Got a start-up but no office? Desk surf London's top firms

Lucy Tobin
Bathtub office provided by Hubble

Among the 40-odd suited financial PRs bustling in and out of communications firm Lanson’s Farringdon office, you might spot a few creatives — maybe a comedian, or a cabaret act — heading down to the basement. This is not a covert new campaign idea for the PR firm, whose clients include AXA, JP Morgan and Moneysupermarket, but the comings and goings of staff and performers at HighTide, a theatre company that began desk-surfing at Lanson’s HQ back in 2008 but which now has its own permanent base in its offices.

It’s the latest trend in corporate giving: instead of furnishing start-ups or not-for-profits with cash, companies are now furnishing small firms with, er, furniture by donating a bit of their office space.

Lanson’s chair Clare Parsons first came across HighTide, which supports new playwrights with their first commissions, at its inaugural theatre festival, and invited its founders to use Lansons’ offices for its work in the capital. The arrangement worked so well that in 2013 Lansons converted its basement into bespoke offices for the expanded HighTide staff of six.

The theatre group says it can reinvest its income and donations straight into its work as a result, while Lansons’ PR bods meanwhile get to attend play readings in the offices, get free theatre tickets and benefit from presentation workshops for PRs, including tips on posture, voice and movement.

Firms reckon giving a start-up even just a desk or two of their own unused office space brings them the benefits of a co-working space. The Royal Academy of Engineering has turned some of its office on The Mall over to tech entrepreneurs to work alongside its Fellows (who include James Dyson and ARM co-founder Robin Saxby), inspired by Harvard Business Review research into what makes employees “thrive”.

The analysis found that people in co-working spaces experience higher job satisfaction, productivity and lower burn-out rates — and the working style boosts a firm’s overall productivity. It’s not just big corporates sharing: in its Shoreditch showroom vegan shoe company Friendship Shoes’ founders Steve Honest and Caroline Black say “aware of how tricky it is for new and upcoming brands to finance retail spaces, we decided to donate space in our showroom and studio to a selection of ethical brands”. The first five start-ups include HeartCure Clothing, Mi Vida Vegan and Kasia Ethical Wear.

In north London, Propercorn’s co-founder, Cassandra Stavrou, says that when her popcorn business moved to its new, bigger digs in Islington, “we found ourselves with more desks than Propercorn people”. So, as well as sub-letting to young businesses Buzz Bikes and the Sustainable Restaurant Association, they donate desk space.

“Starting your own business can be seriously lonely, we remember it well,” says Stavrou. “So if friends or family are trying to start their own thing and are looking for time in an office environment, we’ll always try and give them a desk for a few days. All we ask in return is that they share any skills or knowledge with the Propercorn team. Having this mixture of sub-letting start-ups, freelancers and entrepreneurs creates a really exciting environment in which to work — we’ve only been around for five years, so there is plenty we can learn from these great businesses.”

Even co-working spaces are capitalising on the chance to diversify their already mixed tenants. Property agency 3Space’s Buy Give Work initiative means that for every company that rents a desk at one of its shared-working spaces, a free desk is provided for a non-profit, local start-up or experimental project. Incumbents include Re-Start Project, which works to reduce the amount of used electronic equipment that goes to waste.

Then there’s Rohan Silva’s online office agent Hubble, which this year ran a competition with Friends of the Earth to give London start-ups six months free in the environmental group’s Stockwell office — worth £8,000. Hubble described it as “a rare opportunity for a small business to accelerate their brand and product in a focused office environment without the cost of rent to worry about”. The winners, donation-tracking software firm Makerble and charity-donor matchmaking business Tythe, can also access Friends of the Earth’s internal events, training programmes and network opportunities.

But not everyone’s jumping on board. London rents mean sub-letting even one spare desk in the capital can be lucrative, while the City of London Corporation’s recent Tech X the City report warns: “When it was suggested to interviewees that large corporates with surplus space might release it to start-ups, there was a lukewarm response [due to] concerns over data security, intellectual property and the interaction between start-up and corporate employees. But this is already happening, and is likely to form a larger part of the market.”

Basically, time to budge up, suits, the start-ups are coming (and they promise to help with the coffee run).

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