Brothers Theo and Jackel Cheung are both graduates of CUHK EMBA in 2010 and founders of playground.work. Their company is a pioneer of coworking spaces in Hong Kong, being part of a concept that has taken the world by storm and revolutionised the workplace eco-system. They have also established social enterprise BrewMasters, another coworking space with a coffee theme, to train young baristas and improve the professional standing of local baristas.
Continuing Education Turns Brothers into Classmates
Theo and Jackel moved to Australia at a young age. Being only two years apart, they went to the same primary and high schools. Although they have been very close all their lives, enrolling in CUHK together and becoming classmates after returning to Hong Kong was one thing they did not expect.
Jackel, the younger brother, has a background in architecture. He worked at a listed company where he was responsible for property development on the mainland. As his scope of duties expanded, he became aware of his inadequate knowledge outside his area of expertise, so he applied to the EMBA Programme. Theo, the elder brother, majored in electrical engineering and computer science as an undergrad. He had worked and started a business in those areas before he eventually decided to enroll in the same programme with his brother to move past his career plateau.
Each to his own, the brothers acquired different benefits from the programme. Jackel recalls, “Professor Andrew Chan taught us to put things in perspective. Because of that I examine every part of our business from different angles.” Theo describes the EMBA Programme as a revelation. “Business theories from the programme such as left-right circles, game theory, and Porter’s Five Forces allow me to make sense of all the fragmented experiences I’ve gained from working and starting my own business. They’re like a set of martial arts that still benefit me to this day.”
The brothers were the centre of attention and the subject of inside jokes amongst their peers at times, such as being suspected of plagiarising each other or keeping exam tips to themselves. The weekly classes have resulted in a decade-long friendship with their fellow classmates—something that the brothers cherish most besides knowledge.
Jackel (left) and Theo are very close and make all decisions together
Coworking Space Facilitates Major Interactions amongst Small Teams
After graduation, Jackel was assigned to revamp service apartments in an old building in Shanghai. He invited Theo to conduct market research and brand development, as well as making operation and tenancy arrangements, while he focused on plans and technical architecture. To accommodate contemporary lifestyles, they reduced room size in exchange for more rooms and incorporated modern designs and facilities into the old building. The project successfully doubled the value of the property and laid the foundation for their future entrepreneurship.
Their partnership can be traced back to running a family-owned property management business in Australia. They learned of coworking spaces, a novel concept at the time, by chance. They saw the potential and decided to put their skills into full use in Hong Kong. Three key elements set coworking space apart from traditional offices and business centres: space, flexibility and community. Most coworking spaces are equipped with hot desks and implement membership schemes. The system is characterised by the flexibility in design and user-friendliness. Members can expand their network and discover new opportunities through meeting one another in the open plan office.
Take playground.work in Sheung Wan as an example. The two levels occupy a total area of 7,000 square feet. The site, marked by its comfort and relaxed atmosphere, houses multiple work areas in various styles. Amenities including cafés, climbing walls, game rooms, table football, showers and lockers support members’ pursuit of work-life balance, as reflected in the slogan “Work. The fun.”
Theo is confident that coworking spaces are not just a fad but a fundamental global revolution. “With the advancement of information technology, the modern working style is gradually shifting. A stationary work station is no longer needed. Rather, it’s replaced by a space that adapts to the needs of different activities.”
Jackel (left) and Theo advocate the work hard, play hard principle. They want to create a fun work space for its tenants by offering amenities such as climbing walls.
Coffee Social Enterprise: A Way to Give Back
Theo and Jackel are coffee lovers. They met a group of coffee enthusiasts through sponsoring the Hong Kong Barista Championship, and together they established social enterprise BrewMasters. They have transformed the San Po Kong site of playground.work into a coworking space with a coffee theme, where members can gather and talk about the passion. The site has professional tools such as coffee bean roasters, bakers and grinders for members to practise their skills. It also hosts coffee workshops, events, exams and professional competitions through venue hire. The brothers hope to make an effort in raising the professional standing of local baristas and promoting coffee culture in Hong Kong.
Combining coffee with the business helps draw a target audience and infuse social elements into the business model. It is a win-win situation for both the business and society.
Holding Your Ground in the Face of Fierce Competition
It has been two years since the opening of playground.work. Although the brothers were able to capitalise on the new opportunity, they still need to overcome a number of challenges such as cultural differences. Jackel explains, “A sharing culture is crucial to coworking spaces. If members only hide in their own corners, it would be hard to generate the right vibe. Westerners are more willing to initiate conversations with strangers. Asians, on the other hand, are more reserved. Changes like this take time.”
Besides, more competitors have recently entered the market, which include well-established foreign brands, making the competition more intense than ever. Theo says, “To stand out we must excel in community management and satisfy the needs of our members with superb services. Creating the corporate culture they want can boost their loyalty.”
Work space is finite, but sharing will unleash its infinite potential.