India’s freelance boom is creating a crop of creative co-working spaces

Image: AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi
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There are no cubicles at The Hive, a quaint three-storey mansion on the corner of a cobblestone street in Khar, Mumbai. There are colourful corridors that lead to musicians, endless cups of chai and coffee, and outdoor divans where casually-dressed entrepreneurs can lie down or work.

But definitely no cubicles.

In a country with the youngest population in the world, and an economy in constant flux, millions are bucking traditional companies and corporate-ladder-climbing to work independently. India is the second largest player in freelancing after the US, according to Elance, an online service that connects freelancers to projects, with average earnings of about $15 (Rs915) per hour and rising., one of the world’s largest freelance hubs, reported that even back in 2012 more than one-third of their 3 million users were Indians.

For these freelancers, a normal office is out of the question. So entrepreneurs across the country have launched co-working spaces to provide an alternative to the coffee shop or home office. An alternative, they say, that provides much more than just a desk and WiFi.

Most co-working spaces—The Hive included—have been set up to encourage interaction between the professionals they serve. While freelancers or young startups can sign up for meeting rooms or desks, they also enter an ecosystem of sorts where sharing ideas is part of the agenda, said Yatin Thakur, Delhi-based founder of CoworkIn, a chain of co-working spaces.

Thakur said the basic requirements for a good co-working space are simple: Good connectivity, a casual and comfortable atmosphere, and a central location close to public transport. With an atmosphere somewhere between an office and a home, Thakur said the owners of many co-working spaces go out of their way to connect their visitors to each other if they see a common theme or idea. Baristas can’t usually do that for people working in their cafe.

“We try to engage people together and that reflects in our culture,” he said. “It’s not just working in a silo.”

Rahul Shah, a freelance hospitality consultant who works at The Hive, said that culture has helped him get more work. He spends at least four hours a day five times a week at the building. Working alongside other companies and a steady stream of new people have brought him new clients and collaborations.

“You’re surrounded by other people who have taken risks. People are becoming more aware of the possibilities and making a name for themselves,” he said.

India’s freelancers and entrepreneurs are still largely working on IT projects and services. But Elance reported that it has also picked up in the creative category.

Thakur, whose chain has launched four spaces so far, said there has been a distinct increase in startup and independent work since 2010, coinciding with peak rates of young and educated people in India.

Even so, he was surprised when the demand spread from major cities like Bangalore and Delhi to smaller, but growing cities like Chandigarh, where a startup weekend he hosted for entrepreneurs attracted more than 600 people. Other cities like Ahmedabad and Pune, he said, were quickly becoming hubs as well, largely because of their connection to university campus culture and new talent.

In Pune, a second-tier city with a thriving student scene, Deepti Kasbekar, co-founder of The Mesh, a 3,000-foot co-working space that currently hosts about 15 startups and other freelancers and consultants, said the rising real estate prices made it impossible for young entrepreneurs to work independently outside of their homes.

Kasbekar started The Mesh in September 2014. It’s a no-frills space, she said, with the unique selling point of her dachshund, Toba Tek Singh, running around to greet guests.

And with community at the core of the co-working philosophy, many of these centres are looking at creative ways to engage their members. Back at The Hive many of the young professionals get involved with the evening open mics and art workshops. And The Mesh is starting a programme that will bring low-income students from Mumbai-based NGO Down to Earth to intern with the entrepreneurs who are renting space.

“More people want to be independent‚ the hierarchical system is dying down,” she said. “More people have a vision to identify a problem and build a solution.”

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