Traveller and entrepreneur Shazz Bhunnoo is the founder and CEO of Spaces Urban Living, an innovative property business centered around co-living. Here he talks to Globetrender about what inspired him to launch the company, how it works and why it will make our lives better.
What is Spaces Urban Living?
Spaces is a way to make living in London better. It’s creating places that people can move into as easily as booking a hotel room, and find themselves in a real community straight away. It’s taking back central London for young professionals and other people who have been getting priced out. It’s about honesty, openness, ease of use and flexibility. At the end of the day, it’s making the city fun again.
What is co-living?
Co-living is about sharing space, ideas and lifestyles, it’s a way of bringing people together to offer benefits to everyone. It’s about getting access to more and better amenities than you could as just a single person, while also having your own personal space.
It’s different from a house share because of the extra level of service provided by our Lifestyle Managers who are available 24/7 to make sure everything is as awesome as we can make it. Got a problem? They’re on it. Need some information? Any time of the day or night.
Co-living is for anyone who wants more out of life and that’s why it’s such an exciting space to be in.
When and why did you launch Spaces?
Back in 2006, after deciding a career in banking wasn’t for me, I was determined to create a compelling business model that had the potential to affect the way we live in a very positive way. I understood there were real problems in the rentals market, around quality and standards, customer experience and affordability. I also understood that many of these problems could be overcome with the right approach.
I had only £4,000 and I invested into an idea that I thought could be a game changer. I leased an apartment from a landlord in Elephant and Castle and I used my remaining funds to physically upgrade the property. With his permission, I created London’s first co-living experience in a flat-share setting. It was professionally managed, branded, all bills were included and the co-living sharing setup made it affordable for young professionals. This was the very first Spaces co-living property and we later scaled up.
By 2009, Spaces had hundreds of units, I was employing people and we’d housed many members. I was proving that I was on to something and I started anticipating the future opportunity for delivering this type of living at scale. Learning from the US purpose-built rental sector, I knew then that the future opportunity was to position Spaces as a developer and operator for co-living.
Spaces was producing enough income at that time that I could start purchasing assets, so I acquired buy-to-lets and started getting into development projects. I acquired, developed and sold a number of sites to multiply my capital. I was eventually able to purchase a range of sites in central London and I could then start creating the vision of purpose-designed buildings created from scratch around co-living.
Who is your target audience?
Spaces members choose to live with us because they believe in getting more out of life – they value their time and experiences. Typically members are early twenties to mid-thirties, young professionals from a broad mix of professions. It’s their desire to have the freedom to live that drives them to choose us.
When we really get into the more practical details, Spaces makes finding a place to live as easy as booking a hotel room online. What you see is what you get, the rent includes everything you need including reliable, super-fast broadband, 24-hour support and all your utilities. If it’s listed on our site then it’s available to book instantly. No hassle, no fuss. It’s our pleasure to make it as easy as possible for our members to live.
How many members do you have? How many properties do you have and which cities are you present in?
We currently have around 3,000 members and 450 active co-living spaces in the portfolio, mainly concentrated in London Bridge, Waterloo, and Elephant and Castle. We have a further 2,000 units coming to market over the next 24 months in purpose-built buildings, and a further 2,000 units on our tech platform in the 12 months post-fundraise.
Right now we’re focussed on London, although we have some things quietly bubbling in three major European cities. Here is a sneak preview of the new London Bridge property…
A lot of new co-living concepts offer an events programme to members, co-working space and gyms for example, to attract entrepreneurs and business people. What is your approach?
Our approach is all about re-enabling people to truly live and make the most of their limited time on Earth. The world has become so pre-occupied with “doing”, so we often neglect making space to just “be”. Spaces is more than co-living, it’s an entire movement, a pioneering mindset free from boundaries; a fresh approach to living.
Of course we cover the basic life admin services you would expect, but the real focus is on the freedom to live. Spaces “Inspire and Live” services cover everything from inspiration and life coaching, to group travel, social events, personal styling and charity donations. Our “Health and Wellbeing” products cover everything from gym and classes, right through to weekly or daily food box services.
At its heart, Spaces is a community that is all about re-engaging with the possibility of living beyond our current boundaries. And the co-living buildings we have created enable this to happen.
What facilities do tenants have access to?
The Spaces purpose-designed buildings have a range of facilities on-site, in addition to all of the lifestyle services I have described. Spaces London Bridge for example will have a buzzing ground-floor lobby experience that combines a café, co-working and residential lobby with a very cool and inspiring understated vibe of unbounded energy. There are a range of work spaces to choose from in the main lobby, on the first floor dedicated co-working level or on the second floor private units. The work space is open to residents and Spaces workspace only members.
In the residential portion of our buildings, each floor forms a micro community of around 30-50 people with shared facilities. Imagine a grand, spacious luxury kitchen and lounge spaces to use alongside fellow community members. We also have some simply breath-taking club lounges with unencumbered wraparound views of the skyline. There’s some great yoga, meditation and event space up there too.
Another unique feature of the Spaces model is that we’ve figured out how to deliver the same community and living experience to our members who live in one of our many co-living apartments and houses across the capital. They all have access to our buildings and we’ll soon be introducing dedicated club lounges too.
Describe your business model and ambitions for growth?
There are two sides to the Spaces business. The first is the asset side that physically designs and creates the buildings we talked about. Our current pipeline is set to deliver 2,000 co-living units to market over the next 24 months. During the 36 months thereafter we are targeting delivery of a further 8,000 units. We are currently in advanced discussions with substantial financial backers to fund our burgeoning pipeline.
The other side of the business is the operational aspect. With my strong background in technology, I’ve built a very lean and scalable operational model. Over the past couple of years, we’ve figured out how to apply our proprietary technology in such a way that we bring management economies of scale typically reserved for large buildings and can apply them to the operations of individual apartments and houses.
This means we can transform and control the rental experience, even if it’s not in one of our purpose designed buildings. We are currently getting ready to scale this tech platform across London and are in talks a with a selection of well-known venture capitalists and private investors for this roll out. We aim to move into Europe within 24 months.
How is co-living changing the way we live, work and travel? Why is this a trend people should know about?
Spaces actually spent a lot of time working alongside world leading architect Make Architects on the creation of our London Bridge site. During that process we researched the history of co-living around the world. Although Spaces was the first provider of co-living in the UK, and one of the very first in the world, co-living is absolutely not a new concept.
It is actually the history of how civilisations have evolved. From the times of Native Indians in the Americas, to Inuit families, to the Brazilian Favelas, Indian slums, tribal settlements and more – across civilisations, across cultures, across time – co-living has always existed: communities have been built on satellite sleeping accommodation clustered around central shared facilities.
Somewhere in the drive to consume and want more, society lost this fundamental and very human gregariousness. The consequences are that most people can’t afford these facilities and their quality of life suffers. With co-living, Spaces takes us back to how we evolved, reconnecting with the true essence of living, making it affordable and superior once more.