April 22, 2017

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Malaysia's We Work/We Live That Nearly Was...

April 21, 2017

The resilience of serviced office pioneer Regus combined with the meteoric rise of new breeds such as The Office Group, The Collective and especially We Work reminds me of a unique story from my time in Malaysia's corporate world - a truly missed opportunity for a Malaysian business to get it right and conquer the world with a resonating message left behind for entrepreneurs. 

 

The 2007 annual report from Kuala Lumpur City Corporation stated "As part of the Group’s process to clearly define its strategic focus, the Group has undergone a restructuring exercise to reorganise its business activities into two main segments, namely serviced apartments and serviced offices. These would be the dual thrusts of the Group to achieve efficient, effective and sustainable foundation of growth as it embarks on a journey to become a regional corporate player". In September 2007, Nomad Space Sdn Bhd was incorporated as the owner, manager and operator of the Group’s serviced office business and with effect from 18 April 2008 the listed company Kuala Lumpur City Corporation was no more and officially re-branded and trading on the stock exchange as The Nomad. 

 

I liked the branding and I liked the decisive and focused nature of the move. Between 2007 - 2009 The Nomad were entering major transactions of office and hotel space in several countries and in retrospect were way ahead of their time. The 2007 annual report reads like it might have been penned by the founders of We Work when it states the serviced offices are "Designed to meet the lifestyle needs of mobile professionals and global corporate warriors of the 21st century"

 

- this was spot on and considering We Work was still 3 years away from being formed The Nomad had a major head start. So what went wrong and what can be learned?

 

The Global financial crisis that began in 2007-2008 had a delayed effect on Malaysia and hit hard only in 2009-2010. I'm sure this didn't help but let's go back a bit further in time. Ray Oldenburg is the author of influential book The Great Good Place many years before, describing the importance of community building and the role and aesthetics of third spaces separate from the two usual social environments of home ("first place") and the office ("second place"). Maybe The Nomad was too much like a normal office with normal receptionist and didn't live up to it's bold brand and vision. The Nomad had good occupiers at times (e.g. Shell) but certainly no sense of community nurtured by a caring and sharing community manager. 

 

About 15 years after the publication of Ray Oldenburg's book, Brad Neuberg used the term "coworking" to describe the workspace he had created in San Francisco for a few self employed tech startups. This was in about 2005 and the launch of We Work in 2010 and constant media attention on the subject since is well known. 

It may come as no surprise then that the serviced office company Nomad Space threw in the towel in 2014 and did a deal with Regus Asia Pacific Management Ltd, disposing of the assets and business of the multi national serviced office company  for GBP 4.25 mil - a far cry from the reported valuation of We Work which is in the $Billions!

 

The ultimate lesson I feel is that any business in any sector should be as adaptable and agile as possible and move decisively with the times in order to grow. Coworking spaces are therefore set to grow to a massive scale globally to meet the demand for agile working and it's a shame The Nomad is not among the household names.

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