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The number of people using co-working spaces is predicted to rise to almost 4 million by 2020 – and Oamaru is getting on board with the global revolution. Rebecca Ryan talks to Cara Tipping Smith and Alex Regtien about how they ended up in Oamaru, setting up the town’s first shared working space and business development centre.

Across the world, the co-working model is gaining traction and there has been an explosion of shared spaces in small towns and rural areas.

As much as it is about providing flexible, cheap office space for freelancers, the self-employed and start-up companies, the real beauty of the shared working space is bringing a variety of people together and letting their ideas collide.

Cara Tipping Smith and Alex Regtien believe it is the way of the future, but it was still a leap of faith for them to open The Business Hive in Oamaru last year.

“This is overdue, I reckon, for Waitaki, but still new for people to get their heads around,” Ms Tipping Smith said.

But interest was growing in North Otago.

The Business Hive directors ended up in Oamaru in 2016 on a whim.

Mr Regtien was working for Downer as a parks supervisor in South Auckland when a role came up for the Open Spaces contract in Oamaru.

They did not know anyone in Oamaru – and Mr Regtien had never been south of Christchurch.

“Basically, we googled Oamaru and thought it looked great,” he said.

He moved in November 2016, arriving to record-breaking spring rainfall in the Waitaki district, and Ms Tipping Smith followed him down the next month.

Ms Tipping Smith’s background is in copywriting and she expected to continue in that line of work in Oamaru.

“But when we got here, I realised there wasn’t a lot in business support networks,” she said.

“All these people had great stories, great skills, but there was no co-ordinated way of meeting and communicating and building business.”

In Auckland, she had started her own company, DIY Marketing Co, with a mission to make business education more affordable and accessible.

“That had already been simmering, and then here there were individuals and groups working on business development, but no physical space,” she said.

She started a coffee group for business networking which very soon morphed into The Business Hive.

“It was kind of a no-brainer, I just never thought I’d be able to afford to do [it],” she said.

“But Oamaru makes things a lot more affordable than they would be in, say, Auckland.”

What was once the McConnell Dowell premises in Ribble St had undergone a massive transformation to become The Business Hive, opening in June last year.

Mr Regtien left Downer in August to join Ms Tipping Smith in running the centre full-time.

It was the social and community aspect of The Business Hive they liked the most.

“[Working from home] can be pretty lonely and isolating sometimes and you need to have a space that you can come and have a coffee, share some ideas, network a bit, but also get some good advice,” she said.

A variety of people and businesses were using the space – from the Waitaki district and beyond – and they were getting a lot of people coming to them with new ideas for its possible uses.

“We know people will tell us what they like and don’t like, so it’ll evolve to be the perfect Oamaruvian version,” she said.

Business advisor Loren Bennett has a permanent desk at The Business Hive.

She said it was the reason her family was able to live in Oamaru, as she works remotely for Queenstown-based JCCA Chartered Accountants.

It gave her a real separation between work and home, and enabled her to meet other professional and business people and to network in a more natural and effective way.

“With the rise of technology, and the ability to interact in the virtual world, the physical location of myself and the rest of the team is becoming less and less important,” she said.

“We are able to have the same communication with each other, and clients, as you would find in any physical office. I can now hold client meetings, both physical and virtual, from The Business Hive in a much more professional way than working from home.

“As a firm as we are a paperless office … [and] our firm’s focus on sustainability and collaboration works well with what Cara and Alex are trying to achieve.”

Ms Tipping Smith and Mr Regtien see the Business Hive as being one of the many anchors keeping young people in Oamaru.

In New Zealand, about 485,000 people, or 21% of the workforce, were self-employed, and they wanted young people to start seeing business in a rural, small town as an attractive amd viable option.

“If we can give [young people] the jump, so they get a little business savvy . . . then we keep them here,” Ms Tipping Smith said.

“We keep them here as they find their first loves, find their first families and buy their first homes.

“That’s great for all of our community.”

The risk the other way, they said, was losing people to big cities, or to manual labour, leaving Oamaru with an ageing population and a gap in the middle.

In many ways, the biggest challenge for The Business Hive still lies ahead with the need to bring in more tenants to the space without impacting the culture that had been carefully created.

As for privacy, it was definitely a factor they had to carefully manage.

“We’ve curated the space to give people natural cues and options,” Ms Tipping Smith said.

“People modify themselves as to the appropriate level of detail being discussed [and] can move to a quieter part of the building to have a more private conversation.

“This year we’ve reworked our outside space to give people more options for finding a quiet space.”

Coming from Auckland, it had taken them a while to adjust to the Oamaru lifestyle, but they were glad they made the move.

“When I grew up in Auckland, it was a series of little villages, kind of,” Ms Tipping Smith said.

“You knew your neighbours and .. everyone kind of muddled in together, which seemed quite normal.

“Being here, it’s a bit like, in the nicest possible way, being back in time. We know our neighbours by name, we chat to them, we even swap fruit, you know?”