Week 21 – London. eOffice founder Pier Paolo Mucelli has visited a new and great space located in the heart of Shoreditch: The Trampery. Today, in The Workplace Series, we are featuring Pier’s interview with Founder, Charles Armstrong, where he tells us all about this creative hub, their mixed community, and its life as a social enterprise in Central London.
Charles, how did you get into the flexible office market and the coworking sector?
To be honest, it all started as a hobby project. My background is in sociology and from the late 90’s I was interested in the way that physical spaces could be designed and curated to support innovation and to change processes in communities. In the early 2000s, I came to Shoreditch to set up a software business and be a part of this creative area with artists, designers, and musicians. By 2007, many entrepreneurs started to arrive and I kept meeting people with really interesting ideas who wanted to be part of the community in Shoreditch but could not find a place to base their business. Instead, they were working in a spare bedroom or in cafes because nobody wanted to commit to a five-year lease and because there was no option of anything in between. Since I already had this idea, I thought it was worth to try it out, and that is when I created The Trampery.
At that time, was there low availability of commercial space generally?
Well, there was plenty of traditional spaces on five-year leases. In fact, the place that became the first Trampery, that was a 4000 sq ft unit in a new build that we got from the developer.
From the beginning, what I was interested in creating was not just something that was flexible and met the needs of entrepreneurs, but something that included all of the characteristics that I liked about Shoreditch. Therefore, I needed to create a mixed community, which had to be about an interesting, carefully selected mix of people from different backgrounds doing different things in different sectors and at different stages.
I wanted to create a community where the value of the whole could be more than they would be apart. That was the philosophy of the first Trampery that opened in October 2009, before anything really began to wake up in this creative tech neighbourhood.
This curation of members from different sectors, how did you go about creating it? Did you actually select the members?
It was a combination of distinctive processes. We started up with a particular set of values and ethos that attracted certain kinds of people, meaning it would be a self-filtering aspect to the selection. At the same time, we spent a lot of time talking about what kind of social dynamics we thought would be good and what kind of characteristics we wanted, and then there was a kind of filtering that we imposed as well.
We never stated a quota of what we wanted, but we wanted at least some representation from a range of sectors, which informed our selection process. We also wanted some businesses that were well established and some that had just started out because having that range of experience is very valuable. In addition, we looked for ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity as well.
Finally, we desired people who were enthusiastic about being a part of the family and people who were going to contribute. With my sociologist hat on, I could see that in order to create a community with people that are willing to both give and take, you need a high proportion of the members to be energised about participating.
How would you monitor the process of engaging the members and making sure that they actually contribute to the community?
We learned a lot from our first site. After running that for two years, you could really feel a buzz and that the liveliness within the community. I was curious whether people would start to work with each other or not, so as soon as collaboration started springing out, we understood that the concept was really working.
When we moved in 2011 we were a bit more scientific about tracking the process of the community. I have my desk where I can watch the breakfast bar and the kitchen area, so I quietly started observing the informal interaction happening. The aspect that scored the highest points for me was when there were guests visiting to meet with one of our members. They would sit at the breakfast bar waiting for them to arrive and if one of our other members struck up a conversation with them, I would consider that amazing, because in London that doesn’t normally happen. So, if this means that we are creating a social bridge and enabling that process to happen, then we are really doing something quite special.
Do you do anything specific to engage the community?
We have created sector focused programs that are a part of The Trampery’s structure where we deliver programs in travel tech, fashion, digital arts, and now in retail. Each of these has its own rhythm of activities such as breakfasts with established entrepreneurs, talks, investor events, and so on.
In addition, each of our buildings has a social program with networking events. To highlight what has happened here recently I can mention that we have our Old Street Treasure hunt, a 1970’s games show, weekly coffee mornings, and weekly after work drinks. In fact, there is a constant rhythm of happenings that are purely social and then there is a program which is entirely focused on business, where we help members making relevant business connections.
Charles, there is a lot of growth in the sector now with many big operators entering. Of course, there is no right or wrong answer regarding the size of a coworking operator, but what is your view in terms of size and environment?
I think it the flexible office industry is like the hotel industry. On one side, we have the big chains of hotels, which are standardised, in different locations, and maintaining a particular quality of service. On the other side, there are hotels that only have one site and therefore a very strong personality that provides a distinctive experience.
The shared workspace market has evolved and become highly competitive. I think that you have to know very clearly what your members want and make sure that you are providing that in order to survive.
So, for The Trampery, we are a social enterprise that will never set out to maximise profit. This immediately opens up different possibilities as we don’t have shareholders or investors to answer to, and therefore don’t have to choose activities in order to increase our income. In fact, what we care about is the quality of experience and the impact we have on our members’ businesses.
Regarding your question on optimal size, the sociology is extremely clear that there are certain sizes of bonding groups that will function in strong social entities. According to the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar and the Dunbar’s number, there is a limit of how many people whom one person can foster useful social connections or trust in common spaces. One threshold is around 50 people, and because of this, we would never have more than 50 people in an open planned desk space. Now that we are starting to do bigger sites on about 50 000 sq ft of workspaces, we make sure that we carefully designed the spaces and include a combination of open-plan elements, and self-contained spaces of different sizes, and a member’s club. This is because we want to maintain the importance of human nature as it relates to bonding groups and relationships in social settings.
I never studied sociology thinking that it would be practically useful, but for this business, it has been very useful indeed.
Charles, since 2009, how did you develop the business?
Recently, we just opened our 8th building in London, so as you can see, we have had a quick growth. However, one important fact about The Trampery’s DNA is that we never do the same thing twice. In every building we have done, we have taken the sum of what we have learned before and added to it.
When we did the original site, we understood the role and the importance of the kitchen. Therefore, on the following spaces, we built the whole floorplan around the kitchen being in the centre instead of having it tucked away. From then, we also started doing sector specialised facilities.
Are these temporary spaces or permanent spaces?
We have done a mixture of long-term facilities and more pragmatic short-term facilities. Old Street and Fish Island Village are 25 years leases. In these buildings we can invest a lot and put down a strong foundation with the knowledge that we are going to be there for a long time. In other cases, such as Fish Island Labs that was planned to be a one-year project, we had to be very disciplined in how we did the set-out.
Over time, I believe we are focusing more and more on longer term aspects and larger projects rather than small pragmatic ones, but they have been fantastic for learning and exploring new sectors and communities.
Being a social enterprise, where do you distribute your surplus profit?
It gets reinvested. So, essentially, the eight sites that we have done in the last seven years are bootstrapped. We have no external investors as we have been able to fund our development with income generated from some of the sites.
In parallel to that, we have also started to do some consulting projects internationally. Last year we did our first development projects outside of London, where we worked with the city of Oslo on a project called Tøyen Startup Village in order to develop an area in the east of the city as an innovation cluster.
Charles, could you describe the design aspects and the main components within this building?
With the very first building, the interior design was really central to me because I have been in spaces that feel too much like an IKEA showroom, and I did not like that. So, I knew that if I was going to do something here in Shoreditch and attract businesses from creative sectors, then it had to have a very different aesthetic sensibility. In a way, I got inspired by the prevailing design in Shoreditch, which was a playful mix of new and old things. For instance, we have a lot of contemporary art that we did in a conjunction with a gallery, and various antique pieces within the sites. All in all, we aim for a playfulness in our interior because we believe that it contributes to creativity.
In addition, I believe that we have treated the interior more the way that you design a home rather than an office, with elements such as plants and warm pallet and materials. In addition, we never established a monolithic style that gets replicated in each building, but instead, we have worked with different architects and designers in order to create interiors that respond to the particular building and to the community it relates to.
In terms of break-out areas, private offices and hot-desking, how big is this building?
We have one big floor in Old Street which is 10 000 sq ft. The space is divided into different areas with workspaces, an open plan facility with capacity for about 20 people, a big event suite, and the library. Then we have the drawing room which is the social members club located in the lobby area. During the day it functions as a self-service café and a hot-desking area, and in the evenings we can run cocktail clubs and other after work events.
Finally, we have the ballroom of 2500 sq ft with capacity for about 200 people. In fact, regarding the development of the ballroom, we did quite a bit of research and found out that there was unmet demand for a huge events space in Shoreditch.
Is that rentable for external people?
Yes, and it is quite interesting because it brings in all kinds of businesses!
Charles, regarding the current market, how do you see the level of supply and demand?
When we started in 2009, analysts looked at us and saw us as a niche. They thought that the shared working environment was going to be a very specific and small part of the market that only related to startups.
Today, people’s perceptions have changed. Essentially, I think that the whole commercial property industry is going through a very dramatic change and, what started in technology and creative industries as coworking, is a wave that is now sweeping through everything. We are even starting to see some of the biggest corporations outsourcing places for their employees to work in third party workspace providers. I believe this trend will continue.
Finally, what are the main challenges and opportunities for you and The Trampery in the next few years?
The main challenge is that we have managed to scale and deliver eight buildings without damaging the strength of the community and the values we started with. Now, that we are starting to do projects internationally and scale in different ways, the real challenge is holding on to that.
At the moment, we are also going through a lot of changes internally as we are preparing for the next stage. We are bringing in more staff, developing our operating structure, systematising some things, and leaving other things. We would consider it a great failure if The Trampery became a big multinational operator where the members could not recognise the culture anymore. Therefore, keeping our values and the close community is very essential to us.