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Impact versus ownership: The realities of entrepreneurship today

David Ball, founder of the creative agency Brandfuel and WeWork member, argues that the shared workspace environment can be a powerful catalyst for economic growth.

We are living in an age of unprecedented change. The way we work, the way we live and the world around us are transforming faster than ever before, and the UK has emerged as a country where entrepreneurs can similarly move at pace and have real economic impact.

These scaling businesses have the potential to supercharge GDP, enhance productivity and create millions of jobs. According to a Virgin start up report, ‘The Start-up Low Down’, they contribute £196 billion to the U.K. economy every year. Similarly, the communities built around shared workspaces support the wider local economy. The scale is significant. For example the WeWork economy supports $123.7bnin GDP worldwide through direct, indirect, and induced spending – roughly the size of the economy of cities like Vancouver, Dublin, or Austin, according to a report HR&A Advisors Inc. conducted into the global Impact of WeWork.

London – and indeed the UK – has long been a powerhouse of ingenuity and innovation. However, clear challenges come with a fast-growth environment and today’s businesses exist in a continual state of transformation. They must be flexible and agile to survive, scale up, downsize or expand internationally – and regardless of how big your ambitions may be, one of the biggest constraints on growth is the physical room to scale.

What is clear is that UK entrepreneurs need more than just ambition – they need support and an environment in which to grow. As a founder myself, I know that measures of success go beyond ownership of property, product or wealth. The most important gauge of success, in my opinion, is impact.

With traditional office overheads high, initial income unpredictable and volatile growth projections amid EU uncertainty, the pressure associated with entrepreneurship has often acted as a barrier to building a successful business.

Whilst many of these cost concerns remain fundamental to entrepreneurs today, the rise of shared workspaces has acted as a catalyst for a new wave of working which has enabled freelancers, entrepreneurs and large corporations alike to come together, exist, grow and become profitable enterprises.

I founded Brandfuel, a full-service promotional products agency, a full-service promotional products agency, in 2005 and we now have a projected turnover of £25.5million in 2018/19. With no private office or even owning a single desk, choosing the right environment to base the business was a critical factor to our success.

When our previous office lease ended abruptly in 2014, we needed to quickly find somewhere that supported the needs of both our employees and clients, as well as providing a space where we could genuinely thrive as a multidisciplinary, multi-generational team. Since then we have grown to 56 people.

The community we found in a shared office environment gave us the operational fundamentals, but it also brought other untold benefits. Moving into a WeWork office has been instrumental to the success of Brandfuel – and from a standpoint beyond finance. Community, collaboration, flexibility, tapping into an international office network and attracting and nurturing talent were key drivers for me to base my business in a shared office space compared to a traditional office space.

This is a crucial challenge all entrepreneurs will encounter when trying to establish their voice within a crowded business market. However, we have found that being part of a shared workspace community enables us to be part of something greater than ourselves and this has been a significant factor in staff attraction and retention. What are the other major considerations in this generation of business?

A workspace that fosters networking

Since moving to WeWork on the South Bank, we have established partnerships with fellow entrepreneurs, business owners and professional freelancers, purely as a result of occupying office space within the same location. We have also been able to expand our professional network which has facilitated introductions to a few new clients and helped to sustain the company’s rapid growth. It is no surprise that according to the impact report 51% of WeWork member companies in London say that being based in the shared workspace has helped accelerate their company’s growth. A third say their business has benefitted from ideas from other members.

We would never have been able to enjoy the opportunities a central London location has given us without WeWork.

Support networks for people

Initiatives relating to fitness, relaxation and inspiration from outside your sector can go a long way to ensuring that your business is having a positive impact on every individual within it. A healthy work environment helps individuals to work more effectively – space is more than just immediately practical.

For many entrepreneurs who are already running on small budgets providing these additional amenities would fall outside of their means. However, being part of shared workspace has given us access to services that help us compete in output and talent attraction with the top industry players.

Functional infrastructure

A major challenge for entrepreneurs is to use their time as productively as possible and focus on the core business without being bogged down with office infrastructure pains, admin or costs associated with ordering office equipment. Who cares about who’s name is on the phone contract if you can just plug straight in and get to work?

Crucially scaling businesses need to have flexibility in the space needed over time. At Brandfuel, we’ve grown our employee base by 27% without having to overcommit to unnecessary expenditure based on theoretical models.

The impact report found that the average growth rate across small and medium sized companies based in the shared workspace in London was 31 per cent, compared to 2 per cent for all companies in London. That is impact.

A workspace that enables you to operate globally

Breaking into new markets and building an international customer base is something entrepreneurs aspire to and work hard to achieve. Being able to connect into a global infrastructure network opens new possibilities, supply chains and customers – and doesn’t always require a physical presence internationally.

Taking a business global is a huge leap but can offer the biggest rewards. However you look at it though, it has a huge impact on the way you operate, your market strategies, and your employees and it can seem daunting. Through global office networks you can reduce negative risks and begin to explore global opportunities without having to invest long-term in premises or relocating people permanently.

Many of our clients are American tech start-ups in their ‘growth stage’ looking to develop a presence and reputation within the European market. Multi-market presence has been crucial to developing our business model and client roster – but we don’t ‘own’ overseas assets or premises anywhere.

There is no secret success formula for entrepreneurs. One common thread is that no matter where you’re living or your circumstances, it takes time, resources and dedication to turn an idea into a fully functioning business. I’ve learned that building a company is only 10% about the product. The rest is about the people, the work environment and the market.

With the 100,000th member joining WeWork Europe last month the value of being part of a shared workspace cannot be overlooked. Even though there are still many barriers to success, this new way of working enables entrepreneurs to focus on building a business that can make a strong market impact in the modern business landscape – no matter how many desks you don’t own.




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