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A meeting point next to working colleagues (Photos: Carsten Foertsch)

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The Cube coworking space in London isn’t cube-shaped at all. That’s because the name of this intensely interactive office comes not from its dimensions, but from its ethos. Here, cube is short for incubate. It’s one of the most affordable coworking spaces in London, but anyone simply looking to save some pounds without engaging in the collaborative process shouldn’t bother applying.

“We say no to people who just want a cheap office space,” says The Cube founder Araceli Camargo-Kilpatrick, a New Yorker who opened the space in late 2009.

Those who are judged to clash with the function of the space are also politely turned away. Camargo-Kilpatrick wants to assemble a bureau of “Cubers” who can work collaboratively, learn from each other and help each other grow.

At its most basic, The Cube offers simple shared workspace in a minimalist space in central London. The operators take this a step further with consulting sessions each Friday to offer advice and put start-up entrepreneurs in touch with useful suppliers and contacts. Members are encouraged to network amongst themselves, and in-house workshops pop up regularly on the events calendar.

Collaboration instead of competition

Couldn’t this potentially cause conflicts, if two coworkers are competing in the same field?: “There’s no such thing as a competitor, but a collaboration,” she says, “If you unite forces you can usually come up with something better to offer a client.

“Some coworking spaces still mimic the idea of office space. We don’t. We’re not going to have cubicles. So we instigate people to collaborate. They get introduced to two or three people who are in their industry or who they want to meet. Because the nature of the space they have to talk to each other, to be each other’s colleagues.”

For someone so versed in the rhetoric of coworking, it’s interesting to discover that Camargo-Kilpatrick wasn’t even aware of the term until after opening the space: “We called ourselves a conceptual workspace,” she says.

The financial crisis set the start

That’s because she arrived at the idea independently, while pondering a way to make something successful in the wake of the 2008 financial crash: “I started brainstorming a couple of ideas of businesses I wanted to start which could catch all these people who would no longer be employed, or graduates for whom employment wouldn’t even be an option. That’s where the idea for The Cube came from.”

Camargo-Kilpatrick also drew inspiration from her many previous careers – she has worked in theatre, dance and event production, and business consultancy.

“For people who are considered creative … there is a lot of mythology that we’re not going to be good at it because we haven’t studied numbers or we’re not logistics or systems based. We were trying to put a structure where they would create the ideas and we create the structure and implementation.”

The fear of property agents

After settling on her concept, it took just three days for Camargo-Kilpatrick to find her ideal location, in a building on Commercial Street on the east side of central London, close to Spitalfields Market and the famous Brick Lane curry district.

But sealing the deal on renting the premises took another five months of negotiation and paperwork. Camargo-Kilpatrick believes real estate agents were wary of the idea of a shared workspace because it somewhat threatens their industry – on paper at least, coworking is subleasing commercial space on a smaller scale, something that cuts out the need for property agents all together.

Privacy is somewhere else

Like in most shared workspaces, visitors to The Cube must expect a little bit of background noise. Here, they should also expect to engage in a conversation or two during the day.

“It’s one of the consequences of being in a coworking space. If you want total silence, then rent a private space. This isn’t the space for working in isolation,” she said.

Opening a Coworking Space? Start inexpensive and offer help.

When offering advice for other coworking start-ups, Camargo-Kilpatrick said keeping set-up costs to a minimum is important.

“Some places look incredibly luxurious, their start-up costs are incredibly high. Fancy coworking spaces will take at least three years to recoup their money. It’s a big mistake if you hike up your start-up costs by having expensive chairs and sofas. All our furniture was built from recycled objects… There’s no cappuccino machine. If you want a coffee, you’re going to have to boil the water.”

At the same time, it’s important to provide more than just workspace: “It’s not just about giving someone WiFi and a place to sit. It’s giving them a space where they can come and feel really positive about what they are doing. When you start a business it can be very isolating and you feel lots of doubts. At least here that gets taken away.”

Oversizing a coworking space can also be a problem as it actually discourages interaction: “Entering a big space is an intimidating process. It’s easy for people to be isolated in their own world. It’s almost the same situation as working alone. You don’t even have to say hi to anybody. Here, even the shy ones have to at least rumble and say something.”

She also suggests building strong networks with professional organizations and within the local community before opening the doors. For example, The Cube offered itself as a venue for the London Design Festival, an annual program of design-related events. This helped them connect with their exact target audience – creative freelancers – and as a result, they signed up seven members in their opening week.

Atlantic brigde for expansions

So far The Cube is attracting a healthy stream of coworkers, and its rooms are also used by other businesses and community groups for meetings and events.

Camargo-Kilpatrick now has plans to open another Cube in New York to make it easier for people to expand their operations across the Atlantic.

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