Sunday, February 28

The rise of Kuching’s coworking spaces

0

In a world where work responsibilities and boundaries are ever changing with the times, such also is the change in the way people work.

Open offices, digital nomads and working from home are some of the unconventional evolutions of the work habits of today, bound not by a 9-to-5 physical presence in your typical enclosed cubicle.

All these led to the birth of coworking spaces: a business services provision model involding individuals working independently or collaboratively in a shared office space.

Co-working spaces are fast catching on in Kuching, tapping into the needs of entrepreneurs, freelancers or just the general public in need of workstations equipped with the right tools and facilities to aid them in the course of running a business.

A recent search on Facebook recently revealed a variety of co-working spaces available in Kuching, all with different offerings and facilities to suit different customers’ needs.

Why are co-working spaces becoming so popular these days? According to co-founder of The Learning Curve, Kenneth Chai, Kuching is a unique place where business concepts should match the needs and expectations of the local economy, market and demographics.

Kenneth Chai

“What works – or didn’t work abroad – doesn’t necessarily resonate here,” Chai said. He and his partners are planning to open up a co-working space soon to integrate with their existing science, technology, egineering and mathematics (STEM) enrichment centre.

“As a STEM education provider, we are not exactly venturing into another co-working space clone here in Kuching. What we are trying to is to set up a working and living community for local enterprises — by a local enterprise ourselves.”

The Learning Curve, along with another social enterprise, will be resident enterprises at the space. Aside from that, it will also feature capsule accommodation and 24/7 access for entrepreneurs with global clientele or services.

“With a very reasonable cost and standard of living, we believe Kuching can offer itself as a low risk launchpad for non-tech, digital service oriented start-up founders.

“Besides, as a start-up ourselves, we believe we have to constantly create viable market for our business, instead of only relying on market demand.”

Chai noted that as conventional businesses downsize their operational expenses, and mature start-ups scaling up, these businesses will look for low-risk low-cost flexible and immediate working space for their external ad-hoc units.

This is the trend seen worldwide as the proliferation of start-ups and other small entreprises boosts the growth of coworking spaces.

But what other coworking spaces are there in Kuching that are quickly gaining attention? BizHive Weekly talks to a few industry players:

My Placa: A homely touch of comfort and familiarity

Upon stepping into My Placa, one gets a sense of being in the comforts of a cozy home, complete with a compact pantry and even a mini-gym of sorts in the corner.

Such is the aim of the founders of My Placa: giving people a place where they can get some work done while also allowing for those who need some ‘me time’ to chill and relax.

“We don’t actually classify ourselves as a ‘co-working space’. We call it a co-working space only because there is no other way of defining it,” co-founder Diana Bong, who mostly manages the space, explained to BizHive Weekly.

“We envision My Placa to be like a second place to home where you can work comfortably without distractions like in cafes, which primarily a co-working space does.

“But, we didn’t want to make this a place that is only for work. When we first founded My Placa, we held the mission of’meeting new friends and exploring opportunities.”

The name My Placa came about from a typo in a Whatsapp group chat between co-founders Bong, Elsa Tan, Kenny Ang and Ho Yun Tzan.

On how My Placa attracts customers to its space, Tan shared that, while they have yet to figure out the best way to promote it, they are currently relying on social media and word-of-mouth.

“If you realise, we actually have a sub-title ‘The Experiment’, My Placa – The Experiment. The four of us (co-founders), we got no experience in doing business, so we call this an experiment because we don’t know what exactly is the best way to promote.

“The usual (methods) will be by social media and word-of-mouth. We take this as a platform and opportunity to try out different strategies and types of promotions during different periods,” Tan said.

Key attractive features

With a growing number of freelancers and part-timers in Kuching, Bong believes that, there is definitely a market here for unique spaces such as My Placa.

My Placa is also open to students who want to study for exam preparations or complete assignments. In fact, in the first few months of its opening, which coincidentally was also the exam period, My Placa saw a rise in singups from students.

“We were not expecting high school students to patronise our space. Also, medical professionals who have exams will come to My Placa to study. Only in the last two months id we start to see freelancers and digital nomads coming in.”

Additionally, part-timers such as direct salespeople tend to frequent My Placa, as they find it a convenient space to do product presentations, instead of conducting these at their own homes.

One of the main highlights of My Placa, aside from its location of being nearer to residential areas and less rigid working-studying environment, is attributed to its coffee machine, an investment which is paying off for the co-founders.

“We have this coffee machine which seems to be one of the attractions. This is because it is an espresso-based coffee machine, and they get to be hands-on, making the coffee themselves,” Bong enthused.

“That has become a popular feature, to the extent that when it is a customer’s first time coming in here, the first thing they will ask is ‘where’s the coffee machine?’.

From this, the co-founders have their eyes on moving to a bigger area in order to add more facilities to their current offerings.

Currently, the My Placa features an open-space layout with individual one-person tables and a coffee table facing its floor-to-ceiling windows, along with a few other long tables to accommodate customers.

“We are thinking of moving to a bigger area or space. We are starting to look at shoplots at the moment,” Tan said. “We were thinking of adding in some different facilities from the feedback from the customers such as meeting rooms.”

Plans for evolving

Looking ahead, it is clear that My Placa will not be just like any other ‘co-working space’.

In fact, Tan shared their plans of also creating a platform at My Placa for home-made or locally-made products.

“During festive seasons, we do have homemade cookies to sell as well. It’s a platform for people to sell their home made products,” Tan said. “We have people who come here just to buy the granola or tuak.”

Additionally, the co-founders are looking into making My Placa a parcel collection centre whereby customers can send their items to the location and later pick these up at a more convenient time.

A creative move on the part of the co-founders, given that online shopping is practically a norm these days and does not seem to be a trend that is slowing down anytime soon.

“We actually looked into parcel collection. Like for working people, normally nobody is at home. Usually, courier services will go to the houses, and when there’s nobody there, they will just leave a card.

“It’s actually quite troublesome for (the recipients), I mean to even go to the (postal delivery or company) centre to collect their parcels,” Tan said, based on her own experience.

“We are looking into it, we haven’t started, but we are looking into it. It is actually very convenient because we open until 10pm everyday so it’s convenient for them to just drop by and pick up their things.”

The Hills: Redefining work spaces

The Hills is in the process of adding a co-working space into its list of offerings as part of a rebranding process aimed at creating a workplace community and lifestyle support.

“As part of our revamp and rebranding process for The Hills, we got inspired to redefine work spaces in downtown Kuching where the central business district (CBD) is,” chief operating officer Lionel Ho told the BizHive Weekly in an email interview. “We plan to cater to different types of businesses.”

In an earlier interview, Ho said it made sense to simplify office space offerings which can get quite expensive for businesses, especially start-ups.

The objective, ultimately, is to create a community of city dwellers for business professionals to find a safe haven to network and mingle with one another, he said.

“With co-working spaces usually targeting digital nomads or entrepreneurs starting up and without offices, we believe that there is definitely a market for this and it is a fast-moving global trend.

“We are also focusing on more established startups and mature companies as well as government agencies.”

In Ho’s opinion, for those medium to big business owner who do not want to have to worry about the operations of an office, it makes perfect sense to go into co-working space.

“You don’t have to worry about security, to stock up on your pantry, hire a dedicated cleaner for your office or pay rental or buy a photocopy machine – this is all taken care of in the co-working space.”

“On top of that, having a space right smack in the middle of the city would be any business owner’s dream to have,” he said, referring to The Hills’ location at the top of the Bukit Mata and adjacent to Pullman Hotel Kuching.

On how The Hills sets itself apart from others with its co-working space, Lionel explained that they are conveniently situated at The Hills Community Lifestyle Hub, “right in the heart of Kuching centre which gives our business visibility and a hard-miss-address”.

“As the first-fully integrated premium office space in Kuching, the workspace is just above Food Haven, Kuching’s latest (brand) spanking new food court and The Food Lounge which is a perfect place to meet partners and clients in a professional yet fun and cozy environment. Pullman Kuching is also just right above us which is easy for all visiting guests.”

Ho went on to highlight that The Hills’ co-working space will come with state-of-the-art facilities that promote work-life balance to stimulate creativity and productivity.

“Our vibrant space transforms the way you think about workplace with world-class design, warm colours and differentiation of space,” he shared with the BizHive Weekly.

“From shared workspace (hot desk), private offices to office suites, our serviced office caters for companies of all sizes.

“We also have facilities for customers such as a conference room, fitness centre, wall climbing gym, dance studio, events space, pantry as well as a fun zone.”

Overall, Ho believed that as with any business, it is about building good relationships which is the foundation of a good business, what relationships are built into mini ecosystems for businesses and would further become a community just like an organisation.

“At the end of the day, when you see small businesses flourish into medium size businesses there is a sense of fulfilment and joy to see others grow right beside you.”

SMA: Expanding the digital innovation hub to every division

Tasked with the responsibility of promoting Sarawak’s startup ecosystem, Sarawak Multimedia Authority’s (SMA) is taking a unique approach to this by creating digital innovation hubs across the state.

According to SMA head of Digital Village Hazwan Razak, the big plan is to have a digital innovation hub in every division across Sarawak.

“The one in iCom Square – we partnered up with Tabung Ekonomi Gagasan Anak Bumiputera (Tegas). They are our strategic partner here, and also in Miri and Bintulu,” Hazwan said in an interview with BizHive Weekly.

“The hub in Sarikei is partnered with iCube Innovation (iCube). We’ve also got the Centre of Technical Excellence Sarawak (Centexs) as our strategic partner for Betong, among others.

“Centexs is also our strategic part for the open lab. The open lab is a research hub. Inside this research-focused hub, there is also a co-working space – like a mini co-working space that focuses on research. The rest is open to everyone.”

Hazwan went on to explain that the digital village works in a way where they provide, at the basic thing, a co-working space at every division.

“For us, we want to make sure that whatever is offered in Kuching, is also available in other divisions. We are focusing on the other divisions that don’t have hubs, such as Limbang, Lawas, Betong, Kapit and so on.

“Basically every division in Sarawak – all 12 divisions will have a hub.”

At the four operational hubs, and the few in the works, Hazwan said SMA’s focus is on technology-enabled entrepreneurs.

“That said, even for those who are interested in going into a completely different field such as, for example kek lapis business, they are still welcome at the digital innovation hubs,” he highlighted.

“Let’s say, for example, we run a digital marketing class or workshop on how to do Facebook ads. Our focus is still on our startups, but any other entrepreneurs that want to come in are welcomed by all means.”

Kuching’s specific focus

In Kuching, SMA is focusing on niche sections, specifically commercialising digital economy research.

“Generally, a startup is different from a normal business because of two factors, innovation and scalability. For example, that separates Grab from a taxi company.

“For example, Grab is innovative because you book through the app and also scaleable because today it’s in Klang Valley, tomorrow it is already in 25 other cities in Malaysia because it’s app-based, everybody has a smartphone. That’s the two niche areas we focus on, the kinds of entrepreneurs.

“In Kuching, we focus on niche areas so in the open lab there is a lot of research being done. SMA, using state funds, is also funding digital economy research. We want this research to then turn into startups, to commercialise the research.

“I’ve got a space that I will be managing once it’s ready, at Centexs in Santubong, where the focus is on digital economy research. We are bringing in all the universities in Sarawak, plus university partners overseas and the industries.”

Hazwan highlighted that these institutions will be supporting and doing research together with the local universities on Sarawak’s digital economy topics such as smart city, smart farming and others.

“The university researchers will use the platforms provided by the industry to create more awesome solutions and products, and that will be commercialised.”

Developing the ecosystem as a whole

Even as the authority sets out to ensure there are digital innovation hubs in every division, Hazwan stressed that SMA’s focus is not so much on just providing co-working spaces but more on developing the startup ecosystem.

“We consider every player, whether they are private or public to be within the (startup) ecosystem. You’ve got The Hills, iCube, The 381 Hub, these are all the private hubs, we also consider them as part of the ecosystem.

“We are not competing per se, because I manage the ecosystem and it just so happens that within the ecosystem, the state has its own funded hubs.

“But we also make sure that, even if we can give it for free, we don’t. We actually benchmark against what the others are offering because we don’t want to kill the

“What we want to do is, we want to offer opportunities so even though anyone can sign up and be based at our hubs, our focus is still to run the programs there to add value to their businesses.”

To conclude, Hazwan stressed that among the SMA digital economy enablers, digital inclusivity is the most important.

“We will only succeed and we will only be impactful if we give an opportunity to every single Sarawakian or every single person who considers Sarawak home.”