Sharing office space can mean big business: Collective Works founder Jonathan O'Byrne

Collective Works opens second co-working office in the CBD, taking up a whole floor

Mr O'Byrne at the co-working space on the 12th floor of Capital Tower. His company, Collective Works, offers shared office space and facilities for a fraction of the cost of a conventional office.
Mr O'Byrne at the co-working space on the 12th floor of Capital Tower. His company, Collective Works, offers shared office space and facilities for a fraction of the cost of a conventional office. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

He set out to solve personal issues he had faced as a foreigner and ended up providing solutions to other newcomers to Singapore.

Mr Jonathan O'Byrne, 30, who was born in the Republic of Ireland and spent 20 years in the Middle East, today helps enterprising expatriates who need only a small workspace to pool together their resources. His company, Collective Works, opened its second co-working office on the entire 12th floor of Capital Tower in March.

Not too bad for someone who was labelled a "trailing spouse" when he came here with his partner, who was posted to Singapore in 2010. And, no, he wasn't a homemaker. He was running a branding and communication business out of a spare bedroom.

"The kind of expatriates who are pulled into Singapore tend to be high performers - and high performers tend to have high-performing spouses," he told The Straits Times earlier this month.

"I went from being the head of corporate communications at a Middle Eastern industrial company to a trailing partner... and kept meeting all these amazing counterparts who had been heads of department, investment bankers, even doctors who couldn't practise here."

He understood then that there was a large group of people who could potentially offer very much value, but the framework around them - the instability faced by an expat here - would make it difficult to run a business with traditional commercial leases.

So, Collective Works - which offers a shared office space and facilities for a fraction of the cost of a conventional office - was set up.

As a co-working space, Collective Works - which started in The Globe in Cecil Street - is also meant to foster collaboration. "After working from home for two years, spending 14 to 16 hours by myself every day, I had a successful business but very poor work-home life separation... The isolation was also starting to be negative," said Mr O'Byrne.

He tried to find a workplace where he could meet others as well but, after viewing 20 to 30 serviced offices here, could not find a match.

He gave up his business and used his savings to start Collective Works. The first office opened as a 2,500 sq ft space in December 2012 and it now occupies four to five times that.

While his was not the first co-working space here, he claimed it was the first in the Central Business District (CBD). "Co-working space is a tricky model to work with given CBD rents... but it was critical for us to be there."

This was because his target clientele - like himself - are people who need to be in the CBD because their clients are the multinational corporations. "I saw the CBD as granting access to much bigger organisations. It's also set up for business with everything nearby - transport, recreation, services."

Collective Works can accommodate one-man clients as well as small outfits employing up to 30 people. If they are any bigger, they would be better off economically by getting their own space.

Collective Works streamlines many needs that serviced offices would typically count as extras.

For example, some serviced offices have a connectivity charge, telephone charges, printing charged per page, or charges for hosting guests.

His firm offers different levels of services under a three-tier membership scheme: hot desking, or shared desk, from $240 to $540 a month; dedicated space at $700 to $850 a month per desk; and premium offices at $800 to $1,300 a person.

Membership response is pretty good. His Capital Tower office plays host to businesses ranging from a charitable foundation and social media marketing to real-estate analytics. Mr O'Byrne is sensitive to competing businesses sharing the same space.

"We don't want to put competitors in the same space. If we had a company wanting to come in that is very similar to an existing member, we'd have a frank discussion with the directors on whether they were competitors. There is a certain amount of curation; we want to make sure we are dealing with people playing the same game," he said.

Some of the products Collective Works members have created include the space management software it uses as well as its website.

"I think co-working has hit a tipping point where it's too big to go away. I see it becoming ubiquitous and for Collective Works, it means there will be a lot more of them," said Mr O'Byrne.

But the best co-working spaces also respond to place - clients are different between its offices at The Globe and Capital Tower, even though they are just 600m apart, he noted.

For Mr O'Byrne, Collective Works is part of a personal mission.

"When I shut down my profitable agency, it was difficult and I did some soul-searching... Part of my upbringing - I've lived in five countries at this point - has taught me the importance of creating a sense of home, making people around you comfortable.

"And in my branding and communications business, I found people responded well to my design work." he said. "Collective Works combines the two - it allows me to use design skills and make people comfortable. I believe that through Collective Works, we are changing the way people experience their working lives."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2016, with the headline Sharing office space can mean big business. Subscribe