Tips from 3 experts on building a successful co-working space in the Arab world

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Co-working spaces are a new thing in the Arab world. We’re not used to working in the same place with strangers who aren’t colleagues or even friends. But the demand for such places is increasing; we saw the launch of around 16 co-working spaces in the Arab world last year. These spaces can be a perfect alternative for those who are looking for an unconventional place that is less costly and more open to the entrepreneurship ecosystem than a traditional office.  

There are several practical conclusions that should be considered by anyone who wants to launch a co-working space. To succeed, one must choose carefully the location, the interior design, the marketing, target customers, and how to generate revenue. To ease the entrepreneur on their way, we talked with three co-working space founders in Egypt who launched their spaces in 2012: Mohamed Naji, the 23 year-old managing director of Al-Maqarr, Mazen Helmi, the 27 year-old founder and managing director of The District, and Anas Imad, the 27 year-old co-founder of Qafeer Labs.

The three entrepreneurs agreed that the key to success for any co-working space is building a community. It helps in networking, building partnerships, projects, and new initiatives. They’re keen to get to know every member of the co-working space, provide friendly help and support whenever they can.

Rather than competing with each other, they enjoy constructive, supportive working relationships. During our interactions, it struck me that the three co-working space owners regularly meet to share experiences and tips to develop their businesses. They believe that the learning process is ongoing, for all of them to reach optimum results and achieve success and sustainability. 

It also helps that the targeted customers for the co-working spaces are slightly different. Al-Maqarr is for students and new entrepreneurs under 30 years old. The District over time has become a community for young people (20 and 30s) with the right experience for working at – or founding – startups. As for Qafeer Labs, it only targets students.

Their tips for someone who wants to open a co-working space in the Arab world are as follows.

Don’t be afraid of competition:

  • Just because a city or country already has a co-working space doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another. Just make sure you target a different customer base. Mohamed Naji of Al-Maqqar told us: “we chose Heliopolis [a Cairo suburb] and we targeted students and new entrepreneurs. [There was already some competition] there but the other spaces targeted older age groups.” 

Once you’ve decided on a city, choose the neighborhood and building carefully:

  • It should be easily accessible by public transport and cars.

  • You are targeting mostly young people, so don’t choose a residential area full of families.

  • The landlord must understand the nature of a co-working space. They should understand that activities will be going on day and night due to long working hours. 

Design the space with an eye towards energy and efficiency:

  • Build an open space without walls, glass-walled rooms for meetings, and a central space for big group gatherings. The space should not be divided into specific rooms.

  • Define your priorities to avoid spending a lot of money. Your targeted customers will help you choose the right type of furniture and how to equip the co-working space.

  • Depending on your location, consider allocating a praying space and a women-only space.

  • Take care of the smallest details, from the types of coffee and tea to office supplies. This will add a sense of ownership and personality.

  • Choose one day per week to make breakfast or lunch all together. It will be an opportunity for new members to get to know the community.

Remember that you’re building a community, not just renting space:  The kinds of support provided by a co-working space besides just the office space should vary from marketing to professional and technical guidance.

Focus on online marketing:

  • New co-working space founder should market via internet, word of mouth, events, and activities on entrepreneurship. Ads in prints don’t have the same impact.

  • Do your social media marketing yourself. The language you use must reflect the space’s personality and its added value.

  • Organize an opening event and invite the targeted customers who will feel they’re witnessing the beginning and expansion of a space. Don’t forget to invite other co-working spaces founders. Al-Maqarr’s opening event is still talked about.

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