BuffrSpace: Interview with Modupe Macaulay, CEO of CapitalSquare Lagos' First Coworking Space

Coworking in Lagos has taken off in a considerably big way. There are about 15 coworking spaces currently in Lagos (according to our last count). One of the most prominent is CapitalSquare, the first true coworking space in Lagos. Recently, the brand opened a new space in Ikoyi affectionately called The Studio, and we couldn’t resist a visit. We even convinced the CEO, Modupe Macaulay, to sit down with us and discuss coworking in Lagos. Enjoy the interview.

Why CapitalSquare? I know you’re asked this all the time but would you mind walking us through the origin story, at least for some context for our interview.

I don’t have a fantastic story. I’d heard about coworking spaces when I was doing my masters and I thought it’d be a good idea to do something like that in Lagos. So I wrote it down and forgot about it. This was in 2012.

I never had any plans to do something like that. I just thought it would be nice to have a shared studio or working place. I didn’t even know they were called coworking spaces. I just wrote down “a shared workspace” and I forgot about it.

Fast forward to February 2013, I had just graduated and was looking for work. I graduated in January but by February, I was already bored and feeling useless because I didn’t have a job, which is ridiculous, I know.

There happened to be a space available owned by a family member. So I said “Let me try this. I have nothing to lose. If it fails I’ll go get a job.”

Another thing was, I also run a design business where we do identity design, logos etc. I and my partner, we wanted to take it seriously and we needed somewhere to work from. We used to work from home, Skyping and meeting in restaurants to share ideas. We couldn’t find somewhere affordable and nice (because we were a brand agency so everything had to look slightly fancy).

So it was 2 sides — the personal experience of looking for space and I was bored and needed to get busy.

It sounds like you’re a bit restless and a workaholic

I want to be useful. Everyone says I’m a workaholic but I actually think I’m extremely lazy. I’m not a workaholic but I don’t like to feel useless and feel like a failure.

A few weeks before CapitalSquare I wasn’t in a good place. So starting CapitalSquare sort of helped me with that.

You’re young (26). Starting out at that age, and starting out with what was a novel idea at that time — a coworking space that was just that, and nothing more (unlike the restaurants, cafes that included a coworking space). Would you say it was the naivety of youth that helped you not to be held back by the possibility of failure or overwhelmed by odds of failure. Was there a point you thought, this won’t work?

I always had it at the back of my mind that I may just be making the biggest mistake of my life and wasting other people’s resources. But then again, I thought, What’s the worst that could happen?

I think I was lucky that I didn’t have the pressure of investors pressuring me for results. It was family members who invested so I didn’t have that pressure of, “If I lose this money, it’s going to become a public something”. So in that regard, I think I was lucky and I was able to take that kind of risk with someone else’s money.

I’m a very driven person already so adding that extra external pressure on me would have been maybe too much pressure.

What was the hardest thing about starting out? It’s one thing to have ideas but when you started translating them into the real world, was there a time you went, “OMG this is so hard”?

Creating the space was the hardest part. I was very hands-on. I called the electrician, plumber, carpenter etc. I’m a kind of person who likes to get what is in my head to be translated into the real world without losing much in the process.

So, dealing with different people building the space was like the toughest thing I had to face. A lot of these workers have poor work ethics.

Then cost, I was trying to keep costs down so I didn’t want to pay someone else to do something I could do. When making the space at Lekki and also at Ikoyi, I knew I could put the space together in the way that I wanted. It was hard but the experience has been so worth it. And things turned out pretty well.

Let’s talk about what a typical day is like for you

I don’t have a regular 9–5 and I’m not a morning person. I’m either working from home or at the office. I usually get up around 7am. Before marriage and the baby, I got up around 7am, put on the computer and started working.

In the early days, I was at the space every day to ensure smooth operations. But today it can pretty much run without me which I’m happy about. There are days I like to pop in and see what’s going on, but generally, I’m just there when I have something specific to do.

I do accounts. I had to learn it for business. I think I am at a stage where i need to outsource some tasks so I can focus on others.

When I was starting out, Google was my friend. When I started out, there was no other coworking space, so there was nowhere I could go and peek and see how it works. So I had to research on the net and see how coworking spaces work, structure plans, payments etc. I’m constantly researching the best software for managing space and memberships. It is very easy to think that since it’s just booking spaces, so a simple calendar software would suffice. But when flexible spaces are involved e.g. people pay for 20 days which they won’t use at a stretch, then you see how complicated it can be. So, the software has to be adept at managing memberships, billing and bookings.

I spend most of my time trying to make things easier for myself and my staff. So a lot of research.

Lately we’ve been working on partnerships. We’re looking for lifestyle and business providers so that our members get more value out of CapitalSquare. We don’t just want to give people a space and internet. That’s easily replicated.

So that’s it.

If not CapitalSquare, what would you be doing?

I’d probably be working for Nestle.When I was starting CapitalSquare, I got a job in May of that year and I said no, even though they were offering a lot of money. Then I got a graduate training role in Nestle and I knew if I said no again, people would think I was mad. So I took it. I quit after 4 months, because I’m obviously “not very smart”.

The reason I quit was because they put me in sales. I don’t like sales. And I’m not a very outgoing person. The first month I was in Lagos market. I was moved to Oshodi the next month and to Mushin the next. So out of my four months, I was in the office for 1 month and 3 in the markets.

I don’t mind moving around if it makes me more productive but I didn’t feel like I was being productive. And I also had CapitalSquare work on my neck.

Construction work had commenced around then. So, I would leave the office by 5pm, get to Lekki by 6, head to the construction site and “fight” with the workers and make sure everything was in order. I usually got home by 9pm and work until 4am. Repeat.

It was taking a toll on my health and I couldn’t see the benefit of being there apart from the money. So it had to be one or the other. And that’s why I made the decision to quit. That’s what I would most likely be doing today if I didn’t quit.

But what I really want to do is, either work in advertising or brand design. I like to do creative work. So it has be something creative.

What happens when CapitalSquare doesn’t need you again? When the space can practically run itself without your input and you get bored again? What next?

Well, there are a bunch of family projects that I would like to get into. it has to do with the tourism and hospitality industry. On the personal side, I would also be doing my creative stuff — my branding thing. I’m already ideating a few projects tilted towards creatives. It should come up pretty soon.

Looks like CapitalSquare has given you a lot of confidence. Because you sound a lot more confident. Like, “I can take on another project like this or even bigger, since this worked”

Actually, CapitalSquare has made me become more prudent and realistic. I feel like I can do stuff but the things I now focus on are less capital intensive. I’m learning that I could probably make more money if I didn’t spend so much. So whatever ideas I work on now are things requiring less capital but still make money.

Okay, let’s talk about coworking. Someone said offhandedly, right now there are more coworking spaces than actual coworkers. Sort of like, supply exceeds demands. Any reaction to this?

I’m not sure I completely agree though I get the person’s point of view.

People need to be convinced they are getting value. The economy isn’t really good right now. So whatever value you’re offering people has to be a lot of value for little money. So I get that in terms of what people want to pay, it may be hard getting signups.

But I also think that marketing is important. For example, I know my market is not the people who would go to CcHub. Initially, when I started CapitalSquare at Lekki, I was looking at that market. But I later figured out that that’s not my core market. The “CcHub market” is more targeted towards very early stage businesses, school leavers etc. People with very little capital but a lot of drive and ideas. So CcHub is perfect for them. It’s cheaper, it’s closer to them, and the focus is tech so they have support. So the “tech” market is not my core market and I’ve noticed it.

Because I know my market isn’t the tech market, when I do my marketing, the focus is on more small businesses. I’m still streamlining and discovering my market but I’m quite sure who and what isn’t my market, which is really important. So I think the whole supply exceeds demand thing holds true only if you don’t know who or where your market is.

In the Lekki space, we have a few coworkers who are in tech but they are not people I’d say are just starting out. Some of them are freelancers, they have enough money to live around Lekki. So it’s not a tech space. It’s just a space for SMEs who don’t necessarily need their own office and would benefit from the community.

Another thing is location. Yaba is fine for tech focused things. The university is there and it’s affordable.

This Dolphin Estate location, I chose it because it’s central. Someone running a small consulting thing out of Ikoyi may need a small space to meet regularly with clients. For people like that, this works.

What’s the spread of your membership? How many coworkers are techies, freelancers, writers etc?

Off the top of my head, it’s a mix. I can’t say we have mostly this kind of people. So we have consultants, real estate people, techies, graphic designers, fashion designers, journalists, we have an NGO that operates from there. So it’s a mix. And that variety is what helps people with generating new and unique ideas.

I think we have more women than every other coworking space. I’m always surprised to see we have so many women at CapitalSquare. I think it helps that I’m a woman and all my staff are women. It wasn’t planned though, it wasn’t on purpose. It’s just that the best people we’ve found — attitude and fit — have been women. I think it helps with the coworking community and atmosphere.

I read that you have a demo day event. How successful has that been?

Initially, when we ran the very first one, I was hoping I’d get potential investors in the room and things would come out of that. But as time went on, what happened was that a lot of the activity and discussion was centred around feedback and improving the showcased product. A lot of people just wanted to go, “This is what I’m doing, does it make sense or not?”

I think we’re missing that because a lot of the pitches are focused on trying to win money. But getting actual feedback from the people who are going to use it — does the product make sense, will people be comfortable using it? — so that you know whether or not to go on building it, is very valuable.

So, the event is more about sharing your idea and getting feedback.

The way people apply is, we have a form on the website. People apply and then inhouse, we look for a product or service that we have used or we think people would find interesting. A few times, we’ve invited people to come and present their stuff just because we feel people should know their product exists.

We’re not making money from it but we’re getting people in the same room and improving products. The turnout has been encouraging. For 40–50 people turning out for our events on a weeknight, we feel this is something useful. The next one in September is going to be our 8th edition.

Are you finally profitable?

No. We’re at that point where month to month we make more than we spend. But the thing is, whenever we feel we’re making money, we sort of channel that money into another project. What really helped us though was we included private offices into the space. It’s a more stable source of income and better for business. I tell people, if you want to open a coworking space for money, just build serviced workspaces.

So a place like Legacy Offices will get profitable quickly.

I’m even thinking of just building serviced offices so I can have peace of mind. I mean, we included just 3 private offices and it made a huge difference in our bottom line. So when opening The Studio, private offices were included from the start. And I like the fact that you still have to come through the main workspace to go into your office. So there’s still opportunity for that community interaction.

What’s your best day so far?

The day we opened the first space (Lekki). I was happy I could create something and I was like, OMG, I did this. It was such a good feeling to see people turn up and they were impressed, and I finally felt I wasn’t wasting my time by quitting my job. The best thing about that day was, my parents giving me a ‘Congratulations, we are so proud of you’ card.

You know, when I started, there was a lot of doubt. But it was good to see they were happy and that everything turned out okay.

Worst day

The day I had to borrow to pay salaries. We were being owed some money, and cash flow wasn’t very good at that point. Lucky enough, after we did that, a lot of money entered but having to go borrow felt awful.

Keeping my staff happy is a priority for me. I don’t understand why some people neglect their staff. Your staff are your first customers. They represent you and your business. Even for a long time, if we were a bit short, I would delay my salary and pay everyone first. I think it’s little things like that that let people respect you.

Finally, what do you think the future of work looks like? What’s going to happen in the next few years?

Remote work will increase. It’s easier and right now, a lot of jobs require more brain work than anything else. You don’t need to be there physically. Also, larger organizations will adopt remote work in a big way.

The economy is also helping companies make the decision to go remote, especially the small businesses. In this economy, SMEs really need to consider, ‘do we need a physical office’? One of our most popular offering at CapitalSquare is our virtual office i.e. mailing address, P.O Box, and meeting rooms a few hours a month. We have over 40 people subscribed for that. They just need a place to meet clients and an address where things can be dropped off.

So even on a small business level, a lot of people are fine without their own physical office. What we’ve found is a lot of people have offices because of the Corporate Affairs Commision (CAC) and banks. The bank wants to know your office and CAC as well. Providing that for SMEs helps them cut costs.

Then, there are more freelancers who are proud to say ‘I’m a freelancer’. The days when if you told people, I’m a freelancer and they’d respond, “Go and get a real job” are behind us. Today, we have more brain work and better technology which means more people can embrace the freelance lifestyle.

And that’s a wrap.

Buffrspace wishes Modupe Macaulay the best of fortunes. May the odds ever be in your favour.

This article originally appeared on BufferSpace