Co-working spaces in Silicon Valley

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Co-working spaces are designed to promote change and action in Silicon Valley’s megaliths

Silicon Valley’s megaliths are passionate about change and about providing working environments that will echo their mission – to challenge the present and to develop the future. Nothing is exempt: projects, teams, spaces, furnishings, messages, are all designed to provide relentless pressure to try something new. 

Co-working spaces are one of the distinguishing features of to-day’s new-fangled Accelerators (short periods of intensive development for a limited number of carefully chosen small teams working alongside one another, aiming to develop an idea for a new business into a marketable proposition with the support of facilitators and an army of mentors). In imitation of Silicon Valley, London has been seeing a wave of new such spaces in the last two years. So what do the new buildings of Facebook, Twitter and Google have to tell us about the design of these spaces?*

Change is seen as high technology’s most valuable commodity. The cubicle has given way to the long tables and broad whiteboards of open-plan offices, where everyone taps into a common Wi-fi signal. Office teams grow or shrink in these open rooms, moving work and information as quickly as possible.

Facebooks’ headquarters encloses a pedestrian square and a two-way promenade. The complex has a cup-cake store and a barbeque joint, a wood working shop, a print shop and an arcade. It also includes two cafeterias, several special food shops, and three small restaurants, and shortly a noodle shop. Everything is free or subsidised.

Facebooks’ unofficial slogan is “hack”, which has come to mean remaking something with an amateur’s passionate disregard for the usual rules. Their Hackathons are efforts to keep experimenting, to try something new before some scrappy start-up does so.

There are posters everywhere, that exhort change, hacking and fearlessness – like ‘Taking risks give me energy’ and ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ Facebook moves around as many as 1,000 out of its 6,000 employees every month, re-assigning them to new short-term projects. Walkways double as spaces for ambulatory meetings, held on the go so that they are short and decisive.

The print and wood working shops are intended to keep employees grounded in offline experiences, including personal projects and the printing of many of the wall posters, which the company hopes will help them create more consumer-friendly software. Bike repair shops, along with a bank and the free food, help keep people close to campus.

Couches in the casual areas are often replaced with no advance warning, and design changes to Facebook’s home page are known as ‘moving the furniture around’, something that initially annoys consumers but pays off over the long haul – people get used to change when change is expected.

At Twitter’s headquarters, irregular soft cubes serve as impromptu meeting areas – the company encourages informal meetings in this low-stress setting, hoping that it will help foster new ideas. Back in the business areas, there are open-plan work spaces, along with individual file cabinets on rollers that can be moved to wherever an employee will next be working. Here there is a sense that nothing is permanent, that any product can be dislodged from greatness by something newer. It’s the aesthetic of disruption: we must all change, all the time.

Information sharing has become the hallmark of Silicon Valley companies, particularly when things are going well. It is another way of fostering the idea, borne in the programming world, that hidden data is actually more valuable when shared.

Google’s new headquarters has its dinosaur and cupcake sculptures and multi-coloured bicycles for intracampus transport. But what seems like whimsy is a result of careful, data-driven decision-making. A team-leader in Google’s Real Estate Department cites studies of ‘biophilia’ – love of nature and its effects on easing stress levels. He is after the Holy Grail of the Knowledge Industry – ‘how to measure productivity, which is not just how quickly you type or how well you make a line of code, but how you feel about it, and whether you had enough energy to play with your kids when you got home’.

Google Real Estate is more lab that furniture department: it tests chairs in order to provide each person with the correct chair; it tests desks, lighting systems, heating systems etc. It has ripped out ceilings and installed skylights in order to provide more natural lighting; and it provides ‘nap pods’ where people can catch a few winks in enclosed silence, with noise reducing cushions. ‘The harder we work the more important it is to have to space to get away from the chaos for a while’.

*Adapted from the `International New York Times’ 3 March 2014

Paying mentors in equity for their introductions

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Paying mentors in equity for their introductions – a novel element in startup deals

While Accelerators expect 6-8% equity in return for participation in their programmes and angels expect to earn their turn on their own investments in startups, mentors whose many different kinds of contribution are arguably at least as significant have been expected to work for love*.

Experience suggests that one of the most vital needs for an entrepreneur is for introductions to contacts who are potential users and potential customers – as people whose knowledge and experience can contribute outstandingly to the development of a new product or service. But mentors are naturally cautious about imperilling their own relationship with their good contacts.

A new kind of offer is expected to bring this process into line with other supporters of startups. A well-connected mentor has offered to a startup to introduce the latter to five key contacts over a short period of time, in return for two and a half per cent equity, a half per cent for each introduction. Each party could disappoint on one round without abrogating the deal; and either party could opt out of the agreement early at the conclusion of any of its stages; so that if either side had two (or more) disappointments, it was possible for the deal to be abandoned. (The mentor had undertaken to name in advance the organisations to which the first contact was attached.)

This kind of deal is important for entrepreneurs whose projects are of a disruptive nature and/or in fields with which they are unfamiliar as are those of many startups.

* Though EU funding has recently been made available through Capital Enterprise for mentors and other supporters in London-based Accelerators.

Is Level39 at Canary Wharf the future of Innovation

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Eric van der Kleij suggests that innovation centres are a valuable way of providing comprehensive support for new hi-growth businesses – in their best markets; and every city should have one.

 

Who better to ask about the future of innovation, than Eric van der Kleij, formerly Head of Tech City at Shoreditch, and now Head of Level39, Canary Wharf’s innovation space. Accelerators, he responded will specialise; they will spawn natural pre-cursors and after-care, they will proliferate and they will be more about revenue than about investment – more about growth than about funding. And innovation spaces will be a natural feature of cities and clusters.

He believes that Accelerators will become more thematic, citing The Bakery in London, with its Adtech focus, and the Tramperies, whose progenitor Charles Armstrong, has just opened the ‘Fashion Pub’ – a workspace for fashion designers and startups in Hackney. Other new specialist programmes include Ravensbourne College of Art’s incubator programme in Media Technology and Design, and UCL’s IDEALondon space with its focus on future media, healthcare and mobile.

And Eric sees a future for the Technology Strategy Board funded Catapults, designed to propel forward specific areas where technologies promise innovation. Hack Days, of which Level39 has run many in the past year, can help to identify commercialisable IP, and the Catapults need good leaders who can manage the tech transfer process, and help them to get allied with authentic startups.

He sees innovation spaces not only running Accelerators, but also running Hackathons, whose prize winners will enter Accelerators; and as at Level39, innovation spaces will offer tailored accommodation in co-working areas to hi-growth companies coming out of Accelerators (some of which can grow at twice the rate of their less curated entrepreneurs.) The future that he sees is of thriving, self-sustaining and independent clusters, consisting of startups/young businesses, users and funders.

And he thinks that every city will have an innovation centre; and he reels off the names of innumerable cities the world over that have beaten a path to his door to learn about how Level39 does what it does – cities with whom he has made Friendship Agreements.

He is quick to add that every such innovation space has to work with its own context; and he cites one city in a country with few roads, where the prize for winners of a competition to enter the Accelerator included an SUV – inscribed with banner details of that person’s new business – which would enable the participants all to reach the Accelerator daily.

So what is Level39? At first it was one complete floor of One Canada Square, the tallest building at Canary Wharf, which provided desk spaces for early-stage businesses (in retail and financial technology) because of its unique ‘connectious’ environment (with mentors and more experienced entrepreneurs), most of them already post-revenue – some desks in communal rows, some in small glass-fronted offices, some in larger spaces, with an attractive central area (with its 3pm Cookie Bell for getting people to meet up, and its infamous electronically controlled coffee machine!) In addition there are three Sandboxes – areas which organisations take in order to wrestle with particular issues, each of slightly different proportions and lay-outs; and there are Board Rooms, and a handsome auditorium and beside it a large restaurant area. (For a fuller description, see http://wp.me/p3beJt-65)

Now a second floor of One Canada Square has been added. Two successful Accelerator programmes have prompted the equipping of a tailor-made space for such programmes. Last year’s Fintech Lab London, a 12-week Accelerator programme designed to help up to a dozen small businesses introduce new products to the big banks located at Canary Wharf is about to be repeated (see http://wp.me/p3beJt-3); and Dassault Systemes, Europe’s second largest software company, invited startups to come and develop customer solutions in one special area of its expertise – both these programmes run by teams separate to the incubator space. The new space has rows of bench-type desking, all with essential IT, and a couple of small meeting rooms. In addition, this new floor has a number of rooms set aside for hi-growth companies emerging from Accelerators, along with a kitchen/rest room (with its Subbuteo table.) And more space on this floor is about to be equipped similarly.

Established with the imaginative support of Canary Wharf’s landlord  (who was concerned about the future of the area), Level39 has proved that Incubators and Accelerators have closely complementary roles and that a comprehensive innovation space is a viable concept. But insiders cannot turn the taps on; it needs influential outsiders to help nudge into being the policies that can bring them into existence. And any city can adapt the concept to its advantage.

 

John Whatmore                                                                  January 2014

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity, London

What do participants in Accelerators value most?

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In their fast-developing projects, more than anything else they say they value what they get from other participants, from mentors and from contacts. But helping them to do so requires a closer knowledge of them, their project and their progress than most hatcheries manage.

The best part for one participant was what he got from his weekly meeting with the three programme ‘managers’; another valued above all else what he got from others on the programme. And what he got from a changing quorum of mentors, advisers and contacts was also cited as of immense value.
Many Accelerator programmes have weekly sessions at which project leaders have to talk about their progress. Bethnal Green Ventures’ sessions are with three programme managers – whose regular questions are: What have you achieved this week; What do you hope to achieve next week; What is stopping you; and What have you learned. (One incubator manager records their answers and makes them available on their intranet.) As one project leader commented, this process forces you to evaluate your progress and to think about the future. And you get valuable feed-back on these and other aspects of the project.
Starting up an enterprise may be personally demanding, but it clearly needs external help – in (skilfully managed) barrow loads! Moreover there is a big difference between reactive support and proactive support: between help that is simply available and support that enables you to find just what you need when you need it – a ‘mothering’ role, that entails close contact with the team and their evolving project.
Projects evolve fast, so that needs for help change as the project moves on; moreover leaders of early-stage projects often do not have the experience that would enable them to know what help they need, either now or to-morrow. So participants may identify what help they need, but the programme manager or a mentor may also see something – that the participant may not see (- often how about how the team is working).
Participants value most the help they seem to get from people whom they bump into in the Accelerator – other participants or visitors, who have just the knowledge or experience they need; and from the contacts to whom programme managers or mentors can introduce you – people who have solved a similar problem – development, technical, commercial or financial – in another context, and especially potential users and customers.
Sometimes mentors are simply a shoulder to cry on; other mentors provide feed-back, advice, ideas, technical knowledge, solutions; and they provide contacts of all sorts, especially with people with relevant technical expertise, and potential users or customers. Needs change fast, but once a need becomes clear, then as well as the programme manager, it is often a mentor who may be able to connect you to such a person.
Initially, mentors often found themselves telling would-be entrepreneurs that their idea was a non-starter! Some mentors would suggest difficulties that they either had not considered and/or would need to address; others would suggest looking at the problem from either a narrower or a wider perspective, or even looking at an altogether different issue. Participants often find this stage frustrating; but as time passes, these meetings focus more on their encounters with reality – how significant or representative they may be, as well as how they should respond to them.
Sometimes mentors would invite participants to reflect on why they had alighted on that particular issue; and occasionally to explore issues to do with the team – as not working as well as it needed to, or lacking certain essential skills for its purposes.
Visiting speakers, especially if they are among those who have ‘done it before’ are popular for the inspiration they bring – that can bring solace and renew determination in the roller-coaster that is the starting up of a new enterprise.

For more see http://wp.me/p3beJt-6f. See also Specialists will head up a coaching revolution http://wp.me/p3beJt-7E, and Curating support for inventers, innovators and creatives http://wp.me/p3beJt-5K.