Inside Ireland’s regional co-working hubs

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With co-working hubs surging in popularity all over Ireland, we spoke to some of the people who run them and rely on them.

For a small country with good internet infrastructure (for some, but not all), an educated population and poor roads and public transport links, Ireland should have seized the digital co-working hubs trend years ago.

It took a pandemic and a mass shift to remote working for time and money to be put into setting up a nationwide network of hubs. Now, the country could be on track to have 400 remote working hubs by 2025 as the Government continues to make good on its embrace of flexible work and regional development.

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Republic of Work is a 15,500 sq ft workspace and start-up hub spread out over three floors in Cork city. Founded in 2017, it recently marked its fifth birthday.

It has been a “focal point for the city” ever since, explains CEO Frank Brennan. “At the time, co-working spaces was a new concept. There was nobody out there who was setting the trends or who was the thought leader in the space.”

As they had nobody to fall back on, the hub’s founders were effectively joining their members on a start-up journey of their own. Since the pandemic, the hub has gone back to its original roots as a start-up-focused organisation as “Covid-19 was a terrible time for space operators and people who had co-working spaces”.

An interior shot of Republic of Work. Image: Republic of Work

Inside Cork’s Republic of Work. Image: Republic of Work

“There was a bit of an agony aunt element,” Brennan says. “But we came out really strong from it because we leveraged each other to the best of our ability.”

During the pandemic, the hub went from “an occupancy level of 96pc right down to 19 or 20pc”, but it teamed up other Irish tech hubs to offer supports to start-ups. It meant that Republic of Work members like cybersecurity start-up Vaultree and health-tech platform Teleatherapy could avail of things like coffee mornings and ‘lunch and learn’ virtual meetings with industry experts.

Brennan calls it “simple stuff”, but from talking to Teleatherapy’s Clare Meskill and Vaultree co-founder Max Dressler, it’s clear that they find the hub a useful base from which to grow their businesses.

“The atmosphere is amazing,” says Dressler. “There’s really cool people in the office in general, perfect working conditions. It’s really good to get out of the house.”

Last year Vaultree secured $3.3m in seed funding to develop its encryption-as-a-service tools. Dressler says the company’s fast growth in Ireland and abroad means it will grow its team and enlarge the office space it has in Cork. Both he and Meskill say Cork is cheaper than Dublin and has a lot in terms of talent and tech start-up connections too.

One big recent development for Republic of Work is that it has become involved in the NDRC, the national accelerator programme for start-ups. The contract for the initiative was awarded at the end of 2020 to Dublin’s Dogpatch Labs with regional partners Republic of Work, PorterShed in Galway and RDI Hub in Kerry.

‘If someone said to you in 2019 that the largest tech founder networking events would be run from Kerry, you would have been laughed at’
– REIDIN O’CONNOR

At RDI Hub in Killorglin, Co Kerry, community and members manager Reidin O’Connor says her job is to connect founders to people they don’t normally meet.

“With their potential co-founder, with tech partners who are building up their product, beta customers, if they’re looking to test the product with someone, with advisers and mentors that are experts in their field and can help them move the dial and investors.”

There are around 20 start-ups based in the hub and O’Connor also runs Founders’ Circle, which she describes as one of the “largest tech founder networking events in the country”.

Like Brennan at Republic of Work, O’Connor has found that start-ups often need a little extra guidance. “They don’t know the right people to get access to funding. And a lot of times founders are journeying alone. It doesn’t matter how amazing the founder is, you can’t scale exponentially on your own.

“Because it was built in Kerry, we always knew we were going to be participating in a hybrid world because not everybody’s coming to Kerry. We have facilities that were built in 2019 for a fully immersive experience,” she says.

“We knew Kerry was never going to be the Mecca. But actually as it turns out, lots of people have moved to Kerry and lots of people are having team offsites in Kerry because they want to reconnect their teams.”

The pandemic “probably opened up the doors” she says. “If someone said to you in 2019 that the largest tech founder networking events would be run from Kerry, you would have been laughed at because we had two high-potential start-ups in 2017. We just weren’t on the map in the south-west.”

The changes in the culture of work over the past two years have enabled RDI and the people who use the hub to “shift some of that narrative”.

Reidin O'Connor sitting behind a desk at the RDI hub in Kerry working on a laptop with an orange and white large room divide partially obscuring her.

Reidin O’Connor working at the RDI hub. Image: Valerie O’Sullivan

“It’s spacious, it’s bright and there’s lots of meeting rooms. It’s a great place to come into,” says John McCarthy, CEO of Taxamo, the tax management software player that was acquired by US company Vertex for $200m last year.

Local hubs are also proving popular with Irish tech workers who moved away from cities during the pandemic. Brian Nerney, founder of The Spool Factory in Boyle, Co Roscommon, has seen an influx of users who had jobs in other places all over the world, but since the pandemic have been able to live and work in Boyle.

From his own experience as an employee and an employer, Nerney says the “happy worker is a productive worker, and I think if they’re able to work in a hub like this, they will be a lot more productive than if they’re being dragged back to an office they don’t particularly want to be in.”

The hub’s users are not all start-ups, but like many others it has its fair share of local entrepreneurs and founders. One of these is Barry Usher, founder and MD of Macro Recruitment, which specialises in recruiting for sectors such as aviation, tech, healthcare and IT.

“The word that comes to mind is the sense of community that there is around here,” Usher says. While he was initially sold by facilities such as a boardroom and gigabit broadband, it has been the networking aspect that has proved invaluable to him.

“It may be a bit clichéd talking about contributing to society or to community, but that actually is a big motivational factor for me,” Usher explains. “You have a sense of community and you’re actually having fun trying to do something.”

Nerney says The Spool Factory (named after a former thread factory on the site) has received funding to develop 10 new private offices, which will be open shortly. The cost of the offices could have set Nerney back €200,000, and he says he could not have secured them without investment from the Government.

The Junction in Co Offaly also had some of its facilities upgraded over the Christmas period so it could better cater to the types of people using the hub.

Mary Hensey, business development manager at The Junction, explains that the hub’s layout and facilities “were not really working” for the type of people that it is now attracting – “as in employees who need to keep in contact with their colleagues.”

The team refurbished the hub, downsizing the “massive” meeting room slightly to create more desk space and privacy booths for people to take conference calls from without disturbing other hub users.

‘You have a sense of community and you’re actually having fun trying to do something’
BARRY USHER

The process involved gathering feedback from people like Breda Colgan and Yusuf Toropov, both entrepreneurs who rely on the hub.

Colgan lives “quite rurally” and has small children, which means she needs a quiet environment to deal with clients when working remotely. She is company director of Salutem, an advice and consultancy business that provides health and safety training to a variety of sectors.

“I can focus on something for an hour here, and I get more done than if I was eight hours at home. That’s the reality,” she says when asked why she works from a hub.

She also likes the camaraderie aspect of working from a hub alongside others. “It’s like being part of a bigger business and a bigger workplace, even though you’re in a small business, because if you’re stuck on something, there’s someone else there. If I can’t get this to work, or I can’t get that to do what it should do in Excel, or whatever it might be, someone will have an answer,” she says.

If she works from home, she only has Google to rely on to answer her questions and it can be like “talking to a wall”.

Toropov, founder of writing, editing and proofreading company Cara Wordsmith, gives a very similar answer, saying that the space gives him and his colleague at the company a “focal point for all the work” they’re doing.

He says that while he tried to work from local cafes, he couldn’t conduct Zoom calls with clients due to background noise – “there’s always some sort of music or cashier or somebody complaining about the coffee or something.”

‘I can focus on something for an hour here, and I get more done than if I was eight hours at home. That’s the reality’
– BREDA COLGAN

Like many other hubs, Hensey has seen some changes in the types of user at The Junction since the pandemic began. Similar to Nerney from The Spool Factory, she reckons the divide between start-up founders and remote workers is around 50/50. “There’s a lot of similar benefits for both types,” she says, explaining that as well as networking and internet, users have access to all the Local Enterprise Office supports too.

But there is a broader benefit for the community, as hub users bring traffic and business with them.

“I’m an ex-commuter,” says Hensey. “And since I’ve moved back, it’s allowed me to volunteer in my local community. It’s bringing people back and giving them extra time and that they can choose themselves how they want to spend that extra time, whether it’s at home with their family, or with helping their local community, or both.”

On the day she speaks to SiliconRepublic.com, The Junction is hosting a group of would-be hub users from Northern Ireland who are visiting the Offaly facility as a model for their own similar regional hub project.

There are new regional hubs popping up all over the country, and many more are set to open. One of these is Co Worx, a hub that will open its doors on 1 April in Longford.

The hub is the culmination of several years of work by a local volunteer group in Edgeworthstown. It is located in the former Ulster Bank in the town, a heritage building that closed its doors in 2017 and has been idle ever since. Longford County Council purchased it in 2018 to turn it into a co-working hub for the community.

According to the soon-to-open hub’s business manager, Luiz Roque, the facility is the first of its kind in Longford. The idea of refurbishing an old heritage building for a new generation of digital workers, providing them with access to things like a podcast studio, is something that is sure to catch on if the project is a success.

Roque hopes the hub will enable people to live and work in Longford instead of having to travel to cities such as Dublin.

He is currently engaging with start-ups, entrepreneurs and third-level institutions so that students who live locally can “come to the hub to use the premises as an extension of their university experience”.

“We are going to approach local companies and ask them what are the shortages that they have. Have a bit of a brainstorm and then based on that, we’re trying to promote upskilling for the locals that will promote hiring within the local companies,” he says, adding that the hub will have space for training events also.

“We want to promote growth in the area,” says Roque. “So, when the start-ups come to us, they will potentially hire local talent, promoting development in rural Ireland.”

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