I first met Linda Broughton — head of NTI Leeds, part of Leeds Met University — in May 2007, at a meeting on the use of open-source software in the public sector where I planted the seed of an idea to develop a coworking community in Leeds in Northern England.
Within a few months, Linda had launched the “met:space” coworking community at Old Broadcasting House, which has now become the hub for most of the city’s web and new media community (also see my previous interview with OBH resident, James Ward).
I spoke with Linda about the development of OBH and her thoughts on coworking.
Imran: Tell us a little about the background of OBH. What were the motivations for coworking in Leeds?
Linda: It started out as an idea space for our graduates to move on to. We recognized that many of the students’ final year projects had the potential to become commercial businesses, so we wanted to develop a space that could support them in the early days.
I think our views on supporting the graduates have changed as we now recognize that our role is to create a climate where ideas flourish. That means the space needs to attract more experienced freelancers and businesses as well as graduates. I don’t think it would work if everyone was at the same level.
Imran: Do you see much collaboration between residents?
Linda: Yes, definitely. FriiSpray, from Jam Jar Productions, is a collaboration between three members who met here at OBH. Also the Cardboard Laptop Stand is a product developed by two of our members. We are also seeing quite a number of examples of where work is sourced between members. So we see our web designers working with our programmers, and our filmmakers working with our social networking experts. Startups, in particular, need access to good freelancers to help them grow. A coworking community helps to build trust between members which makes collaboration more likely.
Imran: What were your greatest challenges and surprises in bootstrapping Old Broadcasting House – and the largest operational challenges.
Linda: We were fairly empty at first. It took time to persuade people that coworking might work for them. But what’s great is that now people love it! I am constantly surprised by how much our members really love the space. Also it was a revelation to me just how vibrant the Leeds scene is, with so many groups meeting regularly.
The largest operational challenge is long-term sustainability. We want to keep the rates at a level which does not deter people, while still covering our costs. This is likely to mean attracting more members, and we need to manage this without detracting from the experience for members. Overall, the space just about manages itself. Personally, I really don’t like rules and regulations so everything works on a trust basis. That seems to work just fine for everyone.
Imran: What’re your plans for the future?
Linda: I’d like to grow the community, with more physical space. I’d also like to see a pipeline of startups from the University and the city using the coworking at OBH as a stepping stone for growth.
Imran: What’re the key pieces of advice you’d give to people thinking about coworking and people thinking about establishing a coworking space.
Linda: To potential coworkers I’d say think of it as joining a community. Be prepared to give something to that community. Make some time to get to know other members.
If you’re thinking of establishing a space, don’t expect everyone to join at once. You need some patience to get things going. Go out and find the groups of people who are your potential members and encourage them to try out coworking (offer introductory rates or trial memberships). You need some “fans” to get the community started; they will act as your champions. I would also say be quite flexible, if you can be, on the offer.
The relationship between OBH and the local university is unique, enabling a large institution to access grassroots entrepreneurs and innovators. Coworking can help achieve social goals. We’d love to hear your comments on other community-building offshoots from coworking.