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How to Overcome Big Money and Competition

How to Overcome Big Money and Competition
Learning from my 24 year old Coworking Business
An entrepreneur's musings on competition, big money, purpose and productivity at work.
-Balaji Pasumarthy
Creator- Joy at Work®, Golden Square Offices
24 years ago, I never would have imagined that I would be involved in a “Happening” business. A business that was on the forefront of culture and media. However thanks to WeWork, the Serviced Office/ Coworking Industry has gotten a lot of buzz and action. A burst of activity that I have been observing with fascination, amusement and also reflection. Despite Golden Square having served more than 4000 companies, including being the first office for Dell, McAfee, Mars and many others in India, I got into a deep introspection. My team and my friends have been asking me to put these thoughts down on paper, so here I go-

It all began in 1995, when as a freshly minted entrepreneur, the concept of Serviced Offices or Business Centres caught my fancy. India had just opened up thanks to the Liberalization of the economy in 1991, yet to the average individual, setting up a business still posed a minefield of challenges. India’s infrastructure may still be poor, but in those days, even a simple task like setting up a telephone line could take up to 6 months. Remember, this was a time before mobile phones or the internet.

So the idea was born- providing the means to make it easier for small teams to be productive. If we were to handle the day to day operations of an office, like providing ready to use telephone lines, stenographers to take shorthand and type out letters, receptionists and office staff to run errands, our clients could get much more done with their time.

Before I began, I did a survey of the existing players. There were just a few. Golden Square was not a pioneer (that distinction would go to DBS), but in my research, I found two key things that were missing in other business centres:
  1. None of them focussed on a support team, be it secretarial services or errand services
  2. Pricing was very high for basic services like telephones.
These two gaps meant that when it came to Small Teams, there were no long term solutions; same as how hotels are not a long term solution for a home requirement.

From its inception, Golden Square was about being a stable long standing office solution for Small Teams and Individuals. We pride ourselves on the fact that our first client is still with us after 24 years. This only happens because we go above and beyond when it comes to all the office support you would need in an office.

“I need a notary to certify a document”

No problem, our team will have one organized,

“I just can’t find the time to collate all these invoices and send it to my head office”

Don’t worry, our team can assist you with this,

“My 5 year old son needs help with a chart for class but I have an important appointment.”

Never fear, we will chip in and help your son.

There isn't an office related problem that our team can’t help you with. These simple activities are time guzzlers that drain your energy, and that is precisely the kind of work Golden Square would like to take off your back. All so our members could experience Joy at Work®.

Golden Square has been home to more than 4000 companies over the years in Bangalore and have stuck with us for as long as they had a team of below 30 members. Beyond that, we ourselves encouraged them to move to a rented space. Nowadays, we even help teams make the transition and help them set up and manage the space. Most of the time, we were close to 100% occupied. However, we were still a niche market and had to spend a lot of time educating people on why Golden Square was a much better option than a typical rental office, especially for small teams.

I grew quite concerned when Regus first entered the Bangalore market- a large MNC coming in as a competitor. But thanks to Regus, the market expanded. After the initial jitters, Golden Square actually grew since the market was more educated. Soon, one branch became four.

Being self funded, without an IPO at the end of all this, I never saw this as the type of business that would catch a VCs interest... and I suppose without the hype surrounding WeWork, it would have remained that way. But the same way that Regus educated the market then, WeWork is doing now.
I’ve always believed that this industry is not an infrastructure business. It’s a service business. By focusing our attention on supporting our members- providing teams and spaces that can save them time and effort, we would be fulfilling our purpose of Joy at Work®. These principles are what has kept us successful for so long. Many of our clients have evaluated all the options and swear by Golden Square because we have stuck to our purpose.

WeWork and the associated hype, honestly rattle me. Free beer and community events. Fancy offices boasting loud colours. Full glass partitions with zero privacy. This was a far cry from what we were accomplishing at Golden Square. Are we out of touch with what the market wants? Afterall, back when we started, people were still working with typewriters. The needs of the past are long gone and I needed to get my finger on the pulse of today’s work requirements; to understand what we were missing in an evolving work environment.

In search of answers, I travelled to Europe to attend a Coworking conference. My main understanding was that Coworking was alleviating a very basic human need- the need for human company. A new breed has emerged in the workforce; freelancers and solo-preneurs who stave off loneliness as they work out of home offices. Coworking was a way to socialize and network, in cases even leading to fruitful collaborations. Individuals began coming together to find spaces out of which to work alongside each other. They were extremely selective about who got to join these spaces because the focus was on community. The emphasis was on people as individuals. In fact, one could say they lived by a mantra- ‘In Coworking, community comes before the office’. I met some of these diehard Coworking evangelists, all of whom were aghast with WeWork. “They build these massive spaces and call it ‘Coworking’. They’re really just appropriating the term.”

‘Is lack of human company really a need that we have to solve in India?’ I have asked around, and people typically say that they have too much company. They do not feel lonely at home and they have friends. A quiet place to work is preferred. However, people do need useful connections. We also come to an office to collaborate with a team that can make our work simpler. This is the distinction we at Golden Square clearly understand. Our team are expert networkers for business. When one of our clients is looking for a connection, say to a Chartered Accountant, we identify the need and connect them to professionals who will fit the need precisely. You don’t do business with a person just because you happen to sit next to them, you do so because that person is best suited to your needs. To enable this quality of connections we are closely involved with BNI, the world’s largest business referral organisation. We do have a lot of events too, the purpose of which is to help members get to know their neighbours and let serendipity do its trick. We understand what professional networking is all about.

Over the last three years, this space has expanded on an exponential level. New players, large and small, have entered the industry on a regular basis. We also grew in size, setting up new branches, but we did begin to feel the heat. We were just not used to marketing ourselves as we had never really needed to before. But now, the need was greater than ever. The oversupply in the market and all the noise it generated really affected our ability to get new customers. We just could not do the kind of burn on publicity that the likes of WeWork were doing. We decided to brace ourselves and focus on what we are good at.

We focused on why our clients like us, what we believe is our key purpose. Our clients shared with us that they have been jaded by the excess of the coworking hype. They tell us their teams are noticeably more focussed and productive in Golden Square’s “Private Coworking Spaces”. There are no distractions and no fluff. It makes me smile, since that was always our intention. We are a team that operates a space, dedicated to making our client’s work hassle free. All so that they can focus on the work that they love while we handle all the rest. We don't specialize in Fun at Work... but we are experts in Joy at Work®. This is what we started focusing on, what we are very passionate about and what we know we are good at- helping our clients do intense work.

Over the last few months, we’ve been feeling a lot more confident about our place in the sun, so to speak. Because now, our clients are a lot more clear about why they want Golden Square over other office options. Our lesson was to double down on what makes us special.

The landscape has changed. We no longer have to tell people what a serviced office is and we don't have to explain why Coworking is more productive and affordable than a regular rented office. Today’s new entrepreneurs want to work out of Coworking Spaces. The question becomes, which one?
I believe in time, there will only be a few large players left in this field along with an umpteen number of smaller players. Similar to what has happened with the Hotel and Restaurant industries as they have matured. The market will need and demand a lot more flavours out of their workspace requirements, and Golden Square will continue to specialize in Joy at Work®.

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