Space as a Service: How Roam is Building a Co-Living Business for Digital Nomads
Do you want to get into the heads of the top initiators and performers from the architectural community? If so, we heartily welcome you to Archipreneur Insights! In this interview series, we talk to the leaders and key players who have created outstanding work and projects within the fields of architecture, building and development. Get to know how they did it and learn how you could do the same for your own business and projects.
This week’s interview is with Bruno Haid, founder of Roam – A “Space as a Service” startup.
Initially growing up in Austria and later living between San Francisco and New York, Bruno was used to not having a fixed home, and he became accustomed to working from anywhere. Bruno had the idea to turn this nomadic style of work into a business, and so he established Roam, a company that offered co-living and co-working spaces with a “Space as a Service” business model. At the time of writing, Roam is available in four cities: Miami, Bali, Tokyo, and London.
I met Bruno in an area of Berlin where you can already find a number of “Space as a Service” businesses such as hostels and co-working spaces – but no co-working/co-living options to be found. Coincidence? We will soon find out!
Bruno hires local architects and developers for each of his “Space as a Service” projects. For his first location in Bali he worked with Alexis Dornier, who we interviewed for Archipreneur Insights in 2016.
Keep on reading to learn how Bruno reached his goal to offer space as a service locations worldwide, and hear his thoughts about how changes in society influence modern living.
If you are a ‘work nomad’, be sure to check out Roam and all it has to offer!
Enjoy the interview!
Could you tell us a little about your background?
I am a high school dropout. I dropped out when I was 17. I was studying at one of those rigid, educationally questionable institutions you tend to get in Austria. I initially started out as a designer, all self-taught. I think in ’94 I accidentally came across the first HTML tutorials, and I remember there was a German lifestyle and culture magazine called Max – I don’t know if those guys are still around, but they were popular in the mid ‘90s, shortly before everybody started listening to Kruder & Dorfmeister and wearing Helmut Lang. This magazine influenced my move into design. I always knew I had a passion for architecture, despite having no formal training in it.
Right now, I find one of the most interesting areas of work is in organizational design. How can you create an incentive structure, for example, that works for everyone?
When did you decide to found Roam? Was there a particular moment that sealed the decision for you?
I founded Roam a little over two years ago. There was no particular moment that I can think of, but I had a couple of influences. First, growing up on a farm with a bed and breakfast in the Alps helped me to visualize the hospitality aspect of Roam. Then there was the constant moving around: Five years ago, I was living between San Francisco, New York, and a couple of other places. I was broke but could fly cheaply, so I was basically bouncing back and forth between housesitting for friends and sleeping in whatever guestrooms were available. In my 20s, I had been focused on finding my own place and having my privacy. But travelling back and forth between places changed my mind-set.
I think the crucial moment for me came about two and a half years ago when I was doing some consulting work and a friend mentioned that there was a city in Bali called Ubud. Seeing the co-working spaces and the coffee shops there, I started to realize that I really could live and work from anywhere.
I had also started a co-living space in San Francisco about four years before that. That, coupled with my previous experiences, was how the itch to create something more came about.
Roam questions the traditional concepts of housing with a “Space as a Service” approach. I heard you mentioning the Bauhaus attitude – I like that notion. Could you elaborate?
I think that what sets Bauhaus apart from Bjarke Ingels, for example, is this tradition of craftsmanship that started in a very theoretical, abstract age of architecture. There was an ambition to see how to do things differently, practically, and thoroughly. That attitude brought you a ‘House and Home,’ a Frankfurt kitchen, and so on – those really well-thought-through elements of housing that then came to define the next hundred years. So, the Bauhaus attitude refers to an approach to tinker but also think things through.
So, do you think that contemporary housing will soon be obsolete?
Obsolete is maybe a bit harsh. Just like in financial services and other areas, things exist for a reason. You don’t have to abolish and disrupt everything in order to make a change. At the same time, a lot of the things that define housing – like kitchens – are a hundred years old, but if we all live two months here and four months there, or if we change flat mates and/or relationships, what are the effects on the kitchen?
The Bauhaus movement asked this question a hundred years ago. I think you can re-ask this question. As a result contemporary housing might not be radically different on the outside, but it might be different in the details.
Let’s talk about the buildings that you converted into co-living/co-working spaces. How did you find them?
We wanted to act globally from day one, with one location on each continent. We initially didn’t want to open a location in a tier one city because you don’t have a lot of room for experimentation. If you have a real estate asset in New York, for example, you’d better know what you’re doing.
We initially started looking for buildings in Mexico City but instead found a great place in Miami, entirely by chance. Bali happened on purpose because we knew that it was an up-and-coming location, an independent’s paradise with co-working spaces and a really good infrastructure. So, it’s a place where you can feasibly live for a couple of months. So, Miami and Bali were the first locations. London came later.
Did you do the location scouting by yourself, or did you get locals to look for you?
We do have a team of location scouts, but most of the time it has been a case of ‘someone who knows someone who knows someone.’
Different asset classes go to different cycles, so the traditional ecosystem can’t help you that much. Yes, you can ask commercial real estate agencies like JLL or CBRE, “We need a mid-block 25 to 75 unit hotel in a major American city,” and then they will produce a list. But in most cases it doesn’t work that way.
If you look at our partner list, you’ll find innovative place makers who don’t shy away from operating in neighborhoods that are in an early stage of development, or simply who aren’t afraid of doing more interesting things.
The buildings we looked for are not necessarily those that are also on the radar for traditional commercial real estate agencies.
What is the business model behind Roam, and how do you finance your projects?
The business model is quite simple. It is a space as a service model: We lease a building, rent out single units, and try to make about a 20% profit margin. Our basic business model is to take on long-term leases, give people flexibility and services, and charge about 20% – the profits fund the company. (A “Space as a Service” business model)
Do your tenants pay monthly or is there a subscription model?
The goal is for them to subscribe. Right now, you can say that you need a place for a week in London, and you can book yourself into Roam London based on availability. But this is because we currently have just four locations.
The goal is for us to become our customers’ primary housing provider, so that instead of signing a lease or buying an apartment you sign up with Roam for a one or two year period, and in time you’ll be able to choose from a number of beautiful and exciting cities as your next destination.
And for each project you hire different architects and developers?
Yes. That idea is something that we stole from a supermarket chain where I grew up in western Austria. They do something really clever: They take their budget and go to young architects who have perhaps only developed one or two single family homes or who have carried out a rooftop conversion somewhere. They give these architects their budget, tell them their functional requirements, and allow them to go crazy in designing the supermarket. The great part is that not only has every second of these supermarkets won an international architecture prize but they have also become the cornerstones of their rural communities.
The biggest organizational challenge for Roam is: How can we create a system that makes it possible to create a unique but also reliable inventory? If you look at hotels, for example, you can either have an inventory that is very unique but doesn’t really scale – the starchitects who have perhaps developed five legendary boutique hotels but who have never built an organization that can sustain more because it’s dependent on one or two people – or you can have something like WeWork (the large space as a service co-working company) where you don’t exactly know whether you’re sitting in Berlin, San Francisco or China.
The solution was to let go of our ego and let others design something that’s highly localized. The aesthetics and architecture of our buildings are completely different, and so we didn’t want to create a ‘one size fits all’ model.
The building in Bali, for example, is a contemporary boutique hotel, while the building in Miami is one of the city’s oldest standing structures. Nevertheless, we are very opinionated about how our communal kitchens look: We put out the cutting boards each morning with a single white cloth and a knife; the protocol there is very clear!
What is your role in the development process?
As a CEO, you try to make sure that everything fits together, so I would say that my role is in designing the organizational structure. I can say that I’ve succeeded in my job when the organization says, “We don’t really need you anymore. We’re good.” That’s what I try to aim for!
How many users/subscribers does Roam have?
We have about 1,100 ‘Roamers’ to date.
When did the first location open?
A little more than a year ago in Bali, which was developed by Alexis Dornier.
We interviewed Alexis, so I have seen pictures of the location. It is very beautiful.
It’s an amazing space. It’s a combination of his ‘nerdy’ architectural approach and the local flavor from the craftsmen who built it. They have created something really magical together.
A lot of architects would say, “Let’s combine East and West. Can we put a Buddha over there, next to the exposed concrete?” But Alexis is someone who really digs deep when it comes to questioning the underlying principle. That could mean anything from exploring the social construct of a home, through understanding how families live together, to designing a specific method of suspension. He has designed a restaurant, for example, that’s entirely suspended from metal scaffolding. It’s amazing.
What are the future goals and plans for Roam?
The immediate goal is to follow through on our promise that you can live anywhere. Going truly global is obviously a long-term goal for us, but we want to be in at least 10 to 12 cities by the end of the year, which will hopefully include Berlin.
Is that why you are in Berlin right now?
We are actively looking for places in Berlin. It’s pretty high up on the list. Hopefully, we’ll be able to announce something this year; it depends if the building is a ground-up development or if it needs general renovation. We’ll hopefully make an announcement for Berlin either this year or early next year.
Do you have any advice for archipreneurs who are interested in starting their own business?
Just do it, step by step. Trust your instincts and show up every morning.
What I found surprising, having established a couple of companies that didn’t work out, was how the simplest of ideas can turn out to be the most successful.
There’s this huge tendency, especially in Europe and especially if you are doing something creative, to over-intellectualize. But creative innovation isn’t the most important thing, it’s more about just getting on with it and having the stamina to keep going, to trust yourself and to give yourself time to make a success of your business.
Thinking that everyone else is more successful and doubting yourself is not helpful to becoming an entrepreneur. The most interesting and the most successful people have struggled for a long time. They have taken their time to get everything together, but then they did it. And they did it with consequence, in the good times and bad, and they followed through. This is what leads to great outcomes. That can be true for a great number of people, not just architects.
How do you see the future of the architectural profession? In which areas (outside of traditional practice) can you see major opportunities for up and coming developers and architects?
I am most interested in the changes made in social contact. It might be a selfish answer because Roam is specifically working on that, but I honestly believe that we’re all just getting started in this area. If you look at city architecture, then everything has traditionally been built around cars and highways. But that’s changing: Cities are now frequently looking to the developments in automation and the potential of smart cities, so how does that change architecture? The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk talked about bubbles, and he is constantly moving back and forth between bubbles and comparing them.
These changes in focus have huge implications for everything from residential real estate and office spaces to retail and urban planning. For that reason, I think the biggest opportunity for architects is to take a closer look into how society is changing and how infrastructure can be rebuilt based on those changes. Of course, some of this is technologically driven – we now have parametric designs and competition capacities that enable the construction of buildings – this would have been impossible some 15 years ago. Perhaps, by combining technical capabilities and new materials with the rapid changes in society and culture, we can start to realize the future of architecture.
About Bruno Haid
Bruno is founder and CEO of Roam. He grew up in hospitality, in a tiny Austrian village, built a couple of startups and led large-scale projects for corporates like McKinsey, BMW or Swarovski. He’s also a founding tenant of co-living spaces on 3 continents, and writes something about housing and hospitality on Medium approximately every decade, but wants to get better at it.
His perfect Roam location is directly bordering a Canadian mountain range, a beach in central America, the New York MTA system and a good resolution of his childhood issues.
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