Meet the icon of office space
Daring to be different has paid off in spades for Iconic founder and chief executive Joe McGinley
Joe McGinley: ‘When you walk into traditional offices, you see the same blue carpet and hall table – people’s jaws would drop when they walked into an Iconic office building.’
In just six years, Iconic has made quite a name for itself as Ireland’s leading provider of flexible workspace solutions, operating 14 locations in Dublin with 3,500 spaces accommodating clients who take anything between one and 500 desks. And it all started quite by accident.
Joe McGinley had always been a trend bucker, particularly when he opened the Bespoke Property estate agency during the very depths of the recession in 2011. “We set up the business on the corner of Baggot Street and Ely Place at the worst of the recession,” he recalls. “We had champagne in the fridges and marble floors and counters. We were actively and deliberately challenging the times we were in. We were trying to be different.”
And it worked.
The first foray into the flexible workspace market was finding it for clients. “We had a lot of clients looking for flexible office solutions and we were finding space for them from existing operators here,” says McGinley. “But they were telling us that they didn’t like what was on offer for a number of reasons. That gave us insights into what was working and not working in the market.”
And then came the moment of serendipity, the happy accident. “The Bespoke business was doing very well, and we needed extra space,” he explains. “We looked around and found a vacant Georgian building on Baggot Street. We wanted to take a floor, but the landlord said we had to take the whole building or nothing. We got a quite reasonable quote for refurbishing the building and went in and did that. We took a floor ourselves and rented out the rest to other firms.”
And thus, Iconic was born.
From day one, the aim was to offer something other than the norm. “We wanted to create space for people who wanted something different,” says McGinley. “The big technology companies like Facebook and Google and so on were just ramping up in Ireland at the time and they had brought a different concept of office space with them. And smaller companies had no answer to that. That was six years ago in 2013.”
‘We knew it would work’
Market reaction was very positive. “We knew it would work from day one,” he says. “The nature of our business at the time was that we had to be cash-flow positive from the very beginning as there was no bank debt available. We achieved that on very limited resources. We had the building full of tenants before we opened it. That proved we had a very strong commercial proposition.”?
So strong that they took over a new building every three months for the next four years. And the secret? “We were delivering a product that wasn’t available on the market. We didn’t invent the sector, we had overseas and indigenous Irish players on the market before that, but we had something different. We were doing what the tech sector was doing and what other flexible workspace providers were doing internationally, and we were doing it in our own unique way.”
In the early days, the main point of differentiation was the design aesthetic. “When people opened the doors, they were sold on it even before they stepped inside. When you walk into traditional offices, you see the same blue carpet and hall table – people’s jaws would drop when they walked into an Iconic office building. Our unique selling point was the design – it was less frugal and formal than traditional offices and there wasn’t a blue carpet in sight. In essence, we weren’t trying to sell offices, we were looking to create a different type of space and we didn’t want people to think of it as an office.”
Indeed, the furnishings and décor used was more in line with high-end residential and hospitality developments than offices.
“We grew to 12 buildings inside four years and we did that with just a handful of staff. We kept everything very tight. At that stage, we were opening buildings so quickly we didn’t even have time to install the Iconic brand on the offices. It took us a few years to layer that on. Demand was so good we had no requirement to market the business. The brand didn’t become active until about three years after we started up.”
That rapid growth brought its own challenges. “Once we got to 10 or 11 buildings we had some decisions to make,” McGinley says. “Do you sit back and enjoy it, or do you put the infrastructure in place to go to the next level? We had the core management team in place already and we decided to step up in scale. We moved from small Georgian buildings to new, modern office buildings. We are now at 16 buildings with 75 full-time staff. Our first building could accommodate 50 to 60 people and our latest building, The Masonry on Thomas Street, can take 900. We now have capacity for 3,500 members in our buildings.”
The business model is similar to hotel chains. Iconic doesn’t own the buildings but either leases them from or manages them on behalf of owners. “In some cases, we might take a 25-year lease on a building, refurbish it and operate it. In others, we might do a management deal and share the capital expenditure. There are a couple of different ways we can do the deal.”
Number of options
There are a number of options for people wanting to rent space – become members – in an Iconic building. “We have a few different products,” McGinley says. “Co-working offers a desk in an open-plan area. You can have a different desk every day or a guaranteed desk. We also offer cellular offices – private offices for one person or 200 or 300 people depending on the building. Meeting rooms and space can be rented and, in some buildings, we have cafes and restaurants. Everyone gets access 24/7, 365 days a year. We manage everything – utilities, broadband, security. We have fully-stocked kitchens where members can get continental breakfast, tea and coffee.”
Apart from the food, members get unrestricted broadband and assistance with their IT needs. “We offer IT install- and set-up services and can deliver anything the customer wants. We deal with FDI clients who need secure connections directly back to their US HQs. Typically, you see companies from the west coast of the US moving into Europe for the first time. One or two people might come over first and they are not sure what they require in an office. They come to us and we work with their IT teams to deliver what they need here.
“Members also connect into the Iconic community,” McGinley continues. “We run a range of events with speakers on different topics which members can attend. We have networking sessions, mindfulness and Pilates classes and so on. Design remains a USP for us. Five-star customer service is another. Full-time membership starts at €199 per month for a desk, unrestricted broadband, continental breakfast, tea and coffee and all utilities.”
McGinley was named Entrepreneur of the Year at the All Ireland Business Summit in Croke Park last month. “I have to say it was a bit of a surprise to get the award on the day,” he says. “It’s great recognition, not just for me but for all of the team here.”
He has no intention of resting on those laurels. “You are only as good as your last building,” he says. “The most important thing right now is delivering the next building to the highest standard possible. We will continue to expand and innovate. We are looking at opportunities outside of Dublin and Ireland. Our view is that the UK would not be an immediate go-to market for us. The property market there is quite uncertain as a result of Brexit and other factors. Property is all about timing and the UK is not at the right part of the cycle – mainland Europe is our preferred target at present.”