Q&A with James Crawford about Starting a Coworking Space within an Agency Office

It’s been a while since I did an interview on SEOno – the last one was with Emma Barnes about selling her blog (you can see all past interviews here). However I recently discovered that James Crawford (@jamescrawford) of PR Agency One had started his own coworking space within his agency’s office and – given that I’m a bit fanatical about coworking(!) – I thought it’d make for a good interview.

In addition to being a fellow State of Digital author, I met James when we were sat at the same table during a UK Search Awards event a few years back. I was chuffed that he was happy to answer my questions about how it was going with his agency’s new coworking space.

Steve Morgan: Hi James! To start things off, tell us about PR Agency One.

James Crawford photoJames Crawford: PR Agency One (pragencyone.co.uk) is an award-winning consultancy that has specialist teams focusing on communications, reputation and digital. We like to measure what we do, be that sales, brand or reputation and we believe that we have an industry leading suite of measurement tools designed to attribute even the most complex mix of marketing. Founded in 2011, the agency is currently the CIPR PR consultancy of the year and has a turnover of £1.5m.

Steve: You recently launched a coworking space within your office. What was the inspiration for this?

James: I wanted to give something back and support people who – like me back in 2011 – want to start and grow a business. Secondarily, the reason for the coworking space is ‘innovation’. By bringing in specialists in their field who are both accountable for themselves and to us, we can ensure we have the highest standard of consultant support, all under one roof. We’ve all seen agencies hire full-time staff in non-core services and often this cost-centre quickly falls behind the industry and stagnates. We wanted to avoid that and always remain at the forefront by working with with and nurturing best-of-breed experts.

Steve: How many people can you accommodate?

James: At the moment just four, but we have plans to extend the office still further.

Steve: What perks do you offer beyond the usual stuff (the desk, the coffee and the WiFi)? E.g. Do you offer meeting room use? Anything else?

James: The main perk is being around one of the UK’s fastest growing, award-winning PR agencies. As a business, the ability to knowledge share is important.

We are also looking for a particular set of skills. Ideally people with a grasp of branding, analytics and website development would be favourable. In return they will win projects from the team here as we are asked for these types of services all the time.

Apart from that we offer the usual: free coffee, water and WiFi.

Oh and did I mention our sun terrace complete with BBQ…

PR Agency One's coworking space photo
Steve: What type of ‘membership’ do you offer? Is it a pay-as-you-go/drop-in-for-the-day type arrangement, or more of an on-going monthly fee? Or both?

James: We offer a monthly £150 per-desk rental. Anything more informal than that is difficult to manage and raises issues on security and health and safety.

Steve: What kind of take-up have you had so far (if you don’t mind me asking)?

James: We have two people who are in the early growth stage of their businesses join the coworking space. I won’t mention them here as I’ve not asked them, but one is a small content marketing agency and another is a digital marketing training organisation.

Steve: What types of members have you attracted so far, in terms of industry, etc.?

James: I’ve attracted a broad range of people and businesses but we are only really interested in people where there could be a mutual benefit. We don’t need to fill the space, but we want the most optimal candidates.

You can see how the relationship could be mutually beneficial.

Steve: Have you collaborated with any of your coworkers so far, e.g. you met them because they came to your coworking space and you’ve since hired them to help out with a PR Agency One client project?

James: All the time! And I think that’s the point.

So far we have worked on some content marketing support for a client and also had some technical SEO consultancy. For certain services I think the full service marketing agency model is broken. Anything that is not a core service to an agency ultimately stagnates and the performance of that in house staffer becomes poorer when compared to other specialist agencies.

By having the right talent around a business in a coworking space you have an expert who is fully accountable to themselves, and to you, and is less likely to stagnate. I also benefit from the client-contractor relationship which means their output needs to be to the highest calibre. It is up to them to remain at the top of their game and they have commercial survival as a driver to push them on.

The benefit for the coworker is revenue and credentials experience. It’s a win-win.

Steve: Have you come across any unexpected challenges so far, such as client confidentiality issues, or any issues managing the day-to-day of the coworking space element of the office?

James: There are risks of course, but contractually the relationship is much more accountable than that of an employee. Our core services will always be delivered by employees and that is because we have the volume of work to create a culture of innovation and the reverse of my stagnation theory which I outlined earlier.

Risks can be disputes but there needs to be trust there and I’m a very collaborative and open person and generally I can make these relationships work.

There is also the risk to your own culture – i.e. sharing your office and lifting the lid on your team can expose them to other thinking. I think we are open and honest enough to handle this problem.

Sometimes people do fall out though and the same can happen with employees too. That can happen and needs dealing with, but generally nine times out of ten all is well with the world.

Steve: What’s Manchester’s coworking ‘scene’ like? Have you visited any of the other coworking spaces in the city?

James: The scene is very healthy. The Landing at MediaCity. Old Granada Studios all offer coworking spaces. WeWork are about to enter the Manchester market too. Then of course there are Rise, Accelerate Places, Workplace, Headspace, SpaceportX, Platform 4. Ziferblat is expanding into team coworking too.

Steve: Do you think more companies (not only in Manchester but elsewhere) should open their doors and make their premises available for coworking?

James: I think coworking is the future. All businesses need an ecosystem of supplier partners and coworking is a way to support and protect your marketplace but also develop new commercial offerings. It’s a really interesting concept.

Steve: What have you learnt so far since opening your doors to coworkers, and what advice would you give others who might be considering doing the same?

James: Coworking needs to be driven by something else other than profiteering. If your sole reason for doing it is rental fees then you are doing it wrong.

First and foremost, coworking is a way to collaborate and innovate and in return give something back to smaller businesses and entrepreneurs.

There are challenges but, nothing that is insurmountable.

Steve: What are your plans for the space in the future?

James: Who knows. I’m just taking each day as it comes at the moment. I’d love to expand the coworking concept but I’ve got lots of other priorities too. Watch this space.

Thanks James!

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