In 2012, husband and wife team Patrick and Suzanne Murdock took a big risk. They decided to develop a coworking space in Newry, Northern Ireland, at a time when the city was still in the depths of the recession. Three years later, The Hub Newry is still standing, offering a community environment for start-ups, freelancers, small businesses and community groups based on a sustainable and ethical working ethos. With a “combination of hard work, perseverance, and the support of the local business community”, the Hub is now one of the leading coworking spaces in Northern Ireland.
Hi, Patrick and Suzanne. What inspired you to open the Hub Newry and can you please tell us a bit about the space today?
Patrick: We had just returned from England and I was self-employed working out of our spare room and living a solitary existence where days could go by when the only face to face contact I would have was with family. I needed to be a part of a coworking space and the only way this was going to happen in Newry was by starting our own.
The Hub Newry was born from modest beginnings, located behind the boarded up façade of an old pub, which had become another victim of the recession. Today the space has evolved into an established city centre fixture, housing a community of entrepreneurs and micro businesses who work in partnership with each other to achieve the most elusive of business goals in recent years. We recently won the award for ‘best premises’ at the 2015 Greater Newry Area business awards, which comes hot on the heels of the Hub achieving “Gold” sustainability certification during the summer by Green Tourism.
What is the coworking scene currently like in Newry and did you need to introduce the community to the concept?
Suzanne: It has not been without its challenges. When we relocated from the UK, which is essentially a pro- business environment, we had no idea of all the difficulties that we would face when dealing with the infamous Northern Ireland red tape. Many of the things that we took for granted in London came as a shock in Newry, especially coworking!
It took a good year at the onset of our project to roll out the concept of coworking to Newry and the surrounding areas. Even though there were shared offices, hacker spaces and technical hubs, coworking, in the true sense of the word, didn’t really exist in Northern Ireland.
What types of action did you take in order to introduce the public to the concept?
In the early days, a second business helped to fund The Hub Newry as the office was literally empty. The first residents were those who were travelling or who worked abroad and had already seen the benefits of coworking. But, we were resilient and our ‘can do’ culture helped us to overcome many of the problems we faced. A lot of networking and obscure events including hosting the Oktoberfest Promo Video helped us along the way!
How does the coworking scene in Newry differ from the very advanced community in London?
Newry certainly has some “quirks”. A very strong sense of community and the need to succeed helps to drive the coworking concept here. We seem to attract various clusters of industries, which are successful in Northern Ireland including building, construction as well as creative & digital businesses, which all work together effectively.
What are some of the different needs/expectations of your members?
Businesses here seem to have to work harder in order to be profitable. There is far less start-up capital and most of the local government money is allocated to public sector and charitable projects. Despite this, coworking is now very effective and residents have higher expectations. Desks are far cheaper than in London and our businesses feed off each other well with regards to referrals, contacts and shared expertise.
In your opinion, is coworking self-sustainable and why is that? What do you think can be done to increase sustainability?
Yes, very much so. The local government has recognized the benefits of coworking and also sees a need to lower local taxes, which applies to coworking spaces. There is also much more collaboration between coworking spaces and local traditional businesses, but there is still work to be done in regards to solidifying partnerships between these businesses. Overall, coworking is certainly more sustainable if there is a “twinning system” or more of an international network of coworking businesses to give residents access to international offices.
The Hub is now planning to expand and will be opening a second premises in 2016. Since we are growing and we have basically mapped our growth to that of our residents, we have received feedback letting us know that our members are outgrowing our workspace, but that they still want to continue to be a part of our community.
Can the open workspace/coworking model play an important role in regenerating communities?
Definitely. Tired workspace can be brought back to life for low cost and in a very sustainable way.
We now have a huge expertise to tap into when engaging with local colleagues, communities and businesses. This not only works from a business perspective but also allows us to mobilise members to work on voluntary and community projects such as the urban garden.
Why is this innovative model of work important in regards to how we understand the future of work?
Coworking plays a vital part in giving work experience placements, interview practice, coaching and assisting the resident businesses as well as the coworking business.
The Hub Newry is very community driven and also a big champion of green ethics, sustainability & culture for which we’ve recently been awarded the “Gold” certification by Green Tourism UK. Being very involved in community initiatives for both local businesses and social groups, we’re also really keen to participate in wider geographical areas with other coworking groups, businesses & community groups both Irish, UK & European.
Have you been to the Coworking Europe Conference before?
This is our first conference! We’re looking forward to gaining an international taste of what’s happening in the world of coworking. We are also very much looking forward to sharing experiences and ideas while simultaneously promoting our country and city to an international audience.
What will you be speaking about at this year’s conference?
We will be speaking about establishing a coworking space in an economically disadvantaged area. We will discuss the challenges of bringing a new concept to a traditionally conservative audience, and how our space helped resident businesses succeed. We will also speak about what it takes to establish a coworking space on a budget while still being able to remain sustainable and achieving a design excellence on a budget.