Startup Flophouse – thoughts about mobile working in London

Working in the knowledge economy has huge advantages.  The most significant is that someone who has worked in agencies for a while, has some good ideas, a few contacts and the help of a strict but fair accountant can start a business without the huge initial investment associated with proper business*.

A low overhead existence can be a peripatetic one.  The places which produce start ups and consultancies tend to be the crowded, creative, over populated and horribly expensive global cities.  New York, San Francisco, Bombay, Shanghai, London.  There must be thousands off us.  Running out of space in tiny flats, crowded out by roommates and young families, we take to the streets in search of inspiration, space to network, to chat or just to think.

America has worked out a way round it.  There are those cafes in Brooklyn, Soma, Tenderloin, the ones where you walk into a hive of febrile silence, faced by a blank wall of noses buried deep in i-devices, with more plug sockets than chairs.  These are the cottage workshops of the pre-industrial era re-imagined for the 21st century.  Freelancers, entrepreneurs and students take them over as workshops.  You can feel the animosity to the tourist or flanneur who enters expecting coffee and casual socializing.  These are not places to be treated lightly.  These are not places for leisure.  Don’t believe the flannel shirts, tattoos and skinny jeans.  These are not hipster hang outs.  These are offices. places of work.  Seedbeds of ambition.  The next Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer or Howard Roark is sitting next to you.

In America, working in coffee shops doesn’t make you feel like you are just squatting until you get the steady income for an office or a desk in someone else’s or even one of the apocryphal start up share houses opening up along Broadway in San Francisco.  There’s a sense of shared purpose: you’re meant to be working there, everyone’s doing the same thing, striving separately to similar-but-different goals.

We don’t seem to have cracked this problem yet in London.  There are a couple of dozen (perhaps  more) business centres, office spaces and creative hubs, the Piano Rooms in Brixton, the Hub, you can even rent desk space in the venerable Somerset House.  But the rung below that in the office accommodation journey of the average start up is a sparse and sometimes uncomfortable place.

The chain coffee shops have their obvious benefits and obvious drawbacks.  While you might feel like you have lost your edge spending a day in Costa or Starbucks, you do get free wifi, comfortable chairs and nice staff who tend not to care if you sit there all afternoon only buying one large filter coffee.**

You also get to enjoy the weirdness of such places.  On Great Marlborough street last week I spent a happy couple of hours in Starbucks and enjoyed a few high points: one the immaculate American guy who seemed to be using it as a base in between sales meetings.  He looked like a Cyborg FBI agent from a sci-fi film and practiced his pitch to himself over coffee, complete with taking his position, jerking up the knees of his trousers and twiddling cufflinks for emphasis.  There’s a steady flow of tourists, students, shoppers, even the occasional person begging for change***.  Mainstream coffee shops are good places for people watching.

Still, the bad side does start to rear its head fairly soon.  You realize that you’re the other, that you’re part of a small group of parasites intruding on other people’s leisure (or at least eating) space.

That leaves the independent coffee shops. The nice cafes, informal restaurants, places which you’d normally go to, and that you normally love.  The trouble is, in London they are for relaxing, for informal meetings, for eating, for drinking coffee and not really for earnest hard work.  So often you enter these places and feel ashamed to open a laptop.  You don’t want to be the guy who messed up the ambiance, the trade who sullied the saloon with dirty doings of commerce.  I am waiting to be barred from El Vergel in London Bridge for staring at my laptop as I eat beans for breakfast.

Having been recommended the Royal Festival Hall as the prefect temporary office by a baffling array of people, I thought I’d give it a go.  Descriptions vary: a journalist friend told me tales of rooms so big, and so empty, you can use them for meetings without being disturbed.  Another friend, a researcher, talked of the free wifi and the fact that it basks in the glow of the cultural wealth of the Southbank.  My strict but fair accountant just loves its proximity to Waterloo station.  They all talked as though RFH was the life force of entrepreneurialism and start up businesses in London.  I needed to try it.  And now I have.  I am left with a slightly sour taste in my mouth, but can see how, over the next few months at least, RFH will continue to be a part of my everyday working life.

The space is perfect for the entrepreneur about town.  It is huge, airy, beautifully lit.  There are multiple levels, with open mezzanines, closed nooks, dramatic views of the river.  It’s all dotted with bits of mid century modern furniture: sofas and ottomans for relaxing, round tables for meetings.  There’s a bar and a coffee shop on the ground floor.  Free wifi throughout.  Plug sockets.  The restrooms are huge and well appointed.  On the ground floor the men’s loos even have a permanent piece of installation art.****  The staff generally seem quite happy that the space is being used and are welcoming and polite.

So it’s no wonder that RFH has become a kind of start up flop house.  While the tourists and art-lovers tend to hang around in the cafe and on the ground floor, the further flung parts of the building are scattered with pockets of students, freelancers and entrepreneurs.  They congregate for meetings and brainstorms or work by themselves in quiet corners.

Groups of people will meet as soon as the doors open, stake their claims to tables and stay all day.  The density of these people is fairly low.  They’re not immediately obvious.  You have to look for them.  But when you do look, you notice the groups of Mac users huddled round power sockets.  Lined up, sitting on the floor when the sofas have been taken.  The all day brainstorms.  Awash in the flow of their own creative juices, bright young things haven’t cleared away the takeaway cartons from breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Here, a freelance commercial writer frowning at a tricky bit of copy, there a web developer, shoes off and feet up, catchings some zees before working out which WordPress template to use for his new client.

It’s messy.  People are making themselves at home in a way which feels a little at odds with the building itself.  It feels like there’s a contradiction.  The spaces should be liminal, just places which people pass through, not places people should stay.  The static, immovable freelancers become like fixtures in the buildings, unwanted obstructions in a perfectly planned flow.

But free wifi and a ready supply of coffee in a beautiful building is not to be sniffed at.  I will return to RFH.  Below are some photos to give you some idea why.

Feet up, relaxing.




A break from the workshop.  Time for some yoga in between ideation sessions.




Common purpose.  Sole operator no more.




Taking a call.  The latest in office design: the mezzanine provides a semi-private space in the otherwise open structure.





*By which i mean one which produces stuff, sells a tangible product, comes to your premises and leaves something, mends something, makes something look different has an office and employees.

** This is a massive advantage of Starbucks in particular: despite being the obliquitous bad boy coffee shop, they are one of the few chains that still sell plain old coffee, satisfying my contrarian affectation of NOT drinking lattes, cappuccinos, machiatos, flat whites etc.

*** People like this, and activities like this strike me as one of the true alternative ways of life in an increasingly samey world.  As alternative culture gets co-opted by the mainstream, there’s something genuinely subversive about someone begging in the intentionally anodyne, yet quirky, retail outlet of a massive corporation.

****  I’d seldom recommend a visit to a specific London loo, but this one is brilliant.  As you enter RFH with your back to the river, it’s the men’s look on the ground floor to the right of the building.   As is the singing lift on the other side of RFH.