Start-up community: Shared ambition - Issue 96 - Magazine | Monocle

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A handbell is rung at 17.00 each day in Istanbul’s Atolye, calling the community of freelancers away from their desks for a much-needed tea break. Taking the floor of the lounge is an earnest Turkish designer with a 10-minute pitch: “To fulfil your desires,” he tells the assembled group, “you must seek out your talent and design your life around that.”

It may sound a bit grand but Istanbul, despite the city’s upheavals in recent weeks, is still a city of opportunities. Co-working spaces such as Atolye are cropping up all over the city to capitalise on the growing number of creative freelancers and eager early-stage entrepreneurs. Atolye has so far led the way, recruiting a diverse group of people who will contribute to the community in a positive way.

“Of the people who apply to take a space here only about 10 to 20 per cent actually get accepted,” says Kerem Alper, who, along with partner Engin Ayaz, opened Atolye in 2015. The pair have carefully chosen a member base of 100 people with skills that range from offset printing and coding to knowledge of Ottoman history and of how to assemble a decent art exhibition. The founders have also tapped these skills for the space itself (the functionalist designs of the new desk lamps, for instance, were created by members).

Based in Bomontiada, a restored Ottoman-era brewery, Atolye is housed in what was once the warehouse. The old factory’s atmosphere of industry has rubbed off – you won’t, for instance, find the beanbags that are seemingly mandatory in less inventive shared workspaces the world over. While there are perches for the desk-bound self-employed and small glass-fronted offices for nascent start-ups, there is also a workshop downstairs. Here designers can use a rack of tools, cnc cutters and two 3D printers; ideal for crafting prototypes and architectural mock-ups.

In one of the offices, we interrupt a meeting in which Tanzer Bilgen, ceo of Doktar, an agricultural-technology company, is perusing new designs for field sensors. “We’re an engineering company but we lack the ‘soft’ part,” says Bilgen. He came to Atolye to remedy that and enlisted Japanese designer Oki Kasajima to make the sensors more appealing. The result is akin to a friendly-looking bird house: “It’s named Koya; ‘small house’ in Japanese,” says Kasajima.

Ayaz is under no illusions about the current challenges faced by Turkey’s start-ups. Many young entrepreneurs are talking about upping sticks and moving abroad; the flow of foreigners into town has slowed. He’s adamant, however, that the community of entrepreneurs is Istanbul’s greatest asset and that they have the drive and capacity to protect the city’s prospects. “We can, in our own way, help preserve this community right now,” says Ayaz. “And we can safeguard it for when things get better.”

Working it

Istanbul isn’t the only city where well-appointed shared workspaces are flourishing. Here are three others raising the co-working benchmark.

  1. Metta, Hong Kong
    Led by start-up incubator Nest and backed by the building’s owner Allan Zeman, the focus at this members’ club is more on networking than co-working. It could herald a new wave of clubs in Hong Kong: London’s Soho House group is working on its first outpost in the city.
  2. Soho Works, London
    Speaking of Soho House, the group’s first workspace, based in London’s Shoreditch and launched last year, is beautifully designed and operates on a membership model. Soho Works spaces in Istanbul and Los Angeles are on the way too.
  3. Ministry Of New, Mumbai 
    This sleek new co-working space is an impressive affair, having transformed the top floor of a dilapidated Victorian building in the historic centre into a light-filled shared office.

Join the club

Co-working spaces are often seen as something new to the world of work. But the reality is that they are not so dissimilar from the private members’ clubs that have long existed and strengthened ties within business communities around the world.

Spaces such as Atolye work best operating as a members-only club when they emphasise the importance of contributing to the collective and attempt to create a convivial mix of diverse people and professions.

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