An office with a view…of nature: how ‘remote’ destinations are attracting new entrepreneurs

An office with a view…of nature: how ‘remote' destinations are attracting new entrepreneurs

Laetitia Guliver (left) and Evelyne Schmitz (rigth), two entrepreneurs who met at the e-Square co-working centre in Marche-en-Famenne, Belgium, work together on a joint project.

(Ivo Alho Cabral)

Through the windows of their hire cars, the tourists who flock to the island of Lanzarote (in the Canary Islands, Spain) watch a succession of surf schools and Irish pubs pass by and, most of all, whitewashed housing developments with private swimming pools. It is the typical sun and beach destination, but with a hippie twist. The modern co-working complex Magma Innovation Centre – which opened just a few months ago in the island’s capital of Arrecife – stands in stark contrast with its surroundings.

There has been a boom in co-working spaces in the last few years. In 2018 alone, the providers of such offices acquired over 830,000 new square metres of space in Europe according the Savills consultancy. Such is their success that these companies are becoming the giants of the real estate world: before its dramatic fall from grace with its failed IPO this September, WeWork boasted of 831 spaces in 125 cities around the world, from Brussels to Ho Chi Minh.

Although this type of office space is being developed almost exclusively in big cities such as London, Paris or Berlin, Magma is an example of how there is also a place for co-working spaces in more isolated areas. César Miralles, the director of the centre, explains that its objective is to help diversify the island’s economy, retain local talent and even try to attract international professionals. If work is increasingly being done remotely, why not do it from a small paradise island?

We go into Magma, in the centre of Arrecife, where one-third of the island’s 120,000 inhabitants live. At first sight, we could be in a fashionable café in London or Madrid: on the menu there is a brunch with avocado on toast, smoothies and chai lattes. The three or four clients sitting at the high tables on this Monday morning at the height of summer are working on their computers, while a screen announces vinyasa yoga classes at the weekend.

On the second floor we meet Melissa Carusi, an Italian lawyer engrossed in something she is reading on her laptop. After working for years for a big consultancy in Milan, she thought she could embark on a new project “from a nice place”.

That is why, just over a year ago, she moved to the Canary Islands, where she advises people from her own country who want to buy a house or make investments on the islands, benefitting from the various tax advantages the region offers.

Melissa explains that at first she was afraid that all the mod-cons would put off her older clients: “But when we meet they say: ‘This is cool, what a welcoming place’”. What she most appreciates are the connections: the internet connection, since she spends her whole day on Skype; and the human connections with the other entrepreneurs who share the space. One of the other people who works at Magma is already helping her improve her website.

In one of the six offices that surround the 12-seater table where Melissa works, is Ubay Casanova, who along with his partner is developing a prototype drinks vending machine that can adapt what it provides to the client’s tastes.

His project is part of the centre’s acceleration programme for business start-ups, thanks to which he can use the space for free for a few months and have access to a mentoring programme.

The idea came to him during a fiesta night: there were so many people that it became too much like hard work for him and his friends to go to the bar, where there was a long waiting time. If it works, Ubay’s first client will be the company just behind Magma, Martínez Hermanos, which owns several hotels and other businesses.

At the moment, the idea is allowing Ubay to work on an exciting project from his native Lanzarote, where he has returned after leaving a good job in Madrid: “I was very clear that I wanted to develop here, that talent must stay local”.

A hotbed of ideas to overcome dual isolation

Before going to Magma, Ubay had worked for a year in the business incubator of the Lanzarote Chamber of Commerce, where up to 17 SMEs can work and receive their clients in a professional environment, just a few kilometres from Arrecife.

Although the business incubator is almost full and the entrepreneurs who work there recognise the support of the Chamber (whose offices are in the adjoining building) Isabel Quevedo, managing director of the public body, admits that it is not easy to attract outside entrepreneurs or encourage new local entrepreneurs to take the plunge. “We are still very far away and very few people know us,” she says, regretfully. “They should be queuing up here, for the weather and the tax benefits.”

One of the island’s greatest difficulties in attracting entrepreneurs is its ‘double insularity’, says Quevedo. Lanzarote is an island twice over: it is more than 1,000 kilometres from mainland Spain, and, at the same time, more than seven hours by ferry from the island of Gran Canaria: people often take a plane to travel to the capital from their own province.

As a result, although the Chamber’s rules say that entrepreneurs can only use the space for two years, to make room for new ideas, the lack of demand means some businesses have been allowed to stay for longer.

Most of the businesses in the centre aim to take an innovative approach to tourism. Integra & Innova are just one example: from their office at the entrance to the business hub, they have placed more than 75 people with disabilities in jobs suited to their situation, such as cleaning in a hospital or maintenance in the La Geria volcanic wine cellars. The aim is to “match the work to the person” explains María José Pérez, one of the SME’s employees.

María José Rodríguez Cuéllar, director of a four-person SME specialising in loyalty programmes for supermarkets, data analysis, and marketing for other small businesses, works in one of the upstairs offices.

At first María José worked from home, but after a while it was impossible. “You say: ‘while I do a little work, I’ll put some lentils on to cook and I’ll go to fetch my daughter.’ Well, no.” After several incidents of burnt lentils, she decided that she had to separate her personal and professional life: “The business incubator helps you see the beginning of the path.”

Marche-en-Famenne, a perfect mix of urban and rural

The privilege of being able to work in your dream space is not only for lovers of the sea. In Marche-en-Famenne, a small town of 18,000 inhabitants at the gateway to the Belgian Ardennes, a co-working space promoted by local and regional authorities opened a year ago: the e-Square.

Marche-en-Famenne has it easier than Lanzarote: it is only an hour and a half’s drive from Brussels, while it has a much better air quality than the capital and is a stone’s throw from the forest, where you can go mountain-biking, rafting, hiking or just go for a walk.

More than just a shared work centre, the e-Square is a ‘third place’, an alternative to the residential and work environment. A site where “a community meets in which they enrich each other through discussions and exchanges of experiences,” thus igniting the spark of creation and innovation, explains Séverine Schonne, the centre’s manager.

The seven professionals who work in the e-Square, which opened in October last year, have innovative profiles similar to those in Lanzarote: an instructor, website creators, management consultants and computer scientists.

The Marche-en-Famenne centre also has a fab-lab: a workshop with a multitude of tools to turn the ideas of innovative minds into reality, such as 3D printers and scanners, and industrial carpentry machinery.

Regular users of the workshop include a retired man who is creating a scale replica of an airplane cabin, with all its parts, and a group of young students who are learning to programme robots using ‘raspberries’, the popular micro-computers they have in the centre.

The Marche-en-Famenne ‘third place’ is part of the Digital Wallonia network, with 21 centres across the Francophone region (in southern Belgium). There are joint activities including the ‘I Love Co-working’ event, where up to 200 entrepreneurs from all the centres across the region meet once a year to exchange experiences.

Rural co-working spaces such as those in Lanzarote and Marche-en-Fammene seem to have the potential to offer what many are looking for in the 21st century: high-speed internet connections that allow them to work on demanding international projects or develop innovative products aimed at the global market. And all that while breathing the pure air of the sea or the resin smell of the forest through an open window.

This article has been translated from Spanish.