An office away from home

A crop of businesses have popped up in the start-up city, to help freelancers, entrepreneurs and artists work "from home".

On laptops in cafe 521 (photo credit: NIV ELIS)
On laptops in cafe 521
(photo credit: NIV ELIS)
In the heart of start-up city, 100 meters above the ground, the future grows in an electronic hub surrounded by books. A team of young ambitious entrepreneurs promoting their ideas buzz about on their computers as light pours in through the windows that display Tel Aviv’s red-roofed houses extending down to Jaffa. On the horizon, the sea’s waves relentlessly push forward.
In one corner, three programmers put the final touches to the latest version of their mobile fashion app, which lets users “try on” different shades and patterns of what they are wearing. In another, a team plots the launch of its website, an market for services. The groups have just four months to take advantage of the hub, which serves as an office, kitchen, meeting room and networking center, before they are pushed out like a baby bird from the nest, in the hope that they will take flight.
The municipality-sponsored space is the Tel Aviv Library in the Shalom Tower, built on the site of Gymnasia Herzliya, where Israel’s pioneers were educated. It is one of a handful of work hubs that has sprouted in recent years to accommodate the city’s growing workforce of entrepreneurs, technology start-ups, freelancers, writers and students, people with plenty of work to do, but nowhere to do it.
“We took part of the space and dedicated it to early-stage start-ups for a period of four months,” explains Avner Warner, the Tel Aviv Municipality’s director of International Economic Development.
Instead of being forced to work from their homes, their parents’ garages or coffee shops, start-ups apply to use the space, pay a nominal fee, and are granted the use of the space.
“They essentially constitute a community. they help each other and support each other, each one working on their own idea,” Warner says. Non-entrepreneurs are free to sit at side tables and use the Internet for free.
For Tel Aviv, the investment makes sense; it is helping to support an environment that fosters innovation and risk-taking, building an infrastructure to push the economy forward.
“As a government we don’t see our role as giving support. It’s more of removing barriers and fixing market failures, as such, if they exist,” Warner explains. The country, he adds, must invest wisely to maintain its start-up nation status. “There’s nothing genetic about what’s happened in Israel. It’s an environment and it’s developed and it can be created in other places.”
Work rooms like The Library help give Tel Aviv a competitive edge. Just a few blocks away, at Mazeh 9, the city sponsors a “social hub” to foster socially-oriented businesses.
Publicly supported work rooms, however, are not the only ones dotting the city’s landscape.
Throughout town, innovative entrepreneurs have discovered a growing demand for non-office work space, demand that reflects a growing trend of telecommuting and freelancing in the Western world. In the United States, for example, the number of teleworkers grew 42 percent from 2005 to 2011, according to, while the 2010 census showed nearly 10% of people working from home at least one day a week.
As businesses try to shed costs, axing office rent from the monthly budget can go a long way. In Israel, many members of the immigrant community keep ties to their old jobs abroad, to either sustain or supplement their income in Israel. Add to those the students, independent contractors, writers reveling in Tel Aviv’s bohemian culture and, of course, ambitious entrepreneurs, and the group of people seeking an inexpensive space to work becomes formidable.
When Ron Cohen’s company decided it was relocating the majority of its staff to the United States, moving out of its office was an obvious choice.
“Because I’m the only one here, it didn’t make sense to keep an office,” Cohen says. Working from home proved less than ideal, however; bad enough that he decided to commute each day from Ness Ziona to work at The Hub.
Located on the seventh floor roof of a building along the industrial section of Menachem Begin Street in Tel Aviv, The Hub is the local branch of an international chain of office spaces. Opened in 2008, it is perhaps the earliest of its kind in Tel Aviv’s landscape. Its customers each get a key to the space, and buy access for 25, 50, or an unlimited number of hours a month.
More than just a space with desks, The Hub strives to provide lectures and materials, holding regular networking events and presentations on topics of interest to help build a community.
“I really like it,” says Cohen. “It’s a comfortable work environment, the social aspect is pleasant – people eat lunch together, mingle – it’s really nice.
It’s far preferable to working from home, much easier to focus and be productive,” he adds.
Shimrit Tal, content and cooperation manager at The Hub, says the office’s diversity is one of its greatest assets. “I’m always surprised by the wide variety of people who show up here,” she says. “It’s such a canvas. This place is what the people who come here build it to be.”
“You’re constantly exposed to things you wouldn’t be exposed to in coffee shops,” adds her colleague Yoram Lavi, as he produces business cards for three ventures he is working on. “Many people come after they were at home and it was hard. The entrepreneurial process is always longer and harder than you think at first. This place gives them the space and the tools to do it and to take the next step.”
Working in a room with other people who are dealing with the same issues, the same challenges, or the same topics helps workers overcome problems, and the variety of workers has produced unexpected collaborations, such as one between a mobile app producer and a theater director. One pairing at The Hub even resulted in a wedding.
“It’s hard for people to understand why you need to go to a different place when technically you could work at home or a coffee shop. There’s something about going out and going to work that is indescribable,” says Tal, whose four years working at The Hub led her to collaboration of hew own, a book on new technology called The Guide to the Future.
The one thing author Ido Angel needed in order to finish writing his novel, was quiet.
“Everyone knows you can’t work from home. I would sit in cafes and it was loud and expensive, and I just needed a place like this,” the divorced father of two explains of his idea to open Misanthrope, the aptly-named workspace where the prevailing theme is silence (“It’s not about networking – that’s what hubs are for”).
The clientele at Misanthrope are decidedly artsier than the tech-leaning crowds at the city’s other spaces. “People come to work on a project.
They come to work on a thesis or because they’re designing something and don’t want to be at the office. We get freelancers, independents, a huge number of graphic designers, writers.”
Angel charges people by the hour to use the well-lit, comfortable workspace, adorned with dramatic ravens and papier mâché day-of-thedead skeletons, made from book pages. His initial business model – charging for self-service sandwiches and snacks – turned out to be a bust.
“It didn’t work. Not because people are cheap and didn’t want to buy, but because they came to work, and wouldn’t get out of their chairs,” he says. Now, he offers unlimited coffee, fresh fruit, and a maximum charge of NIS 55 a day, plus deals with local food vendors. That model proved to be a hit.
“Whoever comes in one time understands it, and then they can’t work anywhere else. The tough thing is getting them in the first time.”
Even the silence-loving Angel, however, says the unique community that forms around the workspace is paramount. “There have even been romantic connections. Not inside, but people go outside and talk,” he explains. To further that sense of community, Angel makes the space available for events, lectures and meetings in the evening.
With business booming, Angel and a partner decided to expand, moving just this week from the small room with a loft off Sheinkin Street to a larger space on Frishman Street, just blocks from where a competitor recently opened.
The new space may help expand that sense of community; it will offer more noise-friendly work areas on its balcony and in its meeting room, but in the central workspace silence will remain golden.
For Angel, who had never imagined he would end up an entrepreneur, Misanthrope has turned out to be a dream come true, helping him fund his literary passion.
“I’m not going to make any money from writing,” he says. “At least I found a way for people to pay me while I do it.”