scene and it reflects not so much the square footage as the people.
Multi-jobs are the way of the emerging gig economy and soon enough the rarity will be the person who has a single full time job. You may notice that “part-time startup co-founder” is a title that appears with growing frequency on Linkedin, Twitter, Peach or other social network de jour.
Earning income across several activities allows people to take risks in one venture while still paying the bills via another. It provides both the mental space and the incentive to be creative and it supports a fertile culture for new ideas, serendipity and innovation (whether in startups or art or cooking).
But it’s also demanding and you might question whether people would pursue multi-jobs if they could trade it for a single, fat monthly pay check. Indeed, would a leaseholder really sub-let their space to yogis and would-be pastry chefs in the evening if their rent was already covered for the next three years? Possession of such financial security is wonderful (no doubt) but it might be Ambien for your creativity.
I bring this up because Seattle.
This is the home of such giants as Boeing, Amazon and Microsoft and recently Google, Facebook and Twitter have opened engineering centres here. It’s also Starbucks’ hometown which means it has more coffee and programmers than any City should reasonably have.
Accordingly, the laws of startup astrology indicate Seattle ought to be the sausage factory of Startup unicorns.
But it’s not. Seattle underperforms. The reason is Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter etc. What sane programmer would ditch the safe and fabulous compensation at one of the world’s best funded companies in return for the crazy risks of startup ? Not many. And if they did then you’d think twice about hiring them.
Seattle startups find themselves in a city full of programmers they can’t hire. In Silicon Valley, the same problem would exist except that the financiers ply startups with giant funding rounds so they can compete with Apple et al. No other city in the world is so full of investors ready to place such big bets. Yet the biggest Cities – by which I mea London – are increasingly full of Google, Facebook, and their brethren.
Which brings us back to Silicon Roundabout, currently the home of gallerdesks and bicycoffeeshops but increasingly the home of tech giants who are investing in expensive headquarters, growing headcounts and acquisitions. To mention a few: Amazon is shortly moving into an enormous HQ on the Shoreditch-City boundary, Cisco has already moved in around the corner, Google has acquired Deepmind, the machine learning startup and Microsoft recently bought local hero Swiftkey.
These are signs of success. But it doesn’t come without risk. As the giants threaten to dominate Silicon Roundabout the lesson of Seattle tells us to beware the accidental suppression of the area’s creative potential. The art-gallery-co-working-spaces are canaries. Keep your eyes on them.
This is from my April Column for BA Business Life magazinePosted by Richard Newton | 0 comments