Bernard Lee has used many business centres throughout his career. So he feels he can say with some certainty that Abu Dhabi is in need of something different.
"I was just shocked in the gap in the market," says Mr Lee, 42, who is from Toronto but has lived in the US for almost a decade working for Deutsche Bank in New York. "What’s missing in my opinion here is there is no, at least in Abu Dhabi, business centres that are actively managed in terms of community."
He aims to change that by launching a network of coworking spaces in the capital.
Defined as an office used by people who are either self-employed or working for different employers, coworking brings them together in a way which is designed to help share ideas.
Mr Lee, who moved to Abu Dhabi in 2012, and Emirati business partner Fahad Al Ahbabi came up with the idea after initially working together doing corporate restructuring for the government.
"[Fahad] came up with the idea to form a real estate fund business, a family office focused on real estate and real estate services. Through that process, through lots of different iterations, GlassQube was born," says Mr Lee, who is chief executive of the company.
GlassQube is currently building a 100,000 square feet flagship location in downtown Abu Dhabi, which will become the UAE’s largest single business centre in the UAE once it is complete in the third quarter of 2017. But it also has a Beta space just about to open on Reem Island which will feature flexi desks, coworking and private offices. And there is a third location to follow in Bateen this October.
Originally only planning for the flagship location at the corner of Al Najda Street and Defence Road, the pair decided to test the market’s interest by setting up a website describing what GlassQube will be like. The response was tremendous, says Mr Lee.
"There was just a huge response of people just wanting to know when it was coming. When I told certain individuals it was two years away their response was very negative and it became clear over time that if we wanted to do this the time was now," he adds.
And so the idea for the beta space was born. The Reem Island location in Sky Tower, which launches at the start of this month, will feature 500 workstations over 21,500 square feet. It will open gradually in three phases through to the second quarter of 2017.
The first phase will feature a pantry lounge with couches and coffee tables, a kitchen bar, privacy booth for private phone calls and video conferencing, a communal area, plus an enclosed coworking space for 70 workstations. There will also be 30 private offices, breakout rooms and conference rooms.
Pricing starts at Dh950 a month for a part-time flex membership, which gives access to the facility three days a week in the open lounge area, up to from Dh1,950 for a dedicated coworking membership for a seat in a dedicated enclosed area. Private offices start at Dh3,500 a month for a dedicated workstation and a 10-person office costs between Dh13,000 and Dh15,000 a month.
The flagship location will feature about 1,000 workstations, around half of which will be set aside for coworking, over seven floors.
Anything goes in terms of tenants, says Mr Lee, and the space recently scored a big one in the form of Uber, the ultra-trendy 21st-century taxi company partly owned by Google which has been operating in the UAE for the past two-and-a-half years.
"As we considered our options for offices in Abu Dhabi we realised we don’t need a large dedicated space," says Chris Free, general manager for the UAE at Uber.
"We are able to run our business very lean and we can keep our office footprint to a minimum."
GlassQube aims to offer more than space and opportunities for companies to get together. It also wants to help encourage future business owners through an entrepreneurship programme for Emiratis.
Faisal Al Hammadi, 31, and Hamad Al Shurafa, 32, whose business Slices produces healthy food for schools, including Brighton College, are proud to be the first members. GlassQube is providing them with 12 months of free workspace in exchange for their time in the future to mentor their fellow Emirati entrepreneurs.
Mr Lee says he was inspired by their drive. "I want them to see them succeed."
And they appreciate the help because finding somewhere they fit in in Abu Dhabi was difficult, as most office space is corporate and charges high rent.
"It is definitely the thing we needed four years ago because there was no place to go to like that," says Mr Hammadi.