Cracking creativity open. Brisbane’s coworking spaces

It’s not every day you hear an office described as ‘creativity on crack’.

That’s just how Jethro Batts describes his Sydney coworking space, The Works Glebe.

“It’s eclectic and definitely allows us to work within our own parameters, equipped with hammocks, dogs, standing desks, antique furniture and yes, even our own campervan,” Jethro says.

The Works Glebe: not your typical office setting
The Works Glebe: not your typical office setting (source: the Works website)

The Works Glebe is a creative, cultural and retail hub for innovators in business, art and life. It has a two floor retail centre and the third floor is a coworking office space, hosting an array of creative companies from guerilla gig promoters to wallpaper muralists. Jethro currently works alongside this collection of third floor companies in the coworking space, from which he runs his tech startup, Park My Van.

Coworking refers to shared office-like spaces which can be rented on a short or long term basis to a range of suitable tenants.

It’s like curating a group of professionals, just funky ones.

Such spaces are attractive to entrepreneurs, freelancers and other self-employed people who have eschewed the confines of a normal job and may otherwise be working from home. While the home office may initially provide freedom and independence, it can soon turn isolating not to mention continually distracting, thus detrimental to a constant flow of creative juices.

Sitting in a café may for some seem a viable alternative, but it comes with its own woes; noisy children, hit and miss Wifi and constant pressure to be consuming food and drinks. One coffee does not justify an 8 hour internet stint it seems.

Herein enters coworking, fusing the structure and community of an office with the freedom and flexibility of self-employment; at a fraction of the cost of traditional office leases.

Jethro Batts’ excitement is palpable as he explains how coworking has fast tracked his entrepreneurial career.

“Prior to coworking, we were largely on our own and separated in many respects from the pulse of our industry,” he says.

“Looking back, co-working spaces have provided not just an office space, but helped accelerate growth during the formative periods of a few of my businesses.”

His business, Park My Van, is now the largest site for verified parks in Australia and is connecting the vanning community by ‘bringing the beaten track online’. Jethro says coworking communities have helped him with all kinds of business decisions, from how to structure companies and gain capital, through to which email auto responder to use.

While Sydney and Melbourne have relatively established coworking scenes, which Jethro speaks of, the concept is still emerging in other parts of Australia, including Brisbane.

The Brisbane scene may still be small but there is movement and growth underfoot, disrupting the city’s conservative roots and bringing creative, collaborative working to the fore.

Salthouse, one of the first such disrupters, was founded by husband and wife team James and Lisa Wickham in 2010. Before coworking became a buzz term.

“Back then we simply sought co-tenants to help us cover the lease without really knowing what coworking was,” James says referring to their beginnings.

The Wickham’s were initially inspired by the space; the entire first floor of a beautiful heritage building right on top of Brisbane’s buzzing New Farm Village. James and Lisa now facilitate vibrant community of animators, writers, designers and developers, which doubles as their home and office. They see themselves as a concierge of sorts, able to connect like-minded people with services and outcomes they need.

Inside the Salthouse in New Farm
Inside the Salthouse in New Farm (source: Salthouse Website)

“Whether it be someone looking for a photographer, writer, animator or something else, we can usually point them off to another person within the building,” James says.

Coworking hype aside, the couple say they are happy to be involved at a grass roots level with the local community and their ideas.

“We now even have a collective within a collective,” says James, speaking of the Tiny Boat collective who operate a team of animators out of a Salthouse Studio.

Since Salthouse began, a unique collection of coworking spaces have also been established, further feeding Brisbane’s creative ecosystem.

River City Labs is a niche coworking space in Fortitude Valley founded by serial entrepreneur Steve Baxter.

Peta Ellis, General Manager of River City Labs, says they are slightly different from traditional coworking spaces.

“Traditional coworking spaces have complimentary service providers whereas we have only tech based startups. So we are all about shared learning from others who have walked the same road and faced the same hurdles,” says Peta.

It is not only shared learning drawing entrepreneurs to River City Labs; it’s finding solace with others who know what its like to live with a mind in permanent overdrive.

“As an entrepreneur you are cursed and blessed with ideas at the same time because they simply don’t stop. For this reason, normal social environments can prove difficult,” says Peta.

Ideas in action at River City Labs in Fortitude Valley
Ideas in action at River City Labs in Fortitude Valley

To encourage more interaction between members and help facilitate a thriving social atmosphere, River City Labs run a constant stream of events, over 180 in the two years since opening. These range from informal happy hour drinks to hosting successful entrepreneurs to come and speak to the members at different times.

Matt Barrie, CEO of one of Australia’s most successful (and globally utilised) startups, Freelancer.com is one such example. They also run the quarterly event “River Pitch” where entrepreneurs can pitch their ideas investors, helping startups connect with the every elusive capital.

“Events create an unintimidating social environment where people feel comfortable interacting and talking to different people. That’s when collaboration happens and they can connect and grow from there,” Peta says.

Another interesting coworking community is the SWARM space, in Brisbane’s bohemian district of West End.

Founder of Hunted Hive Digital Agency and food start-up Noshly, Nathan Keiler, wanted to create a space for innovative minds to wander. Nathan started the SWARM after returning from extended travels this year and realising he needed a place to both live and work from.

He also wanted it to be beautiful, and beautiful it is indeed.

The beautiful SWARM space
The SWARM space

A gorgeous architecturally redesigned Queenslander complete with lap pool, open plan kitchen and landscaped gardens was the chosen environment. Being inside the SWARM space feels like a holiday home on a tropical island and this divorce from the conventional view of how work life should be, sets it apart.

“It’s about breaking the mould of what an office is. We attract people who want to work in a space completely unlike a traditional office,” Nathan says.

Swimming and working anyone?
Swimming and working anyone?

The SWARM space now hosts an architect, a social enterprise and a selection of premium start-ups and freelancers. It also doubles as a collection point for fresh, locally-sourced fruit and vegetable boxes and plays host to exhibitions, events and training courses. The Brisbane launch of the nationwide Changemakers festival will be held at the SWARM this month, celebrating innovative responses and solutions to Australian’s toughest social challenges.

Further evidence of the rumble afoot in Brisbane’s creative ecosystem is back across the river at QUT creative industries precinct, which also curates a coworking community.

The Coterie is brainchild of Creative Enterprise Australia (CEA), Australia’s only dedicated incubator fund for creative enterprises. The coworking space sits on the fourth floor with sweeping 180-degree city views and the funky, colourful décor is akin to walking into an artist’s home.

The foyer at the Coterie, QUT
At the Coterie, QUT

The Coterie hosts several successful creative businesses and startups, including Peppermint Magazine and Studio Culture.

Peppermint, Australia’s leading eco-focused fashion and lifestyle magazine, recently moved in after five years working from a home office. Advertising & Marketing Manager Cara Tindall says this has opened up opportunities for them strategically and creatively.

“Having initiatives such the CEA fashion incubator within the precinct means we’re first in the know with emerging labels. This has opened up opportunities to be involved in leading initiatives such as the recent Creative3 Conference, which allowed us to expand our network and develop community connections,” she says.

Studio Culture, a successful digital design and branding company, work alongside Peppermint at the Coterie. Co-owners Fil Cristaldi, Joe Fox and David Bebis say their business has gone from strength to strength because the coworking approach has been adopted. They say the community spirit nurtured at the Coterie makes it an enjoyable and creatively stimulating environment to be in and allows great opportunities for collaboration.

“We’ve directly collaborated with Story Boxes (a visual storytelling company) who used to work here, and we’ve had staff opportunities arise from talented people just walking through the door,” Jo says.

“Once everyone introduces themselves and gets comfortable, you have people just come and tell you about opportunities and offer email introductions and that kind of thing,” he says.

These stories make the days where one spends their life cooped up in a stagnant office seem nothing but a distant memory. Possessing all of the virtues of home working and adding the vital ingredient of community, coworking matches a future focused creative workforce and working philosophy.

Entrepreneur Jethro Batts knows first-hand the potential an established coworking community holds and sees the concept continuing to grow.

“The future of working (and co-collaborating) is looking pretty bright and if anyone is thinking of finding a place, there is some cool space just waiting for you,” he says.

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