Thursday 21 November 2019

Regional towns given new tech life as shared working spaces take root

A new crop of shared offices are allowing startups to reimagine themselves outside cities

The building block in sligo
The building block in sligo
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Conor Gallagher has worked in tech all of his life, a journey that took him from London to Malaga to Dublin. But he wanted somewhere different to put down roots and start a family. He also still nurtures ambitions to some day start his own tech company.

Sipping a cup of tea in a brightly coloured room in Carrick-On-Shannon, he recounts how he has landed in a tech-friendly co-working facility called The Hive near the centre of Leitrim's main market town.

"We were looking for alternatives to the city and this is just perfect," he says of the 14,000 sq ft (1,300 sq m) building.

"My productivity is actually higher here than it was in London or Dublin, and I'm increasingly convinced that I could grow a larger tech consultancy here if I wanted to."

Gallagher is one of a burgeoning number of tech professionals based in newly created co-working or shared working facilities in towns and villages well away from the normal city hubs.

These do not have to have 10 different types of coffee or 'Doctor Who' conferencing cubicles, like a WeWork pad in Soho or Manhattan.

But they adhere to the same basic principle: partially open-plan buildings that are more casually accessible to small firms, sole traders and startups. Somewhere you can plonk your laptop for a month, a week or a day, or book a meeting room.

Some 55km up the road from Carrick, John Monahan sits in an even brighter open-plan working facility called the Building Block.

Situated on the river right in the centre of Sligo town, the co-working space is completely self-funded and is already eyeing expansion after a few short years.

"It's quite amazing what we're seeing in a town like Sligo," says Monahan, an architect by trade but the de facto director of the tech-oriented Building Block.

"When I came back here five years ago, there were quite a few vacant buildings.

"But the town feels reborn. There's more energy here now and people want to work in the centre again. We've been lucky here, with some significant job announcements from big tech companies, and the college (IT Sligo) is also a natural funnel.

"But we're now being used as a reference by the IDA and Enterprise Ireland for tech firms thinking of setting up here."

Such facilities have caught the imagination of local authorities too.

Tomorrow, Údarás na Gaeltachta will formally open the latest in a string of co-working spaces in some of Ireland's far-flung Gaeltacht regions.

These 'Gteic' buildings now number eight, spanning from Cork (Ballingeary) to Spiddal (Galway), Belmullet (Mayo) and Gweedore (Donegal).

The theory is that if they are built, startups will come to use them.

So far, there are some promising indicators to suggest that there may be a reasonable chance of this happening.

There are now dozens of 'organic' co-working spaces across the country, rising to hundreds if you include those which are set up, or partially funded, by a local authority.

You will see them driving through Skibbereen (Ludgate), Drogheda (The Mill), Tralee (HQ), Boyle (Spool Factory), and many other areas outside cities.

Earlier this year, I attended the opening of one (Modam) on Arranmore Island, off the coast of Donegal. That facility, with 11 desks, computer work stations and a Cisco video conferencing facility, is the result of a deal the people of Arranmore struck with the mobile operator Three, which part-funded the centre and hooked it up to high-speed wireless broadband.

Within days of being set up, the Modam digital hub facility was receiving enquiries.

One London-based tech company, Caped Koala, is an early user. The company, founded by Neil Gallagher and Conor Murphy, develops educational apps for children.

Gallagher is a former resident of Arranmore. This, he said, is the moment that his company has been waiting for.

"We'd love to see people on the island trained up to work with us," said Gallagher. "There's huge potential there, in my opinion.

"Having this kind of a facility in place could make a big difference. For me personally, the connectivity on the island will allow me to spend a lot more time there."

These facilities are building on the experience they have seen from some of the forerunners in co-working spaces, based in smaller cities or large towns.

One of the best examples is Galway's Portershed, a labour of love built from scratch in an old CIE warehouse by a bunch of local tech entrepreneurs.

The Portershed is arguably now the most successful co-working space in Ireland outside Dublin. Others have followed, including the Republic of Work in Cork and Boxworks in Waterford.

There are numerous reasons why co-working spaces are attractive to tech workers, especially startups.

Rural co-working spaces typically have other kinds of professionals based in the shared working facilities, especially useful contacts like graphic designers, marketers, accountants and others.

Now that the model is established, other tech-friendly co-working spaces are cropping up in areas not traditionally known for IT offices.

And it is encouraging people to think of regional towns in a new way.

"We only saw this place when we drove through the town one day," says Conor Gallagher of The Hive in Leitrim.

"But now if I think of someone possibly starting a new company, I think I'd prefer to do it from here.

"There's a massive cost benefit to someone like me, when you take into account property and other factors."

But don't smaller regional towns suffer a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting?

"Yes and no," he says. "There are some IT skills in and around the town because of some of the companies already based here. There are also a few larger towns within a 40-minute drive, like Longford, Sligo, Athlone or Castlebar. So I don't think that would be a problem."

Entrepreneurs like Gallagher are cognisant of pockets of tech skills, sometimes long-standing and deep, that exist in unlikely regional spots around the country.

Companies like CMS Peripherals (Kiltimagh, Co Mayo) and Nearform (Tramore, Co Waterford) show that tech firms can thrive outside cities. The pitch to potential staff is often wrapped up in a promise of idyllic communities for family-rearing, combined with breathtaking natural outdoor amenities.

This is one of the factors driving the attractiveness of centres like the Building Block in Sligo, says Monahan.

"I came here from Dublin and one of the main reasons was lifestyle," he says.

"I'm very outdoorsy. I like to surf. But others I know see that you can be on a lake in a few minutes from here or up a mountain close by too. It's a big thing for me. And there's a lot of infrastructure around these outdoor lifestyle options that just didn't exist a few years ago."

This is fine for consultants, contractors or small, niche startups. But what about slightly bigger, more ambitious tech companies? Isn't there an insurmountable challenge in hiring the right talent compared with being located in Dublin, Cork, Limerick or Galway?

"Actually, I think it's difficult in Dublin to recruit the right people at the moment," says Aidan Kehoe, CEO and co-founder of the multinational software firm, Skout.

Kehoe recently established the US-based firm's European headquarters on the outskirts of Portlaoise, defying conventional wisdom about the need to be in or around Dublin.

"A lot of people are looking for more balance in their life," he says.

"And it's not just about where someone is located today, but about how their lives are changing and growing.

"There's massive investment that's pouring into Dublin. On one hand, that's wonderful for the country. But it makes it very hard to compete."

So Kehoe and Skout are betting on the appeal of a different work-life balance to stressful hour-long commutes, high communal expenses and other trappings of big-city competition.

The one issue that could really unleash regional and rural areas' tech viability, Conor Gallagher says, is more willingness among big companies to let professionals work remotely.

"That is the biggest downside," he says. "Not everybody's on board with remote working. In my experience, a lot of companies don't like the idea of it. It's only when they have experience of someone doing it that they start to become OK with it. I do think that whole attitude is changing. And I think it will be very good for places like Carrick-On-Shannon."

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