The Entrepreneurs Behind Southeast Asia's Top Co-Working Spaces

There seems to be no stopping the co-working phenomenon.
Monday 13 January 2020
Workbuddy is one of Singapore's buzzing co-working spots.

For those old enough to remember, the antics we watched in The Office or read about in Dilbert made us laugh because we could identify with them. Cramped cubicles and tedious colleagues used to be the hallmarks of working life as was the tyranny of the desk-bound 9-5 work week.

But with 24/7 email access and a generation that tends to blur the line between work and life, the workplace has become more than a space to generate profitability; it has become an agora of sorts – a place for community with flexibility at its core. As with all disruptions to the market, the birth of the co-working space came about to fulfill a need – and there sees to be no stopping this co-working phenomemon, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Unreserved meets the entrepreneurs who are shaping the co-working culture in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand:

Creativity Zone-1 - coworking
Glowfish in Bangkok

One of Bangkok’s very first co-working spaces was founded in 2012 in Asoke Towers. The intriguingly named Glowfish made a splash with its sleek modern design and technologically focused offerings. Founded by Gavin Vongkusolkit, Glowfish was born out of the idea of creating value from an underappreciated building. Since then, Glowfish has opened in two other locations in Bangkok and offers some of the biggest spaces to be found in the city. Rather than focusing on big “corporate” enterprises, Glowfish aims to bring in smaller companies in order to create communities.

“Our communities assist in creating content for our space, whether customers for our diverse range of products and services. They consist of highly determined entrepreneurs aspiring to grow as well as simultaneously helping the community around them grow. This results in an organic growth for both us and our customers,” says Vongkusolkit. These offerings have evolved as the brand expanded, growing from purely offering office spaces at Asoke to introducing various facilities and amenities including event spaces, meeting rooms and a large dining space.

“Companies today, especially start-ups, look for workspaces, which are not only comfortable fitting the modern ‘work-style’, but also spaces that can provide them with amenities and facilities that can not only help them grow and scale up easily. As a result, more co-working spaces have opened up, which is a great thing because each is tailored to suit specific types of businesses. There is a correlation between the opening of co-working spaces and entrepreneurs starting businesses. Because co-working spaces can give you things such as the ease of scaling up due to low costs, it has become more attractive and easy to start businesses with reduced risks,” muses Vongkusolkit.

The Terrace (Resized) - coworking
Trehaus in Singapore.

In space-starved Singapore where real estate comes with a substantial premium, it’s no wonder that co-working spaces have been embraced with gusto. Having grown rapidly since the first co-working space opened in 2012, the industry is now entering its third wave. Moving on from the original model of offering an attractive workspace with trendy design and free perks to creating a community, Singapore’s co-working spaces are now amenitising these spaces beyond work-meet-and-host facilities with lifestyle experiences.

One such co-working company is Trehaus, which offers working parents a work-life balance. Co-founded by Dr Elizabeth Kim, the Trehaus model is founded on the belief that working parents can achieve their corporate potential and business dreams, while being present for their children’s precious early years. As such, their first location on Prachard Road included a crèche and nursery – a modern village where families can work, learn and play together. Banking on this success and belief in the power of potential, Dr Kim and her team started Trehaus School, a Silicon Valley-inspired preschool and childcare that focuses on building character and future skills. Trehaus School is helming their new flagship space, Trehaus at City Hall, at the brand new Funan Development which opened in August this year.

“The Trehaus concept is completely unique. It is much more than a co-working office, and though we offer a solution for working parents, and have a beautiful business centre in the design vein of a WeWork or The Great Room,” explains Dr Kim. “What makes us different from any other preschool is the opportunity we give to parents to be involved in their child’s learning journey. It’s the only preschool and childcare where parents are welcomed into the school to spend time with their children through the day, and that provides a workplace for parents in the same space.”

CG KL33 R1 (1)-3 - coworking
Common Ground in Malaysia.

Common Ground is without a doubt one of Malaysia’s most established names in co-working spaces. Since opening in Wisma UOA Damansara Heights in 2017, they currently have 22 venues spread across Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. Their first location was a breath of fresh air – equal parts of spaces balancing privacy and collaboration with a sleek style ticking off all the au courant style boxes of millennial pink, rose gold detailing and lush Monstera plants. Founded by Erman Akinci and Juhn Teo, the duo describe their business model as both simple and complex.

“On one side we build office space and then rent out that space. Our product is essentially the physical work space, that is the simple part. If that is all we did, I don’t believe we would have a great business. People are not really excited to pay a premium for just functional work space. Where we really earn our keep and the complicated part is we provide our members with an experience. That is what they are really paying for,” explains Akinci.

“What sets Common Ground apart is the power of our product and the way we create the experience for our members. Because of our scale, no one can provide the same quality of experience that Common Ground can in the countries we operate. We have game-ified our members’ social experience to help drive how our members engage within the community and who they engage with. This is designed to ensure that members are able to extract the most value and the most opportunities from the community and their interactions. We have the largest group of benefit partners with over 500 partners that will give your company special rates and services.”

This article is an excerpt from UNRESERVED’s September 2019 issue from the article Making Work, Work.