Caroline Sumners and Jill Farmer: Phlex

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Stef Nienaltowski recently met and interviewed two passionate ladies, Caroline Sumners and Jill Farmer, and spoke to them about their new venture, Phlex.

This co-working idea goes well beyond the conventional, and looks to make practical use of available spaces for the business person to work. They are both equally clear with their vision and determined to make this work, which Stef is sure they will.

Their respective skills are a perfect match and we are looking forward too seeing their idea grow and succeed. Please take some time to listen to their brilliant story.

Stef Nienaltowski: Good afternoon, I'm sat with Jill and Caroline, the co-founders of Phlex. Good afternoon ladies. 

Jill Farmer: Good afternoon

Caroline Sumners: Hello

SN: Jill, maybe start with you. Before we talk about Phlex, can you tell me a bit about your background, and Caroline after Jill maybe you can tell me a bit about yours?

Jill: Yeah sure. So, I'm a registered osteopath, and I'm an ergonomist. Most people normally say "what is an ergonomist?". So, it's basically looking at how people work, and helping them to make it better, and most people think of that as a physical aspect of how people work. But it isn't just that, it's the entire holistic system, so it's looking at the social aspects of that, and the psychological aspects of that as well, so it's the entire shebang really. Been doing that, running a business consultancy with that for about 18 years. 

SN: Wow, well done. Caroline, same to you. 

CS: So, I'm a marketing consultant. I've worked for various large corporates in marketing for about 20 years, worked for IMB locally, worked for Hitachi also locally, and then about 4 years ago I decided I'd had enough of corporate life, and have been running a marketing consultancy that focuses on helping small and medium sized businesses with their digital marketing. 

SN: Welcome, both of you. So, Phlex, the company's objectives. I'm interested in the company's objectives for the City; I appreciate your business is more than the City, but first of all, what are those objectives? How will the City benefit?

CS: Ok, so, Phlex is a co-working app, or basically it's the AirBnB app of co-working. It's in development stage, we're hoping to get the app ready for usage in about April time, we're just going through all the final mapping out everything, and how it needs to work before we can build it, but basically, it's about bringing spaces and people together. It could be office spaces, but it could also be anywhere that's got spare capacity, so it could be a pub, like the King's Street Tavern around the corner, it could be your office where you've got a spare desk, you think someone else could use that, it could even be your kitchen table. It's coffee shops, it's anything, and it's providing that area where spaces and users can come together to find a co-working space for them to work in. 

That's the objective of the app. For the City itself it's about pulling together or bringing together the spaces that we talk about, and the many hundreds of entrepreneurs, solopreneurs that are working in the City, and giving them that flexible option of finding not only space, but finding community within the City, because it's really important when you're working on your own to have other people that are in the same position. So, that's what it's about. 

SN: My next question in a moment is going to be, what would you say is your typical customer, if such a beast exists, but if I hear what you said, AirBnB kind of mental picture in my head, I can use this facility once, or do I have to sign up for it, what's the game here?

JF: We're currently working with the University actually, funnily enough, to sort of really thrash out that business model of how we move it forward, but there's lots of different ways that it can be used, and the whole point of the Phlex is, that some people would want to use it one day a month, some people will want to use it every day, some people will want to use it only in one geographical location, other people will want to move around with it, so we want to be able to offer all sorts of different, flexible membership, so that it can be used in whatever way floats your boat rather than mine. 

SN: Yes. and down to the business need I guess. So, therefore, unfair question maybe, is there a typical customer that you're profiling?

CS: Yeah, I think so, initially. The idea came from the fact that Jill and I both met working in a co-working space, which is amazing. A co-working space in the City, the Innovation Space. We met there, and actually Jill always refers to it as life-changing for her, but truly it was as well for me, because I was annoying the ladies in the Co-op on Albert Road, going round to talk to them all the time, because I didn't have anyone to talk to. 

JF: Too true! Really is too true! 

CS: So the idea came from the fact that we were working in a co-working space, and typically in co-working spaces you find solopreneurs and start-up businesses, before they employ 2, 3, 4 staff, when they've got to remain flexible; they might just want one desk, they might want 2, they want that ability to be able to scale upwards and downwards quickly. So, the idea came from that. And what happens often with some co-working spaces, or any space, is you're tied into contracts, and also, it's just the time to find them - it's like, well where are they around? If you live in a City, you pretty much know where they are, but as you start to go to other locations for work, and you might want a co-working space for a day, that's when it becomes more difficult to find them. 

So, our typical customer initially is definitely the solopreneur, the entrepreneur starting businesses, but we see that as we develop the app further, that could also develop into corporates, many even of the local large companies have a home working policy, and a lot of their staff work at home, and it might not be that they've a) - got the facilities, b) - their family situation is such that they can work at home effectively. So, it's also as we go through, moving into a corporate market as well. 

SN: If I lean back on my own corporate experience, which was for most of my career, I went to a meeting in a town, and that meeting was with customer X from 10-12, and then what I did was I got back in the car, unproductively, and travelled home. However, what I could have done, is dropped in to a Phlex place, worked for a couple of hours, clocked in, clocked out, then got in the car, having sorted my emails out and whatever. Is that going to be an offering?

JF: Yeah, that's completely it. I was just saying to Caroline, I've got a client booked in in a couple of weeks, and they want a day on a Tuesday, a day on a Thursday, in London, so I've got Wednesday in between. Now ok, I might fill that with another client, but potentially I'm a day in London, and I don't want to sit in Starbucks all day, I'd much rather go and sit with somebody else and actually network, and I'm not a natural networker, it's not my style at all, but in actual fact through co-working you do network, but in a far more natural way. So, if I can go and spend a day in London, and you never know what might come of that and who I meet, then great, that's what it's all about, and use it literally as you want it.

SN: Brilliant. so, I know that you are getting the company off the ground, you're getting the app off the ground, you're getting relationships being built with venues that can offer their space in this sort of AirBnB analogy, what do you think or know will differentiate you from competitors? I know there are people who offer space, but what do you think will differentiate your offering from others?

CS: I think it's really around the community, around that added networking that Jill mentioned, and I was actually at a co-working space this morning, not in the City, it's out of the City, and there was 1 person sitting in there. So, it's great to have space, but actually when you go there, you actually want other people to be there, and so this is about trying to ensure that not only are we providing the facilities where you can go, you've got a desk, it's warm, you're not paying for your own heating all day in the winter, but actually there's other people there that you can talk to, so it's more than just the physical aspect of finding the space, it's about finding other people there, and finding other people there maybe that can help you with something. 

And as we progress, we will do things like education sessions, and there'll be other aspects built into the co-working days, and it's not just about us organising the days, it's about the venues and the spaces themselves. For us, that's also about utilising space, and utilising additional revenue for businesses that maybe wouldn't otherwise be getting it. We talked about King's Street Tavern, they're one of our locations for pop-up co-working days, and Sean who's the Landlord there, opens on a Wednesday for us in the day; he's not normally open, but he's getting revenue from that, in a time he would normally be closed. So, it's about really getting extra revenue in for other businesses as well, as well as supporting more desk-based businesses. 

JF: It's also bringing people in to, say the King's Street Tavern for example, that didn't even know that it was there, so it's really benefitting them enormously, not just the revenue from what they're getting from the co-working, but all those add-ons of expanding the fact that they're known within the City basically. 

SN: So, my final question, difficult I know, but spin the dice forward a couple of years, where are you going to be?

JF: We're both very passionate about this City, and what it could do, definitely, so it's a business that's started in Portsmouth, we absolutely want to stay in Portsmouth, and we want the City to be proud of it, we really do, but we make no bones about the fact we do have some big ambitions for this project. Within the next year or so, we'd like to think it isn't just Portsmouth, it's national. And then a year beyond that, we really are looking international, it has massive potential to be something quite big, there's no reason why it shouldn't be, so we are very excited about it. 

SN: I share some of that excitement, just by spending time with you, I get that feeling from you both. Can I come back and see you in 6- or 9- months' time, and see how it's going?

CS: You totally can, yes, we expect you to! 

JF: Please do, that'd be great. 

SN: Alright, Jill, Caroline, today thank you both very much. 

JF: Thank you

CS: Thank you

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