Curiosity & The Coral Reef - Paul Keursten on Innovation & Positivity

In the midst of conversations regarding innovation and the creation of spaces where constructive collaboration happens, our intrigue led us to sit down with Paul Keursten. Paul is the co-founder of Workshop17 and chatted to us about the reality of expansion, the positivity behind curiosity and what being connected really means as another instalment of our #powerofJApositivity ambassadors’ series. So without further ado, we present to you an insight into the world of spatial innovation.


Workshop 17 recently won best co-working space in SA. What does it mean for the future and what can you attribute this recognition to?

I think we won because of our partners. Through our platform, we have built quite a lot of partnership networks like Start-up Grind, HeavyChef and FutureFemales who extend our reach significantly. It's not a commercial thing, because it doesn't bring in commercial results immediately - instead, it builds our network.

“Our vision is to be a coral reef.”

Innovation is not eureka moment but an evolution, a series of events or bouncing off ideas. In the book of Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From (there’s also a Ted Talk), there's the story of the coral reef. In one of his diaries, Darwin asks why is it that 90% of sea life that happens around coral reefs and the rest of the sea is so empty? It’s the combination of a fertile ground, with diversity and proximity. So that's one of our inspirations - to be the coral reef of innovation.

In order to be a coral reef you need to build both scale and proximity. The success is attributed to a community - it's not about the space, but about the people and about what happens in the space. And if that's what they recognise with the award, then I'm very happy.

Do you think word on the street about co-working spaces is starting to spread aggressively or is still a bit too subtle?

It's very aggressive in a certain group of people. Lots of people bought into it and Cape Town is one of the leading cities in Africa. Other people walk past, take pictures of W17, but they have no idea what it's all about. It's an interesting time, because co-working is not a niche anymore and it's becoming more and more mainstream. The notion that this is a service is still relatively new however.

You’ve said: “The co-working business is actually a hospitality business.” Can you expand on the parallels drawn between the two?

We discovered that we were in the hospitality business to tell the truth, because we thought we were just in property and facilities! It's about welcoming people, knowing them and making them feel at home - hospitality is the core of what we do. We want to create a place where people feel welcome and want to stay.

Co-working is a little bit inflated. So everyone who has a flexible office space calls it co-working, but co-working is something else than having all the cubicles in the back and having a little Cafe in the front. Part of the co-working trend is opportunistic, but if you have an office with closed doors then you're not a co-working space. How you connect your members - through hospitality - is critical.

The world has become obsessed with disruption - what does the notion mean to you and how do you make it a part of your business practice, in a positive way?

We're only at the beginning. It's about understanding, not the trend or the fashion, but what is actually happening underneath. What are the fundamental developments and which are the new questions we need to ask ourselves?

One of these questions is: “If the nature of work has changed so much, then why does the workplace still look the same as it did 20 years ago?” W17 didn't start from a notion of ‘let me disrupt how people are working’.

We saw that the way people work and the requirements of work has shifted. Work has become varied and multi-disciplinary. Change and innovation are part of many people’s jobs. And having ideas and input across functions and from beyond the company borders have become crucial. An environment that is designed for people sitting at their desks from 9 to 5 in a department where everyone around them has the same function, doesn’t support this. You need to surround yourself with people that can add some different angles. Cross-functional collaboration is happening more and more and we need to harness the power of it. And create work spaces that are conducive for this.

How do you create an environment for innovation?

We wanted to create a space where innovation happens, because we think it's needed - especially in a knowledge economy. But we don't shout it from the rooftops. We also know that innovation and idea generation can’t be planned and controlled in a traditional way. It is often dependent on a series of almost accidental meetings and breakthroughs. We want to create a space where these accidents can happen.

If you think about important moments in your life, it often relates to meeting someone and that meeting often wasn't even planned. Or it was planned with a different idea in mind but turned out to be a breakthrough moment.

“Innovation doesn't happen by plan. It happens by accident. And it doesn't happen in one moment.”

Innovation is actually a break of a pattern. Innovation can also be seen as just being happy at work. And social Innovation is as important as technological innovation. So we want to create an environment where such social and technological breakthroughs can happen - spaces and communities that foster innovation and entrepreneurship.

How do you remain positive while expanding in the progressive way that you are right now?

Maboneng was our first space in 2012 and my co-founder Mark Seftel and I put all our money into it. Maboneng was a no-go area two years before that moment. It has its issues, but it's our birth ground. You can talk about something as much as you like, but it’ll only mean something if you realise it and we’ve put our money where our mouth is.

“That's part of the entrepreneurship game - you have to go all in.

Which we did.”

The second one was here (V&A Waterfront), the third in Sandton, then Paarl opened last October followed by the Fire Station in November. In Gauteng, we support two Township hubs, in partnership with Rhiza Babuyele. Next year we also have Kloof Street opening in Cape Town - so you can imagine the pressure.

The short answer to remaining positive is to stay connected and to remind myself I didn't start this business to make money. Of course we want it to be successful financially, but we started it because we wanted to create a space where people and businesses flourish and contribute to the success of themselves and of others. We wanted to create a level playing field for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds. This is our ‘why'.

The inspiration is always in the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ and the trouble is always in the ‘how’. So always go back to ‘What am I trying to achieve?’ and ‘Where can I see it?’.

At my age I'm on my third start up /scale up, so I often ask myself ‘What did you do Paul? Why did you get yourself into trouble again?’. Because starting something is always trouble. So I could also have remained in my consulting company, with great consulting fees, but there's this drive.

What are your thoughts around how this will evolve into the future?

What drives us is this curiosity. If I knew it, I would not do it. I would not be creating something - I’d just be implementing something that is already known. We started Workshop17 in partnership with the Waterfront. We had a shared vision. And they trusted us to realise the vision. But when you start to do this, you cannot predict how it will turn out. So you start being curious about how it will pan out. We started with this vision about this ‘innovative space’ and how we create trust because trust enables so much more, where fear creates too many limitations.

The one thing that can drive you forward is curiosity; based on ambition or a vision that you have. I do believe that the best work is based on curiosity and not on having answers. If you had all of the answers, then you actually become arrogant - you're not learning anymore; you're not worrying about what people really need next.

Complacency results in a loss of curiosity when you just roll out a formula. For us, moving forward is thinking about constantly developing our next steps.

Thanks to Paul for the great discussion and the positive contribution enabled by the Workshop 17 team.

Our conversation with Paul brought about the realisation that:

“Ideas are only as powerful as they are adoptable.”

The ability to extend your reach relies on your capacity to connect, listen and involve all the parts to drive a vision towards success. Curiosity leads to a joy of discovery - which similarly can only be measured by the value which it adds to the masses. If the masses can’t adopt your discovery and make it their own however, then your discovery is merely of personal value and likely of little use. Most importantly, sustainable success is not a happenstance, it's something that constantly grows and requires a nurturing environment.

We’re looking forward to seeing more leaders adopt the ideologies shared by Paul as we believe them to be critical to understanding the future of work. If we are to adapt our approach to benefit both society and industry, then we must do so in a way that others can and want to adopt the positive means by which we do so.

Kind Regards, Johan Bronkhorst Co-Founder and Director