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Q&A with Hannah Clifford, general manager of Nairobi Garage

The Nairobi Garage is one of Africa’s largest co-working spaces. Since its launch this time last year, the company has hosted a range of events and partnered with Hong Kong VC, Nest among other happenings.

Ventureburn recently had a chance to talk to the general manager of Nairobi Garage, Hannah Clifford. We picked her brain on co-working spaces and the need to join them, as well as the role they play in the startup community.

Ventureburn: What bare basic services should a co-working space offer?

Hannah Clifford: Internet first and foremost. Security is important.

Meeting rooms and areas to hang out – the point of getting shared space is that you get access to more space than you would be able to afford on your own.

In Nairobi — and this isn’t really a service, but an important feature — location is key. A space needs to be somewhere people can easily reach by public transport (matatu). Having to spend a lot on transport or face not getting transport home when you’ve worked late, can be a major issue and make people unhappy.

VB: There are “fly by night” or bare basic co-working spaces opening up. Are these detrimental to the startup industry?

HC: I wouldn’t say they are detrimental, they just don’t have as much positive influence on those they host. However, I think anything that helps keep costs down at the beginning is good. As you get further along the quality of a space becomes more important — to really get the benefits of that hassle-free service and quality community around you, you should try to be in a good co-working space.

Of course, dealing with a bad supplier is never good — but I don’t think dealing with a bad co-working space can be as bad as dealing with a bad landlord — and in Kenya there are many, on another level. At least you have the choice to walk away from a co-working space. In Kenya, most landlords insist on a five-year lease and many are reluctant to allow you to leave sooner, so if you end up in a bad situation, you can end up either having to go to court or just lumping it. So I think any option that allows companies greater flexibility in that area is a real life-saver.

VB: Which hosted events have seen the most positive feedback?

HC: There are so many events in Nairobi. Every corporate wants to be seen to be in-touch with the people, and focused on innovating; every NGO and donor wants to be ahead of the curve and pro-business. Holding a hackathon or business plan competition, in Nairobi, focused on tech, is very sexy.

However, many of the events where I get the most positive feedback are just plain old-fashioned cocktail events, with enough food and drink to get everyone talking and having fun. That is where the most genuine connections are made. We plan to do more of these next year — a good crowd, minimal agenda beyond getting to know one another — that is what events should be about.

VB: Do you think joining a co-working space is necessary for all early-stage startups?

HC: I wouldn’t say necessary, but it is really helpful. But I also think it’s just as helpful — if not more so — for later stage startups, as well as many businesses and business owners that want to be in regular contact with other people. Having a network is so important, and when you’re spending day and night working on your business, it can be hard to force yourself to leave the office or house to attend a networking event, or even just dinner with friends. In a co-working space you are never far away from a connection, or potential new customer, or just someone you can share the ups and downs of business life with.

In year one of business, all your friends and family are really excited for you and want to hear all about it. By year four – if you’ve still got many close friends – they’re over it. That can be pretty lonely.

Plus there’s all the hassle and money that comes with running operations — working in a co-working space means that you don’t have to deal with that kind of headache — you can just focus on your team and your customers, and that is really important, I think at any stage of business — but of course when things are young, being able to free up time away from non-productive tasks is golden.

VB: You say that co-working spaces are the cornerstone of the startup environment; what makes then different from hubs, accelerators or incubators?

HC: The key of any good ecosystem is diversity. Accelerators and incubators are a great way for early stage businesses or ideas to get validation, and hopefully get access to funding and a network. But they are naturally exclusive (most of them are at least), focusing on a particular stage or sector or impact area. And this limits the diversity within them. This is especially the case in Nairobi (and Africa more generally), where there are less private equity backed incubators and accelerators — that tend to select on viability of the business and team — which can bring together fairly broad players — than on a certain area of impact. This tends to be common with donor or government backed accelerators/incubators — there is a sector of society they want to help, or a business sector they want to source ideas from. There is a limit to how many healthtech startups there are in a city that are at the stage of needing a six-week accelerator programme, and a limit to how many mentors or advisors are willing and able to participate.

A lot of these have their own interests to protect. Co-working spaces — at least those that are privately run — have the ability to be much more of an open platform — we can host accelerators, incubators, events, startups and people of all sizes and shapes.

And we don’t need to have a stake in any of this beyond making sure everyone is happy.

Author Bio

Graham van der Made: Editor
Graham started out as an electronics manager at Take2 Home Entertainment and went on to spend a further ten years in the South African ecommerce industry. During this time, Graham founded and managed an online geek and hobby shop. He has always had a passion for writing and has... More

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