Fishburners closes Brisbane space in the wake of COVID-19


Fishburners chief Nicole O'Brien. Source: supplied.

Fishburners is closing its Brisbane co-working space, moving instead towards an ‘omnichannel’ model as it feels the effect of COVID-19.

The startup community will be boosting its digital presence, as it considers its future post-pandemic.

The physical space will close on June 30.

Since it opened in Brisbane in 2016, the hub has supported more than 400 startups, and contributed to the creation of 900 jobs, Fishburners said in a statement.

Those startups have raised a collective $21 million in investment, and generated $142 million in revenue to the Queensland economy.

Members of the Brisbane space will be able to continue working at the same physical location, The Capital, but under the management of Brisbane Marketing.

“This has been a challenging few months for people all over the world, especially felt by entrepreneurs, businesses and organisations who are faced with the daunting task of navigating a very different environment and new unknowns,” the statement said.

“As a consequence of the COVID crisis, we are all seeing a significant shift in work styles emerging as people look for ways to truly integrate the virtual and physical worlds.”

Virtual vs physical

Speaking to SmartCompany, Fishburners chief executive Nicole O’Brien noted that working conditions for co-working spaces have “changed dramatically”.

Startups and small businesses are themselves facing a challenging period. Even as social distancing restrictions start to ease, many are cutting this kind of expense.

“That absolutely makes running a physical co-working space very difficult, financially,” O’Brien says.

“The financial viability is difficult when you’ve got a sustained economic hibernation in place.”

At the same time, the pandemic has accelerated the shift towards remote work and virtual collaboration.

Fishburners is lucky, O’Brien says, in that it already had a virtual platform, and a virtual membership option available.

“We were able to really double down on that platform and build it out,” she says.

The organisation is launching a digital platform for members, dubbed the Fishburners Founders Hub, which will offer a suite of online tools and resources for entrepreneurs.

The team has created more content for the new offering, O’Brien explains, with webinars, tools and resources more specifically tailored to the stage a business is at.

It will also offer an artificial intelligence tool to match members with a mentor or expert, to help facilitate the kind of community you would get from a physical space.

However, O’Brien admits digital spaces can’t replace physical ones entirely. Often, part of the benefit of co-working is being able to bounce ideas around and connect with other entrepreneurs.

“The virtual will never replace that opportunity to chat with somebody by the coffee machine … and exchange ideas,” she says.

“We’re going to see the best of both worlds now, where people can have that hybrid.”

Fishburners’ flagship Sydney hub will remain open.

Located in the Sydney Startup Hub, the business secured a six-month rental holiday from the New South Wales government.

And, the business has greater scale and reach in Sydney, O’Brien says.

“The Sydney market is a different market to Brisbane.”

An uncertain future

The news comes at a time when the future of the co-working business model is in question.

The coronavirus pandemic has driven many businesses to adopt remote work, and quickly, and many employees are in no rush to get back into the office, or back on public transport.

Last month, SmartCompany spoke to Jodie Imam, co-founder of co-working space Depo8, which had to close its doors for good after the pandemic hit.

At the time, Imam said the pandemic will likely have long-term effects on the co-working industry.

“I cannot imagine us going back to life exactly as it was,” she said.

“The whole thing will have to be reinvented.”

However, O’Brien believes that, in the long-term, the pandemic could actually strengthen the viability of the co-working business model.

Firstly, she anticipates that some people who are out of work or stood down now will be working on side-hustles and new innovations.

Once the health crisis has passed, we could see a spate of new ventures looking for a home outside the home office.

At the same time, as COVID-19 has forced a move to remote work, it’s also sparked a conversation about flexibility.

While some people enjoy working from home, it’s not for everyone, O’Brien notes.

But, both corporates and SMEs may well see an opportunity to reduce the cost of their real estate by renting a cluster of desks, instead of an entire office.

“That’s certainly how we’re going to look at it going forward,” she says.

“We’re in a unique position to provide that flexibility.”

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