Tim Freundlich: HUB, a New Kind of Workspace

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Written by John Shankman, publisher of The Awl Network

Timothy Freundlich is co-founder of HUB Bay Area, a co-working, meeting, and community space serving approximately 1,000 social innovators. On any given day, HUB is home to a diverse cast of programmers, designers, developers, and policy-minded individuals—all of whom seek to leverage technology for social good.

HUB is where entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors come together locally and globally, physically and virtually, accelerating people, ideas and capital toward creating a better world,” explains Freundlich. “It is a global physical ‘co-working’ community, a growing set of gatherings including the 1,500+ person annual SOCAP conference [an event that connects impact investors (who want a mix of financial return along with positive social and environmental impact) with investable entrepreneurs] that radically accelerates social and environmental innovation.”

Just like a cell phone plan, members buy an amount of time they will use the space per month. They can dial up or down on a month-to-month basis, as each member’s unique needs require.

There are now 36 HUBs open across five continents, including Sao Paolo, Johannesburg, Tel Aviv, London, Milan, and San Francisco. And there are 60+ teams working simultaneously to open the next wave of HUBs across the globe in the coming year. This constellation of international offices allows traveling HUB members to move fluidly between local workspaces using a “HUB passport.” Having co-founded HUB Bay Area three years ago, Freundlich is no stranger to innovating in the social enterprise sector. Over the last 15 years, he has served in a number of capacities at Calvert Social Investment Foundation, and launched the Giving Fund – a more than $90 million impact investment-based donor advised fund that was spun out to a new organization, ImpactAssets, for which he serves as president. Freundlich also co-founded and serves as executive board member of Good Capital. He sits on the global HUB Association board of directors.

The HUB Cities Fund has been investing in the proliferation of HUBs across the U.S. Los Angeles, Boulder, and Seattle are now open, with many more in the works in the coming months.

We spoke with Freundlich about the process of re-imagining work environments.

You’ve asserted that physical workspaces are more important than ever. Why?
My-wiki-face-tube is fine, but we have lost the town square and a sense of place. The trust and relationships required to spur deep collaboration and the design principal of persistent everyday proximity for “creative collision” are best served by the marriage of the physical to the virtual. And in this global economy, they are further best served by expanding beyond a local context to also include a broad network of people spread throughout the world.

What’s the biggest difference between yesterday’s workspaces and the workspaces of tomorrow?
The cubicle is dead, and so is the cafe! Entrepreneurs, young and old, are looking for community and for radical collaboration: an open floor plan, creative and professional environments, with affinity to a larger context. Large companies are struggling to retain talent and innovation, while small startups are seeking connectivity to a greater community.

Gone are the days of rented boxes and empty conference rooms. Shared, dynamic space is the new black. And we are seeing that sustainability and purpose trump the blind pursuit of riches for the next generation of entrepreneurs coming on line. Hence, HUB exists both locally as a work community, and globally as an interconnected network of these communities.

What role does community play in HUB locations?
HUBs are curated by hosts and program managers on a daily basis. In San Francisco alone we had more than 300 events in the last 12 months, bringing together 15,000 people. Add that to the 100 meetings per day adding up to another 20,000 people a year, and a dozen affinity clubs for everything from international development to whisky tasting… and you have the makings of a diverse and dynamic environment.

HUB members don’t just work and meet and convene together every day. They form deep bonds around shared values, the exchange of value (people, financial and intellectual capital).

Now multiply that by 36 communities all around the world, going to 50, 100, and beyond quickly. This is a piece of infrastructure for “social innovation” that will (modestly) change the world.

Is there an optimal number of people to sign up for a HUB location at once?
Individual HUBs have between 200 and 1,000 members generally speaking, but per company you usually see a spectrum of startups and satellite teams in the 1-10 person range at each HUB. Bigger than that, and teams tend to outgrow the HUB model and take down more traditional office space. For example, my “day job,” ImpactAssets.org (an impact investment firm), has five team members working out of HUB SF.

But when NYC and DC HUBs likely get opened in 2013, our firm’s two-to-four person teams in each of those locations will also start working out of those HUBs. And we will create, like so many other members’ enterprises, a natural transference of ideas, people, and in our case investment capital, amongst these HUBs. That is how the local/global model works so brilliantly.

What’s the biggest, enabling factor helping organizations like the HUB to thrive?
The tectonic shift in how people, especially millennials, want to physically go to work and the understandings emerging around the utility of rapid prototyping, collaboration and “creative collision,” married to the surge in having sustainability and one’s values incorporated into our work all make this type of model successful. Also, the trend toward fusing work and social life is well suited to the HUB model.

What are some of the biggest benefits and rewards of being part of a global network?
The global network gives us three main advantages.

First, all local members have a “passport” wherein they are a member of one, but also a member of all, meaning that as a member of San Francisco where I work every day, I also have the ability to work out of Amsterdam or Singapore, etc.

Second, we have global initiatives including program innovation and partnerships being developed concurrently in 35 locations; that all bubbles up for the benefit of all local HUBs and their members (e.g., entrepreneur accelerators and incubator programs and funding, etc.).

Finally, we can draw from the global membership and locations to gather resources such as peer to peer funding of companies, testing out market entry for member products and services across regions, or sourcing talented people for new ventures (either as new team members or for piece work) from across the global network.

My favorite success stories trace the launch of new ventures (that evolve) through to growth and success, transition, and then come back to pay it forward. For example, it could start with an entrepreneur who has an idea for a new venture, say a mobile app platform to connect low-income underemployed job-seekers with high-quality employment opportunities in real time. This entrepreneur joins the HUB, finds a second founder by the coffee machine and a board member at a monthly mixer. They then apply and get accepted to the HUB Ventures’ three-month accelerator program as part of a 10 peer-member cohort, get a seed investment from the HUB Ventures sister fund for $50,000, and (in part due to being spotlighted in an investor demo-day) go on to raise $1 million in early stage venture funding within six months. The team grows to eight people at the HUB and gets its business developed, takes a private team room, and eventually is acquired in a multimillion dollar transaction and moves out to join the new parent company. Success. But then the kicker is that the founders stay in the HUB community, become angel investors and mentors for the next generation of entrepreneurs. This kind of scenario could play out in as little as 24 months.

What other business trends do you think will be significant over time?
We feel that millennials are changing the way businesses think about innovation and growth. For a whole new generation of entrepreneurs, it’s no longer just about the bottom line. Millennials want to innovate and invest in such a way that takes in to account the ecological, technological and policy-related issues affecting our globalized world. That’s what “impact” investing and collaborative consumption are all about. We’re building a work environment that reflects this ethos. These trends point exactly to what we’re building.

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