Flexibility as a service

One year ago, I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit Angkor Wat and to meet Loven Ramos, co-founder of 1961, coworking and art space.

In the midst of dust and hordes of tourists flocking to visit the temples, Loven has been experimenting with spaces and concepts. He is originally a graphic designer and relocated from the Philippines to Cambodia 10 years ago.

That’s Loven on the right and awkward me on the right

One of this freelance projects was to renovate the space which would later be called 1961. With his partners, he first transformed the building from a garage into an art gallery. The project was a success, but more could be done. There was more room, so they decided to turn the gallery into an hotel and a cafe.

In no time, they had an full-blown hotel business, and it attracted lots of people coming to attend the events organized for the art exhibitions and the community.

In 2014, one of the first hotel guests came up to Loven and asked him if he would be interested in making a coworking concept in there: “We thought it was really right at that time.

He was always working and wanted to get away from the place where he lived to cowork.

But cafe are always noisy, and this first hotel guest had no permanent place where he could concentrate, with a good work environment and find people who are really in that coworking mentality.”

Together they transformed four of the rooms into a coworking space:

“So far it was successful, it had good reception. People were really interested in the idea. And it took off pretty well.”

And then, with contributions from the community and a fair amount of improvisation, it got out of control!

In the lobby
“We were thinking about renovating the hotel rooms but instead, because of the success of the coworking space, we decided to offer the rooms as actual coworking offices. Not for individuals, but to work together.
We were able to attract some clientele for that, so now we have designers, a jewelry atelier, and a workshop. We have a showroom downstairs, a couple of people involved in web and app development. Photographers, so we have photography studio upstairs as well. It’s a lot of things that organically grow.”

There is the need and Loven has this mentality: “This is a new concept and I think it’s about time that we do it.”

But the success was never guaranteed. As Loven explains:

“We didn’t know that people needed it until we opened it. The important thing is to see how it grows and how it works. […]
Honestly, when my friend pitched that idea of coworking space, I didn’t believe it, until I had the need for that.
When we were renovating, I was still skeptical about it, and then I went to Manila to go home and then I really needed to work so I looked for a coworking space and I’ve found a couple actually. And it was really cool.
I only coworked for two days but in that environment, the amount of contacts I’ve made, of knowledge I’ve acquired and the network I’ve built... I was not me alone doing this anymore, but a lot of other cool people who gave up their really high-paying jobs in order to be independent, and it gives you an encouragement.
You discuss challenges, how you got away with this kind of problem or client who was giving you a headache. You give each other hints.
Before you looked at online forums but now it’s real people you talk to and work with.”

So far they are very happy with the outcome. It has been more than a year since they opened and they have had lots of events.

The hotel guest suggesting to open a coworking space is a Belgian drummer and biotech engineer. He came back a couple of times to Siem Reap and 1961. He became friends with Loven, a client and a sponsor in one of 1961’s art activities.

Loven’s first partner to start these experiments is a long-time friend in Siem Reap. He is a skilled businessman and into educational development working with the youth in China. His father was one of their major art collectors. Since he is into music and plays in a couple of bands, he performs there sometimes.

I was amazed by these three people from very different backgrounds meeting in one place, having this conversation and starting a business.

As I was wondering how it was even possible to make all these transformations into a space, Loven adds:

“Everything here in Siem Reap grows organically.
Every business here have galleries and other cafes, boutique to sell clothes and accessories. All of them came from conversations around a coffee, a beer or a cocktail. You meet, you get ideas, the next weekend you work on it and the next week you open something.
It’s like this here. It’s much more business-friendly. Things of the moment. It’s very good for startups. People have this idea in this kind of environment and since a lot of things are missing, it’s great.”

And missing things, they are a lot of them in Siem Reap. It is a typical city from a developing country with the attributes coming with it: poor infrastructures, not much public transportation.

From my experience walking around, the city has developed around the temple tourism but not much else.

As far as the legislation is concerned, it seems very easy to do business in Cambodia.

“We do things as they come and then we file the things. As it happens. Again, it’s organic.
We had lots of trial-and-errors also, because how quick things are. But you actually see your progress. You don’t overwhelm yourself. It just happens as the day goes along, but you don’t get stuck.
We have this idea, we make it work. We take care of the logistics, having it registered, register for taxes, getting fire extinguishers, and registrations with the ministry of something. For the gallery, we have ministry of Art registration, separately for that.”
In the art gallery

Loven’s clients in the coworking space, like in the photography studio, also have to take care of their own business registration, as they have their own organisation.

“We provide the space and the environment where they set creativity on fire.”

Loven’s approach to coworking is also fueling the community. He favors and encourages serendipity with as much flexibility as modifying his space.

“First and foremost we welcome everybody. It’s what we had in mind when we created it. I think with the diversity comes the exchange of ideas and there is always a dialogue of what you can do for one another.
In the end, the funny thing which is unexpected, a lot of coworkers here end up being my clients, or I’m becoming their client as well. You can find someone who can do something that you can’t do or can’t afford to do because you don’t have the resources to do it, and you come here, you become friends and what happens is that you say “hey, I will do this for you in exchange of this, something like that”. It’s very informal and cool deal and you end up helping each other out. And you learn a whole lot of things.”

And learning cool things from cool people is happening quite often.

“We have an entomologist here, who studies insects. He coworks here. He discovered a new species of ants here in Cambodia. And he was working here, bringing samples and over tea and coffee you learn something. It’s not another boring day in the office.
You learn that these ants only eat millipedes that are much bigger than them.
Another time you have a conversation with a photographer who is focused in doing old-school photography, doing tin-pipe photography, with dark room techniques. It’s very varied, everyday you learn something new, which is very fun. This environment makes it very exciting and it doesn’t become monotonous. “

As I was working the coworking space on Coworking.coffee, I’ve noticed that the mood is very silent and serious. In the dim light of the main coworking room people are typing silently.

“We all have different habits working so there are times when I want complete silence, I want to concentrate. And there are times we just want to put the corniest music from the 80’s and the 90’s and laugh about it.
So I wanted to have different spaces and spots to explore that. We have a couple of places upstairs that are basically some lounges where you can get away from it and have a Skype call. In the gallery as well, that’s where the people release their mind out of work. We have temporary exhibitions changing every two months, depending on the season. The idea is for you to have different channels to focus or find an avenue where you can be more productive and also to decompress away from work.
Because sometimes being productive doesn’t mean just sitting at your desk. Sometimes it’s really getting that idea because no matter how much you focus or try to concentrate there is nothing that comes into your head.
So you need an avenue, you need a diversion, you need another outlet in order to capture that idea.
That’s just not for the credit of people but also from something. You might just need a cigarette or a good conversation, or like a cup of coffee somewhere. Let’s see a tree or have a walk this and that… And then, “boom!”, it comes to you! It’s making sure we have some spaces in order to tackle that issue. So it’s a good thing that we have the luxury of space! ”

The clientele of the coworking space is for the moment mainly travelers looking for a base of operation from one week to three months and up to one year. Loven and his partners are looking to bring more Cambodians to the coworking space, especially startups which would benefit a lot from this environment.

Hub Singapore organized a startup weekend in 1961. During this entrepreneurial bootcamp, 70% of guests were locals and the other 30% were foreigners and expats. Loven realized at this time that there was a change in the Cambodian mentality of doing business, made easier by the Internet.

According to Loven, Cambodian mentality for doing business is based on brick and mortar: you borrow money from your family or the bank, find a space, renovate it and open a business. It’s not about services or taking a business from one place to another. It is also a lot about flexibility:

“In a sense that is what attracted us in Cambodia. It is very flexible for everything. Everything can be negotiated, can be handled, can be asked for. So I think we have to follow that kind of lifestyle.”

This article is part of a series of adventures written by Coworking.Coffee relating to a coworking tour around Asia in 2015.

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Million thanks to the careful eye of J.L. Sougné.