Better together: the co-working model that is transforming business

“You don’t need much creativity to sell online,” says serial entrepreneur Shahzad Bhatti. With startups popping up at every corner, the businessman talks to Vision about co-working, the latest way to stay relevant 

Picture an isolated room in a building; a desk and a chair; bare walls; bright lights. Or perhaps rows of grey cubicles, plain, with high separators that provide space for individuals to pore over excel sheets and reports.

If you had asked serial entrepreneur Shahzad Bhatti to describe an office 10 years ago, he might have told you about either of these places – traditional bureaus that provide minimal resources for their users.

Nowadays Bhatti is pioneering an entirely new kind of working space. In 2014, he founded The Bureau Dubai – a co-working hub – and, for him, gone are the days of dry business routine. Ask him what an office looks like today, and he will tell you about open-plan design, free snack bowls, corner pool tables and unlimited Wi-Fi.

Bhatti began his career in real estate and hired out local business centres to work in. These communal areas, which housed shared desks, computers and printers, were a simple, affordable measure for the young businesswomen and men in his field. “Effective,” is what Bhatti calls these spaces, but he may well have said “boring” – there was always something lacking. For a while, he couldn’t quite put his finger on what was missing.

Through working in these spaces, the entrepreneur met his partners, two businesspeople with legal and commercial backgrounds. Working together, they had a light-bulb moment. “There was an element of community which was always present, but never really explored by the business centres,” he says. “We realised the need for a community for entrepreneurs.”

The trio came up with the concept for The Bureau Dubai, that Bhatti says, “has the facilities of a traditional business centre, but really aims to encourage networking.” In other words, The Bureau Dubai incites freelancers and businesspeople to work together in a collaborative, open-plan space.

To Bhatti, the benefits are obvious: the atmosphere is relaxed but productive, encouraging a flow of ideas and creativity to encourage entrepreneurs to come up with fresh new ideas. This type of collaboration can raise concerns of privacy – open-plan offices make the leaking of intellectual property risky – but according to major publications like the Financial Times, and Bhatti himself, co-working has proven to be safe and mutually beneficial to the vast majority of participants.

Bhatti gives the example of Whey 2 Go, a protein ice-cream brand that found a home at The Bureau Dubai. From the approval process to the testing of the product, [Whey 2 Go] benefitted from the community of business deals, testing, and networking. From humble beginnings, Whey 2 Go is now found in over 200 locations within the UAE alone, and are still expanding.

Multiple co-working spaces have popped up over recent years, in places like London’s Shoreditch, an area packed with tech startups and budding entrepreneurs. The Bureau Dubai, however, thrived within one year and received investor funding to expand.

Bhatti attributes this success in part to its setting. Located in Souk Al Bahar, Downtown Dubai, the company benefits from a series of city-wide business perks. The entrepreneur doesn’t attribute the success of his company exclusively to governmental support. Though he says the city has an economy that allows businesspeople to “innovate and progress quickly and effectively”, he also says that the true benefits of doing business in Dubai stem from the city’s cultural landscape.

“There are people from all around the world in Dubai”, he says. “This means that we understand a wider customer base.” This gives Dubai-based entrepreneurs a social psychology which helps them build their businesses from the ground up, always keeping the customer’s needs in mind.

Bhatti continues to expand his co-working empire. The entrepreneur recently founded Share This Space, an online platform that allows companies and startups to rent out business spaces for pop-up shops and their short-term events where companies show off their products.

It often seems like business is moving further online, particularly with the boom of internet shopping and digital marketing. Souq.com, the Middle East’s response to Amazon, for example, raised US$273m from international investors to finance expansion plans. And yet the response to Share This Space is overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s not very difficult to start selling on an online platform like Instagram,” says Bhatti. “To be honest, you don’t even need that much creativity. You need to step offline to have real engagement with the customer.  

“Both brands and venues are excited but we’re still in the process of educating people”, he says. Like any break from tradition, encouraging companies to step away from standard, singular business is challenging, but Bhatti believes the benefits have enormous potential all areas of business – from retail to marketing. 

With Share This Space planning to expand to Europe and key cities in the Middle East, Bhatti’s is going global in his bid to reshape traditional business models, confirming the age-old motto: better together.