By Mark Cooper
Eighteen months after its launch in Hong Kong, Blueprint, Swire Properties’ coworking platform, has launched dozens of technology firms and shed light on the economics of short-term memberships as a new form of leasing.
Earlier this year, ULI Hong Kong members toured Blueprint, located in Taikoo Place, a business hub also managed by Swire. Members also learned about Blueprint’s professional services, mentoring, and training programs for technology companies, both established ones and startups.
Launched in late 2014, Blueprint occupies two floors of Cornwall House, one of which is a 10,000-square-foot (929 sq m) coworking space for tech firms. Companies pay HK$2,000 (US$258) per month for a membership that entitles them to use the space however they wish instead of renting specific desks or floors. The other level houses Blueprint’s accelerator, where ten companies at a time take part in a six-month program designed to sharpen their business plans and gain mentorship from Swire real estate professionals and fellow tenants in Taikoo Place.
For Swire Properties, Blueprint was initially a little controversial, since it did not generate as much revenue as two years’ rent from two floors of office space. Henry Bott, project leader, digital, at Swire Properties, noted that the economics of coworking could be hard to justify. “It’s much easier, as the landlord, if you own your own space. If you are renting long-term in order to sell short-term memberships, it is a lot riskier.”
However, former chief executive Martin Cubbon backed the idea, and so far it has been a success. Mabelle Ma, director of development and valuations, said the media attention generated by the Blueprint program has been very positive for the group. “Blueprint has become part of the overall offer and part of the community at Taikoo Place,” she said.
The open floor plan allows for greater professional networking and access to potential sources of funding, although Swire does not itself invest in the companies. Bott explained that the key difference between coworking space and a conventional serviced office space was the level of interaction between members, a consequence of the open-plan layout and relaxed atmosphere, leading to “serendipitous collisions,” he said.
Blueprint is also decorated in an eclectic fashion to spark creativity: it features furniture recycled from Swire offices and includes breakout-area chairs that once served as seats on Cathay Pacific planes.
So far, 20 companies have taken part in the accelerator, ten of which have completed the training program while ten others are expected to finish by the end of the year. Companies that participated in the accelerator include actiMirror, which makes intelligent mirrors with integrated video screens that map people’s faces as they look at them and then stream content deemed to suit their demographic. Tofupay is an online payment platform for Asia, while Metisa is a predictive analytics engine that helps businesses convert data into strategic value.
Mark Henderson, cofounder of SnagR, an innovative web and mobile site inspection and issue management system, explained the benefits of the accelerator program from the user’s point of view. “It allowed us to take an introspective look at our business, and Swire spent a lot of time with us,” he said. The flexibility and collaborative environment provided by coworking space are advantages, Henderson noted. “When we were in serviced offices, we did not talk to the other tenants,” he added.
By the time Swire got into the coworking sector in 2014, the field was already crowded. WeWork, one of the world’s largest occupiers of office space, is set to open in Shanghai this summer and in Hong Kong in the second half of this year. It is also looking at taking space in multiple locations in Seoul and Sydney. A host of smaller, independent operators of coworking platforms have emerged in Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Asian cities, generally occupying low-cost office or industrial space in secondary locations.
Ma added that the coworking movement was leading to changes in the wider office space market, with more demand for “homey offices.” She also noted that startups in the tech space do not work normal office hours, leading to more demand for around-the-clock food and beverage. According to Bott, future development of coworking spaces will include a greater emphasis on the level of services offered. “In the future, coworking memberships are likely to include health care, gym access, and enhanced community services.”
Mark Cooper is a Hong Kong–based writer and editor of AsiaProperty.