59. The changing landscape of co-working and the Future of Work | Gabriela Hersham, founder of Huckletree


Gabriela Hersham | Founder of Huckletree


This week, our conversation centers around coworking, and our guest has been credited as an original pioneer of coworking in the UK, having founded coworking business Huckletree in 2014, Gabriela Hersham. Huckletree is now one of the UK’s most exciting coworking brands, bringing together the UK and Ireland’s most innovative startups, entrepreneurs and businesses. 
In episode 59 we discover how coworking has evolved from the early days of 2014, and how things have changed due to the pandemic


Gabriela Hersham web


A champion of women in business, Gabriela has been actively campaigning for greater diversity and representation within the innovation ecosystem, and passionately supports female entrepreneurs both in Huckletree’s community and beyond.



[00:00:00] - Gabriela Hersham
The tech scene was about to explode. I had just come from New York, and it had already exploded in New York, and it was literally on the cusp of doing so in the UK as well. It was just after the recession and lots of entrepreneurship sprouting out of everywhere, and we really wanted to create a home for that and to bring these really exciting tech businesses together. We were really passionate about that.

[00:00:26] - Doug Foulkes
Hello, and welcome to Episode 59 of Chaos and Rocket Fuel: The Future of Work Podcast. This is where we look at every aspect of work in the future. It's brought to you by WNDYR and Pattyrn. And alongside me is the CEO of WNDYR and Pattyrn, Claire Haidar. Claire, nice to see you again. How are you doing?

[00:00:46] - Claire Haidar
Doug, I'm on a high this morning. I'm just back from some time at our desert ranch watching the big, big sky, which was beautiful. How are you?

[00:00:59] - Doug Foulkes
I'm good. We're still in the throes of a heat wave. Sounds like your throat is sore, you're probably out a little bit watching too much late at night.

[00:01:07] - Claire Haidar
Exactly. I was up at 2:00 AM, 3:00 AM. Seriously, the Milky Way was just breathtaking this weekend, so I'm suffering the consequences of not sleeping the way I should have.

[00:01:20] - Doug Foulkes
Okay, well then let's move on quickly. Today we've just had a very interesting conversation about co-working with the co-founder and CEO of a company called Huckletree. Gaby Hersham, we've been speaking to. Tell us a little bit about her and why you asked her onto the podcast.

[00:01:38] - Claire Haidar
Gaby discovered me because Gaby asked me to be a mentor on one of the programs that Huckletree runs. But the interesting thing is once I started digging into Huckletree, I realized that I really did want to bring Gabriela onto the podcast. And it's because Huckletree are really doing some really interesting things in the co-working space. It really is a very difficult space to compete in, but I think Huckletree are doing it, and they're doing it well. And given that the pandemic has just literally crashed that space, and I mean Gabriela confirmed that on the call with us. I think it was a conversation definitely worth having because I think there's a lot of food for thought there for business leaders to be considering.

[00:02:19] - Doug Foulkes
Yes, I have my eyes opened. Let's get stuck in and hear what Gabriela has to say.

[00:02:24] - Claire Haidar
Gaby, the reason why we wanted to bring you onto the show and to have this conversation with you is because you're one of those pioneers that have kind of been leading the space with regards to co-working. And naturally, the last two years have really shaken that whole part of the world. Co-working, I don't think, will ever be the same ever again. And so what I'd like us to do is start the conversation wide open. And what I'd really like to understand from you is how have things changed over the last few years and what are you seeing companies need now that is so different to what they needed before?

[00:03:05] - Gabriela Hersham
I'm happy to jump in and kind of talk to it. There's obviously been a lot of changes over the past few years. Our industry has been completely shaken upside down. We thought we were in a really good place pre-COVID, and then the pandemic hit, and it was panic stations all over. But pretty soon into the pandemic, I think we kind of realized that the companies that are able to see it through and have the runway to stay in business throughout the pandemic, and obviously we had no idea how long it was going to go on for, it's still ongoing, but how long we would have to work from home for and we would have to shut the offices down for and whatnot. But those that could stay in the game at the end of it would have a really exciting potential size of the industry to play for, and a much bigger, we felt, market share within the commercial workspace industry in general.

[00:03:54] - Gabriela Hersham
So we kind of saw pretty soon into the pandemic that it would affect how businesses thought about taking on leases and that there would be much more of a need for flexibility. And this is kind of an obvious thing to hear anyone say right now, but I think when we were in the thick of the pandemic, it was kind of a radical thought process because all everybody thought was, "This is the death of the office, full stop." So we kind of held on to that glimmer of hope, should I say, throughout. And we just kind of kept repeating it to ourselves. We kept repeating it to the team because it was a really hard moment to navigate what was then 80 people through.

[00:04:31] - Gabriela Hersham
Working in any industry where you don't know where the industry is going is really tricky. And I think there has been no greater threat to the workspace and the commercial real estate sector ever than the pandemic. I was speaking about it with my business coach last week. Arguably, it was a bigger threat than potentially a wall would have been. So it was a big deal. And we really had to keep that ray of hope inside our minds and keep repeating it and just believe that if we kept repeating it, it would be. And it has. It really has.

[00:04:59] - Gabriela Hersham
So since April, so the UK was brought out of national lockdown, our last national lockdown in April 2021, and that was when we were allowed to return to work. I mean, I think it was our last national lockdown. I've lost count, but at least that was when we were officially allowed to return back to the office before just now, where we were kind of semi-told to work from home for a few weeks anyway. Since April 2021, there's been a massive floodgate of demand for flexible workspace. So all of us and all of our competitors/friends in the industry are all seeing the same thing, which has been great.

[00:05:31] - Gabriela Hersham
And honestly, we went from taking a massive hit during COVID in terms of revenue retention and member retention and we can talk to it. I think we did pretty well, given industry standards of where we could have been, and I think a lot of that is due to our focus on supporting our member businesses. But it was still not fun. And we've come back. And we're nearing 90 percent group occupancy across our portfolio. There's a lot of demand. We're back into growth mode and trying to sign exciting new growth deals that there are a lot of incentives in the market for players like us to come in and really activate a building.

[00:06:03] - Gabriela Hersham
So now it's in a good place. And obviously on the demand side, there's a lot of demand, but the kinds of things that they are asking for have changed as well, which I'm happy to talk about if you want to.

[00:06:15] - Doug Foulkes
I just wanted to, first of all, say hi, Gaby, nice to meet you.

[00:06:19] - Gabriela Hersham

[00:06:20] - Doug Foulkes
I mean, Claire started off by asking you about the last couple of years, obviously which has been a big change, but you started Huckletree, I think, back in 2014. And although it wasn't revolutionary then, co-working did exist, how has, in general, it evolved leading up to the pandemic?

[00:06:38] - Gabriela Hersham
It's a really good question. I think the pandemic has appeared as a blip on the horizon. It's really hard to think before, but actually it did evolve loads over that period. So when we came in, we weren't the first. There were a handful of existing operators from the UK mostly that were already in action here, namely The Office Group, who I respect hugely, and I think they've done a great job and are continuing to do so, and a handful of smaller players as well. But the market was very far from saturated. WeWork wasn't yet in the UK or in Europe at all. And largely the offering didn't need to be what I would call world class.

[00:07:15] - Gabriela Hersham
So today, because it's so saturated and businesses really do have the ability to choose in any part of London which workspace they work from and they all look incredible and offer these amazing facilities and amenities. But when we started back in 2014, we started with a second-rate building. It only had 40 desks. It didn't have much room for anything fun. It had one meeting room and a tiny kitchenette that everyone shared and two toilets, and I just remember the toilet situation was really bad. But people went and we sold out and it was always full. That wouldn't pass anymore at all. So over the years, the competition has grown, we've all had to up our standards, and we've all had to be, I think, a little bit more focused on our niches in our areas and our specialties.

[00:08:03] - Gabriela Hersham
So, yeah, it changed a lot. I think then obviously the pandemic's come. Maybe it's wiped out some of the competition, but not a lot, which is a good thing. And from here, I think it's going to be much more, even more focused on what is the experience that this workspace can offer me. And that's something that I'm really excited about, that we can talk about.

[00:08:22] - Claire Haidar
Gaby, I think that's a good segue is, before we start talking about what are these very real asks that you're getting from your customers now, which is different, let's go into how you guys have niched as Huckletree and what is that unique offering that you give that WeWork doesn't give or et cetera, et cetera?

[00:08:46] - Gabriela Hersham
From the very first 40-person space, we were very focused on wanting Huckletree to be a space for the innovation ecosystem. So the tech scene was about to explode. I had just come from New York and it had already exploded in New York, and it was literally on the cusp of doing so in the UK as well. It was just after the recession and lots of entrepreneurship sprouting out of everywhere, and we really wanted to create a home for that and to bring these really exciting tech businesses together. We were really passionate about that. So from the beginning, our members were startup, scale-up, small venture funds, and that became who we were. And over time, as our spaces grew bigger, we could expand that. We could bring in really exciting larger venture funds and huge corporate innovation teams and the scale-ups of like 50, 60 people. And in doing that, we then kind of took that further and said, "Hold on, it's great having all of these businesses within the innovation ecosystem under one roof. But actually, if we could theme our buildings or our spaces by grouping industries together, we could create even more engaged ecosystems."

[00:09:48] - Gabriela Hersham
So we launched our third space as our very first themed hub. It was a 30,000 square foot space with about 500 members in White City in West London. And we thought, "You know what? White City is home of the BBC. And so her house is opening there. And there are lots of parents who are entrepreneurs generally in West London. We want to create this as a hub for D2C digital lifestyle businesses." And we thought that that theme was wide enough that we would be able to bring lots of businesses in but narrow enough that they're all consumer-facing businesses. Surely, they have lots in common that we can engage them with. And it worked really, really well. It was really successful.

[00:10:26] - Gabriela Hersham
And so from there we went to do a SaaS hub in Dublin. We did a venture capital hub in Soho, in London. We've done a GovTech hub by Parliament, and all of our hubs have then been themed that way. It has really allowed us to create very, very strong communities of businesses. So that's our niche. They're not all themed, but where we can we do and we've just become known as the place where the startups and the scale-ups and the innovation businesses go to, which is where we want to be.

[00:10:55] - Doug Foulkes
Do you find that a big part of the companies that use your hubs, they want that ability to mingle with people in a similar area in business, and sort of feed off each other and help each other?

[00:11:07] - Gabriela Hersham
Yeah, I do. It definitely works. I mean, during lockdown, our GovTech hub, which is, as I mentioned, by Parliament in London, by Parliament Square, which is our most themed space, our most niche and focused space was the one that retained the most members because I think when you have a space that's so sector-specific, it kind of acts as an accreditation or an endorsement to the businesses that operate within. And it's not about it being an office because they can go and get any desk in any seat anywhere. It's really about them being a player within this space where everyone else is, too. And if they're not there, then where are they?

[00:11:44] - Gabriela Hersham
So some businesses want it. Do all of them want it? No, I don't think they all do. And I think for some of them, it's very much enough to be in a hub that looks really cool and exciting and different because we've all seen lots of design ways been done a million times over, but with lots of different innovation businesses from completely different industries. And that is totally cool too. So I think it just depends on the business and the sector and also for us, even GovTech, which is very niche, we're not saying you will have to be in recruitment. Maybe that is too close and maybe that would be too competitive. But it's kind of a wider net, I think. Yeah.

[00:12:25] - Claire Haidar
Gaby, I've just actually pulled up your website while you were answering Doug there, and your opening line is a really strong one. You use the word brave, "The home of brave innovation." Talk to us a little bit about that and why you've specifically chosen that word.

[00:12:42] - Gabriela Hersham
So it's really interesting that you picked out on that because I hadn't really thought about where that came from internally until now. We redid our website actually during lockdown, and as part of that, we looked at our straplines and our mission and our vision and everything. And this concept of being brave really was born out of the pandemic because it was a moment where lots of startups and venture-backed businesses had to be brave and had to make really bold decisions really quickly, had to do what they could to kind of preserve their runway, had to take leaps of faith, and it was very much born out of then.

[00:13:21] - Gabriela Hersham
I think what we would have had in place pre-pandemic would have had a different tone to it. But I think that even now we're kind of left with the sentiment of, we're kind of in it together. We're all in it together. We're all here to put good things out there in the world. I feel like the pandemic has kind of changed a lot of our approach to how we do business and why. And so I think that it's a lasting sentiment of us needing to be brave and to do brave work and to do it together and to support each other.

[00:13:50] - Claire Haidar
It's so interesting that you've answered it the way you have, because this is kind of where I was going with my whole train of thought, is what you guys have essentially done as Huckletree in the form of co-working is what governments have tried to do across the globe in terms of innovation parks, because the very early tech research that came out of Silicon Valley, which was the world's first tech hub, was that grouping those like industries together actually has very real benefit because there's learning, there's talent share, there's just so many benefits to it. And so you guys have taken that down to a micro level.

[00:14:30] - Claire Haidar
And I like the word brave because it speaks to risk taking. It speaks to innovation. It speaks to pushing the boundary beyond just, as you say, "It's not just an office, it's something more." And it's actually very easy for people to just dismiss it and go, "Oh, Huckletree is just another co-working space," but we haven't had another co-working company come onto the podcast. We've brought you guys on for that specific reason, that there is something different here. It is not just an office space to rent.

[00:15:03] - Gabriela Hersham
Totally. And I love the concept of when we speak about building ecosystems, there's so much more that goes into it than just thinking of a few businesses in the right arena and bringing them together, like you say. To really have those synergies, you need to think about all the players and making sure that you're bringing in players across the spectrum. You have the startups, you have the corporates, you have the investors, you have the service providers, you have the advisors, you have the enthusiasts, you have everyone together. And that's really when the magic is created, I think. Yeah.

[00:15:34] - Claire Haidar
Let's go down that hole in terms of what your clients are really asking for now and how it's different to what they were asking for before.

[00:15:43] - Gabriela Hersham
So I think that this is really exciting because I think that I'm very fascinated, like you are, about the future of work, and I love thinking about what the dream office would look like and how it's going to evolve. And I'm a bit of a dreamer on this level, and I always have been. That's why I think we started putting in the quirky things that we put in Huckletree seven, eight years ago that other operators might have just said, "Why wouldn't you just put in more private studios so you can maximize your revenue?" But for me, it's about the experience.

[00:16:09] - Gabriela Hersham
And I think that the world is shifting that way. We're thinking, "Hold on, I can work from home, and I probably will go into the office two or three days a week because I don't want to be left behind and I want to see my colleagues and I want to create those bonds. And the kids and the dogs, and I just don't want to be at home every day. But when I go in, it needs to be an experience. I'm not going to go into a substandard office anymore. I'm going to make the commute. But the experience has to merit that commitment." So all of a sudden, you're thinking about how to make the best office experience and what that might look like within the journey of someone's day. So it's about the design, of course, and doing things differently. It's about what we're putting in the spaces.

[00:16:54] - Gabriela Hersham
There's much more demand now for podcast suites and for bigger rooms where companies can hold off-sites and for just well thought-out and well-designed breakout spaces. Because people don't want to be at a desk all day and they want freedom to work from wherever. Phone booths, people need much more than before. We're on many more video calls than we were before, even as we're returning to work, so we need to have many more phone booths. The F and B needs to be amazing because you don't want an office where you can't get a good coffee anywhere. All these details come in and they're all, in isolation, simple details. And you can think of the not so simple details, like they might want meditation spaces or prayer rooms, or dog kennels for their dogs when they bring their dogs into work, or whatever, the sky's the limit. But all of these things come together, and I think just create a really exciting office experience.

[00:17:44] - Gabriela Hersham
So when I first started Huckletree, I was really inspired by Facebook and Google and their offices in particular, and I thought, "This is so cool. How can we democratize these and make these available to everyone, even if they don't work at one of the big tech companies?" And I think that's now coming back into play as what the office experience needs to look like. It doesn't need to be as kitsch maybe as Google. And not everything is going to be free like it is at Facebook. But somewhere in the middle there's like a cool, interesting design where people can come together, have a really exciting day and have everything they need at their fingertips. And I love that.

[00:18:20] - Doug Foulkes
And that's the first part of our conversation with Gaby Hersham. Make sure you catch the next two parts of this interesting look into the co-working space on Spotify, Google, or Apple Podcasts, or on WNDYR's website, wndyr.com. From Claire and myself, we'll see you soon.

Similar posts

Get notified on new Chaos & Rocketfuel episodes

Be the first to learn about WNDYR’s latest work and productivity insights to drive a successful enterprise digital transformation