[Manager] My coworking journal: chatting with Tobias Schwarz, Coworking Manager at Sankt Oberholz

Tobias Schwarz, coworking manager at Sankt Oberholz

History Meets Innovation

I kicked off my week of interviews with Tobias Schwarz, the coworking manager at Sankt Oberholz. This interview served as a continuation of my coworking experiment during which I am spending six weeks studying different coworkers and coworking spaces and writing about my experiences.

Sankt Oberholz is one of the oldest coworking spaces in Berlin, and I wanted to get an insider look at how it functions and what its core principles are. Tobias agreed to meet with me to provide some insight into how Sankt Oberholz functions and where it is going from here.

Your website discusses St. Oberholz having a prayer of “the heterotopia of place and space.” What made you focus on the concept of “heterotopia?”

The founder was a very spiritual guy, not in a crazy way, but a very inspiring way. It’s coworking 101 that we need to be an open space. Having a philosophy makes it very easy to make decisions. If I have a problem, I just have to ask myself: what is the most open solution to the problem?

We give members keys to both houses, 24/7 access, and that trust they pay back with responsibility. All in all, it works, and people feel more free. If they feel free, they feel great: this is why people come to coworking spaces. Not everyone will feel welcome, you have to have the right people for your team — the absence of hierarchy and structure doesn’t work for some people.

I really enjoyed your “Lost and Found” page. Do you have an overall philosophy of finding stories everywhere that you can?

Ansgar Oberholz sees himself also as a writer. This house is so crazy, you can’t stop collecting history and stories here. Two brothers came to Berlin from South Germany in the 1880s. They started cafes here and invented fast food…innovation has been here for more than 120 years.

You can’t stop collecting those stories, crazy things happened: the 4th floor during the GDR was a hidden film archive of all the banned films collected during the dictatorship.

You should see the cafe as an open space where society can happen. It’s important to have a room where you see other people, be aware of others, feel connected, and create a community without talking. Being aware that there are other people who are different from you is the hidden importance of open spaces. The Lost and Found stories show how strange life can be and gives you a funny view on things.

How do you approach fusing the old with the new?

It’s a personal decision. People have access to both houses, but people here never work at the other (newer) house, and some people there never work here.

Some people think it’s so beautiful here that they can’t concentrate, and they have to learn a lot here (how the lights work, etc). We have to save it for people who are coming for next generations. We’re not allowed to change anything, but we mostly don’t want to. They don’t make houses like this anymore. There are people wanting to copy St. Oberholz design, it shows how important design is for people.

The people who are working inside these spaces are the right people who feel well working here. I always tell people to take a look at a few other spaces to be sure you find where you like the most. I don’t want people to talk badly about us when they leave. We need better connection between the spaces (one benefit can be people sending you members). You shouldn’t be afraid of competitors because it doesn’t make sense. You might lose people but you might attract them as well.

What qualifies something to be published by the Sankt Oberholz publishing house?

At the moment, it doesn’t really do anything, but I’m currently working on it and waiting for the moment to have the chance to reopen the publishing house. It’s part of the public relations strategy (writing lots of blog posts).

One of the benefits of Sankt Oberholz is that people are aware of us. We have a responsibility to the whole coworking space network to explain the concept. Publishing blogs hasn’t really worked yet in Germany. The market is totally different and more challenging. We are going to start with publishing podcasts, from members as well.

You have everything you need for a publishing house in a coworking space.

In theory, you can create a book in 72 hours perhaps. It’s an experiment for a publishing house to prove it can happen. I’m afraid I can’t start this year; right now the cafe is the problem- we changed the concept, which takes money, time, and power.

What are some of your most notable events during the year?

We don’t have to do many events on our own. We’re very well-located; the Silicon Alley convention has happened here for six years. We usually just do events for members, and mostly we have satellite events. Last year there were 30 or so.

It’s tradition to go to St. Oberholz if you’re in Berlin and you’re a German internet celebrity. St. Oberholz isn’t one of the biggest places anymore, but the brand is so big, it’s amazing. Someone from Netflix contacted us because they want to redesign their office in California and someone told them to check out Sankt Oberholz. It’s kind of a national brand. I know of 25 startups that made it that began here. Hellofresh was member of Sankt Oberholz. The community changes all the time, which makes it an interesting place. You can start at Sankt Oberholz but then have to go somewhere like Rainmaking Loft. They’re next to each other in the line of startup evolution.

The Sankt Oberholz coworking space

What do you think the biggest payoff of basing one’s work in Sankt Oberholz is?

It’s a place where you should start, that’s the best thing about it. 80% of our members are not from Germany. They all do different things. You’re really connected, that’s serendipity, a discovery made by surprise that becomes very valuable to you. Our point of view is shaped by our gender, age, personality, and where we studied. We can ask others to explain things to us that are easy for them but that you would have never known. That’s why you should start here: you will have to change your business several times when starting. It’s also inexpensive and at the center of Berlin, there are lots of things happening around us. Because we’re old and have a network, we’re a brand, which is why it’s easy for us to talk to others. If you know what you’re doing, then perhaps you should go somewhere else. If you’re growing, you need to go somewhere else.

I know that you’ll be hosting the German Coworking Conference in Leipzig soon, can you tell me what kinds of preparation go into that?

A lot! I’m part of the German Coworking Federation, and one thing we’re doing as a board is meeting every 3 months in a different town and offering workshops.

This is very successful, and the conference is another thing we’re doing. We do this in our freetime and work with a local coworking place, and the proceeds go to them. We start 6–7 months before the conference, deciding where to go and choosing a coworking space that wants to do it. We meet twice to explain how it works. Friday evening and Saturday morning of the conference are talks. We have to find speakers. This year we can pay every speaker, our sponsoring is really great. We do phone calls every week, and the spaces have to do a lot of things like ask their city for sponsoring. We look for big brands, create tickets, invite people, and always write about it. It’s a huge effort and the funny thing is even if you do a local coworking conference it’s just as much work as a national one.

Looking forward, we would maybe do it differently, like have a coworking week where different spaces do different things, which makes so much more good sense. This is the 5th conference. It will be a good conference I think. If it’s bad, it’s 50–70 people, if good, 120 people, which is the whole German coworking community.

What will the conference entail?

It doesn’t make sense to do top-down keynote speakers because nobody knows more than others in this area, so we meet on the same level. No one should be scared because there’s Sankt Oberholz or Betahaus; we all have the same problems. Coworkers don’t come because they’re not interested, it’s something we do for managers.

We have to have a keynote with a topic like the “future of work.” In Leipzig, we’ll talk about “field management.” One topic is about a radio station and how they work with freelance journalists. One is about the importance of the countryside for the future of work. Then you get people who don’t know yet about coworking and are attracted to something about the future of work. We still have to explain coworking. It’s harder when you just have German clients. There will be catering, partying, and a networking atmosphere. That’s the biggest value for coworking managers, asking questions is the only way you can learn.

Tobias, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your insights about Sankt Oberholz with me.

If you enjoyed this interview, you can read about the start of my experiment here:

I have completed interviews with several other coworkers in spaces around Berlin and have gained new and interesting perspectives about coworking along the way. I am exploring coworking from my own perspective as a 20-year-old American college student who only learned what coworking is about a month ago. My project is a part of Coworkies, an online platform that connects people between coworking spaces globally (www.coworkies.com ).