Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week John Neilan, who is originally from Co Galway and has lived in Berlin since 2004 talks about running a coworking community. He has just opened a new space in Berlin.
When did you leave Ireland, and why?
I left Ireland in 2003 to pursue my master's degree in German at the Humboldt University in Berlin. I decided it would be best to study my chosen topic of humorous East German literature in Berlin. It was also a great opportunity to improve my German, with the idea being to work as a translator after finishing my masters. Ten years later and fast forward to a man at his wits' end after having translated one screw catalogue too many, a change was needed. While working as a translator, I had had the opportunity to travel and escape Berlin's cruelly grey winter. It was while travelling that I had my first experiences of working from coworking spaces in Morocco and in South Africa. None of them quite had the ideal set up and I thought to myself "I can do this better". That's when "tuesday coworking" was born. It is a community of freelancers, teachers, writers, journalists, programmers, coaches, SEO experts and various other types of experts who all needed one thing - a quiet place to work. They also needed a place where they could meet people and learn from each other and out of this emerged a community. The community comes as a result of a monthly membership and in return members get access to all the regular perks you would expect including coffee, tea, printing, as well as a long list of events. This week, for example, we have yoga, a talk on Facebook advertising and whether or not it's worth it, a poetry workshop, a journalism workshop, not to mention the regular community lunches. This is where the heart of "coworking" is supposed to be. The term coworking is trendy and with everything trendy, it is also being slightly misused. As a result, you see providers of serviced offices and shared offices calling themselves coworking, which means you get this distorted figure of there being about 100 coworking spaces in Berlin where in reality there are probably around 30.
I used to think that coworking wouldn’t work in cities with fewer than 250,000 people, however, now you see coworking spaces opening up in rural areas. A farmhouse in the middle of nowhere can be turned into a coworking space for the local community. This means that coworking in Ireland can thrive and indeed is thriving just as much as it is in Berlin and other European cities. Whether or not I would open a space in Ireland remains to be seen. We’re embarking on our second expansion in Berlin and I only started paying myself last October. The return on coworking isn’t huge. You need to have your costs as streamlined as possible while still offering drinkable coffee, comfortable chairs and a working Internet. The real money is made in meeting rooms and event rental.
Being 100 per cent independent means that I was able to set up a space exactly as I wanted it. We’re not beholden to any investor whims, it means you’re free to do whatever you want. We recently hosted a movie series called Driving Iran (#drivingiran). I can imagine the geopolitical sensitivities of shareholders in brand spaces wishing to gain a foothold in, for example, the American market, would perhaps preclude something as innocuous as a movie night. I like the fact that we don’t have to consider things like that.
What do you do each day?
The day-to-day running of an independent coworking space involves, and is by no means limited to: listening to your members (be that as a community manager or as an agony aunt/uncle), cleaning the bathrooms, doing the bookkeeping, buying toilet paper, arranging hosts, facilitators and speakers for events, onboarding new members, throwing out old milk, organising third-party discounts for your members, buying new milk, briefing external meeting room bookers, and on and on and on.
What challenges do you face?
In coworking, the key players are your investors and the landlords. Since "tuesday coworking" is an independent, bootstrapped space, it luckily means we don’t have to deal with any investors. Only the landlord. And with rent being 80 per cent of our expenses, making sure you can thrash out a good deal with the landlord, while maintaining a healthy relationship with them, is paramount.
Do the Irish fit in well there?
Where do the Irish not fit in? Berlin is a cosmopolitan city and you’ll find every nationality is represented here.
What is it like living in Berlin?
When people think of Berlin, they don’t automatically think green, but that’s what it is. There are so many lush large green parks all over the city and they are used to their fullest extent. Any ray of sunshine is used as an excuse for Berliners to leave the house. It might be -10 degrees out, but you’ll see blanketed people sipping coffee outside the city’s numerous cafés.
Are there any other Irish people in your circles?
Yes, plenty! Both my friends and my business circles are full of Irish people. Mike from Offaly is my go-to SEO guy, Johnny from Ennis is creating tuesday's new website (www.tuesdaycoworking.com) and Liz from Portlaoise is our new events manager. My football team (come on you Hasenheide Hotspurs) has at least six regular Irish heads and my best friends and next-door neighbours just gave birth to a set of Irish twins. The Irish Embassy here is doing a great job with their monthly Friday morning speakers as well as a wide array of interesting events such as Bloomsday, hosting the Irish Business Network meet-ups along with ambassadorial receptions for St Patrick's Day.
What are the costs like there?
One tip for anyone considering moving to Berlin, or Germany for that matter: Don't underestimate health insurance. It's expensive (I pay as much here per month as both my parents at home) and it's illegal not to have it. If you dawdle for months before you get it, you'll have to make back payments, which can add up. I've seen a couple of people get burned (figuratively) badly by unexpected trips to accident and emergency department.
Also everyone here complains about the rising cost of rent. And it's true. Rents have doubled in the last decade, but Berlin's Senate is well aware of the disquiet and has just passed a law taking effect at the start of 2020 that will freeze rents for five years. For all the pro-capitalist accusations being thrown at it recently, when social legislation like this is passed, you're reminded how Berlin, in essence, is still a city for the people.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
There’s something about the care-free, “ah-let’s-have-a-pint-and-forget-about-it” attitude I miss. It doesn’t necessary make for deeply emotional or intellectual discourse, but Irish irreverence and shite-talking, and the not-to-be-underestimated ability to shite-talk, is something I hold in great esteem.