CospoT | To cut across networks that you have acquired by co-working

Co-spot is an initiative meant to test the concept of co-working in Georgia. @remi observed about a year ago that there was not such a thing over here. The idea was to create a co-working space on a small scale to test the public, the audience, the traction of such a project. Co-working was one of the bricks that was needed for a previous project. And it seemed fitting in the continuation of Remi’s experience as a volunteer for the language exchange club in Kyiv. He had a very active social role of connecting organizers and members of language conversation clubs, conversation meetings, in Ukraine.

A co-working space, the way I see it, is a place where people can meet other people. You help them to connect with each other. It is a place where you don’t come just for work, you can do that in a cafe, and in libraries, and so on. A place which is meant to interact with other professionals.

So, this is how the idea formed in the spring of last year. In the summer I prepared.

There was an element of personal challenge as well. I had been a volunteer for a few years, and I wanted to come back to business, but I didn’t want to go back to the corporate world. So, this was a way to start an initiative as entrepreneur and to set up a business in Georgia. Georgia is a good country for that, it is easy to set up a business. There is more challenge in running a business and making money from a business, because the local market is very small. And this is something that I learned by doing.

But I am absolutely really happy with all that I have learned so far. And the mere fact that opening this business, this physical space, brought a lot of people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise, entered the space. My accountant was passing in the corridor and she needed a charger for her phone, she entered, and a few months later she was my accountant. Without a physical space, I probably would not have met her. Now through her, I have connected foreign entrepreneurs with russian speaking and english speaking accountants.

Business, I would say, from a commercial perspective, is still under what I was expecting, and not enough to break even. I have customers, but not enough. That’s it.

The reasons could be many.

Some of them are that the location of Co-spot is not obvious. It is not very far from the main street Rustaveli, but there is a psychological barrier coming here. Although it is the central hub of public transportation. Most of my customers are foreigner, not all of them, but most.

For Georgians, one element is cost, they do not have a lot of disposable income for a co-working space. Another one could be also the way they work. For the moment, they may rather have a private office for their business in order to have the freedom to address all the subjects they want the way they want it without concerns for neighbors and privacy. The constant dynamics of sharing and collaborative consumption is maybe less here than in some other countries.

In Ukraine, co-working works really well. I am setting up another business at the moment in Ukraine. I am not only working on this I am diversifying. We are trying to rent quite a large office in the center of Kyiv. And the prices in the center of Kyiv are less than prices that are not in the center here in Tbilisi. So the prices of real estate in Tbilisi are definitely an obstacle, for the model of a privately owned co-working space.

Remi is not completely alone anymore. He a colleague that works part time, and an accountant. It is also the first time that he has run something that customers come to.

The bills, the water, the supplies, the paper, the cleaning, this gives you a very down to earth approach. I like it. Doing a business which is not only service, or working from your computer remotely, working from your computer at your customers place. And that was also something for me that I really appreciate.

I have been used to have quite a flexible lifestyle, going right and left where I want to, traveling often. This endeavour, this small initiative, pinned me down in Tbilisi for quite a while. Luckily now I have my colleague and I can go away for a few days to do other thigs. But, rather than saying that I don’t like it, the constraint of being here and working at Co-Spot 6 or 7 days a week for months, was a good life experience.

What I tremendously like about it, is the learning part. Georgia is a nice place to create a company. People, even if they don’t understand what you are trying to do, even if what they are providing isn’t what you asked for, they mean well. Usually. At a small scale at least, when there are not so many stakes. I’ve heard it can be different if you have a much larger company. I’ve also been learning a lot about creating a business. I have been in France a freelance corporate person. This was similar in some ways, the accounting and so on, but this one again: to have a physical space to run with, it made a big difference. I could have worked on the concept and said: “Will I open a co-working space?” and “Let’s try to create a community first” which is actually the best practice. But I think I would still be trying to gather the right community, and probably would still have doubts whether it could work. But, sometimes you have to jump in. There was a leap of faith. An assumption in what I did. I will, probably, transition.

On the long run, Remi believes that businesses have to make a profit, even it's not a big profit, or break even. And, this is what is sustainable.

besides money,t he support Remi believes he could have used, might have been a Georgian partner. 

In Georgia, for the same business, if I wanted to push the envelope a bit, I would say we could have had a Georgian partner with their own community. Because it makes a big difference in how things work over here. When you want to find a job, when you want to set up a business, who you know and what they do matters. On the other hand, I would say that this could have made things easier, but then it would only reinforce the local culture functioning through your personal network.

But a co-working space should be a place where you meet people you don't know, Remi believes. Professionals of all horizons, or professions, all backgrounds, that precisely cut across those networks that you have acquired through family, friends, extended family, university, and so on. He thinks the help of a local partner could have been usefull, but then the nature of their community would have mattered a lot.

There are several other initiatives happening in Georgia and the South Caucasus.

At the moment there is a great initiative, it is called Generator 9.8. It’s a non-profit Georgian organization who is setting this up. The four girls that are founders of the NGO, which is a few years old, want to have a social bar and co-working space. The bar will bring some revenue, whatever happens, and the co-working space functions on a different model. They want to make it very cheap for the co-workers, but rely on donations from private donors, institutions, to cover the costs.

There is also another initiative in Tbilisi, the new institute of Italian Culture. Tamaz wants to create a laboratory of ideas in and for Georgia. Connected to the institutions he is connected to in Italy, yes, but it doesn’t have to be connected to Italy necessarily. So he wants to create a network of collaboration, self run. So people have responsibilities in the space. This is also an initiative that hopefully will attract people that would not necessarily have met otherwise. I think the style will be different. Like, the style of this office will be different from that of the generator, different of that of the institute of italian culture. There is space, room for many different kinds of co-working spaces to co-exist in Tbilisi.

The great thing about these two initiatives is that they are very open to collaboration and cooporation, exchanging, growing with each other.

I am trying to share my experience with the Generator 9.8, they deserve it. They have a very good attitude. They also have uncertainties, because they don’t have many funds for the initiative. Their openness is commendable. Also, as I have seen in Ukraine working as community organizer for a few years, if they can attract volunteers to help run the place, it’s a showcase of what being a volunteer can bring you. It shows society that volunteering also has benefits. Not only for the community, but also for the volunteers themselves. Something that people, Georgians, do not have on their radar yet. Saying that you volunteered on a CV, that it will be looked at favorably, by any western employer or university.

But it is not only in Georgia that you have the experience of co-working in the south caucasus. Last year, in Yerevan, a student, Vachagyan, created Utopia Lab. I went to visit him, and it is interesting how different the whole thing works. First, he wasn’t successful, and then he started anew, and now they have created a rather strong community of tech guys. Armenia has a strong diaspora, and foreigners are planning to open an impact hub in Yerevan this September, if I am not mistaken. Will they follow through? They don’t seem to have a lot of connections with local communities, but the scene of co-working is also on the move over there.

In Baku, there is a co-working space that opened this January. Quite recent. I haven’t followed it that much, I should go there and visit. It looked like they had a rather large space, and the founders already had some kind of backing. It should be interesting to see what happens over there as well.

It will be interesting to see what will happen in the South caucasus with co-working, which direction it will take. We’ll see.

And what about the concepts of mutual support and collaboration?

Mutual support and collaboration, they have been going on for a few thousand years. We are not inventing anything. Somehow we feel the need to come back to it. It is crazy. The concepts, I think, can be used and talked about for hours and they are not that useful. What is, is practical experiences, situations of collaboration and mutual support. If you don’t make it happen, you can keep on talking but you don’t bring any value to anyone. If you put it in practice, if you set up a space and you collaborate, if you try to foster mutual support along different lines, than those the society around you offers, then it has value. In Georgia I think, yes, there is a need. Because society is in, some aspects, rather conservative. And a lot of young people are used to functioning in their extended family environments. And co-working spaces in general can offer them a new experience. Something that may puzzle some of them at first. But, an environment where they will again probably not escape their traditional surrounding, social surroundings, but a way to establish contacts. And start looking at opportunities, work, businesses, in a new way.