"The world isn't nine to five anymore"; Avenue HQ's CEO & Director talk all things coworking
Switch on to Business Magazine speaks to Avenue HQ's CEO and Director about all things coworking, the creation of a work-life without limits and the birth of Avenue HQ Liverpool.
Thank you to the editor Rachael Khan-Hill for the following interview. To read the entirety of Edition 9, please click here.
Avenue HQ started in June 2017, is that right?
Matt: We opened in June 2017. The journey started about a year prior to that.
Tell us more about the journey you’ve been on to get here.
Luke: We had to create a space that people wanted - not what we thought people wanted. We used the time prior to our arrival (at Mann Island) to see what worked, to find out what people wanted and to perfect our own product and operations as a business. During those initial months we listened to people and took on feedback in order to create something that we could expand and take to other places.
Matt: I think the other thing about the few months prior to the launch was that people started using the space. It’s all very well us putting desks and chairs and couches and a bar in, but there’s more to a space like this than that. It’s not just about the furniture; it’s about the kind of community you build within. So it was about getting our members in all of the offices, seeing people using the space, having the staff interact with them, and seeing how business can be generated between each of the companies working here. That time provided us with a real opportunity to see how Avenue HQ could work going forward.
We’re in The Observatory now, probably the best part of the building…
Matt: Actually this room is very interesting. There’s been a lot of interest in people taking this on as an office. We’ve always resisted that because the beauty of a space like this is that everyone, regardless of their membership, should be able to benefit from it. That’s why we exist. It’s why we do what we do. Regardless of whether you’re a small business, a one-person organisation or you’re in a 10 person office, you can still use these shared facilities. Also, if you’re a small business and you’re inviting clients, then what a facility to use…what a way to show off your business. What does this space offer?
Luke: It’s an office that people work from in a different way. It’s a creative way of working, which doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a creative business…
Matt: You’ve got all the things you’d expect from a traditional office: desk, office chairs, printing, broadband - that ultimate connectivity. But what this space offers is something on top of that. A lot of small businesses or entrepreneurs, when they start out, work from home. They may convert a bedroom into an office, but they’re isolated in what they do: they work solely on their project; they don’t get to interact with others; they don’t get to be inspired by other people working on whatever they’re working on; they have nobody to bounce ideas off; they find it very difficult to separate a home life from a work life. They need that social element, that support element. If you’re an accountant and you’ve just started out, you may need a new website. The person sitting next to you here may be a web designer, who’s just started out and is looking for an accountant. So there’s a natural synergy and opportunity for people to work together.
So this is about enabling businesses to do things at scale…
Matt: We support businesses along those lines but it’s really down to the person and the business. If a business is just one person and they’re sustaining their own life doing what they love, and that is the sole aim of their business, then that’s a success story to us. But at the same time, if you’re two people and you’re looking to scale up to a team of 10 and you want that high-growth support, we can offer you that as well. We try to bring the benefits of a larger organisation to individuals. If you miss having colleagues, some of the members here become your adopted colleagues. In a way, you work alongside them. Your projects don’t have to impact on one another, but they can if you want them to.
Before you set up Avenue HQ, what was your background?
Matt: I grew up in Liverpool. I went to John Moores for my undergrad and I then did my Master’s at the University of Liverpool. Following that, I had various jobs. For a while, I ran a charity incubator for early-stage businesses. I really fell in love with the coworking approach and I got involved with that world a little bit more. I saw a lot of different spaces around the country and in other countries as well and I really started to see and understand the benefits of co-working. Really early stage businesses are well catered for in Liverpool. I wanted to provide a destination for people to move on to, following their really early stages. That was my background - Luke?
Luke: I was a musician…
Matt: He was a good one, as well.
Luke: After studying music for a while, I did a Masters in marketing, which was still focused on music. I then went to work with Matt in the same incubator. That’s where I really found a love of working with small businesses. I’ve done a few stints in large organisations, working in marketing departments, mainly in e-commerce. But after a year away from small businesses, I thought it was time to come back. For me, it’s not necessarily about small businesses, but different businesses. That’s what I love - seeing different people from different organisations every day, not all being under the same umbrella of one place. When Matt and I were working together in incubators, our jobs were to tell people to start their own businesses.
Matt: And support people in doing so…
Luke: And support them in doing so. We hadn’t done it ourselves yet. When you work with so many talented entrepreneurs, you see people going on these journeys. You see the excitement, you see them celebrating milestones. It gave us a taste of what life could be like.
Matt: We’re a classic example of what we’re saying about this space. We were inspired by people working within incubators to start our own business, and we’ve created an inspiring place where that can continue to happen.
Luke: A lot of the inspiration for our growth strategy comes from the people in here. We haven’t stopped being inspired by the people we’re surrounded by. The talent in this one building is crazy. If everyone came together and created this super-organisation, it would be unbelievable.
What roles do you each perform here?
Matt: I’m the founder and the CEO. I look after everything at the strategic, top-level. I could sit here and try and give you a job description, but I can’t.
Luke: I don’t actually know what I do. If I was to sit down and try to write a job description, it would be a mess.
Matt: Luke is the Operations Director. He’s been here from the start and he’s done a million and one things to try to get this place up and running. I suppose that’s what this place is about: breaking down definitions, barriers - everything really.
As an organisation you’ve said that your mission is to create a working life without limits. Describe what that looks like.
Matt: It comes back to what we said before about the feel of a large organisation. To expand on that a little bit more, we pay for a wellbeing programme for our members - so yoga, pilates, back-training, massages.
Luke: We’ve created a facility where people can grow, take a step back, reassess, take any angle they want to take. For the first time, their office space helps them; it doesn’t restrict them.
Matt: People love to be here and that’s the ultimate aim for us. We want people to enjoy coming here, to enjoy coming to work. We want people to walk through that door and be happy.
Luke: You spend a third of your life in work, so you may as well try and enjoy yourself.
That’s what I’m picking up on. This is quite holistic in the sense that it isn’t limited to peoples’ working lives but goes into other areas of their lives as well. I’m referring specifically to the lifestyle elements of what you’ve described. You hear a lot about these working environments now…
Luke: And that’s exactly it - and it’s always about large organisations. But now, as a one-man band, you can actually get all of the same types of benefits.
For the benefit of those who may be unfamiliar with the co-working concept, can you explain how it differs from a traditional working environment? Do you think it’s a model for the way workplaces will evolve in the future?
Matt: I think the UK needs to play catch-up, particularly outside of London.
Matt: To America…
Luke: Luxembourg, India… There’s a 55/45 per cent split in office set-ups in New York between co-working and traditional. 45 per cent co-working. And what you’re seeing is a lot of organisations changing their office layouts. It’s not strictly co-working with different organisations, but coworking with different teams. It’s how millennials, new graduates and new talent wants to work.
Matt: What we’re also seeing now is a growth in remote workers. There’s more flexibility about how you can work as well. Everybody’s connected. As long as you’ve got broadband you can dial in. You’re connected from wherever you are. There seems to be something in the environment that’s receptive to this right now.
What do you think are the cultural forces shaping this new approach to work? Why have we shifted this way? What’s driving us?
Matt: Connectivity is a huge thing – IT, tech. People are so connected in terms of phones and laptops. You can dial in - you don’t necessarily have to be in the office. With a space like this you pay for what you need. If you need to use this space three times one week and not use it the next week, you pay for those three times you use it. If you had an office space, you pay for it regardless. Here you pay for what you need. A lot of people like that.
Luke: For a small organisation or a one-man band, it’s perfect. It’s good for cash flow. But going back to why co-working works: businesses learn more by being here than they would do anywhere else. It’s the collaboration, meeting people, having easy access to talent.
Matt: People don’t want the nine to five anymore do they?
Luke: The world isn’t nine to five anymore.
Do you think this way of working feels more intuitive to a younger generation of workers?
Luke: Definitely. But more experienced people also come and say to us ‘Why did we never work like this?’
Matt: What I’d also say is yes - yes it is - but I think others are really starting to see the benefits and are using it as well.
What we’re seeing at Switch On To Business is a culture that’s more global, more atomised. Traditional loyalties are breaking down; people want to strike out on their own. They want to belong to themselves and not necessarily to an organisation.
Luke: There’s nothing wrong with working for a big company. But we’re also finding a lot of people who are working with big companies within here. We live in a society of convenience. If you have a talented person in front of you and you need a quick answer and a quick job, why would you use anyone else? Why would you spend the time searching? Here, you have talent under one roof.
You have private office space available alongside shared space. A few of the businesses that reside here choose to pay for private office space. At what point does a co-working space cease to be a co-working space and become collection of private rentals?
Matt: Co-working can often be used as a buzz word. It can be a decorative solution to failed office space. People think it’s a load of desks thrown in a room.
Luke: People think it’s cheap or a place to go when they can’t afford an office.
Matt: It gives the image of your business a negative one. But that is so not the case - not the case at all. Look at what we’ve got here: all different types of memberships that work for all different types of businesses and organisations. If you’re a business and you’re working on confidential items, open-plan space is overrated, but you may still want that cultural element of working within a collaborative community. As long as you can close your door and have those conversations - or go into phone booth or a meeting room - you still have the facility to do that. But as soon as you walk out of your office, there are all these amazing people who you can collaborate with if you choose to. Open plan space doesn’t equal co-working. Co-working can be a combination of different types of spaces. Once you get that combination right, you create a hub which can work for any organisation. Some people are introverted, finding it essential to have solitude within a working environment.
Can you explain how a space like this accommodates different temperaments and work styles? Matt: This is a great design-led place. We’ve thought about these things. We’ve thought a lot about what different people want. We spoke to a lot of people prior to this; we went round a lot of places. You were researching in Boston and New York (looking at Luke), the home of coworking. We really drilled that research down into the product.
Luke: And the flow of positioning rooms and positioning of certain areas. Even putting printers in a certain place can encourage conversation. There’s always a private area, always a quiet area. But if you want that vibrancy, it’s always there.
Matt: The volume of the music is always higher in the lobby area. There are two doors that block off the events space from the work space so people don’t get interrupted by the events, which helps to make it the best possible flow and the best possible space for all different types of people. What are your views on attracting and retaining top talent in the city?
Luke: We want to encourage an expansive network around the UK, using what we’ve achieved in Liverpool to showcase to other cities. It’s not simply about keeping talent here; it’s also about bringing talent here.
Matt: If you’ve got 18,000 graduates coming out of the universities each year, you have a skills base within the city. Small businesses can help to keep that talent here.
What makes Liverpool a good place to do business?
Matt: I think the start-up scene in Liverpool has exploded in recent years. Look at the independent food outlets. Look at Bold Street. I think Liverpool has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. It has a grit, a determination. It’s an attractive place for people to live and it’s an attractive place for people to start a business. It’s a great city, it’s got some great businesses, and it’s only going to get better
Avenue HQ aim to deliver high-quality, affordable, collaborative space and private offices, located at Mann Island alongs the historic Liverpool waterfront.