Enterprise Hubs is many things rolled into one. Its founder says it is beyond being called a co-working centre, or a virtual office, or even a co-creation centre; it is all of these and many more.
It offers a pain free all-in online/off-line home for legitimate hustlers, offering a 21st century freelance co-working space virtual offices, business library and resource centre, design and print studio, a cafe with coffee and cookies to come back for, fast delivery lunches, outdoor garden, a boardroom to inspire big deals, savvy training rooms, a syndicate room and more in one cosy contemporary space.
Before business a.m.’s PHILLIP ISAKPA sat down with PAUL ARINZE, founder of this game changer in the work space business in Nigeria, a tour round the facility, what Arinze called proof of concept, being the first in a series that could churn out 15 branches across the country in the next few years, revealed a deliberate, well thought out model that will surely see many budding entrepreneurs, who crave an atmosphere that engenders creative thinking, flocking there.
The Nigerian economy has been having a tailspin for a number of years now; this tailspin has led to new businesses emerging or posed a challenge to the old ways of doing business, but you have now ventured into a business that is trying to serve the need of people who cannot probably setup offices immediately and who need workspace, but your workspace is unique and is set up differently. So tell us, in an economy that has been having a tailspin for some time, what is the vision behind what you are doing; are you just another businessman looking to make profit or does it go beyond profit making?
Thank you for starting from that angle. I think it is nice to venture and have good returns, return capital and some extra, that is very interesting. But what is even more interesting is being a catalyst for development and economic growth, to create opportunity and build a wave. That for me is the more interesting outcome. Enterprise Hubs is borne out of my own experience of trying to be a young entrepreneur, in the days when we didn’t even have mobile phones or any phones at all, and if you even had to make a call at all, you had to travel for miles to get to a NITEL regional office and sit there for 2 or 3 hours. So, that is the environment I first became a graduate entrepreneur and somehow I roughed it out for 10 years before I went to join the corporate world. That experience hasn’t left me so I can easily see gaps, even in these days of mobile phones and internet, IT [information technology] of different types, even with all the convergence of the world, entrepreneurs are still struggling.
They are struggling with infrastructure, they are struggling with lack of nurturing environment, and they are struggling with gaps in the solutions that can enable them to interpret their dreams into business. So, what Enterprise Hubs is here to do, as the name suggests, is to create a nurturing centre for entrepreneurs; it is not a co-working centre, it is not a virtual office, it is not a co-creation centre, it is all of that and many more. It is meant to be an integrated solution for emerging businesses, and what I mean is this: people who are trying to grow their businesses come with ideas, they don’t come with office spaces, if they manage to find office spaces, they do not come with answers to their logistics problem and they cannot, by themselves, provide a motivating environment with similar people like themselves, even when they have all that; because there are co-creation centres existing as such, but what they do not have is an environment where they can find the resources they need, even to express themselves. For example, an entrepreneur who is in any service industry would occasionally need a place to ideate, a place to sit together with other people and innovate. So, innovation is at the centre of what we are trying to do. I think, these days, saying that information technology is built into the hardware of Enterprise Hubs is not saying enough because it should be a given. Walking around here, you would see very little paper, even the training rooms have no flip charts or projector, and you can run a whole presentation or a whole training session from your smart phone straight onto the screen. That is not a boast, but that is what today’s business environment requires.
But we have also recognised that entrepreneurs are migrants and are very mobile, they move from place to place. So, what interests me about the vision of Enterprise Hubs is the vision to have multiple resource centres in different locations. We have recognised about 10 locations in Nigeria that if you could provide those locations with solution centres, entrepreneurs can literally hop from one place to the other. Take for example, the shuttle from lagos to Abuja; entrepreneurs have to migrate from the private sector environment to the regulatory public sector environment literally every week. It is difficult for one business to setup in Lagos and setup an office in Abuja, but by becoming a member of Enterprise Hubs, you automatically have two offices in Abuja when our Abuja office opens. In Lagos, we have three centres that we are currently incubating, and should be up and running before the end of the year. The idea is that you can start a meeting in Victoria Island here, and continue it in the Ikeja centre, or you have a business on the Marina, and you just finished your meeting here and then continue the next meeting at the Marina centre. This mobility is like the key of modern business and we are trying to solve that. So, it is deliberate that the name of this place starts with “Enterprise”, that is the core of what we are trying to do, to enable entrepreneurship; and “Hubs” because we are looking to create resource centres where entrepreneurs can hit on each other and work with each other. You would also notice that the name is in plural, because by design this is meant to be in multiple locations, to provide that mobility.
So, it is a vision for us to enable businesses to grow and thrive, to accelerate their growth and interaction, by providing them integrated resource centres in multiple locations, both online and offline.
The Nigerian economy, as with most economies, is dynamic. But the Nigerian economy continues to throw up challenges, both in good times and bad times. How does Enterprise Hubs make an intervention that settles entrepreneurs in a way that enables them to deal with challenges that the economy poses?
To be honest, personally, I don’t talk about challenges. I talk about yes, their environment may be dynamic, unpredictable and has all sorts of dynamics; but I believe that is when entrepreneurs thrive. You know, uncertainty by itself creates opportunity for you to think about solutions that help manage that uncertainty, or even by the sake of the uncertainty, have new models of value creation. That is the philosophy behind what we are trying to do in Enterprise Hubs.
We recognise that the current economic environment across the world and Nigeria, concentrates your mind, because it makes you really see things that you can provide. So, what we want to do is, beginning with that philosophy that when the wind is blowing is when you can actually think out of the usual frames, therefore by providing a resource centre of this nature, we want to help entrepreneurs get out of uncertainty of power, reliable WiFi, people to interact with; so, this whole model is part of the solution to those uncertainties so entrepreneurs can focus on what they know best, their ideas and bringing them to birth.
When we started trying to ideate about this project, we had thoughts around starting as a co-working centre and then grow into a virtual working centre, but I said: “Look, time and the speed of change do not allow you to do that kind of metamorphoses anymore, an entrepreneur has all these challenges coming at him at the same time, so you have to provide an integrated solution”. Which is why Enterprise Hubs has a model, we call it “Six Solution System”, where we try to focus all these challenges of entrepreneurs into six areas, and try to provide an integrated six pieces of solution. One is to give them a modern physical environment to work, that has all of the modern resources needed to work; another is to provide a co-working centre, and I boast that our co-working centre is one of the best in Lagos now, in terms of ambiance, in terms of what it gives you, in terms of all the little details like convenience in where you plug your laptop and not even needing cables; we have USBs right next to your desks. These are little things that reduce the stress. We also create this online business network; by simply walking in to use our centre for one hour, you automatically become part of our network, where people can interact with you and know what you do and they can come straight to you to provide you leads or ask for your service. For me that is one of the advantages.
Entrepreneurs cannot afford paid advertising, so every single lead is key, that is why we are building that market place through the memberships. Another one is the mobility, which I talked about earlier and then the resource centre; every month, starting from May, we plan to have monthly breakfast sessions so that successful businessmen can come and share their experiences to the entire Enterprise Hubs community for free, once you are a member. So, you can come and listen to their own stories, how did they survive? How did they innovate? How did they change? And that sharing in its own is up-building and it enables people. That is not physical space, that is resource sharing. We also have sharing sessions when people come and talk about what they are working on, so that others can learn from it. We have all these types of non-physical enablers that we provide. That is why we call it an enterprise resource centre.
By having this Six Solution System, we are trying to concentrate the challenges that entrepreneurs are having and try to provide them with solutions that enable them to leap frog and let their ideas fly.
I have heard you mention resource centre a number of times. Now, resource centre will resonate with entrepreneurs who are looking for this kind of office space and other things; what does Enterprise Hubs, in this vision, offer that is different from others in this business?
Let me give you an example. In my many early years of trying to setup a business, one of the things I was looking for was business models, ideas. So, we have walked into our space, little nifty libraries around, common spaces with business books of high quality, so that even when you are not exactly working on your project, in your free time over lunch, you can browse through business journals and all the rest. This might look little but that helps. Different types of sitting spaces that enable people to interact, so you are not sitting in an office all day long. I can remember when we were testing the market and we went round other co-working spaces and virtual offices, we sat with people who used them and asked them what they were missing, what would you wish you had, and an interesting idea I never thought of, came up. More than one person in more than one instance said “we need thinking space, spaces where I can go and [there’s] silence, maybe a room or a closet” as confined as the typical office environ might be. We are creating that, we are offering people a room that is designed for silence that enables you to think. That is not what you find in your average co-working space, those little extras that enable people to relax, ideate, and innovate, that’s what we are trying to provide.
One other thing I have heard you talk about is network. What I am also hearing is membership; can you speak to me about this idea of networking and network, and also membership, how is it structured to accommodate all of that?
I personally used a virtual office provider for three years, and what did I miss, I missed interactions with other innovators. If I needed to share an idea with somebody, I needed to set it up and make people come together. Even the process of setting it up was difficult because you had to physically meet people to convince them to come to meetings. Here, you will notice that the whole place is linked, every room is linked and hopefully by the time our next outlets come out, they will all be linked. So, that ease of collaboration is critical; for people to pick ideas from other people and modify it is a different service or a different solution. I is very important. It is very clear that in modern business, collaboration is the key, the more you can create environment for people to share ideas, the more you are able to facilitate the growth of ideas and the growth of innovation. Innovation is taking what already exists and try to shape it in such a way that it adds an extra value. So, by making people come together in a free flow of ideas and thoughts, the more we can create more value. By design, every location of Enterprise Hubs is designed for interaction. Someone came here and wondered why all our offices, including the private offices have glass walls, which helps people to bounce ideas off one another, even our boardroom has a glass wall, by design; people want to see and learn from other people. We also made the entire compound a green space, people don’t drive in. We have garden chairs, so when you are tired of sitting inside, you go outside, even the co-working space, has open windows, so you see the people outside in the green space, that is that whole idea of transparency of idea. The more you can make ideas transparent, the more you can create additional value with incremental innovation. That is our philosophy here.
This has membership built into it even though they can still rent the space for a couple of hours?
How does membership come about?
The idea of membership is that it makes you feel a sense of belonging. If you walk into Enterprise Hubs and use it for a day, except you don’t want to, you automatically become a member of the community for at least one more year, unless you shut it down yourself. So, you see, straight off, you join a community of innovators like yourself; that is why the idea of membership comes in. It is our own little way of creating a network of innovation for all our clients.
I will like to take this discussion to the bigger picture of how Enterprise Hubs helps to drive an economy that is now tilting towards entrepreneurship, but let me first ask you about your idea of collaboration; a collaborative workspace you’ve called it, but what of entrepreneurs who seek to come to a place because they want to go solo, how does this accommodate such people?
As you walk into our facility, you will notice that the first space is open and free sitting, no allocated seats. The concept is for it to feel like a bedroom or a lounge, but as you go further in, you will see slightly more private spaces, and next to the co-working centre is what we call the “beehive”. The beehive provides you with two kinds of sitting, one that is like a cocoon, only you sitting there and everybody else is shut out. Within that beehive is also what feels like a classic restaurant booth, with two people sitting across each other over coffee and chatting; by the way, that space is right next to our café, so you can grab your coffee, come back there and continue your discussion. That is a deliberate design.
Upstairs, you will find private offices of different sizes, some of them are small enough to hold three people, some are big enough to have a company of 10 people; but you will observe that every single space in Enterprise Hubs is modal, and can be adjusted to any sitting arrangement. For example, there is a syndicate room we have that can sit four people who are practically backing each other and are doing what they are doing, but if you flip the chairs, you immediately have a team room. That sitting was designed for that purpose. If you also noticed, the tables are moveable, by simply pulling it around you, you have a created a syndicate room; but if you feel to be alone, then you can face them differently. The two training rooms we have are very flexible by design, you can convert the two training rooms into one big training room or separate them into two separate rooms, and all the tables are moveable. So, by design we have tried to build it to accommodate both teamwork and a little bit of thinking space if you need some privacy. A lot of thought went into this design because we know that entrepreneurs are different, some like doing things on their own, while others are interactive in the way they do things, so that is the flexibility we have built into this.
Let me continue on that track before I go back to the bigger economic question. In terms of collaboration, in terms of entrepreneurs coming into a place even though they have come with different ideas, how do deliberately make them collaborate, what’s in the vision for that?
First of all, if you look in the membership portal, you can see the members and a little bit of what they do, you know who is an architect, you know who is an accountant, you know who is a caterer. That alone forces people to reach out to whoever they need to reach out to. So, the membership portal is an open place in terms of recognising who is there. But at the same time, they have the option of saying they don’t want to do business with you; but at least by making that a glass wall you can at least know who is in the next room, so to speak. Our physical spaces, as I have said, encourage collaboration because you can’t hide yourself, the glasses are all open except when you have the flowers giving you a little sense of privacy, but people will know that you are there.
The way the space is designed is very key. We have a single dining room in the facility and the rule of the house is you don’t eat in your office, you must come to the dining room including me; so that is a place where people are forced to meet each other and bond. Again, we have only one garden, so people are encouraged to interact that way, but then we create deliberate events. For example, we are having a bloggers jam session in the month of April. This is a forum for those who blog about anything, we don’t care what you blog about; everybody comes here and talks about their blog, maybe spend some time sharing their experiences about blogging. Part of the plan, is to create events for people in a similar type of enterprise, so bloggers jam is one session that is upcoming, we have a women business session coming up in the month of May. Those are the schedules we have in addition to the monthly enterprise breakfast, where we have an achiever, an established business person come to share their experience. So, these types of events encourage people to interact, it is very hard to be a member of Enterprise Hubs and not interact with other people. Something about the design and the way it operates will force you to interact and make it is easier, some people are more withdrawn in their personality, but the environment makes it easier to reach out.
You are tweaking this line of business in the way you have come about Enterprise Hubs. Let’s examine this in relation to the larger Nigerian economy. You have virtual space, workspace, resource centre, co-creation, and there’s also resource programmes. Is this vision that you’ve brought to life, in a sense, an intervention that brings entrepreneurship in the way?
Absolutely. First and foremost, Enterprise Hubs is a buyer of service in it’s own way, and we deliberately buy local. This Saturday [March 30], 24 pieces of arts are coming in here from local artists. We recognise art as a local employer of labour and a cultural [enabler], therefore we are encouraging local arts. We have had our walls checked out and we are bringing in art from local artists but of standard that is comparable to the best around the world. So, we see ourselves as buyers in the first place and by buying, we are also encouraging the local economy. I don’t know if you observed but 90 percent of the furniture here is local, that on its own is a joy, and as we roll out our 10 outlets outside Lagos and 3 others within Lagos, we plan to buy local, thereby demonstrating what local entrepreneurs can do.
Honestly, the role we see this intervention playing is that of an accelerator; by giving entrepreneurs a conducive environment to grow, we quicken their journey to success, along with that journey comes jobs, along with that journey, comes more disposable income for those who work there, along with that comes taxes that they can pay. So, this is the way we view this as an intervention, and as I have said before, this is not just to provide physical space, we are also working with government institutions to see how financing can be extended to these entrepreneurs and in the course of their membership and stay with us, we would have seen their project and known how viable it is and make them support ready.
Enterprise Hubs is also part of a network of businesses that are centred on promoting entrepreneurship. One I will mention very quickly is African Franchise Centre. They are focused on driving franchising as a sector, so a lot of the businesses that we hope Enterprise Hubs will enable, will be ready to become franchisees of established franchises or transform themselves into franchises on their own and benefit from both government policy support and development finance. So, we are in the process; just like we are executing the Enterprise Hubs vision, we are also growing the African Franchise Centre vision, so that there is a convergence of those and exactly a week from today, African Franchise Centre will be presenting its first of its kind multi-country survey of franchising in Africa. There were 1000 respondents across Africa that provided their insights, observations, and their interest around franchising, so that investors can make decision on either to invest in franchising or even to prepare themselves to work in the franchise business.
This is a big growth sector and Enterprise Hubs is not existing alone in isolation, it is one arm of an ecosystem of enablement for businesses to help them accelerate, that is why we view it as an intervention.
Because it is an ideation setting, can you speak to the vision, how it intervenes in enterprise ideation because there are many people who think they have ideas, so beyond providing space does Enterprise Hubs help them to incubate their ideas?
One, we encourage those who are members of Enterprise Hubs to check out those who are in a similar line of business and learn one or two things from their own book of tricks. That is one way, and like I said earlier, we try to provide a library, both offline and online of resources, that people can borrow from. Overtime, we’d build case studies that people can borrow, we create sessions for people to speak about their experience; I have my stories just the way everyone else has theirs, by creating resources in-house, by creating opportunities for people to borrow from other people and then learning sessions, even mentoring, we hope to help ease the journey of entrepreneurs; but I think entrepreneurs sometimes underrate what they themselves can offer. If you’ve tried a business that didn’t succeed, you would agree with me that you have a lot to teach other people how not to go about it. So, with such people, we try to harvest such ideas and that is how we go about it. Also, as we go, we also innovate by ourselves. I personally made it my own goal to visit the competitor’s space once every week, I spent three hours in one of them on Thursday [March 21] last week and I asked honest questions about what is working and what is not working. I took some notes; we have even spoken about collaboration with other providers of some of the things we provide.
As I said, I haven’t seen any other, which is as integrated as we offer. We offer conducive physical spaces, there are others who offer that in different models and we are currently in conversation with them as to how we can co-offer in some places we are yet to reach. For instance, if we are not yet in Surulere and you have a co-working centre that is decent there and provides some of the things we offer, that is beautiful. If any of our members is in Surulere, we encourage him to visit you and he benefits from what you offer. So, the whole thing is to be transparent about innovation and not trying to hoard innovation, because innovation doesn’t thrive in hoarding. You’ve got to open up the space and let others learn from your book of tricks and in the process, you can also see things you can adapt in your own journey.
This Water Corporation Road, Victoria Island centre is the flagship of Enterprise Hubs, but you talked about 10 places identified within the country, you also talked about three places within Lagos, can you speak to the 10 places across the country and three places within Lagos, what flagged them out and what did you see in these environments that encouraged you to say these are the places for the business?
I will try not to give out too much about the details but we go to places where we can intervene and have the most effects, we go to places where the ripple effect will be the greatest on the economy. So, in choosing the three locations in Lagos, we are thinking about the quantum of opportunity and where it is most concentrated, we were also thinking of where access for entrepreneurs will be easiest, and you know entrepreneurs come in different shapes, there are those who are already in enterprise, they are trading and providing services or they are up and coming, so you think about the schools, where do you have large concentration of young people who are vibrant and full of energy, and how do you locate in such a way that they can access you very easily, where do you have the deepest crossbreed between up and coming and established entrepreneurs; you have to also think about the infrastructure gaps, these are some of the thoughts that have informed the two additional locations in Lagos.
The locations outside Lagos, because we cannot have multiple locations in each city at the same time, we are going one location per city, but the choice of these cities are driven by the same factor, we are looking at those cities as catchment for entrepreneurs in these areas, so a few cities will have two centres, Abuja will have two centres, Lagos will have three, possibly four. So, it is driven by the need for us to have the biggest positive impact, and where we will be the biggest enablers of ideation, innovation and economic growth. That is what informs our choice of location. We are working with some partners in terms of creating the physical space, we have a few interesting partners who you won’t think are partnering this, but we have been able to open their eyes to what we can do, that is what informs it, but I can tell you that we have done some research and we have identified those locations that could do even more than our proof of concept location (Victoria Island location), can do in terms of the quick uptake and its ability to impact the economy. We are also thinking about the receptivity of the government in the area. It helps a lot when you have a quick uptake. One of our next locations, that was a major factor in selecting it because we found a local administration that was just ready for this kind of interaction, the fourth location was supposed to be on our initial plan but it is moving to be the third or second location because the government in that location were very willing to help out.
You say you offer something that is different and not typical workspace solution in the economy, I will also want to ask you what is pricing like and how is it calibrated for entrepreneurs?
Our goal is not to be cheap. I don’t think entrepreneurs are afraid of investing in themselves or businesses but at the same time we recognise that you cannot be an enabler if you are a dampener in terms of your cost, so, every location has a different cost scheme, depending on what the economy of the area says and cost of putting it together. The next two locations, we are currently working on their economics but what we try to do is to stay within our affordability and create different pricing structures for different kinds of clients. For example, we have a student rates for students to be able to come into our freelance co-working centres and do their stuffs. I had a 15 year old come in here the other day to do his mid-term homework. He stayed here for two days and did it. If you price it like that of businessmen he won’t be able to afford it, but he was able to afford it out of his pocket money and was even able to buy lunch from the café. So, we have a discounted pricing structure for such people, the pricing tries to match what the market charges for the kind of physical resources that we offer, but price it in such a way that the other services we offer, almost come free, that is as much as I will tell you. If you pick the 3-man office in Business Hubs for instance, you will be paying about the same thing as the closest virtual office will charge you, but then, that virtual office will not be open on Saturday and Sunday, which we are, it doesn’t have an online market space which we have and that is how we frame our cost.
The entrepreneural space in Nigeria has had a lot of supposed interventions by the government and even international development finance agencies, yet the kind of traction that you expect, you don’t seem to find. What do you find common amongst budding entrepreneurs to be factors that have not made this happen for Nigeria?
I think entrepreneurs are doing great things in Nigeria. I think some really impressive stuff is going on, but we have a large population so, sometimes, those islands of innovation may be swamped by the sheer number of people around. That is a factor, but I also think experienced entrepreneurs, corporate and government, have a role to play to orient particularly young people. Young people are leaving school with skills that a lot of them become misfits in employment and even entrepreneurship;
There is a case for advocacy, making the word “entrepreneur” something admirable. I can tell you that in creating Enterprise Hubs, at the branding debate, question was why do you need a long name? But I said, we have to lead with the word, young people need to aspire to be entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurs employ many employees, so part of our little way of contributing to that is to just make the work popular and acceptable; entrepreneur is a good thing to be, so what I am saying is there is a big room for advocacy and taking to young people and mentoring them towards entrepreneurship. We are having a new crop of interns come join Enterprise Hubs from April, and the idea is to expose them to entrepreneurship by putting them into work, by assisting entrepreneurs in the Hub and helping them to facilitate some of the enterprise resource sessions and hopefully a few of them will become employers of labour by themselves and add value to their economy. So advocacy is key, collaborating with others, who are pushing in that same direction, is also very key.