Prospector Experiment Ends, Space Closes

The last day in July marks the end of Prospector, a collaboration space for startups and entrepreneurs. The pop-up space was a 90-day experiment ran by Startup Queenstown Lakes to determine how a dedicated space for entrepreneurs could benefit the startup community.

Simon Small leads an Entrepreneur Coffee Jam featuring David Pearse of Queenstown Trading to a packed room of startup enthusiasts.

Why run the experiment?

In early January, the Trust was evaluating gaps in the marketplace for entrepreneur support, education, and activation. One key gap was a physical meeting and workspace that the community could gather from.

“In every ecosystem there tends to be at least one central meeting point, geared to the startup community, for events, workshops, and collaboration,” said Burnes. “We wanted to test and see if a standalone space, specifically marketed to our community, would provide value and impact – and determine if it could be financially self-sufficient.”

The trust (at the time less than one year old) decided to see if a cost-effective space could be found while researching if the gap really existed.

A generous partner loans a room

Numerous surveys were run through the group’s Facebook page and at events to gauge market interest and get input on required vs. desired features. Questions included location, which more than 70% of one survey said they preferred it to be more central, such as Frankton. Burnes looked at options in Queenstown CBD and Frankton that might be available for short-term ‘pop-up leases.’

“I had found a couple of adequate spaces in Frankton, with below-market lease terms that were within our initial budget,” said Burnes. Then he received an offer that was hard to turn down. “Charlie Phillips, CEO at Queenstown Resort College, had caught wind of our efforts and offered up a campus space at no charge. It was incredibly generous and put the wind in our sails.”

With classroom furniture removed, the empty QRC space is ready to be turned into a collaboration space. The Novotel can be seen across the street.

The ability to run the experiment without the biggest line-item expense helped lower the risk of the experiment. Soon the room was emptied of tables and chairs and the Startup Queenstown Lakes team began work to launch the space.

Soon other corporate partners came on board to get the pop-up space off the ground. Vodafone donated Internet service. The Warehouse gave the trust a cash donation plus the ability to buy decor, furniture, and tools at cost. Mitre 10 Queenstown donated cash. Heartland Technology gave the space use of a high-quality Ricoh printer/scanner. Go Orange paid for signage. Queenstown IT donated some networking equipment and Fresh Choice Queenstown donated food and drinks for events and ongoing member nourishment.

“We were able to launch the experiment with very little cash out of pocket,” said Burnes. Our corporate partners were very kind to assist us and support the community – and that has helped u stretch our funding further as we look for the best ways to make an impact.”

The space opened in early May in Queenstown Resort College’s campus annex on Earl Street. A website launched announcing the space and the group started marketing heavily to their community through email and social media.

Thes space was fitted out with a combination of donated items and items purchased at cost.

Early use held mixed results

The organisation saw a small number of users in the first month. The fees for membership (which included unlimited use from 9-5 daily) was a novel, pay-what-you-think-is-fair approach – allowing individuals to set the rates. “We really wanted to test everything we could, including what fees should be charged for membership.”

Initial users varied among a few tech startups and service professionals who help the startup sector. “The mix was promising,” said Burnes. “There were numerous conversations and connections happening, but the space never really saw enough uptick to generate the community vibe that is possible with a consistent, large user base.”

For local startup CEO Rich McLeod of Loaded, the space offered a place to touch base regularly with others in the startup world. “I enjoyed have access to a business advisor to run things past, off the cuff, as opposed to organising to meet up to discuss,” he said.

Once the space was up and running, Startup Queenstown Lakes launched a weekly lunch and learn speaker series. Topics ranged from sourcing products from China to business partnership legal agreements. The space also hosted the organisations monthly meet-up, Entrepreneur Coffee Jam, which had outstanding attendance.

Terri Anderson, a local communications executive, gives an audience insights on how to develop a clear story that engages stakeholders during a Lunch ‘n Learn session.

The attendance to workshops exceeded the group’s expectation. More than 300 different people visited the space over the three month period. But where it counted was in the membership dues.

$199 memberships, but membership was still limited

In June, Prospector membership dues went to a flat $199/mo number. Burnes said the number came at averaging out the dues paid by the current membership. Some individuals saw an increase and several saw a decrease. “The hope was that the clear price-point, which is exceptionally below market value for a desk space in town” might prompt uptick, but few new users came in.

As the venue entered the third month, it became evident that some key features were missing. Consistently among members (and those who were surveyed), three key features were missing:

  • Free parking
  • Private spaces to make phone calls
  • Private rooms for meetings

And more fundamentally, location was likely also a factor. “Not being in Frankton was certainly a key reason some interested individuals did not sign up,” said Burnes. “Some saw it as a hassle or extra expense coming into the CBD.”

Local entrepreneur Eva Hooper noted a perception that the space was focused on digital startups may also have discouraged others from participating. Hooper is building a wedding officiant business and was a member for the majority of the time it ran, though when it was first announced, she wasn’t sure if she should join as a solo-entrepreneur. “It would have been good to not appear to limit the space to tech startups,” Hooper said.

Overall, she found the experience useful and intends to continue at one of the other local coworking spaces. “I enjoyed belonging to a community and talking to other ‘one-man shows’ and business owners who struggle with the same stuff/have similar problems that I do.” 

Member Danial McClure, Mixed Media Marketing, agreed, “It was great to bounce ideas and share knowledge with the other members.” Members had a chance to share their skills and experiences with a wider audience. “I had the opportunity to present to a local audience on how to get some quick website wins with the use of landing pages,” he said.

Was Prospector a success or a failure?

“Using KPIs like user-adoption and cash flow, the standalone space was a failure,” said James Burnes, CEO of the organisation. But Burnes still classifies Prospector as a success. “For measurements like community engagement, generating a supportive environment to pursue ideas, and for fostering community, we ticked all the boxes. We just lacked the paid membership base to make the business case.”

“Like any good startup, we tested and looked for market validation before we stepped in with both feet,” said Burnes. “The organisation avoided any costly, long-term leases or expensive fit-outs, and was able to identify another set of entrepreneurs that need support. The space made a little money thanks to member dues and donations covering most operating expenses, which will be reinvested into other workshops and offerings for the community. “

Burnes noted numerous relationships were strengthened and there has been an increase in engagements with individuals in the community. “Having a real place to meet with entrepreneurs and stakeholders in the community gave the trust a sense of legitimacy to the organisation by individuals who previously didn’t see us.”

Where can coworkers go now?

A complete list of coworking spaces in the Queenstown Lakes District can be found in a Coworking Guide on the Startup Queenstown lakes website.

Local creative agency Fluid has recently invested in their Sharespace offering including a new Skype/call booth and a private meeting room. Local tech leaders Mac Opps and Queenstown IT has launched iMeet Coworking and Meeting Space in their new joint office, and a private office and coworking space is soon to launch in Five Mile dubbed Mountain Club.

What’s next?

Startup Queenstown Lakes will be promoting existing spaces to encourage collaboration and has no plans to launch a new space on its own. The group will continue to work to build a strong tech, innovation, and startup ecosystem in the District and offer skill building workshops, business advisor support, and community events.

The groups next big programme, Tourism Tech Expo 2019, is a few weeks away.

James Burnes stands in Prospector the day after the space closed. Packing has begun as the space returns to become a QRC classroom once again.

“With all the exciting things happening here, I’m confident that collaboration spaces, innovation hubs, and places for smart people to come together will continue to appear,” said Burnes. “We’ll do whatever we can to ensure those desiring to pursue big ideas have an encouraging spot to do so.”