Guiri Guide Guest: Will Bennis, owner Locus Workspace
Are you a freelancer, entrepreneur, writer, or other independent worker thinking about making Prague your home, at least on a temporary basis? Wondering how difficult it might be to set up shop and create a productive work environment for yourself in that foreign city? Joining a coworking space—a shared, community-oriented, work space—can make this challenge easier than you might think.
I own and run Locus Workspace, one of Prague’s coworking spaces that is particularly oriented toward Prague’s expat community and to solving the work/life challenges that group most often faces. While I can’t present an unbiased picture of Locus relative to other coworking spaces in Prague, I can tell you a bit about the coworking movement, about why I wanted to start Locus Workspace, about some of what makes Locus special, and about some of the resources available to learn more about coworking and the options available in Prague.
What is coworking?
The term coworking (as used here, without the hyphen) was coined in 2005 by Brad Neuberg, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur and coder seeking to bring some of the benefits of a traditional workplace (the community, resources, and structure) to freelancers and other independent workers, without requiring them to give up their independence. In his own words from his original blog post in 2005:
Traditionally, society forces us to choose between working at home for ourselves or working at an office for a company. If we work at a traditional 9 to 5 company job, we get community and structure, but lose freedom and the ability to control our own lives. If we work for ourselves at home, we gain independence but suffer loneliness and bad habits from not being surrounded by a work community. Coworking is a solution to this problem. In coworking, independent writers, programmers, and creators come together in community… Coworking provides the “office of a traditional corporate job, but… Even though each of us is doing separate work, perhaps programming or writing a novel, we can feel each others presence, run ideas by the community, or take breaks together at the “watercooler.”
Neuberg’s idea didn’t take off in its initial conception, but with contributions from other people who supported the idea and were active in the open-source movement—most influentially Chris Messina and Tara Hunt—the concept caught on. They set up a coworking wiki and a Google group (initial with just a handful of people looking for the first permanent coworking space), and they set down five basic values that guided their project: collaboration, community, openness (in the sense of transparency), accessibility, and sustainability. Six years later the Google group now has more than 3,500 members, the wiki has more than 3,000 contributors, there are more than 800 self-identified coworking spaces around the world (including three current and three more upcoming spaces in Prague), there’s a dedicated online coworking magazine (deskmag.com), and there are several coworking-space finding services and apps (see, for example, loosecubes.com, deskwanted.com, desksurfing.net, or liquidspace.com).
Not all businesses that identify as coworking spaces embrace the five values noted above, and many spaces with similar values and idea existed before the coworking movement got its name or momentum, but the general idea of shared workspaces for independent workers who don’t want to work alone has caught on (under the rubrik of coworking) and is spreading rapidly around the world. For independent workers seeking to get started quickly, effectively, and affordably in a foreign land, coworking spaces provide a powerful tool that was unavailable until less than a decade ago, and in Prague until just over 2 years ago.
Why start Locus Workspace?
I wanted something like a coworking space for doing my own work but couldn’t find anything like it. I had been working toward a Ph.D. in a discriminating graduate program (that largely left the project of writing one’s dissertation up to the students after they had finished their initial course work). I was struck by the relative frequency of previous-high-achievers who were struggling for years to finish their dissertations, and also had several friends from outside academia who had gone the freelancer route who were similarly struggling to achieve, not for lack of creativity or intelligence or skill, but for lack of motivation, discipline, and clarity of vision. I was beginning to struggle with my own enthusiasm for my dissertatation and did not want to fall into the same rut I had seen so many peers fall into. At some point I concluded that it was largely in the nature of the non-structured work environments themselves. Much as Neuberg wrote in justifying his idea of coworking, there is a clear appeal to working independently, to creating things that have personal meaning and value rather than working on things you because it’s your job (that’s why most of us had chosen this particular graduate program), but it’s also damn hard to stay focused and motivated over an extended period once you take away the externally defined expectations, incentives, and disincentives common to traditional workplaces. The problem seemed to me to be largely at the environmental rather than individual level, and there seemed to me to be an incredible amount of lost human flourishing as a result.
In 2007, with the good luck of having a friend describe a potentially profitable version of this kind of business and an agreement with my wife that we would move from Chicago back to Prague, a city that I thought would be perfect for coworking for a number of reasons, I began to think seriously about setting up this kind of business, and soon after discovered the term coworking already existed and seemed to be getting ready to take off. By the time we finally moved to Prague at the end of 2009, it already had its first coworking space, Coffice, and a second much larger space was in the works as part of the Hub franchise. But by this time I had a pretty particular view of what I wanted for a coworking space which none of the other spaces provided, and I was sold on the idea of coworking as something that could thrive in many shapes and sizes as long as each individual space was of high quality. Locus Workspace might succeed or fail, but not because there were other coworking spaces in Prague, any more than a new Sushi (or pizza or Thai) restaurant would succeed or fail because there were already some other restaurants in Prague, or even some other Sushi (or pizza or Thai) restaurants. Just the opposite might be true: for a coworking space (or a restaurant) to succeed, there needed to be enough of them for people to know they exist and to see their appeal.
What sets Locus Workspace apart?
There are two domains that I think set Locus apart from other coworking spaces around the world, not just Prague, and a third that are more like a checklist of good features, some of which some other spaces have, but which together few have. I already mentioned the first domain above: Locus is particularly oriented toward Prague’s expat community and to solving the work/life challenges that group most often faces. The language of the space is English, there are Czech (and English) lessons offered on the premises at intentionally low prices. The approximately forty members come from more than twenty different countries, and all of them have gone through similar challenges regarding what it takes to successfully live and work for oneself or a foreign company in Prague. And there’s a solid base of contacts to service providers often needed by independent workers, whether they be lawyers, accountants, graphic designers, or potential partners. There are also a number of Czech members who find value in this international community and can help bridge the gap between expat and local.
The second domain concerns Locus’s commitment to building an environment that helps bring out people’s best. The Ph.D. I eventually received was in Human Development, and my particular area of research emphasizes the interaction between culture, environment, and cognitive processes in how people think and behave. The idea of creating a social-cultural and physical environment that brings out Coworking.com people’s best is directly in line with both my passion and expertise. There’s still a long way to go in this domain, but a big part of Locus’s emphasis on the social stems from an understanding of how important human social interaction can be to well-being and performance. Locus has regular events, like weekly afternoon coffee breaks, poker and movie nights, and occasional outdoor adventures to help break down barriers and help those inclined to get to know one another a bit. There are regular early morning tea meetup for those who want some concrete commitment to get their day going right. We’ll soon begin weekly meetups for writers, just to sit together, check in with goals and how things are going, and then write like mad. There have been and will continue to be talks or workshops on how to most effectively set and manage long-term and short-term goals, how to effectively deal with procrastination, and time management. And there is a commitment to ongoing education and training to help people excel and feel a sense of mastery in their own work.
Finally, there are several more practical features of Locus that each on its own is not so special, but that together make Locus a great coworking space. It is just 50m off Wenceslas Square, about as central for walking and public transportation as any location in Prague. Members get their own keys with 24-7 access so it’s possible to set working hours that suit your needs. The space itself has top-quality office furniture and infrastructure, ample natural light, and beautiful interior design that’s hard to beat. Locus is a member of the coworking visa program, an agreement across hundreds of coworking spaces around the world to let members of those spaces use each others spaces (for a limited number of days depending on the space). The prices are hard to beat, with unlimited 24/7 access for as little as 3,000 Kč / month, day passes for as little as 300 Kč / month, and a few options in between. Most importantly, there’s an amazing group of members from around the world who care about and contribute to the space and make it what it is far more than the space managers could hope to do.
How can I learn more about coworking, especially in Prague?
A great resource for finding out what coworking spaces exist in Prague is also the best resources for learning about coworking spaces around the world: the space directory of the Coworking Wiki. Check back often because at least three new spaces are slated to open in the near future. Coworking has received an incredible amount of press across a range of prestigious newspapers and magazines, so you can learn a lot just by searching Google for “coworking” alongside your favorite daily newspaper or business weekly. But nothing can beat trying out a few different workspaces for a day or even a month to see if its the right fit for you. Mention this article and you can work in Locus for a day for free. And I’d be happy to point you in the direction of the other coworking options in Prague as they suit or don’t suit your particular needs. By virtue of location alone, Locus isn’t for everyone, and there are some great alternatives to choose from!