Is Berlin growing up? How the coworking scene is changing

sony-center-coworking-21
sony-center-coworking-21

The concept of coworking has been around for a while now. It seems to make sense. Bring people together who need office space. Let them work and network in one place. It’s like the concept of a studio for the artist. It’s good to have a place other than your living room to work and it doesn’t hurt if it’s a space you actually enjoy going to.

Coworking has become especially popular in Berlin. Startups who don’t have large enough teams to justify renting out a space make use of the shared offices. International teams newly arriving do the same. And freelancers and creative people use the spaces to meet other like-minded people and, as one says, “get shit done”.

Besides the well-known spaces like Oberholz, Factory and Ahoy (which we’ve checked out here) there are a few new players in town. I visited them to find out how coworking is changing in Berlin and what it says about how the city is transforming.

Mindspace

MINDSPACE_2

Mindspace is smack dab in the middle of Mitte, the center of Berlin. It’s surrounded by upscale restaurants and hotels. It is nothing like the small 20sqm café-cum-coworking space on my street in Neukölln. It’s big, clean and on top of a shopping center. Space is rented for a minimum of one month. It’s open 24/7 and a private office space for four is over 1500 Euro per month.

Arriving at Mindspace I note how different the feel is from many other coworking spaces I’ve visited. There are more people in professional attire and it’s much more quiet. That’s not to say the space that opened in April this year isn’t being used – its expansion this coming Monday proves it is – but the atmosphere is different. It’s more upmarket, more sophisticated, ‘less Berlin’ – or is it?

We’ve written about Berlin’s injection of capital. With London leaving the EU, forecasts have Berlin as the next main European startup hub. German companies must stay lean to survive while simultaneously checking out their competition and connecting with innovators. One example? Hyundai’s row of offices at Mindspace. As Berlin changes, Mindspace seems to meet the need for a regenerated, more focused, less hipster startup scene. One member told me he chose Mindspace for this exact reason. It got its start to Tel Aviv and is looking to expand. And yet, something about it is still distinctly Berlin. There’s tree stumps for stools on the big terrace facing Museum Island. And Radiohead’s “Everything in its right place” is spray painted on a wall.

WeWork

Looking for WeWork I got lost amongst tourists in Potsdamer Platz. When I entered the space – boasting a beautiful view over the Reichstag and Tiergarten – I immediately felt a New York buzz. Monocle and the Humans of New York book sat in the lobby. It was buzzing with a pop-up lunch service by Beets & Roots and people with suitcases and dogs chatted loudly on their phones. A TV screen advertised a WeWork retreat in the Adirondacks. WeWork is an even further cry from the coworking spaces I know.

The space opened in May. Now, over 800 people work share the communal space. It’s full to capacity and they’ve already got another space in Berlin under construction. On the doors signs hang that read “Hustlers at work”. It’s hard not to feel the commercialism. Though its mandate is providing a sense of community, that’s exactly what I felt was missing.

But I was only there for a few hours. Members of WeWork seem to be spellbound. And is it a step in the wrong direction? Probably not. It depends on who makes up the company and their preferred way of working. If it’s an American startup expanding to Berlin, why not emulate the work culture of the founding team? If the WeWork brand and ethos inspires you, why not let it? If you want to take a break from work and shop a popup stall, go for it.

Holzmarkt

Kater-Holzig

On the other hand, there is Holzmarkt on the Spree. It is a “citizen-initiated” cooperative space and in contrast to Mindspace or We Work, it’s not a glass-walled cubicle but a whole village. Holzmarkt’s aim is to create a unique urban neighborhood and coworking is just one part of that. There are residences, a garden, a club, music and recording studios and a “Kidz Klub”. As they say, it is not about property and possession on the Holzmarkt. So, while sharing a similar aim as the other spaces – to foster creativity, cooperation – it’s execution is different. The nightclub was the “stimulus and source of inspiration” so you can draw your own conclusions from that. Holzmarkt seems to represent all the free-spiritedness of Berlin, which seems to be under threat. But will the WeWork’s swallow it up?

It’s hard to say but judging from the number of small, independent coworking spaces popping up, I think it’s unlikely. Cheaper prices and less central locations will keep attracting younger companies with new projects. While you probably won’t find a small jewellery startup at WeWork, the companies are still collaborating somewhere else.

Berlin is still Berlin

While Berlin might be changing fast and coworking a sign of its changes, its obvious that these spaces serve such a wide variety of people. You are free to be New York-style founder, suitcase in hand and networking enthusiastically. You can hop on a shared bike and head to an investor meeting in shorts. You can sit out on the canal and meet sculptors and dancers. There’s freedom. And in the end, isn’t that what Berlin is all about?

Images: WeWork, Mindspace, Holzmarkt