Co-working spaces in Bangkok aren’t as popular as they are elsewhere in the world. Here’s a look at what makes this ecosystem unique.
In San Francisco where I lived for the past two years, saying you “co-work” is like saying you take Uber or Lyft or know a startup founder. It’s in the DNA. In Bangkok, co-working is a relatively new concept. The first space, HUBBA Thailand, opened in 2011.
As a business designer, I’m intrigued by co-working spaces because they require both deliberate design of space and financial viability. It’s also a growth indicator that I assess as Regional Manager of Seedstars World because it signals a sufficient mass of entrepreneurs and an increasingly collaborative ecosystem. So off I went on a mototaxi-empowered tour of co-working spaces in Bangkok.
Each of the 3 spaces I visited had its own unique character, in terms of location, origin, members, and design principles.
- Location: Ekamai (hip, urban, up and coming)
- Origin: 2011, co-founded by startup ecosystem leader Amarit Charoenphan
- Members: Entrepreneurs, creatives, freelancers
- Design principle: This is your home and family
The Hive Bangkok
- Location: Thong lor (the expat zone)
- Origin: 2013 in Hong Kong by entrepreneur Constant Tedder, arrived in Bangkok in May 2014
- Members: Creatives and freelancers
- Design principle: Minimalistic comfort
- Location: Silom (financial district)
- Origin: 2012 by local entpreneurs and VCs (Vincent Sethiwan, Sam Tiyavutiroj, and Siravut Tummavaranukup)
- Members: Startups, entrepreneurs, professionals
- Design principle: Spacious productivity.
But there was one thing in common: The people in the co-working spaces were almost all foreigners. I was curious why there wasn’t a more even mix of local Thais and foreigners. So I tried to understand: what are the barriers a local Thai faces in accessing a co-working space?
1. Affordability: It’s not yet an affordable option for many locals. For example, membership at The Hive Bangkok starts at 500 baht($45) per month for 5 days a month, which includes a hotseat, mailbox, meeting room access, and printing. For full-time, 24 /7 membership, it’s 1600 baht ($140) per month. If you’re a bootstrapping entrepreneur or a locally paid creative, that’s a hefty investment to make.
2. Culture: In Thai culture, concepts like community and collaboration aren’t yet the norm. Anecdotally I heard Thais tend to be more insular, e.g., potential entrepreneurs have a fear of idea stealing so prefer to work in isolation.
3. Chicken and egg: As humans, we’re more likely to stick to our own tribe. So if you don’t see anyone that looks like you in the space, you’re not likely to see yourself working or belonging there. Optics matter — it’s why diversity initiatives focus on increasing the visible presence of women or minorities in panels, startups, bootcamps, corporate positions, etc.
So this presents an interesting design challenge. How can co-working spaces in Bangkok support a more diverse community?
Don’t be a co-working space. Be a community builder
In emerging creative and startup ecosystems, a physical place (like a co-working space) allows individuals to gather, cross-pollinate, exchange, share, validate, and hone their craft. There’s events for people to find mentors, meet others in the industry, and yes, make friends. This generates ideas and innovation that can help a startup see a feature in a new light or a creative find a distribution platform for their work.
Such a perspective, however, is often only accessible to those fortunate enough to have experienced it for themselves, most often from traveling abroad and visiting a WeWork in New York or a PARISOMA in SF.
Co-working is something one must experience to understand its value. It’s like going to Disney World as a kid — no matter how many kids raved about it, only when you met Mickey and rode Space Mountain did you understand the magic for yourself. Simply designing an aesthetically pleasing physical space doesn’t guarantee community, much less diversity.
Build it and they still won’t come.
Bangkok is undeniably an exciting place to be. Its startup ecosystem is powered by grassroots momentum. You get the feeling of endless possibilities, a wild west awash with opportunity. In the best case scenario, this opportunity is equally accessible to locals, not just the expats or Thais who’ve returned from abroad.
Co-working spaces in Bangkok, and elsewhere, can be leaders in this because they already have the core ingredients to build inclusive communities: a physical gathering place, collision-enabling events, and financial viability for long term sustainability. When everyone gets to co-work, the whole ecosystem grows. Who can say no to that?
This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.
Featured Image Credit: gpointstudio/ Shutterstock.