To anyone weary of a long daily commute, Rishit Jain’s choices might seem somewhat bizarre. The independent investor chooses to travel nearly 30km from his home in Seven Bungalows in Mumbai’s north-western suburbs to the Ministry of New, a new co-working space in the recently restored heritage building Kitab Mahal in downtown Fort, where he rents a desk for himself.
The Ministry of New is a 120-seater co-working space where individuals or firms can hire a space, ranging from a single desk to an enclosed team room, for tenures ranging from 10 days a month to several months at a time. Besides Wi-Fi and access to printers, it offers a library and cafeteria, and even shower facilities.
“I’ve seen 15-20 co-working spaces in Mumbai. I find this space more comfortable and the crowd here is great, so there is good interaction,” says Jain, who admits that the long commute is definitely a deterrent. “I might come here on alternate days and work from home on other days.”
Nilima Achwal, the founder of Iesha Learning, a social enterprise providing sex and gender education to children, teachers and parents, relocated her team from Bandra when the Ministry of New opened, and occupied one of the four enclosed rooms, designated for small teams. “We would never have thought of finding a place in Fort, but this works for us because it is a quiet space,” she says.
A different set of drivers are at work at Awfis Space Solutions, a year-old co-working space provider that opened two new centres in Mumbai’s Lower Parel and Andheri (West) in January and May, respectively. A former industrial shed in the now-gentrified Todi Mills in Lower Parel, Awfis leased the 10,000 sq. ft space and refurbished it.
Some 210 seats are on offer in a variety of work settings spread across three floors—fixed desks, flexi-desks, closed cabins, meeting rooms as well as collaborative zones for informal conversations. Glass partitions, and bright furniture add vibrancy to the atmosphere without compromising on the centre’s professional look and feel. “It’s an office that enables me to be more disciplined than working from home, it allows me to focus on work and meet other people, with infrastructure such as conference rooms for my meetings,” says Jagrat Patel, an independent investment banker who rents a single fixed desk at Awfis every day.
Awfis is founded and led by architecture and real estate professional Amit Ramani, whose mission is “to simplify access to quality office space by providing truly ‘just-in-time’ workspaces to create a disruptive, shared economy model that provides a superior alternative to conventional offices”.
Awfis’ Lower Parel centre is an illustrative example. The prime location, easy accessibility, excellent recreational infrastructure and affordability make the building attractive as a co-working space, says Ramani. “Co-working is just 1% or less of the total office market today. My belief is that it will go up to four-five times (in the near future),” he says. Prices here range from Rs.5,000 for a single desk to Rs.13,000 for a shared cabin, both for a month.
Suvojit Mukherjee, regional manager (south) for apparel brand Pepe Jeans, exemplifies this nascent trend. His six-member sales team operates out of a five-seater cabin at Awfis’ Bengaluru centre. “Our salespeople are always travelling, so we don’t need more space. I would need additional staff to manage an independent office; this space is very user-friendly. I looked at a corporate business centre, but it was very expensive,” says Mukherjee. Conference rooms at Awfis (in both Mumbai and Bengaluru) start at Rs.400-700 per hour, depending on the size—much more economical than their counterparts in hotels or business centres.
Not every co-working space, however, is frequented for effective pricing.
The relaxed atmosphere at the Ministry of New is club-like (it was quite quiet when the writer visited) rather than a corporate office, and the pricing (at least double the market average) captures the elite vibe. A single desk for an entire month costs Rs.19,500, nearly four times the entry-level rate at Awfis.
But even at this rate, Jain is a willing customer and his enthusiasm reflects the power of good design. The Ministry of New is an 8,000 sq. ft space, conceived by fellow Dutch expatriates Marlies Bloemendaal and Natascha Chadha as a “design-led, creative, collaborative workspace for independent professionals looking to be part of an international creative community”. “Renting a space for the day or having dedicated desks doesn’t build a community. Every day, you should sit next to someone different,” Bloemendaal says, adding that members are encouraged to contribute their ideas and expertise through informal exchanges and structured workshops, open to all members.
The duo’s Dutch design sensibility of clean lines is blended with a curated, India-inspired selection of furniture, furnishings and art, which are placed against a backdrop of tropical, sun-lit, high-ceiling rooms. While Kitab Mahal, where the space is located, will remain the flagship venue, Bloemendaal and Chadha would like the brand to travel across other venues in Mumbai, and to other Indian cities too.
Ramani’s expansion plans are underpinned by two critical elements that are helping Awfis scale: “managed aggregation” models and the application of technology. To minimize risk, Ramani adopts “managed aggregation” models, where only half of the company’s current inventory is through straight leases (which can be expensive and, hence, risky for Awfis in an economic downturn). The other half operates through various types of “risk-free” partnerships with property owners, he says, including revenue-sharing arrangements and “waterfall” agreements, where there are no minimum guarantees.
Technology is the other buttress, and Ramani envisages most of his bookings being done on the company’s app in the future. “You cannot be a just-in-time provider without the app. It also adds pricing transparency to bookings,” he says.
Recent market developments reinforce the entrepreneurs’ optimism. New intermediaries have sprung up in the sector, such as Spacewhiz, an online marketplace for co-working spaces in Mumbai, Bengaluru, New Delhi, Chennai and Pune. Co-founder Naomi Aggarwal says there are at least “120 co-working spaces in India’s five main cities, with shared offices really catching up”. Venture capitalists have also begun frowning on high real estate costs, which could further propel start-ups to consider co-working spaces as viable alternatives.
Awfis and the Ministry of New are shaping the contours of this emerging industry in their own distinct ways. Through two very different models—one focused on global community and high-end lifestyle, the other on scale and technology—they reflect a fundamental management truth: In a growing market, brand differentiation delivers long-term competitive advantage.
Aparna Piramal Raje is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns, published as part of the Mint Business Series