Less than eight years after it was set up, co-working space Seats2meet.com (S2M) has 77 locations across the Netherlands, and 6 countries abroad. The secret to such rapid growth lies in the fact that the service is provided to individuals free of charge. Or rather, it doesn’t cost them any money. S2M has come up with an innovative system that leverages individual users’ social capital in the form of knowledge, skills and networks, rather than actual cash. Let’s start by taking a look around. We were given a tour of three separate locations, each differently designed but all run on the same business model. The Amsterdam location has corporate tenants alongside its co-working spaces. Built in 1911 as a stock exchange, the building has an interesting history. It was designed by Dutch
architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage. “Over 100 year ago, Berlage wrote his brother a letter while building the Beurs van Berlage. Berlage was a socialist and wrote: I realise this will become the most capitalistic building in Amsterdam, but as soon as the economy crashes this will become a pallazo pubblico. A place where meeting others, sharing knowledge and working together will be the central themes’. It took 100 years, but thanks to this letter the vision of the Beurs and Seats2meet.com are now perfectly aligned,” explains duty manager/user, Simina Jonker. S2M themselves sees this as a special, symbolic location.
Next, we visited Almere, a commuter town outside Amsterdam. In an example of the S2M concept being successfully incorporated into a public space, there is an exclusive 20-desk S2M area inside the library. Unlike S2M in Amsterdam, there is no commercial element; this is a cooperative space rooted in the community. Our final visit was to S2M headquarters, which is directly connected to Utrecht station. Co-owner Ronald van den Hoff describes the design concept as “a space that builds creative tension.” The interior features a multitude of colours and materials; it’s the opposite of minimalist decor. Corridors are curved, and ceilings and floors don’t necessarily run parallel. All of this is designed to create tension in the space and stimulate thought. Each location is bookable online, and users are asked to provide details of their knowledge, skills and expertise at the time of booking. This information is displayed on ‘Serendipity Machines’ at each of S2M’s locations for anyone to use. One can tell at a glance the social capital of everyone using S2M at any time. This is the basic system which makes the free co-working spaces possible. “In my case,” says Yonker, “I’ve put ‘Amsterdam based PR and event manager…’ If anyone seeing that wants to ask me a question, or wants to talk about something, I’ll help them
out. For example, if they’re organizing an event and ask me if I know a good catering company, I’ll be able to tell them the name of one. I’m sharing my social capital. That’s how you pay at S2M. But it’s not a chore. You just have to talk to people normally and exchange information, that’s all.” The Serendipity Machine functions as a help desk, sales team and even an advertising department.
Users connected via the network volunteer to take on these roles as necessary, resulting in huge cost savings. But if co-working spaces are free to use, how does S2M make money? The answer lies in the meeting rooms it also provides. Charges are on a per-seat basis, and are higher at busy times. But there is another unusual part to the business model. In Amsterdam, for example, lunch is provided between 12 and 2pm, and costs five Euros. What’s surprising is that everything else is free. Coffee is free. Soft drinks and snacks have no set prices, but users put what they think is a fair amount into a bottle that’s left there for the purpose. This unique system was the brainchild of co-owners Marielle Sijgers and Ronald van den Hoff. Ten years ago, they ran a rental meeting room business, but “it was a really old-fashioned industry,” says Sijgers. “We wanted to start something new.” It was then that they noticed a change in the market. “With companies getting smaller and business stagnating because of the economic crisis, entrepreneurs started leaping into action. Advancements in technology made it easy for individuals to carry out transactions directly, one-to-one. But marketing is harder for individuals than it is for corporations. That’s when we came up with the idea of opening up and sharing knowledge. That way, individuals would be able to find people who have need of their social capital,” says van den Hoff. S2M also turned out to be an excellent research opportunity for companies. Companies looking to hire creative individuals with innovative ideas need look no further than S2M. This suits the freelancers, too, enabling them to forge connections with companies without any marketing effort, and potentially leading to new business opportunities. And when companies and individuals start to connect, there are profits to be had for S2M, too. Workers who previously only used the free co-working spaces might now have more cause to pay to use the meeting rooms. The business model manages to benefit individuals, companies and S2M, all the while keeping the free co-working spaces at its core. A survey of S2M users carried out by Rotterdam School of Business drew comments such as: “I’d started a new project within two weeks,” and “I’m getting more freelance work.” Eight years after opening it has 77 locations. Now S2M is apparently known as the place to go to meet talented people.