Tushar Agarwal and Tom Watson created HubbleHQ in 2014 to provide small medium sized businesses with flexible workspaces. As COVID restructures the office market at hyper-speed, the co-founders find themselves in a new race to stay ahead of the curve.
HubbleHQ is a six-year-old London success story that has attracted £9m of funding from some of the hottest investors on Earth, including the investors behind Revolut, Starwood Capital Group and JLL. Before March 2020, its revenue was either doubling or tripling each year and the company – a Booking.com-type platform for workspaces – was placing a business into a London office every three hours.
It all began in 2014 when Tom Watson and Tushar Agarwal – then in their mid-twenties – met on an Entrepreneur First programme. After hitting it off, they came up with a bare-bones idea of monetising space and began to put meat on their conceptual skeleton. During their research, they talked to start-ups. Tom says: “The lightbulb moment came when we asked how their office searches had gone. The replies usually lasted half an hour.”
The pair had identified a need for greater workspace flexibility. A decade ago, short-term or rolling contracts for offices were rare. Indeed, companies would typically have no choice but to commit to five- or ten-year leases and have to put down a 12-month deposit. Such rigidity and expense suited few – certainly not dynamic, fast-growth start-ups.
Tushar and Tom’s initial business model was to market excess space, exploiting the fact that well-funded start-ups would often take workspaces for 300 people that they could grow into, even if at the time they had just 50 staff. “We let out spare capacity to smaller businesses on rolling monthly contracts,” says Tushar. “It was a pure sharing-economy type play. And demand was such that we were busy straight out of the gates.”
A year or so later, things really kicked off for the entrepreneurs when WeWork arrived in London. Its entry put a giant rocket under the flexible office market. “In early 2015, London had maybe six flexible office brands,” says Tushar. “WeWork transformed the sector and today there are around 500. But the biggest problem WeWork and the like have is attracting clients. How do people find them? HubbleHQ quickly stepped into that space and became the Expedia of London office space. Our platform evolved into the go-to solution, showing all live market availability and allowing you to compare WeWork with Regus or an old church with a disused police station.”
Until the pandemic, Tom and Tushar’s six-year-old company was flying high. But in March 2020, a brick wall rose from nowhere right in front of the co-founders’ speeding train. COVID wreaked its havoc and HubbleHQ’s 54-strong team more than halved. “It’s been painful, especially having redundancy conversations over Zoom. But we’re confident that we’ll get back up to speed soon,” says Tom.
Their confidence does not feel misplaced. Indeed, there is a sense around HubbleHQ that the brick wall could, in the long term, be a well-disguised blessing. By going back to first principles – the principles that led to the launch HubbleHQ six years ago – the pair are poised to bounce back stronger than before. To see why, it’s important to understand how they succeeded in the first place.
“We came to this market without any real-estate knowledge, without any assumptions or baggage,” says Tom. “We were able to observe how the industry worked, spot problems and come up with solutions. Of course, we made many mistakes that more experienced entrepreneurs would probably have avoided, but having fresh eyes was vital.” Tushar agrees: “Our naivety was a gift. We were the annoying kids of the office sector. Asking ‘why’ over and again allowed us to build a platform for the end-user, which then attracted the landlords.”
Now, as COVID tears the market asunder, the pair are putting their annoying kids’ T-shirts back on and repeating ‘why’ again. Their aim? To rebuild, tweak and evolve their business model to meet the brand new workspace needs of the post-pandemic world.
Tushar explains: “After recovering from the initial shock, we got active. Many of our customers and office space providers were in trouble. There was so much uncertainty and we realised that our long-term aim should be to create certainty. To help us get there, we started sending out surveys to find out how people were now thinking about their office spaces. One of our 50-question surveys went viral and pulled in more than 1,000 responses. The data allowed us to build up a detailed picture of people’s post-COVID perceptions, plans, concerns and desires about their workspaces and working habits.”
Tom adds: “What we found is that COVID hasn’t fundamentally changed people’s perspectives or personalities. Rather, it’s making us all more aware of what’s possible.”
The HubbleHQ founders believe we will split our future working habits across three distinct areas. First, company HQ will still play a critical role, continuing to be the centre of gravity for most organisations. HQ is where culture is built, where collaboration takes place, and where people enjoy a sense of belonging.
Second, as a result of COVID, we will continue to work more from home. Tushar says: “While it might not be five days a week, most people now have a reliable set-up at home and they will use it regularly, whether it’s one or two days a week or a couple of days a month. The most important change is the new social contract forged between employer and employee. Working from home is now seen as OK. Before, it wasn’t really acceptable for many.”
Finally, as the pandemic becomes just a distant memory, we will do more work in ‘third spaces’. Tom explains: “Third spaces are co-working areas that are local to us including meeting rooms, event spaces, cafés, airports and art galleries. These spaces will allow us to accomplish something different such as thinking more effectively, impressing a client, or gaining great social media content.”
So, HubbleHQ believes that the UK’s workspace requirements – its entire working culture – have been permanently altered by COVID. The company is now determined to solve these new challenges – just as it did in 2014 when it recognised that the office market was too rigid for most companies.
“What will be fascinating to see is how companies will blend and configure these three workspace areas,” says Tushar. “The solution will be different for every business and different for every individual. For example, working from home may be valued by older parents, but regarded as second best by single people living in flats. As an employer, you will have to figure out how to balance everyone’s needs. That’s a major challenge but it also makes the future of how we work really exciting.”
He continues: “We think that an entirely new category will spring up around the following questions: ‘What’s the ideal workplace configuration for our company and its staff?’ And: ‘How can we use that configuration to drive success?’ At HubbleHQ, we have always focused on flexible office space but previously could only flex around one vector – lease length. Now, we need to flex around various vectors: when you use it, how you use it, who uses it, how long you use it for. That’s complex and can only be solved at scale using technology. The tech we’ve built already will be hugely valuable as we move towards this new world.”
HubbleHQ regards this moment as the start of a new chapter. As Tushar and Tom guide their company towards 2021 and beyond, they have, once again, donned their founders’ hats – the same hats they wore 2014. However, this time the pair have a hugely powerful technological platform behind them, some of the most successful investors on Earth backing them, plus all the experience they’ve gained over the past six years. HubbleHQ 1.0’s evolution towards HubbleHQ 2.0 will be exhilarating to watch.