“Hello Michael, would you like me to activate the Turbo Boost?”
Ah, memories. The Hoff in his prime sitting behind the glowing dash of a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am – an image that’s burnt onto the brains of many an Eighties Child.
We’re talking, of course, about 1980s American TV series Knight Rider – the show that inspired the name of Steve Coulson’s company, Kitt. For those of you too young to remember, ‘KITT’ (Knight Industries Two Thousand) was the name of Michael Knight’s (aka David Hasselhoff’s) trusty companion – an artificially intelligent talking electronic computer module in the body of a highly advanced, very mobile, robotic automobile talking car. And it was this vehicle that sprang to mind in 2018 when Steve and co-founder Lucy Minton mulled over possible names for their new company in a busy London pub. They decided that Kitt was perfect – punchy, memorable and appropriate – because they, too, would be their clients’ trusty, high-tech assistant.
Right now, the idea of holding a brainstorming session in a bustling pub seems an equally distant memory to that of watching Knight Rider on a Saturday afternoon when you were a kid. At the time of writing, the country is in Lockdown No. 2 and virtual meetings rule OK. Shared spaces, including offices, are still far from being the flavour of the month. Pubs are struggling and some people have even predicted the demise of the office.
Which, one would think, makes things tricky for Kitt – a start-up that finds, co-designs, builds and manages office space for customers. However, that’s not how Kitt’s CEO sees it. Quite the opposite, because, intriguingly, Steve views the pandemic – when assessed from a purely commercial perspective – as “great news dressed up as terrible news”. Indeed, the co-founder has some fascinating insights to share on this, as we’ll soon see. But first, let’s find out more about Kitt.
The start-up, which employs 28 people, came about shortly after Steve and co-founder Lucy experienced the excruciating pain of finding office space for their previous employer, JustPark. Steve worked at JustPark for four years, latterly as CFO, and saw the company grow from just a handful of people to over 100. He says: “The process of finding new office space was dreadful. We spent a fortune and were repaid with a terrible customer experience and an office that felt like a dull box. It made us realise that the enormous office market has a structure that is not customer focused. We wanted to fix it.”
Their solution was Kitt, a company that finds the right space for each client, co-designs it with them using virtual reality, and manages the initial and ongoing lease. “Since launching in August 2018, we’ve been on a journey,” says Steve. “At first, we thought we would start to work with clients after they’d found office space. But we quickly realised that we had to solve and manage the transaction too because that’s where a lot of the pain is.”
Their business secured £2m of backing at the end of 2019 and Kitt now works with clients such as KIND Snacks, Capital On Tap, JustPark and global architect firm Grimshaw. Until March 2020, things had been going swimmingly.
However, as we all know only too well, in early 2020 a bolt from the blue hit Planet Earth. The pandemic violently shook up the office-space market. Lockdown caused many workspaces either to close completely or to operate at a much reduced capacity. Commercial landlords developed a wild, hunted look as more and more of us had to work from home, and businesses realised that closing offices could be both an effective and economical solution.
Cue much gnashing of teeth at Kitt? Not a bit of it. Steve remains stubbornly excited about the future. He is adamant that the working-from-home conversation is coming to the right balance and that the pandemic – far from damaging the concept of managed workspaces – will burnish the idea of returning to the cool, inviting office.
“In the long term, 2020 will be seen as good news for Kitt,” he says. “And I’m not just saying that for a nice PR angle.”
OK, but why?
“First, people are asking, why do I need an office?” says Steve. “For us, that question is the start of the journey. We want every business to think deeply about their workspace. What’s it for? Why is it better than working from home? If you accept the premise that you need an office, do you want a basic box or something truly exceptional? Beautiful offices allow team members to work together effectively, connect with others, and build a strong community. For creative businesses, high-quality shared spaces are fundamental to their ability to stay ahead and innovate.”
Second, Steve points out that superior offices act as talent magnets: “Lockdown made us all realise that we didn’t join exciting companies just to work from home like freelancers. We signed up to be part of a team to build something wonderful together. Stunning offices attract young, hungry, talented people who want to do pioneering, collaborative work. They are talent acquisition, retention and performance mechanisms. That’s the way to look at them.”
The CEO uses census data to hammer his point home: “In London, 60% of households are single households. So, London is essentially where young people come to build their careers and meet their life partners. Talented creatives and disruptors live in one-bedroom flats in Clapham and treat the office as their home. They make incredible friendships in these spaces. The office is a vital part of their life.”
The third reason why the pandemic has been good for Kitt is that it has opened up more opportunities with landlords. “Our challenge was always having lots of tenants and nowhere to put them,” explains the co-founder. “We had to work really hard to convince landlords. But COVID spun that on its head. Landlords were suddenly much more engaged and are working harder than ever to offer a product rather than just a space.”
So, Steve believes that the future is bright for Kitt and for the quality of offices run by creative, ambitious businesses. He is sure that, post-COVID, working from home primarily will be rejected by young, talented people, and more companies will see the true value of having a sublime workspace. As a result, the Great British Office will become better, cooler and more inviting, and all this will happen not despite the pandemic but because of it.
If Steve and co-founder Lucy had owned a crystal ball when they sat in that pub in 2018 dreaming up names for their new company and remembering that talking Pontiac, there’s a good chance they would have seen 2020, recoiled in horror and dropped their business plan altogether. Luckily, the future is unknowable. Because once they get past this crazy curveball, the commercial workspace landscape is likely to be redrawn strongly in their favour. Which just goes to show that events that at first glance look like disasters sometimes – when tackled with positivity and ambition – turn out to be precisely the opposite.