Changemaker Interview Series
In this regular contributing column, we interview online entrepreneurs who begun their life down the traditional path, but realize that something was missing. They decide to pivot, and strike out on their own, and forge ahead on their own path and never looked back.
This week, we feature Leanne Beesley, digital nomad and entrepreneur extraordinaire. Co-Founder of Coworker.com, the “Airbnb of Coworking Spaces,” Leanne’s adventures and ventures are the stuff of legend. She’s been roaming the globe for more than a decade, been held up by gunpoint in Africa, and even placed top ten in a marathon in North Korea, all while starting and growing successful (and some not so successful!) online businesses.
We sat down for an exclusive with Leanne to pick her brain and learn about her learnings along the way.
In your own words, please tell us about yourself!
I grew up in a small village just outside Liverpool in the United Kingdom. Growing up, it never crossed my mind to become an entrepreneur. I did my undergrad degree at the London School of Economics and my Masters degree at the American University of Paris…all typical checkboxes for a cushy high paying corporate job and typical city lifestyle.
But somehow along the way I ended up straying off that path, choosing one that would get me mugged at knifepoint in Guatemala, receiving death threats in Togo, bribing (gifting?) immigration officers at the borders of 4 different countries, riding rickshaws to and from work in Bangladesh, accidentally drinking potent marijuana-laced goat soup in Liberia, partying in a suburban underground bunker turned techno-club in Russia, catching Malaria 3 times, being interviewed on TV in North Korea, and other strange stories.
Now that I’m older and wiser at 32, my life is a little more boring. So instead of chasing the thrill of getting myself into ridiculous situations, I chase the thrill of creating and building things.
I’m currently based between Thailand and Hong Kong, and as the co-founder and CEO of Coworker.com I lead a remote team that spans across 10 countries.
Was there a specific moment when you decided to begin life as an entrepreneur?
I think I fell into being an entrepreneur without realizing it.
The first half of my career was in digital advertising, working in major agencies on large national and global brands. Although I liked my jobs and worked with fun people, I always felt like something was missing.
So when the opportunity came up to work at an internet marketing company in Malaysia that was known for its great workplace culture, I jumped at it.
That was my first exposure to online businesses and it opened my eyes to a whole new world. Seeing how online systems and funnels could generate millions of dollars and sustain an ecosystem of smart, creative people from all around the world at this office in Malaysia had a profound effect on me.
Eventually I started being offered client projects from industry connections and friends I’d made at conferences, and inadvertently became a freelancer.
Freelancing was fun because it gave me exposure to all kinds of different online businesses. And as I’m a generalist, I used it as an opportunity to grow my skills in new areas; building websites and HTML emails, setting up advanced Analytics tracking, tagging and retargeting, SEO, graphic design, conversion optimisation with AB testing, etc. I’m lucky that I always had clients that were willing to let me try new things.
I even went to CES in Las Vegas and built an entire tradeshow booth single handedly from scratch (including donning kneepads to create a wooden floor from cheap individual planks… as you can imagine in an industrial zone filled with male contractors, the jokes were priceless).
Alongside my freelance work, I worked on my own projects that I consider more as experiments than businesses; affiliate marketing, eCommerce, Amazon FBA and real estate investment.
Then eventually I started Coworker to solve a problem I had (after wasting time trying to find a freelancer-friendly coworking space in Hong Kong).
I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to be an entrepreneur. I just fell into it because I wanted to create things.
What are some of the businesses you’ve started over the years? What did you learn from them?
My personal favourite is when I created “the sexiest spatula in the world.” A few years ago, I was considering starting a home decor / kitchenware brand because I love furniture and interior design.
Because I had zero experience with physical products and absolutely no idea how product design or manufacturing works, I wanted to first test the process with a small cheap item without overthinking what it should be.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I had 3000 kitchen spatulas being manufactured at a factory in China. Although I did fly over to Shenzhen to meet with a few manufacturers I found on Alibaba, I ended up choosing a manufacturer I didn’t meet with because the sample products they posted to me were better quality than the others.
I never intended to do the “sexy spatula” branding around it, but my friend had sent me a new website theme that I wanted to try out and it was shortly before the 50 Shades of Grey movie was being released. So while my spatulas were being shipped across the ocean from China to the USA, I figured it would be both fun and hilarious to create this and hijack the buzz around the movie. So www.sexyspatula.com was born.
I made so many mistakes with this project, but because it was just a cheap test it ended up being a fun learning experience instead of an expensive failure. Here are a few of my major mistakes:
1. I had cool packaging designed but it never occurred to me that I should put details on the back such as “dishwasher safe” “BPA free” etc. Customers mentioned this in their reviews, saying they couldn’t trust the marketing claims were true as the product packaging didn’t include this. Face palm.
2. Trying to scrimp on shipping costs from China to the USA, I eventually found and booked what I thought was a brilliant deal. I smugly reveled in my ingenuity in finding a shipping company that would do it for 50% less than all the other quotes I received… until a month later, an email landed in my inbox from a random Chinese company I’d never heard of saying my shipment had reached California but I had to send them a $1800 postal order to release it. Face palm.
Luckily the customs broker I’d commissioned (Western Overseas) was able to save the day and handle this for me (who uses postal orders?) but it was an annoying extra expense I hadn’t accounted for. Moral of the story: if a shipping quote seems too good to be true, it probably is.
3. Because the spatulas were attached securely to sturdy cardboard packaging, it never occurred to me to also get them individually packed in clear, sealed plastic bags. However, after my spatulas had already left China I discovered this was a requirement to store them in Amazon’s warehouses. Face palm. Luckily I found a company in the USA that was able to receive my entire shipment and package them in clear plastic bags before distributing them to various Amazon warehouses across the country.
I originally had the “sexy spatula” branding on the Amazon page and collected over 300 reviews from people I’d given discount codes to. These reviews were hilarious – people really embraced the satire. There were even reviews including clips from porn films with my spatula superimposed onto a particular body part. However, Amazon eventually wiped almost all of them during their initiative to delete reviews from customers who received free products in exchange for a review. I wish I’d taken screenshots of them all because they were glorious.
In the end, I didn’t move forwards with creating the home decor brand because I decided to stay focused on tech rather than physical products. But it was definitely a fun experiment and I learned a lot.
What were some of the hardest moments or biggest failures? Did you ever feel like giving up?
Resilience and grit are the two most important qualities you can have as an entrepreneur. Even when we’ve encountered obstacles along the way, I’ve never felt like giving up because I believe so much in the potential of Coworker and the positive ripple effect of the growing coworking industry.
I want to learn more about how you started up your new venture, Coworker, for which you’ve raised $1 million in investor funding for so far. How did this start and what is your mission?
In 2015, I decided to spend a month in Hong Kong for a change of scenery and wanted to base myself at the most popular coworking space with startups and freelancers as a way of plugging myself straight into the local tech community.
As soon as I arrived, I checked out Google for coworking spaces in Hong Kong and was overwhelmed with all the choices. There were so many of them!
But after sifting through 30+ individual websites, I couldn’t figure out which was the most popular one with the type of community I was looking for.
After wasting about 3 days researching, eventually a friend told me her favourite space in Hong Kong was called Garage Society. I went to go check it out and it was perfect – exactly what I was looking for.
But it bugged me that I could have so easily missed this space if my friend hadn’t recommended it. And it got me wondering why there wasn’t a “Tripadvisor for coworking spaces” out there.
I realised that there wasn’t a single global platform out there to find, review and book coworking spaces.
For hotels, there’s platforms like Hotels.com, Agoda and Expedia. For restaurants there’s YELP and Tripadvisor. For flexible accomodation, there’s Airbnb.
But nothing existed for coworking spaces.
This annoyed me because it didn’t make sense. I really wanted a platform like this to exist because it would be incredibly useful for me, and I knew that with the growth in remote work and shift from traditional office leases to flexible office leases at coworking spaces, it would help other people too.
So I decided to build it.
I teamed up with my co-founder Sam Marks (a former client of mine on previous freelance projects who became a great friend), we put together a team and launched the MVP in October 2015.
We launched in stealth mode, but within days someone discovered Coworker and submitted us to Product Hunt where we ended up trending on the homepage for a full week. Through that, the Financial Times got wind of us and called Coworker its “Innovation To Watch” in both an online article AND in print. I was half thrilled, half desperately scrambling to fix a bunch of bugs on the platform before anyone noticed.
It quickly became very clear that there was a real market and demand that Coworker fulfilled. Our KPIs were increasing every month and almost every day we’d receive an email from either a member or a coworking space manager thanking us for creating the platform.
Since then, we’ve raised 2 seed rounds in equity funding totalling $1 million. We have never pitched for investment and turned down most offers, but we’re in a fortunate position of great people approaching us. Our first round was 1 year after we launched from a group of Angel investors in our network – all of whom are incredible entrepreneurs that have built multi-million dollar companies. I’m grateful to have them all as advisors as we scale.
My mission is to grow Coworker into the #1 platform connecting people with workspaces and communities in every part of the world.
Coworker now has over 5000 coworking spaces featured on the platform across 115 countries, over 10,000 member reviews and tips, and almost 100,000 users each month. But we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible. I’m really excited for the features and partnerships we’re rolling out in 2018.
Coworker.com, Leanne’s latest project, features an attractive user interface and clear-cut
pricing and location information.
What are some of the best marketing strategies you’re using today?
This is very low tech, but my #1 most effective strategy is an ultra friendly, upbeat, happy tone of voice in all written customer communications, whether that be email replies, Twitter replies or Facebook comments. It’s amazing what a simple shift in the tone of voice of your customer support can do for your brand and sales.
What do you love most about being an entrepreneur?
If you had asked me that a couple of years ago when I was a solo entrepreneur, I would have said the freedom to build and create anything I want. Because that is definitely a really exciting feeling.
But now I have an amazing team working with me, my favourite part of being an entrepreneur is being able to enable the people in my team to grow, challenge themselves and love what they do.
What are some common mistakes aspiring entrepreneurs often make and what advice do you give to young people — such as yourself at 25 — who are interested in living life on their own terms?
Don’t start out alone. Learn the ropes from someone who has figured it out already. Get an apprenticeship with an entrepreneur you look up to and be prepared to work long hours for very little money to add as much value to their business as you can. Not only will you learn the systems and processes they successfully use, you’ll build an invaluable relationship. Success as an entrepreneur comes much quicker when when you have successful people believing in you.
You’ve been around the globe quite a bit and also spent several years living in Southeast Asia. Tell me about that journey.
I’ve been travelling since I was 17 when I spent a month in China with my best friend from high school during the peak of the SARS epidemic. When we returned to the UK, our school forced a quarantine upon us and wouldn’t let us back at school for 2 weeks.
I moved to Vietnam for 6 months when I was 18, trained 300+ people at a conference in Mexico when I was 21, lived in Togo for a year when I was 22, worked at an advertising agency in Bangladesh when I was 23, and now at 32 I’ve been living across South East Asia for the past 7 years.
I’m so used to living outside of the UK that it feels more normal for me to be an expat than not.
How has travel shaped you as a person and entrepreneur?
I think the main way travel has shaped me as a person is that it enabled me to shake off the shyness and (most of the) social awkwardness that plagued me when I was younger. Constantly putting myself in situations where I’m always meeting new people and making new friends helped develop that muscle.
As an entrepreneur, travel helped me get over a fear of failure I subconsciously had that was holding me back from starting a business. When I lived in London, it never even occurred to me to become an entrepreneur. I was so firmly rooted in my story of being “I’m Leanne, I work in advertising” that the thought of giving up my identity for an unknown world of entrepreneurship would have seemed ridiculous.
It was only when I started traveling and meeting more entrepreneurs that I realized how many opportunities there are in the world to create a life and business that you love.
What are your future goals for your business and your entrepreneurial career in general for the next few years?
Coworking is an incredibly exciting industry because it’s growing so fast and in so many different directions. From remote work initiatives to “office as a service” partnerships to entrepreneurial community building, coworking spaces are revolutionising the way we work. This industry is really only just getting started and I plan to be one of the market leaders pioneering its growth.
Coworker has the potential to change people’s lives around the world by connecting them with the communities where they can live, work and thrive. Coworking spaces are amazing places to meet new friends, investors, business partners, mentors and even new employees and customers.
Over the next few years, as well as increasing our visibility in key markets such as NYC and London, we also plan to expand in underrepresented markets such as Dhaka in Bangladesh, Accra in Ghana and Lima in Peru that have growing entrepreneurial communities.
Member reviews are a primary focus for us as they give a real insight into the community, and we’ve already collected over 10,000 member reviews and tips for coworking spaces around the world.
We currently connect people with coworking spaces across 115 countries, but my goal is that by 2020 we have over 100,000 member reviews and full global coverage so that anyone, anywhere, can find their coworking community.
What other dream profession would you take up if you weren’t doing what you are doing?
If I wasn’t currently 100% focused on Coworker, I would be training full time at a martial arts camp in the mountains of Northern China learning Kung Fu. So… a professional badass?
What’s one random fact about you that few people know?
I once came seventh place in the North Korean Half Marathon… by mistake.
An official guard clearly mistook my bright red face and slow shuffle for someone finishing up a full marathon and sent me in the wrong direction, which led to me accidentally crossing the finish line after running only 14km.
Despite my protests, I was given a seventh place certificate and inadvertently awarded a lifetime of glory.
I tell you this not to show off my heroic feat of victory in the land of North Korea, but to show you that evidently nothing in life is impossible.
What advice would you give to others who want to create a business around their passions?
At the risk of being too blunt, your passions alone are a poor reason to start a business.
If I had followed my passions, there’s a good chance I’d be swimming in a lake of melted Lindt milk chocolate truffles right now with a webcam subscription as a way to monetize it.
My advice would be to stop thinking about your passions and start thinking about your problems. What problems do you see in the world that you want to solve?
Create a list of all the things that bother you (there’s no such thing as too big or too small, problems can range from global accessibility of clean water to bad website design) then write down at least three creative solutions to each.
Sleep on it and keep adding to this list daily for at least the next 14 days. Eventually you’ll notice one solution to one problem that makes you feel really excited every time you glance through your list.
Got butterflies? That’s your winner. Now go for it and make it happen!