Phnom Penh’s Coworking Space Movement

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The coworking space movement is spreading like wildfire, from business hubs of New York and Chicago all the way to the Asian capitals of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. Some may be tempted to ascribe the success of this relatively novel concept to the growing need for cheap working space, but the real trademark of coworking spaces, and the key to their success, is the community that springs around them.

“Coworking spaces are not just a wifi connection and some desk space it’s a community,”  asserts Akira Morita, founder of startup Design Kompany and a regular at one of the many coworking spaces in Phnom Penh. “You get to meet people in your industry with a completely different area of expertise.”

The city has seen an increase in the number of these venues since coLAB opened its doors in 2010. At least seven others are currently in operation including Impact Hub, Small World, Emerald Hub, 5D Co-working Lab, The Workshop, Saint Blanquat & A. and Regus.

“Phnom Penh is in the middle of a real economic development. Businesses are booming, and the city is leading the region in terms of growth. The downside of this situation is the scarcity of affordable office space for the increasing number of startups,” explains Aubin Crestani, Community Builder at Impact Hub, when asked about what makes the city such an attractive location for shared workspace venues.

Alternative offering

Many are recognising that coworking spaces are the answer to such scarcity of affordable space besetting the city. The rates offered by these venues are indeed appealing: a hot desk, or one that is used by multiple users at different time periods, goes for as low as $60 a month, and does not usually exceed $120. A fixed or permanent desk will set you back between $100 and $200 a month (usually including a drawer and lock), and a private room can cost as little as $200. Now compare that to the average price of renting an office in Phnom Penh, where real estate prices are burgeoning. The average rental price per square meter of office space was $18.43 per month during the second quarter of 2015, according to research conducted by Knight Frank.

Additionally, coworking venues offer what Mossard describes as “stress-free office space”. It frees one from the usual hassles of renting your own office, such as managing a water leak or paying utility bills. Add free coffee (some venues in Phnom Penh serve superior quality coffee) and tea, free wifi and aircon to the mix, and you got yourself a bargain. Spaces such as coLAB even make 3D printers, plotters and VR equipment available to users.

Building community

But affordable working space, though important in and of itself, is only part of the reason why shared working space venues are so popular in the city. Bettina Guirkinger is the founder and manager of the Phnom Penh branch of Leadapreneur, a company that specialises in organising life-coaching workshops. She relates, “I have a great relationship with one of the team members running the Impact Hub and she’s been great at forwarding me opportunities and programs being run by fellow members, which relate directly to my field of work. This connection has allowed me to expand my network and learn from their experience. There’s also a potential partnering opportunity ahead, which I’m very excited about.”

While both Guirkinger and Morita certainly appreciate paying $60 a month for a hot desk to work at and give shape to their entrepreneurial dreams, they admit that they are drawn to venues such as Impact Hub because of the access they provide to an exciting community of fellow self-starters. Coworking spaces are the ideal place to weave that professional network that every startup entrepreneur needs. Emerald Hub founder Chea Sophalla says it best when she asserts that “they instantly provide a supportive community of freelancers, entrepreneurs and like-minded people to meet and connect with. There’s always plenty of scope for networking and collaboration on projects.”

Adding to this sense of community that organically builds up around coworking spaces, many venues hold events and talks organised and delivered by members, giving other members unique insight into the occupation of the people they share working space with. “I have had the privilege of using the meeting room monthly to run my Open Lifepath workshops, and the feedback has always been very positive,” says Guirkinger who uses the space at Impact Hub for her workshops. Many coworking spaces also offer well-equipped conference rooms for business meetings.

Each coworking space in the city seems to have its own distinct character. coLAB, for example, tends to attract starters in the Information and Communications Technology realm, with a lot of its members working in software development or online services. Impact Hub, on the other hand, lays emphasis on creating societal impact, striving to bring together entrepreneurs who show dedication to having a positive effect on the world. To inspire this breed of entrepreneurs, Impact Hub designs and hosts special events and programs, such as the Hub Academy, a year-long course that aims to hone socially-responsible, successful undertakers.

So, are there any drawbacks to using a coworking space? Well, according to its users, hardly any. Some mention it might be hard at times to focus on the work with all the exciting talk going on around you. “Sometimes it takes extra discipline to keep yourself focused, since the conversations and random connections can be hard to resist,” Morita, of Design Kompany, concludes.