“This crisis could lead to the beginning of a new era”: Interview with betahaus’s CEO, Madeleine Gummer v. Mohl

In the time of social distancing, coworking might seem like an inconceivable idea, but at a closer look the coronavirus pandemic only reinforces the power of community and its role in connecting professionals to bounce off ideas.

Community is at the heart of the entire coworking concept, along with flexibility and the courage to try out new things. That’s exactly what Madeleine Gummer v. Mohl (a pioneering entrepreneur and one of our Top 50 most influential women in the startup scene) did back in 2009 when she opened up betahaus together with Christoph Fahle and Maximilian von der Ahe. What started as an experiment to create a more collaborative workplace in Berlin, became a great pan-European success and pioneered the idea of coworking on our continent.

We sat down with Madeleine, CEO of betahaus, to find out how her team navigates uncharted territories while exploring new ways of working in times of crisis, how she sees the future of coworking and get an EU-Startups exclusive on the next new betahaus hub the co-founders have in the pipeline. Read on and let yourself be inspired.

Hi Madeleine, it’s a huge pleasure to have you join us! With betahaus you’ve successfully shaped the European co-working space. We read about how you felt really knowing your co-workers was something missing from your previous jobs, and how that was part of your decision to start betahaus. Could you tell us more?

Thank you! It’s a pleasure.

When we started betahaus in 2009, we wanted to create something flexible and collaborative, a place where innovators and people who felt like misfits could break free from the traditional office environment and work differently. We later found out the idea was called “coworking”, but at the time we started it, it was all really just about creating a way of working and a future of work that we were excited about.

Coworking is all about community. What are, in your opinion, the top benefits of being part of a community at work?

We believe that many people want independence and autonomy in their work. The freedom to create. The flexibility to work whenever, with whomever, and from wherever they want. But with that can come a sense of isolation, and sometimes, limits on what one can realistically accomplish when working on their own.

What we have seen over the years is that the benefits of community at work are significant. It’s accountability and motivation for freelancers and entrepreneurs who would otherwise be working alone. Access to innovation and creativity for corporate teams. Collaboration and exchange of ideas amongst people from different backgrounds and areas of expertise who might never have met in a traditional office environment. Ideas born over a beer at one of our parties or lunchtime conversations that turn into full-blown startups. Not to mention having a community at work is actually fun. It gives you another reason to come in every day.

We have people coming back to betahaus all the time to tell us having access to a supportive network and community was a key factor in their success. 

betahaus is now located in Berlin, Sofia, Barcelona, and Hamburg, with more spaces on the way. You also have a huge network of 150+ working spaces worldwide. Tell us more about how it is to manage this truly pan-European coworking and startup community and what makes these locations different from one another.

Some coworking spaces have a one-size-fits-all approach, but that’s never been our style. We want to grow and empower entrepreneurs in as many places as possible – especially in emerging markets – but we’ve intentionally avoided a top-down approach to opening new spaces.

We work side-by-side with local partners to design and operate the spaces to represent the communities that they work in. For that reason, our spaces in Berlin and our space in Tirana will have a completely different feel.

I think our growing partner network has been one of the coolest things to happen in the last few years. It’s given our community access to coworking networks and communities in cities around the world. It really supports our ideas of freedom in the workplace. You can now go to Bali or Mexico City and have a coworking space and community to slot into.

What new betahaus locations do you have in the pipeline? Our readers may be excited to expect a new hub coming to their city!

While we haven’t shared dates and locations just yet, you can be the first to know that we are planning to open a third and fourth location in Berlin!

You’ve been in this business since 2009. How has the coworking scene changed over the years?

There have been so many big changes since 2009! What was once a bootstrapped venture is now part of a billion-dollar industry.

There’s really no need to explain coworking to people anymore. It’s become a buzzword on the nightly news, in corporate boardrooms, in local governments and think tanks. We used to have to convince people of the benefits of coworking, and suddenly people just want to be a part of it. 

But as this becomes a more lucrative industry, we’re also observing a shift in what coworking is. What we’re seeing is more real estate companies coming out as coworking spaces and offering amazing office facilities but no real community. There are spaces for every type of team in every part of the city. As the market gets more crowded, it becomes more important for coworking spaces to differentiate and focus on the things they do best.

You also founded BETAPITCH, a global startup competition, offering winners a trip to Silicon Valley, cash and 6 free months of coworking. It’s been running for 10 years now! What’s in store for the 2020 edition – is it still on, and how can startups get involved?

BETAPITCH has always been a project close to my heart. Whether in-person or virtual,  it is definitely still happening in 2020! We have teamed up with some partners from the impact scene and will give this year’s edition a special focus on sustainable impact startups. This is very exciting because our first BETAPITCH back in 2010 also had a focus on impact!

We are now living extraordinary times with the Coronavirus outbreak. What’s happening to the betahaus coworking spaces and how are you dealing with the current unique challenges? Do you have any advice for startups on how to survive?

Like most businesses, our reality dramatically changed under Coronavirus. Our business is built around real, physical space and in-person interactions, so our first response was to take emergency measures to ensure the safety of our staff, members, and the neighbouring community.

With more time, we’ve been able to acclimate ourselves to this new way of working. We’re really investing in our online community and virtual events. And it’s been an opportunity to rethink how we work and experiment with new ideas and formats. No one has the playbook, so the stakes of making a mistake are much lower than they were before.

My advice to startups is to do your best to nurture your employees through this. A crisis is a time that requires collaboration and confidence more than ever. Be transparent. Ask what they need. Give them additional autonomy and freedom to experiment. Thank them and acknowledge them.

Besides coworking, betahaus is also hosting a lot of events. In the midst of this pandemic, most of them went virtual. Can you share with us a few tips on how you’ve successfully shifted from in-person to digital events?

This has been one of the biggest opportunities for us to throw ourselves into an experiment. Our events have had a virtual component for years, but this has given us the chance to plan virtual-first events.

Nearly any type of event can be made virtual, but of course the approach to planning and putting it on will be a bit different. Our innovation programme, betahausX, recently planned a 3-day conference and narrowed the success of a virtual event down to five factors: framing and decision engineering, adapting event activities to a format that works online, making sure that the people and technology behind the scenes are carefully planned, creating a holistic virtual experience for event guests, and setting a “virtual netiquette” or behavioural code so everyone knows what is expected of them.

Talking of events, betahaus is instrumental in organising hackathons. Will betahaus run any ‘coronavirus’ hackathons? And what are some of the coolest projects that have come out of your community’s hackathon weekends?

Yeah, there was one hackathon already! One of our former members “project together” with the help of the German Bundesregierung organised one of the largest ‘coronavirus’ hackathons called “WirVsVirus”. Many of our members supported as mentors or took part in the hackathon. This was a huge success –  roughly 28,000 people participated and around 1,500 ideas came out of it. 

Entrepreneurship is like a rollercoaster. How have you managed to stay motivated all these years through the ups and downs of startup life? How would you encourage more women to step into entrepreneurship?

I really enjoy the rollercoaster ride! It never gets boring! But yes, you have to manage to stay healthy and positive during the challenges, like this current one! Luckily, there are almost 50/50 boys and girls now entering betahaus as new members and there are many great programmes supporting especially women in the startup scene. I can highly recommend the FemGems podcast by Dora who is one of our community members.

Last, but not least, how do you see the future of coworking in Berlin and Europe-wide?

It’s a good question! Coworking is a fast-growing sector. Before the Coronavirus outbreak, it was projected that there would be an estimated 26,300 spaces and 2.7 million members worldwide by the end of 2020 (according to Deskmag’s 2019 Coworking Survey).

There are a few reasons why I think coworking spaces will have a more critical role once this is over.

The first is that people will be eager to get out of their homes and back to work. The second is that many businesses have felt the impacts of their fixed overhead costs. Teams will be looking for affordable and flexible spaces with the expectation that their business and teams will have to adapt in the coming years. And the final, most important reason is that coworking spaces have the unique role of community organiser in many entrepreneurial and startup networks. We’re positioned to offer critical guidance and community to businesses as they recover from the impacts of Coronavirus.

We’d like to think that this crisis could lead to the beginning of a new era, one that starts with the collective shock of a global pandemic, but ends up unlocking new potential to rethink how we engage one another, what we value, and how we want to live and work. We look forward to being part of that journey!