REDMOND, Wash. — Oct. 26, 2011 — On the surface, the concept of Microsoft BizSpark One member LiquidSpace is simple: provide an easy way to match mobile workers with available workspace, in real time. Below the surface and behind the scenes, however, bigger currents are flowing, as the “where” of office work is being re-imagined.
October 25, 2011
Mark Gilbreath, CEO, LiquidSpace, reviews the day’s new workspace listings.
Company founder Mark Gilbreath calls his vision the “consumerization of real estate.” The LiquidSpace mobile and Web-based app capitalizes on a number of important trends: the increasing mobility of workers, the real-time quality of today’s work, the economic and environmental drag of empty commercial space, and the availability of location-aware technologies and cloud services infrastructure such as Windows Azure.
“I have been intrigued with alternatives to traditional workspaces for a long time, from both a business efficiency and an environmental impact standpoint,” Gilbreath explains. This interest heightened as he watched commercial buildings constructed during boom times sitting empty or underused as work patterns shifted.
As a 20-year tech veteran who has started and run multiple companies in his career, Gilbreath also had firsthand experience with the problems of workspaces for startup companies. “Owning or leasing real estate is a huge economic burden, consuming enormous chunks of a startup’s early capital resources,” he says. “Plus, designating a fixed amount of office, lab or manufacturing space limits a company’s business flexibility.”
Fixed workspaces can also constrain individual creativity and productivity. Increasingly, workers are leaving the workplace to get work done. Toiling alone on a project, bouncing ideas off co-workers, presenting to a customer or manager, traveling for business and working from home — different scenarios require different kinds of spaces.
“LiquidSpace is designed to connect mobile and contemporary knowledge workers with the right workspace at the right time, while providing new mechanisms to leverage underutilized real estate assets,” says Gilbreath. “For workers, it means working how and where they want. For businesses, it means turning a fixed cost into a variable, and maybe even some extra revenue.”
Making Workspaces Transactional
Turning workspaces into transactional assets — treated more like tables at a restaurant or rooms in a hotel than traditional office real estate — required LiquidSpace to embrace three key attributes for its service:
A mechanism for trusted sharing
A flexible, cloud-based technology platform
The ways people work are changing. Workers no longer show up to the same place at the same time each day, sit in a cubicle or office for eight or more hours, then leave. It’s estimated that there are 1 billion mobile workers worldwide who fall into three categories: office-based, nonoffice-based and home-based. These mobile workers need a convenient way to find and book space for various reasons — to work closer to where they need to be, in a physical environment that better matches a task at hand or in a social environment that better matches their style of working at that moment — often at a moment’s notice.
“The workplace today has become a real-time decision,” Gilbreath says, which is why the mobile app concept was a key element of LiquidSpace’s approach to the market. The company currently offers its real-time, location-aware workspace-finding app for iPhone and Web browsers; support for Android and Windows smartphones is expected soon. The app is free to users, and owners of sharable space can choose if and how much to charge for use of their workspaces.
A mechanism for trusted sharing
“In an asset-sharing or collaborative-consumption marketplace, trust is a crucial element,” says Gilbreath. To foster trust in the relationship between its members and its space providers, LiquidSpace developed a unique passport/visa model.
Mobile workers who join the free LiquidSpace service are issued a “passport” that allows them to locate and book spaces. They can browse workspaces by location, venue, size and availability and can view hours of operation, amenities, pricing, reviews and other details.
The buildings with space to share can issue “visa” tokens, at their discretion and according to their own business criteria. Mobile workers issued a visa for a space can then complete bookings and upon check-in can “unlock” additional facts, such as building access codes, secure Wi-Fi codes and other information.
The LiquidSpace passport/visa model allows space providers to control who, when and how people can work in their spaces. It also provides the mechanism for secure payment, if the building owner opts to charge a fee for use of its space.
A flexible, cloud-based technology platform
LiquidSpace developed its software using Microsoft .NET for the Windows Azure cloud services operating system. The Azure platform’s automation of necessities such as Web hosting, real-time database backup and shared memory caches, in addition to its robust toolkits, sped the development and deployment of the LiquidSpace app.
Teaming With Microsoft
The choice of Azure also led to awareness of LiquidSpace by the Microsoft BizSpark team and entry to the BizSpark One program.
“BizSpark One provides us with quicker and deeper access to Microsoft resources,” says Gilbreath. “We have taken advantage of their product management guidance to make faster decisions about specifics of the LiquidSpace platform. We also appreciate the access to BizSpark’s PR and marketing resources, which has amplified our marketing reach.”
In addition, BizSpark One membership has enabled deeper integration of LiquidSpace capabilities within the Microsoft environment, in particular with Microsoft Exchange. “Hundreds of millions of people worldwide use Outlook to schedule meetings,” says Gilbreath. “We developed our integration to Exchange so that corporate facilities managers could equip their internal employees with the LiquidSpace mobile and Web booking capability and maintain synchronicity with Outlook.”
Changing Ideas About Workspaces
LiquidSpace is also featured in an upcoming Microsoft-produced documentary, “Ctrl+Alt+Compete,” having its world premiere at the Napa Valley Film Festival Nov. 9–13, 2011. “Ctrl+Alt+Compete” takes a revealing look at the emerging business scene through the eyes of five startup company founders and their teams. The film chronicles the experience of Gilbreath and his LiquidSpace team at SXSW Interactive as they launched their service and connected with influential investors and industry players.
“LiquidSpace was a perfect subject for the film,” says Daryll McDade, evangelism manager at Microsoft and the film’s executive producer. “As a veteran of multiple tech startups, Mark has great insights into the mammoth challenges young companies face, as well as the importance of intense customer focus and how to navigate the entrepreneur-VC relationship dynamic.”
The LiquidSpace vision is taking off. Gilbreath estimates that since first testing the concept at SXSW in March 2011 — where LiquidSpace joined forces with Steelcase, the No. 1 provider of professional office furniture, to establish pop-up workspaces for SXSW attendees throughout Austin — the company has seen its member and venue counts double at a steady rate. Geographically, LiquidSpace launched in the San Francisco Bay Area and has since added venues in major metropolitan areas across the U.S. International expansion is expected in the coming year.
“Our goal is to keep doubling every month or so for another year and a half, to reach a critical mass,” says Gilbreath. “Those are achievable milestones that will lead to our long-term mission, which is for more happy people to work in fewer buildings. That’s what the ‘consumerization of real estate’ is really all about. It’s a big goal, but if we succeed it will be good for individuals, for commercial real estate and for the planet as a whole.”