Matthew Kennedy wants to make sure his workspaces are open to the communities they’re located in. As founder and CEO of Avenue HQ, a coworking brand with spaces in Liverpool and Leeds, Kennedy wants a variety of people to walk through the doors, whether to access hospitality offerings, an event, coworking, a studio or a private office.
I spoke with Kennedy about his vision for Avenue HQ, regional coworking in the UK, his experience at this year’s GCUC in New York City, and his hopes for the upcoming GCUC UK in London. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Cat Johnson: What’s your coworking story? How did you come into this industry and movement?
Matthew Kennedy: I used to run a charity incubator based in London and Liverpool. It was for really early-stage startups. We would provide either free or affordable workspace for entrepreneurs trying to start their businesses. We gave away 30 percent of our membership to people who were from difficult backgrounds or had challenges in their life.
I found that, six months in, when we were actively trying to move people on to find new office space so we could get our next cohort in, we had difficulty finding a place which provided similar value. At the time, particularly in Liverpool, there wasn’t much in the way of coworking, or any kind of shared workspace, really.
From there, I spoke to the original developers of a building that’s right on the waterfront. They had a space which had been empty for a long time. It was probably too big for any one company to take on as an office at that time. It had been empty, but it had these killer views so we wanted to put it to good use. Along with the developer, we found a way of funding it and starting a business in 2016. We built the site then did a deal with Barclays Bank to provide support and sponsorship for the space, as well.
What does the deal with Barclays consist of?
They provide a financial contribution each year to the space, but also, they put high growth managers in here, and they have 3D printing and laser cutting facilities for rapid prototyping—they do loads of stuff.
The best part of the Barclays offering is that we have specialist mentors in here all the time. I’ve always been slightly cautious about mentoring. I think it’s a really dangerous thing to do and you have to be really careful with it. What I like about this is the specialist mentors come in to discuss, not necessarily where you should take your business, but what you can do on the technical side of things. There’s a really interesting dynamic because everyone’s coming in without an attempt to sell any products. That works really well.
We originally took on a 16,000 square foot space and after six months, we were full. We have since taken on two further units and were full off-plan for those units. We’re now opening up a second site in a second city in the UK and we’ve got another few in the pipeline.
Has the charity ethos of your original incubator carried over to Avenue HQ?
We don’t run any specific program, but we always take a look at businesses and how they want to come in. We provide event space for local charities and we were just one of the sponsors for Liverpool Pride, which was amazing. We provide wall space for different artists and just try to find different ways to get everyone in the community involved.
I don’t like the idea of Avenue HQ as a coworking space being too much of a private member club. I want it to be very much open to the community, so a lot of different people to come in. I want people to be able to pass through the doors—whether that’s going to one of our hospitality venues and having a coffee or a beer, or taking a private office with us—I want to make sure everyone can experience the space. That’s why we try to engage with a lot of charities, as well. If I’ve got an empty room over the weekend, why not have someone in there who can use it for a good reason.
I’m seeing a trend of workspaces being a little more porous and open to the community. That way, if there’s someone who isn’t ready to make a membership commitment, you can still bring them into the community and give them guidance and the benefits of the space that way.
From a commercial perspective, they’re your future tenants, aren’t they? You might as well try and encourage people to enjoy your space.
Let’s talk about your GCUC New York experience this year. I understand that was your first GCUC. What did you think?
I went alongside of my operations director, Luke Roberts. We loved it. It was really interesting and, to be honest, I think I’ve been guilty of not getting out enough to go meet other operators and people who are part of coworking. I’ve been so focused on trying to build our business all the time, but I think that’s probably been a bit of a mistake at times.
In New York, and in America, the coworking movement is further along than it probably is here—maybe not so much in London—but in the regional cities. It was a really good opportunity for us to see a little glimpse of the future: how things have developed, what’s coming next, what people are working toward, what people think, what challenges people have face. It’s so refreshing to be in a room with people who have the same—not just passion—but experience, and a lot different experiences, as well. It was a really interesting place to be.
One of the things I love about GCUC is the underlying community of mutual support and collaboration. There can be someone who runs an old-school business center sitting next to someone in their early-twenties who’s starting a hyperlocal space, and they can talk about resources or tools or how they handle different scenarios.
Absolutely. We want people to understand why this is not just the future of working, but why you should be working like this right now. If people understand that there’s something bigger than just these spaces working in a silo all the time, people will start to get it.
It was really good to see that happening. It was so good that the movement has gotten to the point where we can have these conferences, and they can be global, and have people from places around the world coming together. I think it’s an amazing idea.
What do you see happening with the UK coworking movement, in general? What are you excited about?
I see it spilling out of London. That’s what we’re working towards. My focus isn’t about going into London—London is extremely well catered for—it’s about going into regional cities. That’s the really important part now. Another part is that people are starting to realize this isn’t just a fad anymore—this isn’t just something that will be here for a couple of years then blow over. It is how you should be working. People in the UK are starting to get that, and developers are starting to get that, as well.
To use us as an example, we came into a building in which most of the units had been empty since 2008. Now, virtually all the units are taken. We bring 160 businesses here every single day. There are bars, restaurants, everything like that, and people coming here to work. More and more, coworking companies are bringing life to buildings and life to areas. I really hope that continues to happen throughout the country, not just in London.
Bringing 160 businesses into an area can have an incredible impact. You can transform an entire neighborhood.
You can. Coworking spaces can be—and they are—destinations. So much can go on in the space that causes it to be something which is so different than an office space. At the time of our launch party, there was such a buzz around the city. Our attendee list absolutely exploded on the final day because people wanted to go to the launch of what is, essentially, an office space. That’s just crazy to get hundreds of people to the launch of an office space.
Office rental has been around a long time—the big players of that world have been around for decades. This is office rental infused with life and community and vibrancy.
What slightly concerns me is that coworking cannot be a decorative solution to failed office space. It’s not just about throwing desks and chairs into a room and saying, “Go on, cowork.” It can’t work like that and I think there’s a real risk of people doing it like that, which actually tarnishes the name in a way.
You see coworking spaces popping up everywhere that are being run by people who don’t truly understand it. A great thing about GCUC was that everyone understood it.
As the coworking movement, we can’t stop people from slapping the coworking name on their office, but we can make sure the core of the movement is really strong, and really clear about what it is.
What are you looking forward to at the upcoming GCUC UK?
I’m just going to see what happens. I want to go and just be surrounded by opportunity. We’re going through rapid growth so I’m looking for opportunities and people who want to collaborate in different cities, but I’m also looking for ideas, as well.
It was really interesting in New York to see how different deals were structured, and the real focus on well-being spaces—not just well-being as a byproduct of a space, but actually being the core focus of a space. You see different angles people take to make sure their space is unique. Alongside that, I enjoyed learning about the different services that are available…I’m just going with an open mind and really looking forward to it.
One of the distinguishing aspects of GCUC is the unconference, where space operators can share thoughts, ideas, questions, challenges. What was your experience with the unconference?
I really like the informal nature of it. I like the fact that people are participants. I would never go into something that was like a lecture. I don’t want to be in university for coworking—I want to be at something where people participate and share their experiences and ideas. I thought it was a great format and I really enjoyed it.
Join us for GCUC UK, the European debut of the world’s largest coworking conference series.
by Cat Johnson