Is Penang Ready for the Coworking Movement?


Office spaces are about to get very unconventional.

Coworking is not a new concept, especially among Penang’s workplace futurists and digital nomads. Pionereed by Brad Neuberg in 2005, the idea is to combine the independence of freelancing with the structure and community offered by an office space.1

Within the Asia Pacific region, the coworking movement is making steady headway. The annual Coworking Unconference (CU) Asia, produced by the Coworking Alliance of Asia Pacific (CAAP), brings together coworking operators, venture capitalists, accelerators and startups to understand and capitalise on the movement’s changing landscape. The fourth edition is set to hit Penang from February 7 to 11.

“The primary objective is to connect the early movers of the emerging coworking movement in Asia to share experiences and establish partnerships, while providing a learning opportunity for new space operators. It is also designed for participants to explore new ways of learning, working and living in the collaborative economy, as well as help to reshape the way of working,” says Wan Imran, the event co-organiser and director of KL-based coworking space PAPER + TOAST. Established in 2010, PAPER + TOAST is the first coworking space in Malaysia. It serves as a one stop community platform for digital nomads, entrepreneurs and startups to get together, collaborate and gain critical business skills and knowledge.

Coworking Unconference Asia 2017 was held in Chiang Mai.

Networking is one of the many advantages of coworking spaces.

“The direct target group is the digital nomads – a group of remote working talents – who will bring both knowledge and economic impact to Penang,” he says. “Penang has a quality of life that is very different from KL – this greatly appeals to talents who prefer to live in smaller cities. Career opportunities are available in the tech industry within the Free Industrial Zone, and Penang’s low cost of living also encourages more entrepreneurs to build their startups here.”

“Colourful Connections” is the theme for this year, paying homage to George Town as well as the unified diversity of the Asia Pacific region. “‘Colourful" honours the creative tapestry that is the coworking movement – its colourful characters, the diversity of its communities and its all-shapes-and-sizes nature – while ‘connections’ brings it back to the human, where coworking began. Our industry discussions often focus on ‘work’ and ‘place’ as we explore the rapid changes in those spheres. This year, we want to redirect focus on what matters most: the quality and nature of the connections that we help make room for.

“Day one (Spotlight Malaysia) will examine the Malaysian coworking ecosystem, day two (Coworking Academy) will be 100% geared at new/prospective coworking spaces looking for practical lessons, and days three and four will be the main programme days – these will involve a combination of presentations, workshops, panels and AMAs (Ask Me Anything).

“The event will also feature a dedicated section for co-living operators. These are individuals who are applying community focus found in coworking spaces to cater to the nomadic demographic. We are hopeful that there will be a balance of practical takeaways for all event participants.”



Vijayakumar Tangarasan.

Penang Monthly looks at three different coworking spaces to discover how each are designed to suit their clientele.

Regus: Freeing Up Businesses

Regus’ flexible, business-ready workplaces allow companies to start up in new locations without high setup costs or long-term fixed leases, freeing up SMEs and startups to focus on their core businesses. It equally allows firms the freedom to quickly upscale or downsize, making it easier – and with lower risks – to enter a new market.

Regus currently has three business centres in Penang: Menara Boustead, Gurney Paragon and iDeal at Bayan Lepas, with a fourth centre at SPICE Arena in the pipeline. “We recognise the trend and are working towards helping companies in Penang to be more productive through the setting up of our business centres within the state,” says Vijayakumar Tangarasan, the Country Manager of Regus Malaysia.

In Malaysia’s Budget 2018, announced last October, several Key Performance Indicators were outlined, including the need to improve flexible working arrangements and promote work-life balance through a compressed work week as well as flexible and part-time working hours. This is in response to the expected increase of 1.75 billion global mobile workforce by 2020, which would account for 42.0% of the global workforce.1

A recent study conducted by Regus also found that the need to reduce fixed office costs is a top priority among Malaysian businesses (56%). As 42% of the survey respondents from Malaysia confirmed that they expect workers to demand to work closer to home, it drives businesses to choose workspaces that can adapt to this evolving workforce.

“Penang is a fast-growing economy with remarkable milestones made in the number of business process outsourcing (BPO) companies located here, not to mention an increase of foreign direct investments flowing in as the state continues to grow as an international business hub. However, as the country transitions into a developed digital economy by 2020, we witness the trend of flexible working and the rise of a digital workforce that prefers to work seamlessly across locations.”

Scoopoint: A Space for Creatives

Scoopoint targets a niche group of creative coworkers. Founder Mei Tan explains, “I wanted to create a community platform for creatives with the purpose of equipping them with business know-hows. For this, we started a creative incubator programme with relevant mentors to assist those who are interested in becoming creative entrepreneurs.”

Mei Tan.

As a coworking space, Tan says the one criterion potential coworkers look for is the “feel” of the place. “Working in a flexible environment with like-minded people is very important as it sets the tone for how coworkers would grow and collaborate with one another in the future. For creatives especially, peer-topeer encouragement is very much needed so they don’t end up killing each other,” she says with a laugh.

“In the past, we’ve lost many of our brightest creatives to KL and Singapore because Penang lacked job opportunities to fiscally sustain them. But with the expanding coworking ecosystem that we have now, I’m optimistic that soon we will be able to lure them back. But as with all good things, it takes time, persistence and patience for the movement to really thrive in Penang. At present, coworking spaces are still seen as a trend, but that’s a good thing because a trend allows people to better grasp the concept. Many such spaces are popping up in Penang, and that’s a very good way for determining which coworking space is able to sustain and grow in the long run.”

Tan likens her theory to the cafe fad that took off within George Town’s inner city several years ago. “When the cafe craze first started, I remember a couple of friends telling me it won’t sustain. Our kopi-o was only RM2 at most, while the cafes were selling coffee at exorbitant prices. I was told it was impossible for people to spend so much on a cuppa. But it worked – suddenly everyone was opening themed cafes. Today, some are still in operation.

“It’s exactly the same thing that’s happening to the coworking spaces. Now, the collective opinion is: why would anyone need to go to a coworking space to work when they can just as easily do so from home? But I believe they will soon come to realise that there are numerous advantages to working at a coworking space. It just takes time to change mind sets.”

@CAT Penang: A Catalyst for Tech Startups and Entrepreneurs

@CAT has become quite the hotspot for digital nomad groups. “Due to high demand, the coworking space, which opens 24 hours daily and which had recently increased its seating capacity, has now an average daily occupancy rate of 94%,” says Datuk Loo Lee Lian, the chief executive officer of InvestPenang, a non-profit entity of the state government with the primary purpose of promoting investments within Penang.

Howie Chang.

“The coworking space is a valuable facility. However, people also come to @ CAT for the programmes, networking events and workshops that we conduct,” adds Howie Chang, the programme director of @CAT.

Launched in October 2015, @CAT, as an initiative of InvestPenang, serves as a catalyst in accelerating emerging tech startups and entrepreneurs by conducting entrepreneurship development programmes and tech community events relating to software coding, e-businesses, business model canvases, product management workshops as well as major tech events like Startup Weekend Georgetown and Google Devfest for the benefit of the startup and entrepreneurship community.

The initiative is also the centre of Founder Institute, a 14-week Silicon Valley-based idea stage accelerator programme that enables participants to secure investors and funding upon graduation.

MNCs are also invited to give talks during the Startup Connect Gathering on topics that are relevant to today’s entrepreneurs. “MNCs are increasingly interested in startups for numerous reasons: firstly, startups are able to assist MNCs to innovate and accelerate their growth. Secondly, they are also constantly on the look-out to engage startups for certain projects as the latter may have technologies the MNCs need, and thirdly, to acquire talents.

“With the programmes and support services offered by @CAT for the local ent rep reneu r i a l community, we would be able to increase the number of successful startups originating and developing from Penang in the near future,” says Loo. nation/2017/10/295861/2018-budget-improvedflexible- work-arrangements-better-promote-worklife

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