Coworking in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong

Well, that was awesome.

Below are my brief reports on the spaces I visited, along with a few thoughts along the way. I will set your expectations now: I did not take photos with the explicit purpose of completely documenting each space, and in some cases, I could only snap a few photos.

My first stop was Tokyo, Japan, and the first guy I met up with was none other than Hiroyasu Ichikawa. Ichi runs a social media consultancy in Tokyo, which over there is not nearly as overrun by faux professionals as it is here. His work is focused on not just helping people use social media to do marketing, but to understand what this stuff is and how it can be used for good. My kind of guy.

Ichi visited New Work City over two years ago and has been writing about coworking and similar community business for a long time, so when we first met we had a great conversation.

He was the first person I contacted once my travel plans were in place, and upon hearing of my trip promptly proceeded to do what he does: organize, promote, and get people excited.

But before the events started, we grabbed some sushi and stopped by a fascinating space that predates the coworking movement:

Stop #1: Academy Hills, Tokyo

At 8:00pm on the first night I arrived in town, Ichi and I popped into one of two Academy Hills locations in Tokyo. They are the boldest attempt I’ve seen at merging library with coworking. And the location we visited is perched on the 49th floor of a big office tower. And they’re huge.

They have a giant open area that’s a combination of a cafe and a library lounge, and a bunch of big and small semi-private and private areas for silent work and meetings. They have creatively named rooms like “collaboration rooms” and “brainstorm rooms.”

The people behind the space are heavily involved in real estate development and art. Different people from a different world, bearing down upon some of the same things we coworking folks are.

 

 

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Stop #2: Kokuyo, Tokyo

Ichi organized a meetup event and lined up some awesome speakers from other coworking spaces around town. To hold the hundred person sellout crowd, Ichi turned to Kokuyo.

Kokuyo makes office products, but has expanded into design and even collaboration space. They’ve not only opened a space of their own, pictured below, but they’ve also consulted with Catalyst BA, the next spot I’ll talk about, to design their space as well.

Located in the middle of a big office tower in a very corporate area (that still manages to hide a great bar and karaoke place among the skyscrapers), this space features tiered levels that make for a natural stage, folding rolling tables that make the space extra flexible, and an outdoor lounge space that’s ideal for working or taking phone calls while getting a little taste of nature.

The furniture and design are all state of the art, and the environment is very curvy and open. It’s a really great example of what you can do with a traditional office building to make it more compatible with the needs of a new generation of worker.

Ichi put together a tremendously useful Storify post, incuding videos, photos, tweets, his own commentary and more right here. Check it out!

 

Stop #3: Catalyst BA, Tokyo

Located in what I heard described as the “Westchester of Tokyo,” Catalyst BA is on top of a high-end shopping mall in a semi-suburban outskirt of the city. I was fortunate to be able to attend and speak at their grand opening event, which featured some of the participants as speakers.

A partnership between several large and medium organizations in Tokyo, Catalyst BA brings together groups from the worlds of technology, design, and consulting in what seems to me to be something of an all-star concoction of cool projects. Case in point: After our talks, food was catered by a group that specializes in healthy and sustainable food sources, and two different artistic projects were on display: one which involved a camera pointed at a fish tank with a blue screen behind it, and the other a mind-blowing light show that involves a tiny model train running along a track with a spotlight mounted on it, casting huge moving shadows on the walls as it rolled past miniature toys and other everyday objects. It’s hard to describe, but the experience was perhaps my most mind-blowing of the trip. There was too little light to capture decent photos and video to illustrate.

The vibe is extremely similar to Kokuyo, thanks in no small part to the fact that the same people were behind the design and implementation.

The project seems similar in origin to that of La Cantine, where a variety of established organizations were brought together in the mutual interest of promoting their city’s innovations.

This space and the others I’ve discussed so far have been generally on one end of the coworking spectrum: the high-end, possibly more corporate-based, sometimes application-only kinds of spaces. More popular in Tokyo, unsurprisingly, given the culture, but they aren’t the only game in town.

Stop #4: Paxi House, Tokyo

If the spaces I’ve visited so far occupy one end of the spectrum, Paxi House is holding it down at the other end. Paxi House is beautiful and unique, most notably because it is both a restaurant (on the second floor) and a coworking space (on the third floor). Owner Kyo Satani met us there on a whim at around 10:00pm, when the restaurant was surprisingly completely packed. We ate and drank while standing around some barrels in the middle of the restaurant, which seemed to be designed as overflow space when all the tables are taken.

Before I knew what was happening, Kyo had three giant mugs of beer ready for us.

Cheers!

This place was undoubtedly the closest thing to New Work City in Tokyo. Except they serve amazing food.

The upstairs space was warm, casual, and cozy. There were lots of whiteboards, art, and cool random things laying around. The space stood in stark contrast to the carefully planned and meticulously implemented spaces I had visited so far.

Nobody was working in the space upstairs this late in the evening, but I got the distinct impression that most if not all of the people eating at the restaurant were regulars in the community.

Seeing Paxi House combine restaurant and coworking space was an eye opening experience. To succeed and compete with their franchise chain counterparts, small cafes and restaurants must develop a strong following and a healthy community around their spaces. When we were coworking at Gramstand, I learned firsthand how Richard, the owner, had found success in developing a robust culture around his cafe. He lamented seeing fellow small businessowners on his block struggling to get anyone in the door, pointing out that they failed to understand that really getting customers meant more than putting an ad in the paper.

It was a very Cluetrain conversation, and the principle pervades in coworking spaces as well. Coworking space owners would do well to pay close attention to how these existing businessowners find success, not to mention how they cope with their small scale.

Paxi House takes this analogy to the extreme by actually being both a small restaurant and coworking space. I would love to see more places like this popping up and succeeding.

I almost didn’t make it to Paxi House and am so glad Ichi and Kyo made it happen!

 

Stop #5: Xinchejian, Shanghai

Shanghai is a rich, beautiful, well-manicured city. My hotel was right in the middle of a touristy shopping district which exemplified Shanghai’s polish.

Xinchejian, Shanghai’s hackerspace, was nowhere near this part of town. Appropriately, Xinchejian is in a far more “real” part of town, away from the rich expats and the manicured shopping experiences.

That also meant narrow roads not designed for two way traffic, a hard-to-find location hidden away in an ancient warehouse, and a parking situation that required negotiation with locals. In other words, not too dissimliar from the usual neighborhoods one might find a hackerspace nested away in.

I walked into Xinchejian and might as well have walked into NYC Resistor. Gadgets and witty signage everywhere. A Makerbot in the house. Some kind of agriculture project involving running water between two potted plants through a fish tank. And don’t miss the freelance beehive in the slide show.

Founder Ricky was an engineer at Google and is working on some awesome projects while running the space, which is naturally a very loose and community-driven operation. What appeared to be an emergency glass box on the wall was actually a donation box into which people put money for just about anything.

I felt right at home here. I sat on a couch made of spare bamboo with Ricky as he talked with Liu Yan, owner of Xindanwei described below, as they discussed business and local things.

Stop #6: Xindanwei, Shanghai

As I quickly learned when I first visited Indy Hall way back in September 2007, coworking communities tend to find some really remarkable, unusual spaces to occupy. Walking into 32 Strawberry Street in Philadelphia, in a back alley of a wonderfully fun part of town, I was awestruck at the massive ceilings and provocative architecture that defined IndyHall’s first space.

Xindanwei, located in a historic and beautiful part of town called the French Concession, occupies all of a split-level six story building, with a giant winding staircase taking you from the ground floor cafe through various kinds of workspaces, conference rooms and couch areas all the way to the roof deck.

Yeah, I was jealous.

Once again, a retail space, this time a cafe, is combined with a coworking space to combine two community-driven businesses. The panel I participated in included local space owners and researchers from Berlin and Europe, all of whom were awesome. I have a lot of thoughts from this panel, some of which I will attempt to summarize in my next post. In the meantime, you can check out a great post from An Xiao on the discussion. My favorite quote:

“Ultimately, if the space is driven more by the community than the the organizers, then it’s safe to say the space is successful.”

An Xiao

Stop #7: Boot HK, Hong Kong

“This is big for Hong Kong,” is what founder and awesome dude Jonathan Buford said to me almost immediately upon my arrival at their lovely little space, seemingly anticipating my first reaction.

Boot HK may be a little cramped, but I’ve seen places like this before. I’ve run places like this before. In a city where the startup / meetup / independent cultures seem to be rather nascent, the hub of the coworking scene, the hackerspace scene, and maybe even the whole startup scene can fit into about 750 square feet. At one point in its life, a whole tree can fit into a seed.

I thought I knew better than to underestimate a space’s size, but when Jon told me about a 50 person Meetup they held, I asked what venue they used for the event, assuming it had to be elsewhere.

“We did the event here,” he said.

I looked around in disbelief. If there were any fire marshalls in the room, their eyes would have popped out of their heads.

“If you put the guest speaker in this spot, people can see from all the way back there and there,” Jon continued, pointing out exactly how they managed to maximize their space so well.

And maximize well they do– a big communal table, two private rooms, a couch, a kitchen, and even a workbench area for hardware hacking all manage to fit comfortably within the space.

And, as is pretty typical of coworking spaces, they had a whiteboard with the wifi password and other details on it, like a gig board.

One unique thing they did have, however, that I intend to steal and encourage other coworking spaces to steal, is a to-do list for newcomers with an all-important first step:

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Jon and I talked a lot about the state of things in Hong Kong and how he has been working to grow the startup scene, while also juggling running his space and a load of other really exciting side projects. If his execution continues to follow his ambition, his impact on Hong Kong and the world will be very noticeable in the not too distant future.

So many of his efforts exemplify the potential of doing more with less. In a city with an infrastructure and socioeconomic background that’s not particularly friendly to funky indie projects and things like Meetup groups, Jon and Boot, like nature in Chaos Theory, find a way. When planning a major event called Startup Saturday, Jon needed an event venue for a large audience, far more than even he could craftily cram into their existing space.

Meetup-friendly spaces for large groups aren’t easy to come by anywhere, but options seem particularly sparse in Hong Kong. So how’d they find an affordable, central, beautiful space?

They went to church. In particular, an evangelical church that just so happens to house a huge, modern event space that would be perfect for a one day conference.

Chaos theory at work.

One day I’d like to write a whole post about what coworking communities could learn from churches, but that’s for another time.

After visiting the space, Jon and I met John Erik Metcalf, cofounder of Austin’s Conjunctured, for beers and deep fried things at an awesome cafe / restaurant / bar nearby. Three coworking space owners from three different cities, always a good time.

Tomorrow, I will be diving headfirst into some conclusions I’ve drawn from my experiences.

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