Would you rent out your home as an office workspace?
15th January 2016
I'm writing this feature on my laptop sitting at a kitchen table in a stranger's home.
It's a converted warehouse in east London, where the occupier, Jayna Cavendish, lives and teaches yoga.
I booked the workspace on the Spacehop website, which launched this month.
I'm paying £17.20 for the day. So is the young entrepreneur sitting further up the kitchen table.
"I don't want to work in a dead-end office block," says Jonathan Mitchell, of ethical fashion start-up BrothersWeStand. "I want an inspiring place, but I also need to keep costs down."
"The guest will be gone by the time the homeowner returns home," explains Spacehop co-founder Matthew Beatty, who has dropped in.
But he will need to move fast - there is a "space race" on.
New space race
Spacehop is one of a host of companies using internet technology to connect homeowners to business people, creating a network of "on demand" daytime workplaces.
It is the latest manifestation of the "sharing economy", which aims to make the most of our "idle assets" - our homes and cars that sit empty and unused for much of the day.
Airbnb spearheaded this movement, showing people they could rent spare rooms to holidaymakers, tapping into the $550bn (£380bn) global hotel market.
Now a new front has opened up, focused on the business community.
"The collaborative economy really inspires us here in France," explains Florian Delifer.
His start-up, OfficeRiders, founded in 2014, promises to make "your home, their office".
Last year it handled over 1,300 bookings, with monthly growth of 20%-30%, says Mr Delifer.
He got the idea visiting San Francisco in 2013 with friends - they struggled to find space to work with their laptops.
"We realised we were a growing sector of workers and didn't like the waste of space we saw around us," he recalls.
At the moment, nearly a third of OfficeRiders' bookings are made by "digital nomads" looking for co-working spaces, who pay around €10-15 (£7.50-11.30) per day.
Around half are made by companies looking for off-site meeting places, paying more for exclusive access.
But OfficeRiders sees most future expansion coming from the growth in "millennial" co-workers in their 20s and 30s.
Take a Breather
US company Breather was one of the first companies to spot this demand for temporary business spaces.
Launched in 2013, it now has more than 100 locations in major cities in the US and Canada.
Its network of informal business lounges - mostly unused rooms in commercial buildings that have been jazzed up with yoga mats and flip-boards - are available by the hour to "high-income, well-connected professionals", the company says.
A PIN-code lock system manages access via an app and a cleaner visits after each booking.
Like all these companies, Breather is testing its business model with a view to global expansion.
Breather plans to come to London in 2016, where it will find that Spacehop is not its only rival. There is another company which has a one-year head start, though at the moment it caters to a different market.
Vrumi was founded by former hedge fund manager, Roddy Campbell, and partner William Sieghart.
Mr Campbell's eureka moment came when he broke his leg.
Quizzing his physiotherapist, he found it was more economical to rent out his drawing room for treatment, rather than travel to the surgery the physio rented.
Vrumi now has over 500 hosts and is taking "dozens of bookings" each month.
The majority of these are for the exclusive use of a space, at an average cost of £60 per day.
People using the service include therapists, masseurs, photographers and those looking to host small business meetings.
It's easy to see why someone would want to book Mr Campbell's impressive Notting Hill pad, but what about a normal suburban home?
Demand can be driven by geography, explains Mr Campbell. Clients like therapists or Reiki practitioners want one-off bookings close to clients, so a suburban sitting room could fit the bill perfectly.
The two main groups of people renting out rooms are "empty nesters" and young professionals in need of extra cash, explains Mr Campbell.
Trust and tax
But how do you know these nomadic workers aren't going to damage your pad or even steal your stuff?
After all, there have been several high-profile cases of Airbnb properties being damaged. Airbnb originally offered a "host guarantee" worth up to $1m - effectively a promise to pay for any damage itself.
Then in 2015, it launched a host insurance policy underwritten by a bank, covering accidents, damage and third-party claims.
Most "air-biz-nb" firms say they are adopting a similar approach.
Spacehop has negotiated a policy that covers theft and damage of contents. Vrumi is finalising an opt-in insurance that covers building, contents and public liability, says Mr Campbell. The novelty of the business model meant it took time to negotiate a specialist policy, he says.
This is new territory, points out Mr Campbell. There are no apparent legal issues renting out a room for daytime business use this way, even if you rent the property rather than own it. Though unlike an Airbnb rental, he adds, you currently have to pay tax on all the income you generate. There is no "rent-a-room" relief.
Back in the yoga studio, I'm struck that homeowner Jayna Cavendish has chosen to stick around while her guests are working.
I chat to her by the nibbles she has thoughtfully laid out.
"It's better if you are here in person," she confides. "People respect the property more."