“We believe that coworking will grow a lot”: Interview with Talent Garden’s CEO and co-founder Davide Dattoli

This week we are taking a look at what the ‘new normal’ will look like for different startup sectors. In addition to our survey on what the EU-Startups community predict, and our rundown of ‘social distancing’ startups, we’re conducting interviews with startup leaders in the sectors of e-mobility, food delivery, smart city, travel, coworking and HR.

In this interview, we discussed the future of coworking with Davide Dattoli, co-founder and CEO of Talent Garden. If anyone has an overview of how the pandemic has hit coworkings and how the future looks, it is Davide. Talent Garden has grown over the last 9 years into the biggest European-wide network of tech and digital professionals, hosting 4500+ people in 28 locations, over 8 countries. Add on an Innovation School and Corporate Programmes, and you have a vibrant pan-European community.

Davide predicts that beyond the increased safety measures, there will be a continuation of trust in the incidental connections and shared experiences that coworking spaces bring people – something that you just cannot get by working 100% online or at home.

First up, let’s dive into the basics. How did you start Talent Garden, and what is your mission?

I founded the company in 2011. I was 21 years old and my desire was to connect people and help them to grow – professionally and personally. The first campus was in Brescia, my hometown, a small city in the north of Italy not far from Milan.

Talent Garden is now the largest European coworking network with 28 locations in 8 countries. We create local, vibrant campuses for digital tech communities, and then connect them globally. Open 24/7 our campuses are designed to provide startup teams, freelance and corporates with a physical base to grow together but also a school for professional learning with more than 1500 students every year, events, open innovation projects with corporates and all that help tech talents to be empowered.

Could you tell us how Talent Garden was affected by the pandemic, and what steps you took to be able to exit the crisis successfully?

The pandemic is impacting us, and a lot. We can’t deny that. Already since the weeks before the total blockade in Italy, we have put in place a series of actions. We’ve never stopped and we’re probably working harder than before.

Certainly, after having thought about the health of both our employees and our community by applying remote working and securing our spaces, we set in motion to guarantee all the services we provide offline, online. In practical terms, this meant, first of all, moving all our training courses online (both those that were already underway and those starting this spring). The same has been done with all the events reserved for our community: meetings with technology and digital experts, meetups and workshops, yoga courses and language lessons, aperitifs. 

However, we have not thought only of our community, but of the world of companies that have perhaps found themselves more unprepared in the management of this moment of transition, especially with regard to smart working. So we designed, developed and launched in two weeks Antea, a digital platform dedicated to the topics of Smart Working and new work methodologies that allows you to learn, train, grow professionally, meet with industry experts, network and create new business opportunities in a wider community. For us, at this point, it is not just about doing business, but about supporting our enlarged community in this difficult time to prepare for the end of the health crisis.

Many countries in Europe had different lockdowns: some strict (like Spain and Italy), and others more liberal (like the UK, Germany or the Netherlands). How would you like to see mobility restrictions opening up around Europe?

Life after lockdown comes with new rules and I think this is of course, necessary. But I’m convinced that we have to move.

For a start, we can’t have complete harmonization on this because the virus hasn’t spread at the same time and it hasn’t spread at the same rate, so basically everyone has a unique health situation to manage which isn’t exactly the same. We’re all in quite different situations, we have to remain very vigilant, and if things change we need to remain flexible, BUT I’m convinced we have to move in order to save the market.

What are your predictions for how coworking will change after the pandemic, in a practical sense? i.e. the ‘new normal’ of space organisation, office management, flow of people, social distancing, etc.

The way we live in spaces will surely change, for example at the entrance of all our campuses we now have sensors that detect body temperature. The same thing for social distance between tables, air settings, etc. We have invested a lot into safety measures, as we believe that Talent Garden has to be the safest place to work possible, as safe as in our own home. 

This will disrupt many business practices, from regular on-site meetings to business travel. But we believe that coworking will grow a lot, people now trust in remote working but they also understand the value of staying with colleagues to share experiences also offline.

Talking now about community. Although coworkings are built around a physical space and connection with people, there is also a ‘digital’ or remote human connection that exists even when not at the office. How do you think coworkings will evolve in this sense after COVID-19?

We are seeing an amazing thing inside our community: cooperation, mutual aid. But this is not unexpected, as in Talent Garden this is something that our members used to doing. We are witnessing something unique: we saw how the community hosted in our campuses could really impact our countries. Even through online connections.

The whole community, including us at Talent Garden, have been pushing ourselves to use our capabilities to support our countries in this crisis. Let me give some examples: Fablab in Milan and Brescia has been working to create amazing valves for the hospital in 3D; WeSchool has supported the public institutions by digitalising traditional school; AkaraRobotics, members of Talent Garden Dublin, have created a robot that by emitting ultraviolet light (UVC) has the ability to disinfect hospitals and get rid of the Covid-19 virus. This is how digital and tech can change the world. What we have to do as a coworking space is continue to provide a base to grow, whatever is online or offline.

The majority of European teams have worked at home these past few months. Do you think now some will move away from 100% office-based work, and offer home working options?

And if so, how do you intend to tempt them towards the direction of coworkings instead?

The coronavirus has accelerated trends that were already underway. Some companies have announced that workers can continue to work from home permanently. This is particularly the case in the tech world. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that as many as 50% of its employees could be working remotely within the next five to 10 years. Earlier this month, Twitter said some employees can work from home “forever” if they want to. The question to ask when we all work at home: what is the added value of the office? What function can the office have today?

If we only work online, our network of contacts and quality of relationships gets impoverished. Weak links, the so-called weak links that come from the randomness of our encounters, are very important, otherwise, we risk closing ourselves in a bubble that polarizes our ideas.  

For example, MIT is doing research on the interactions of everyone living or working on campus. Since the lockdown started and people interact mainly online, the “weak links” are getting thinner and therefore social networks are weaker and functioning worse.

People we meet randomly, precisely because they are not connected to our network, can expose us to a condition we had not foreseen. And this increases our creativity and broadens our horizons. That’s why it is important to have a physical space. But that doesn’t mean going back to overcrowded offices.

When the emergency is over, we will want to continue to be flexible: to connect from the sea and the mountains. And we certainly won’t miss meetings that were postponed for months to coincide with agendas or intercontinental travel for a few hours. The greater flexibility we have experienced during the lockdown is something beautiful that will stay with us. If someone had the opportunity to discover smart working… better late than never. 

What advice would you give to European startups right now?

“Try To Build Your Company Like Your Grandfather Built His”. Don’t follow only the Silicon Valley model of focusing only on revenue or growth, and think about EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization). EBITDA is becoming way more important than before. Focus on building something that is long term; you have to have in mind not just your exit, but rather building something long-term that can change society.

Finally, what’s on the cards for Talent Garden for the rest of 2020 and 2021? What cool projects are you cooking up?

We are planning to open a very big campus in Barcelona in the second part of the year. We are launching our education school across many areas in Europe and we believe that the push that COVID19 gives to the digitalization of Europe is an incredible opportunity for Talent Garden and for our community. So, we are working to build a better tech ecosystem than before!