New Zealand coworking space fills a need for professionals in a small community

Across the Proximity Network, there’s a common founding story among many rural coworking spaces. For smaller communities, productive workspace options are often limited to the library, the coffee shop or the kitchen table. When Cara Tipping Smith wanted a more professional and private location to work and take meetings, she decided to create one herself. What started as a coffee club of local residents became The Business Hive, a coworking space in Oamaru on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island. We spoke with Cara to hear more about her experience starting a coworking space in a small, rural community.

Why did you decide to open a coworking space?

I arrived in our little town around three and a half years ago following my partner who had a new job. As a copywriter then, I looked around for the usual business support (I’ve lived in about 10 places) and couldn’t find it. The Chamber of Commerce was based in a bigger town, an hour away. There were no business networking groups so I started a coffee club. 

I quickly realized that talking about your business in a cafe in a small town could be a bit awkward. I mean who wants to talk business with your mother-in-law sitting at the next table? And of course other cafe-goers would interrupt not realizing you were actually having a meeting. Then I remembered the coworking spaces I’d used in the UK years ago. I found a couple in our nearest big town and decided to give it a go. Those coworking spaces in Dunedin were super helpful and supportive. In fact, it was one of them who put me on to Proximity—what a game changer!

Tell us about your space. What kinds of amenities does it have? What makes it unique?

We’re quite little but perfectly formed thanks to the amazing talent in our town. Local designers did everything from our logo to our interior color scheme. Our three-meter steel tables on wheels were built to my specifications by a local engineering firm. We can push them around to create boardroom or classroom setups and use them as food servers for event seating.

Local IT and sound engineers set up our AV suite (it makes you look really important on Zoom calls and is great for group calls) as well as our large-space projector with built-in sound. We have a sheltered courtyard for sunny days and even a room with its own hand-washing facilities.

What makes us truly unique is our traffic light tag system. We have red, orange and green tags on stands (or hung on hooks) that clearly display whether or not people can be interrupted. Our small town means it’s easy to bump into people you know so the tags show (from a distance) whether you’re ok to chat (green), ready for work talk only (orange) or can’t be interrupted right now (red). 

What is your favorite thing about operating a coworking space? 

The people. Everyone says that but our town is full of solopreneurs and small businesses. After our covid lockdown, even more people are working from home and that’s tough on the soul at times. People feel good in our space. They have a chat with someone they otherwise might not have. We see our role as signposting or cross-pollinating so that we bring our business community together. Buying local has never been more important. Employment opportunities have never been more important. Proximity’s job board gives us another opportunity to add value for our local businesses. Right now, we have an outstanding opportunity to support our town’s businesses and help them support each other.

What’s your favorite story about one of your members?

Our first permanent member arrived pretty much before our doors were open thanks to a local news article. It turned out she’d been hanging out for a space like ours. As an accountant, she was working remotely from home for a firm based around three hours away. She and her family knew from the outset that she would be able to work remotely so they’d actively chosen our town to be their home. Over time we grew to know her whole family, her boys would drop in (so great!) and her dad is now our go-to to look after our space when we go away and also our expert health and safety consultant.

What has been the most surprising or unexpected thing about operating a coworking space?

The range of things our local people do. Everything from workplace mediation to eyebrow treatments. We’re largely rural and we have people working from our place on the days they come to town.

What advice would you offer to someone wanting to open a coworking space?

Know that whatever you open with on day one will be different in three years. We knew that and it’s been an amazing journey to respond to what people actually need, not necessarily what I thought they would need. Be prepared to adapt. Keep connecting with your community. Without the people, you’re just a building. You can be so much more than that—you can change lives even if you don’t always know how.

The Proximity Network

Hundreds of coworking spaces around the world use Proximity to manage memberships, digital door access, reservations, billing, events and much more. Coworking and flexible workspaces can try the Proximity platform for free or schedule a demo with our team to learn more.

The Business Hive New Zealand