How shared-space startups are changing Singapore’s landscape

The Lion's share — and where to get it

Following the boom in co-working spaces, there are now makers’ studios with high-tech extras, as well as “sharehouses” that feel like the set of Friends — communal enterprises that come with networking parties, open-mic nights and cocktail-making courses. It makes sense that Singapore — where entrepreneurship is robust, but space is scarce and often pricey — has become an incubator for innovative ways of sharing square footage.

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The front steps at MOX
The front steps at MOX

From the outside, Katong Point, a four-storey building along Singapore’s Joo Chiat Road, hardly looks like an attraction. It’s a modern block along a row of ornately decorated heritage shophouses that are colored like cakes and appear far more storied and interesting to the casual passerby.

Inside, however, is a peek into a thriving artist community and, perhaps, the future of shared creative workplaces. Katong Point is almost entirely occupied by MOX — essentially a co-working space with a refined focus on creative enterprises and startups. The first-of-its-kind setup straddles the building’s first three floors and includes a hot-desking area that can accommodate up to 80 people; a photography studio; an art gallery; meeting rooms fitted with TV screens; permanent office spaces; and a small auditorium with ampitheater-style seating.

 The main hot-desking area oozes with Peranakan vibes
The main hot-desking area oozes with Peranakan vibes

Co-working spaces have sprouted all over Singapore, especially in the CBD area, in a bid to address twin real-estate issues in one of the world’s most expensive cities: independent workers and smaller companies with low budgets get to work in prime locations, while landlords are able to lease out otherwise prohibitively expensive chunks of property. The spaces run the whole spectrum — from the basic to the luxe and tricked-out, such as The Great Room, which has plush leather sofas, marble tabletops and free breakfasts on Mondays (with someone to make your eggs just the way you like them).

MOX’s maker bent gives it a different edge. Launched in 2017 by Invade, an events company that markets spaces by staging, among other things, artisan markets and similar creative gatherings — such as Artbox Singapore, a large “creative lifestyle” pop-up market featuring more than 400 makers — it was a logical extension of the company’s main business. “We organize a lot of artisanal markets, and what we always hear is that artists don’t always have the facilities or the space to work in,” explains MOX community manager Mujia Jiang. “This space is designed for them.”

3D printing studio Tinkermind
3D printing studio Tinkermind

MOX looked like a regular commercial space with a central atrium when it first opened in October 2017. Since then, tenants have moved in and the space has become a lively and more colorful one. Murals adorn entire walls, and there’s a slight kookiness to the room-naming convention — the communal kitchen is called Ramsay, after the chef; the power-nap room is named after sleep-deprivation record holder Randy Gardner (who managed 264.4 hours without shuteye); and the hot-desking cove is called Monroe, presumably after Marilyn. Small details, such as the blue-and-white floor tiles in the concierge area and throw pillows in the shape of gem biscuits in the auditorium, are a subtle nod to the neighborhood’s centuries-old Peranakan culture. Tiny ceramic fortune cats that Mujia had purchased in China and distributed to tenants sit on their shopfront displays.

Part of Mujia’s job is to organize networking events for members. They include a cake maker on the ground floor, a designer who specializes in wedding gowns and formal evening wear, a wood-working atelier, a game-developing studio, knitters who’ve hauled in traditional wood-framed looms and dressmakers in an industrial-grade sewing facility. There are also filmmakers, game designers, toy makers and photographers. In this carefully curated space, complementary ventures — such as a tech firm — are welcome, but creative enterprises take top priority to keep the vibe consistent.

The rooftop space at Hmlet
The rooftop space at Hmlet

This is where adman-turned-relief printmaker John Mathis reports every morning after seeing his seven-year-old daughter off to school. He shares a studio with a bag maker named Chloe, but his 15.5m2 space, demarcated by a small cross of black electrical tape on the polished concrete floor, is all he needs for the tools of his artsy trade: a floor-mounted etching press, a drying rack and a steel blueprint filing cabinet. “It’s the perfect size for what I need,” says John, who signed up for a hot desk before eventually moving here. “Anything smaller would be a squeeze, and I don’t really need anything bigger.”

At cakeshop and baking studio Cakerholic
At cakeshop and baking studio Cakerholic

Ultimately, the appeal of the co-making space is less about its physical makeup than the perks of community: a social network of like-minded people that helps temper the isolation of what are, more often than not, solitary endeavors. “If I went elsewhere and rented a space of my own, it would just be me staring at the walls,” says John. “Here you see other people, and there’s always some monthly event where everyone gets together.”

Neon-lit MOX
Neon-lit MOX

A few doors down from MOX is another relatively new concept space disrupting Joo Chiat’s largely traditional built environment, and Singapore’s real-estate landscape as a whole. Hmlet@JooChiat is one of 11 locations around the city run by Hmlet, a Singapore-based co-living brand that’s refined the idea of a sharehouse for what they describe as an underserved market of millennial professionals, both foreign and local. The company leases properties and reconfigures otherwise prohibitively pricey units into more affordable living spaces that they then sublet on a flexible, month-by-month arrangement. In Singapore, where a standard apartment lease has a two-year commitment and requires a month’s deposit, Hmlet’s proposition seems like a logical solution.

Co-founders Yoan Kamalski and Zenos Schmickrath based part of their research and product development on their own experience of finding the ideal living situation in Singapore. Their search revealed a glut of large apartments that went unoccupied, due in part to the city’s changing expat profile; there weren’t enough top executives with hefty packages renting these homes. There were, however, plenty of young and mobile workers looking to stake a claim in industries of the future — such as fintech — who also wanted a memorable time in Singapore.

Hmlet co-founders Zenos Schmickrath and Yoan Kamalski
Hmlet co-founders Zenos Schmickrath and Yoan Kamalski

“We fixed up a large flat in [city-center area] Riverwalk and convinced our landlord to let us legally sublet to more people,” says Yoan. The flat was a hop-skip from the bars and eateries of Boat Quay, and would have been beyond the budget of anyone without an expat’s package. “After Mrs Lim said yes, we refurbished the place with our own savings.”

Then they interviewed for flatmates, making sure that the candidates gelled well together in terms of shared interests and goals. “Every single person who came to our apartment would say, ‘I wish you guys were my landlord,’” says Yoan. “But we didn’t think of it as a business — we just built it for ourselves. We were just having fun.”

The location on Sarkies Road
The location on Sarkies Road

That shared apartment — scene of numerous parties, ad hoc networking events and lively brainstorming sessions over what could be the next big tech startup — turned out to be the prototype for their co-living project, which has now become that very startup. They developed an algorithm that could match members not just with the right kind of flat, but also with the right kind of flatmates. After a seed-funding round of US$1.5 million in 2016, the company raised another US$6.5 million in a year. Hmlet now has a presence in Tokyo and Hong Kong, and intends to expand into more big cities around Asia.

Their latest location is in south-central Singapore, along residential Sarkies Road, in what’s known to be the neighborhood of choice among multinational execs. Here, Hmlet has taken over an entire building — as it has in three other locations — with its logo emblazoned at the top. “I nearly cried when they put the sign up,” says Zenos. They’ve come a long way since that first flat at Riverwalk.

Co-living essential — a pool!
Co-living essential — a pool!

Parts of Hmlet@Sarkies have been remodeled by the in-house design team to fulfill a big brand promise: plenty of opportunities to interact with other members, should you want to. The basement garage has been converted into a large common room with the design DNA of a Brooklyn bar — craft spirits on the shelf, bare bulbs strung from the ceiling, bricks on the wall. The rooftop, previously unused, is now a social space paved with AstroTurf and fitted with a party-grade concrete kitchen-sink counter. There are portable barbecue grills, colorful garden sets and wall art.

“We realize that you always look at a city through the people that you meet, which means that if you have five great friends, your stay could be amazing,” says Yoan. “We want to bring the right people into the same space. People with the right mentality and who want to share what they do, who want to teach each other stuff. We want to give people that right from month one in a new city.”

A common room you’ll love hanging out in
A common room you’ll love hanging out in

The company has used technology to create increasingly sophisticated ways of perfecting living arrangements. “We’ve built an ecosystem based on understanding behavior, how people want to live,” says Yoan. So, on top of networking events and social activities — cocktail mixing masterclasses, walking tours, game nights — they’ve added on-demand services for room cleaning and laundry. Soon they’ll be launching an app. “The business of sharehousing is not new,” says Yoan. “The issue is to keep the concept consistent and transparent across cities.”

Their barometer of success? “A group of eight people living in the same property became friends and went off on holiday together in Thailand,” says Yoan. Zenos takes it up a notch. “We had one couple that got married,” he says. “Companies have been started up in some of our living rooms.”

. . .

Meet the people who keep the creative vibe alive

Mujia Jiang. MOX community manager organizes networking nights and other events for MOX members and other Katong Point tenants.

John Mathis. The relief printmaker creates images based on stories that his seven-year-old daughter tells him at the end of the day. IG: @tatsumakerworks

Heidi Tay.The boss behind cakeshop Cakerholic (@cakerholicsg) also conducts workshops, from baking specialty cakes to decorating them — anyone up for learning how to primp a Bunny Princess cake?

Core collective by Aurum. This new fitness and wellness hub seems well timed for a new age of fitness obsession — a time when Instagram is packed with workout journeys and, as Medium reports,  “extreme athleticism is the new midlife crisis”. This widespread phenomenon has given rise to more health and fitness professionals, from therapists to chiropractors, personal instructors to nutritionists. In Singapore, a whole community of them has found a hub in Core Collective, whose facilities include everything from meeting rooms for consultations to gym equipment and massage tables. Events range from group workouts to seminars such as “Gut Health for a Better You”. corecollective.sg

This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Tara Sering

Photographed by

Juliana Tan

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