Space man: Cal Lee interview

Workthere has all the usual attributes associated with a proptech company - a cool-looking website, hip young staff and a funky name that would not sound out of place in Silicon Valley. But Workthere is not your average VC-investor-backed start-up. It is the brainchild of Savills.

The new brokerage service and website listing platform, which went live in February, has been created to help businesses find flexible, co-working and serviced office space across the UK, Europe, America and Asia.

Cal Lee, who founded and heads up Workthere, and Jeremy Bates, who as Savills’ head of occupier services is overseeing the venture, explain why the firm decided to enter the flexible workspace race.

Lee, who joined Savills as a graduate from the University of Reading in 2011, says that the company started building the site in May last year and that early conversations with landlords have gone well.

“We’ve gone to a number of landlord clients over the past two months and all of them are thinking about it [flexible workspace],” says Lee. “All of them are at different stages of how they go about entering the market. They see it as an important part of the future and what occupiers want, but the difficulty for them is judging how much risk they should take.

“Should they fully expose themselves to setting up their own model in one of their buildings or do they lease to a well-backed service provider but then not have any exposure to any of the occupiers? It’s about weighing up risk and reward.”

A ‘can’t ignore’ sector

Savills’ own gamble on this new venture seems to be paying off. The site has already secured listings with well-known brands such as The Office Group and WeWork, as well as smaller providers of space and single schemes.

It is still early days, but the site had approximately 3,000 hits in its first full month and 23 deals were concluded - the smallest deal to date was with an entrepreneur who has taken co-working space for 20 hours a month.

For Savills’ Bates, the launch of Workthere was a no-brainer. There were two key drivers, he adds.

“First, and the more important of the two, is an acknowledgement that in the marketplace there is a growing demand from occupiers - from start-ups through to corporate office occupiers - for flexible workspace,” says Bates.

“This is a sector of the market we haven’t really been involved with and can’t ignore because we see it as a structurally and progressively important trend. So the development of Workthere was about putting a product together to meet a demand we weren’t previously really addressing.

“Secondly, it is very consistent with our corporate strategy to grow our worldwide occupier services offer and engage with companies across the spectrum.”

The website is easy to use for both occupier and landlord. Occupiers simply input the number of people they are looking to accommodate as well as their location of choice. They are then presented with a menu of properties listed on the site, says Lee.

“We then qualify the lead and help them find the right space for their business,” he adds. “That might mean arranging a viewing or negotiating the best price for them.”

Our vision is to make it as easy as possible for an occupier to find flexible space - Cal Lee

From the landlord’s perspective, Workthere offers a number of benefits, according to Lee. “We market their space on the platform [for free], but the real key for them is we provide them with quality over quantity in terms of leads.

“So we send them leads that are more relevant for their spaces from occupiers that are more likely to want to go there rather than sending hundreds and hundreds of leads just for the sake of it.”

When a deal completes, Workthere takes a 10% commission of the monthly or annual rent (up to the first year) from the landlord. One striking aspect about the website is the lack of obtrusive branding from the parent company - the Savills logo appears on the site, along with the slogan ‘Workthere powered by Savills’, but it’s discreetly positioned at the bottom of the page. This was a conscious decision by Savills, says Lee.

New demographic

“We definitely wanted the Savills branding on there because it’s a really important USP for us,” he elaborates. “It’s a trusted brand for occupiers and providers alike.

“We felt that we needed to target a new demographic of occupiers and people who didn’t necessarily associate Savills with this sector, so we felt we needed to offer a clean, fresh, cool brand that attracted them and that they gained trust from. We also felt that if we put the website within the wider Savills website it would have got lost and wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same impact.”

The idea is that Workthere will evolve and scale over time - Jeremy Bates

The company has high hopes for the portal and intends to expand its functionality.

“The idea is that Workthere will evolve and scale over time,” confirms Bates.

“We’ve already got a clear vision of what phase two will be in terms of adding functionality, but those are only things we can evolve into once we’ve got more data and more user testing.”

He is in no doubt as to the potential upsides for Savills. “For us, it is also a great incubator of both new and existing clients,” he says.

“We are entering a space as advisers that had been very brokerage dominated before the entry of Workthere and we see that as an important differentiator in the sector.”

As for Workthere’s ultimate aim, Lee is clear: “Our vision is to make it as easy and quick as possible for an occupier to find some flexible space.”

Early feedback from occupiers and space providers alike suggests that it is already doing just that.

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