Co-working spaces critical to entrepreneurship ecosystem

As the innovation ecosystem in ‘Africa’s Silicon Savannah’ grows, each of us needs to take a step back and consider our role within the community.

If Kenya’s entrepreneurship ecosystem is to continue to show itself capable of innovating and creating for the world, those of us active in the sector need to increase the value we offer, and find ways of facilitating the ecosystem’s growth.

Co-working spaces have a unique role within the ecosystem: they have the power to connect the dots — the different players in the ecosystem — to unlock maximum value for all.

Nairobi Garage may well be the largest co-working space in the city, but is offering office infrastructure and an inviting networking space enough?

No —we need to add more value.

We can be the keystone of the ecosystem if we examine our offerings and ensure we work to answer the needs of those we serve.

This is a key area in which co-working spaces can have a crucial impact: making the business environment more transparent and easier to navigate for entrepreneurs. We can ensure entrepreneurs have access to the information they critically need to prioritise their spending and develop solid strategies.

Too many start-ups avoid seeking out professional support — such as accounting help or legal services — due to a lack of information or fear of being burned. Of course, in the early days, the focus is on working lean, which is one of the founding principles of the co-working revolution. We help entrepreneurs manage their cash flow and save money.

But co-working spaces should also help entrepreneurs connect with relevant services: we make it easy for start-ups to network with businesses at a similar stage, and develop mutually-beneficial partnerships and service exchanges. We make free events accessible to entrepreneurs to develop their knowledge and skills.

Plague of misinformation

It is surprising how many later-stage start-ups — those that have traction in the market and may have raised funds — remain reluctant to engage with other companies and experts. Founders can get obsessed with doing everything themselves as cheaply as possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes being cheap can prove expensive in the long-run.

Start-ups alone are not to blame for this breakdown in relations. Service providers are often bad at explaining in simple terms the value they offer, and can fail to outline the pricing of their services. Governments are also not doing enough to provide comprehensive information portals and free business tools and support for MSMEs.

As a result, many entrepreneurs have had negative experiences, spending hours engaging with the wrong provider for their needs, or facing a huge legal bill when all they wanted was an answer to a one-off question. I’ve been there. I know how frustrating it is to pay for services that haven’t solved my issue.

Due to this plague of misinformation and mistrust, entrepreneurs often divert their resources to other priorities, failing to recognise that they are neglecting important tasks, such as keeping proper company accounts, or ensuring employees have the necessary legal documentation. Few entrepreneurs realise how badly they may be damaging their company by not making use of professional business services at the right time.

I believe it is our job as entrepreneurship hubs to help bridge the gap. We as co-working spaces must seek out quality service providers and partners, work with them to package their services and value propositions in a transparent fashion, and be on hand to help entrepreneurs identify the tools or services they need to grow their businesses.

The challenge urgently facing us is finding sustainable and efficient ways to build partnerships our members can truly benefit from. In this way, co-working spaces can support entrepreneurs, and help accelerate the successes growing out of Kenya and the African continent.

The writer is director, Nairobi Garage. [email protected]