I have heard about UtopianLab for quite a while and was very curious to find out more about this place as there are only a few co-working spaces in Armenia (read Yerevan) and this one seemed to be really special. After exchanging some emails, I finally met Armine, one of the co-founders, as Vachagan the other founder is away till the end of July (I did ask him several key questions via email though).
Armine was very positive and welcoming. She showed me UtopianLab which is located in an apartment turned into co-working space in a building located in the downtown Yerevan. They have 2 rooms with desks (around 15 spots in total) and a meeting room, which is isolated and convenient for making calls/conferences.
UtopianLab started a year and half ago when Vachagan and Armine and Lilit (a former colleague of Vachagan) decided to create a special place for freelancers to work and create. Vachagan was a Wikipedia editor since 2007 and he says most of the things he learned in life was through editing Wikipedia (not just reading). He co-founded Wikimedia Armenia (an NGO) in 2013, andit was a valuable experience that he also used later for co-founding Utopianlab. Wikimedia projects are also about sharing: sharing knowledge and media, while Utopianlab is about sharing workspace.
Currently most of the members are using the space full time paying on a monthly basis and they are mostly males - freelance IT specialists, designers and translators except a couple of females, but Armine notes that it is changing slowly and more female freelance workers join the team.Trying to register in Armenia Utopian Lab is facing a dilemma, as they do not fit in any of the available formats suggested by consultants: they are neither an NGO, nor a foundation or a company as they do not have profit but would still have to pay taxes.
The price for a monthly use of the space is some 45 Euros per person and Armine says they only manage to pay for their expenses - fees (rent. electricity, water, etc) and the credit they took to equip the space with Air Conditioning. As the space is small, they can not afford to hire someone to stay there all day, so each freelancer has a key and a free access during the whole day. As most members are full time, they all have their own desks and can leave their stuff there while the part time members share the tables.
Armine told me they do not have an income and are doing this voluntarily as whatever they earn pays the communal fees, the rent and the credit they took from a bank to buy air conditioners and repair the place.There is also a kitchen where members can get tea, coffee and other drinks.
How you got started and current situation.
Vachagan: “We started Utopianlab in March 2014, but the process started in mid-2013. I had a full time job then, but wanted to be independent and do what I thought was meaningful. However I did not want to work from home or from a cafe, I wanted to have my own space as a professional which first seemed a little bit Utopian, until I heard about co-working spaces. Currently we have around 12 full/part time members and we are thinking of renting a bigger space but for the moment we haven’t found anything affordable.”
Coworkers at UtopianLab. (Photographs: Lusine Bekaryan)
Who’s involved: Who is in the team? Roles and responsibilities? Skillsets (what are individual team members good at?)
Armine: ”We are basically doing everything alone with Vachagan. Vachagan is responsible for PR, general strategy and management while I take care of events and manage everyday activities. We used to have a paid employee who would help us but she left. Somehow we haven’t yet found the right person with the right mindset.”
“We do not have any long term partnerships but we do collaborate with some other projects during events.”
What your main objectives are/why you do this?
Vachagan: “Our objective is to become a community of independent professionals. This we succeeded to do on a small scale, now the main objective is to move to a larger space where we can grow as a community, in the broad sense of the word ‘grow’. This however seems to be quite a challenge for us, maybe even more difficult than starting the co-working space in the beginning.”
What you enjoy about the work and what you enjoy less?
Vachagan: “ I enjoy taking care of logistics, finding partners and friends, social/digital media, events, management. I think I enjoy everything I do for Utopianlab, I just don’t have enough time for everything (I have a study and freelance jobs beside Utopianlab).”
Armine: ”I enjoy our diverse community of people, the fact that I can have a relatively free schedule. I enjoy less the bureaucracy connected with the formalities of registration of our project, the criticism of people who do not understand and accept what we do.”
What kinds of tasks do you do on a regular basis? Yearly, monthly, weekly, daily
“Daily: keeping the space clean, buying supplies. Sending news to members with our internal newsletter. Receiving guests or new members.
Weekly: Updating website/social media. Discussing strategy and future plans with Armine. Research.
Monthly/Yearly: Buying furniture. Relocation.”
What, other than money, do you think could help you in your work?
Vachagan: “People (members, or friends/partners, or just visitors) who have a strong sense of community are very helpful. Those are people who come with interesting ideas and those are people who want to organize events which are in line with our values/vision. In fact we don’t really need much money, the money that we generate with membership fees are more or less enough, our only problem is to have a space, and if we rent a space: to be able to pay the rent (that’s when money becomes an issue).”
What help could you offer others and under which conditions (assuming no money is involved)?
“We are open to exchange experience with similar projects from abroad, offer our connections and networks for collaboration. We can offer our space for meetings and events, as well as provide information about Armenia and promote Edgeryders’ concept.”
How do you go about doing this- what steps are involved? Technologies or processes used?
“We try to use as much open source as we can (mediawiki, WordPress, diaspora social network, jabber…). We also hope to convert to solar energy as soon as we can afford that (or at least buy solar heaters). Those are mostly my own preferences in life. As for now, there are not many technologies in Utopianlab, that I can tell about right now. I think that will come later, when we hopefully will expand.”
Costs: What expenses are involved? Who benefits from the work?
“We pay the rent, electricity and other communal fees monthly. We also pay the credit we got in order to install air conditioning. Freelancers are the target audience benefiting from our work.”
Existing alternatives: Who else is doing similar or relevant work/offering similar things- locally and or elsewhere?
“There are a few initiatives which are commercial (Eon, Loft) but those are not really co-working offices. In the past 1-2 year we saw a number of initiatives to open co-working spaces in Yerevan, most of them did not survive. I think Impact Hub will be an exception (they are expected to open later this year and mainly focus on NGOs and entrepreneurs). "
As Vachagan likes to say “Co-working spaces do not compete with each other but with the old-fashioned offices”.
Comix: a comics event organized by Utopianlab. (Photographs: Lusine Bekaryan)
Important players affecting the work? (locally and internationally)
“As for the local and international influences: this is a very broad question, all I can say is that we are a small community and we don’t feel affected by other organizations yet. I think once we grow, we will get a better sense of that. I think, for instance, Tumo will affect us hugely, because basically it prepares freelancers and creative professionals. IT companies will influences us as well: many of our current members worked many years in large IT companies and bring their experience to our coworking space. I think expats and repats in Armenia are going to be a community which will affect us as well: about one half of our members are from this community. They bring their experience and culture from other countries.
We also are in contact with some other local organizations in Armenia/Yerevan, who somehow influence, inspire us because they have a similar mission, like for instance TechTension, KolbaLabs, Microsoft Innovation Center and others. Furthermore I visit co-working spaces abroad each year. And we also are in contact with CoSpot a co-working space in Tbilisi”
Long term perspective: any Business or sustainability plan?
“We see our future as a social enterprise. Important decisions might somehow change the business model we have now (low membership fees, payable for almost all freelancers in Armenia). In the near future we are also going to offer volunteer work for members who might be willing to do that and don’t pay or pay less membership fee. We also hope to have a cafeteria that would cover some of our fees.”
Regulation and policy affecting this?
“We have consulted several lawyers and we still can not decide which format suits us to register under as we do not have any profit now but we are not exactly an NGO or a foundation. ”
What do you believe are the most important projects locally that are relevant to the work you are doing at this moment?
“There is Impact Hub collaborating mostly with NGOs.”