The ubiquity of co-working spaces in the capital city is no great secret, but what about the increasing number of flexible office spaces opening across the rest of the country? We spoke to Rosie Manning, the founder of Leeds-based co-working community, The Greenhouse, which welcomes remote workers and small businesses, as well as those working across the creative industries, about why she set up her own space, the rise of nomadic workers and why locating her business in the heart of Meanwood in the north of Leeds was a no brainer.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name’s Rosie Manning and I’m from Leeds, born and bred! I’ve lived here pretty much all my life. I’m the founder of a co-working space called The Greenhouse in a northern suburb of the city, which I run alongside my main job as a brand and web designer.
I recently joined the team at a Canadian agency called MetaLab . They’re based in Vancouver and have lots of tech and media clients like Uber, Slack, VICE and Google. So it’s a good balance – I work for them remotely from Leeds, which means I get to do what I love with a really amazing agency whilst also managing the day-to-day running of a coworking space.
What were you doing before you founded The Greenhouse?
After graduating from the University of Leeds with a degree in Graphic and Communication Design and a placement at Saatchi & Saatchi under my belt, I worked in-house for an educational company in Halifax based out of a beautiful old mill, which involved commuting daily from Leeds. Once I grew tired of being on the M62 every day, I decided to spread my wings and move down to London for a bit. I worked at a health and abuse charity in Kings Cross, managing their brand and helping get their digital presence up to scratch.
It turned out that London wasn’t a good fit. Not only was the cost of living through the roof, I just never felt 100% comfortable there and I really missed my family. I stuck it out for a year before the siren call of home lured me back to Yorkshire. Once I’d returned to Leeds, I worked at a couple of different agencies for a bit, but I felt I was ready to carve my own path. That led to me doing web design on a freelance basis for the next seven or eight years. I worked with startups, social enterprises, music venues and a variety of other businesses, developing their online identities and designing their websites and apps.
How did The Greenhouse come to be?
My years as a freelancer taught me just how isolating the lifestyle can be. Over the years I worked from various places – at home, in coffee shops and even at a few different co-working spaces, but none were a good long term solution. So I decided to set up a space myself – one that felt as far as possible from a traditional corporate office. I wanted it to be somewhere people would feel instantly comfortable from the moment they stepped through the front door. I also wanted to create somewhere that could double up as an events space and act like a sort of community hub.
What are your thoughts on the growth of co-working over the last few years and how does The Greenhouse fit into that?
There’s certainly been a huge surge in co-working over the last few years, and – at least for now – the trend seems to be continuing. When it comes to the giants of the co-working world, they’re still figuring out the best way to dominate the market. WeWork is probably the most famous example – it got too much money too quickly and went from one of the highest valued start-ups of all time to having to be rescued by its biggest investor . But there are plenty of other examples of really successful co-working companies with more sustainable business models.
So I think we’ll see more and more co-working businesses popping up in towns and cities. It’s not just individual freelancers and remote workers looking for a flexible working environment – a lot of small businesses are keen to set up base somewhere they don’t have to worry too much about overheads. They’re kind of like an evolution of those early skills incubators.
I don’t really see those slick city centre co-working spaces as direct competition though. For smaller independent setups like The Greenhouse, the main drive is generally something other than profit and growth. I have completely different motives – I don’t aspire to open a dozen locations or get listed on the stock exchange; I just want to be able to keep the lights on and make sure all our residents are comfortable and happy.
I belong to a generation of people who graduated into a world in the aftermath of a global financial crisis, followed by years of successive Conservative governments forcing local councils to make huge cuts. Leeds has weathered all this relatively well, but the ripples are still being felt. It’s why the independent business revolution continues to sweep across the post-industrial northern cities – people my age and younger are taking neglected spaces and turning them into places where locals can come together.
Gentrification isn’t just about modernising an area and attracting affluent people – it’s about making the best of the hand you’ve been dealt. It’s why I think we’ll continue to see a rise in multi-functional venues – to survive, you have to be creative with the space you’ve got. And in an increasingly online world, it feels like people are really starting to crave those physical locations where they can hang out together. So I reckon we’ll see more and more nooks and crannies being transformed into beautiful, useful spaces.
Did you have any support getting your venture off the ground?
Yes – I couldn’t have done it without help! When I first took over the space it was an empty shell of an industrial unit with grey concrete walls – a completely blank canvas. But I had loads of incredible support from my friend Becci and her partner Rik, and we were able to slowly transform the space into what it is today.
I called in lots of favours from my amazing friends, and we spent weekend after weekend painting walls, hanging lights, plumbing the toilet, buying furniture, finding plants, erecting trellises, making signage and building tables. We also had loads of invaluable support from our local joiner, Chris Blakeham , who did an amazing job.
I also spent quite a bit of time getting a brand in place. Luckily, I had the help of the extremely talented Eve Warren (currently a brand designer at Robot Food) to create our logo, our colour palette and the rest of our visual identity. Last but not least, my boyfriend supports me with the marketing side of things – he helped get our brand values and tone of voice sorted, which is a massively useful thing to have in place when writing web content and social media posts.
What differentiates The Greenhouse from other co-working spaces?
I always like to describe it as a bright and friendly space filled with leafy plants, relaxing tunes and beautiful décor. We offer a vibrant, welcoming backdrop for focused work, tea-drinking and community events. Apparently the space is “quirky”, or so people tell me! I didn’t used to like that word, but I’ve come to realise its one people reach for when they’re trying to describe how different and unique it is.
It’s the opposite of corporate. I knew from day one I wanted the atmosphere to always be friendly and chilled. I also wanted to keep rules to a minimum, and just have an environment where you feel looked after; a place where everyone cares. We wanted the kinds of events we run to reflect this too. We’ve had a great mix so far , including watercolour classes, yoga, paper flower making, first aid training and Makaton sign-language workshops. One of our residents – Hannah Spruce – also runs a regular non-fiction reading group called Bookish.
Moving forwards, I really want The Greenhouse to live up to its name. Aside from filling the space with plants and supporting nearby local businesses, we use energy efficient light bulbs throughout the space, replenish our soap containers at The Refilling Station in nearby Chapel Allerton and recycle all our plastic, glass and paper. All the paint on the walls was sourced from the amazing Seagulls , a fantastic organisation that specialises in reprocessing and distributing unwanted household paint.
But we want to inspire more green behaviours – bike parking facilities, for example, would encourage our residents to leave their cars at home. We also have plans to install walls of moss on the front of the building to help absorb air pollution from passing traffic. Everyone understands the battle we’re facing when it comes to climate change – as a public workspace, I think we need to lead by example and be as sustainable as possible.
Why did you decide to base it in Leeds?
I guess the main reason is that I live here! But there was always a specific draw to Meanwood itself. It’s one of my favourite parts of Leeds. In estate agent speak, it’s “up and coming.” And the so-called Waitrose effect has certainly helped it thrive, with independent cafes, shops and bars opening all the time.
We’re right in the middle of the action. We’re nestled behind Terminus, home to the Meanwood Brewery . You’ll find us up the alley between two other local gems – The Hungry Bear restaurant and Alfred bar. There are so many great places nearby. Tandem does amazing coffees and brunches, Culto is a really cosy Italian restaurant and HanaMatsuri has some of the best sushi in the country – genuinely!
It’s not just about the bars and cafes though. There’s an amazing urban farm just down the road with alpacas, goats and sheep! And the beautiful Meanwood park is just a few minutes away, perfect for afternoon dog walks.
And then of course the city has such wonderful digital and arts scenes. I knew there were always going to be plenty of people with circumstances similar to mine who would be looking for somewhere to work. I guess in the end I didn’t really go looking for The Greenhouse. It just sort of found me. And after so many years of moving around, it’s the most settled I’ve felt in ages.
What people do you seek to attract with your offering?
We welcome anyone! At the moment, we have a lot of designers, photographers, illustrators, and copywriters. We also have a phd student and a couple of people working for charities. So any creative freelancer would find it a good fit. But really, it’s open to anyone that’s nice and friendly who needs somewhere quiet and relaxing to work.
People can hot desk daily or buy a monthly pass – some people really like the flexibility of just turning up when they like and grabbing somewhere to sit. We also offer desk rental on a full time or part time basis. We have all the usual stuff you’d expect – a kitchen, storage lockers, printing and wifi access. All bills are included, so you don’t have to worry about any additional costs.
We also have a private studio, but that’s currently occupied by my friend Becci – she runs her tattoo business from there, called The Aviary . It’s really popular – she’s such a talented artist! We’re dog-friendly too – which means I get to bring my beautiful golden retriever Sol with me every day! If people are interested in learning more about what we offer, they can book a tour on our website .
What challenges have you faced in setting up your own business?
The biggest challenge was probably doing the place up from scratch. It took months. We were paying rent before we’d opened the doors to the public, so it really felt like we were working against the clock. The Greenhouse is a complete labour of love – it’s been entirely self-funded from the very beginning. I’m really pleased we managed to get it into a position where we were able to open, but we didn’t quite finish everything.
We’ve recently launched a Crowdfunder so we can get everything sorted and take the space to the next level. We’ve called in yet more favours to put together some really nice rewards, including illustrated postcards, bespoke prints, jewellery – even a tattoo! If people want to see all the exciting stuff we have planned for the future, they can take a look at our Crowdfunder page .
Do you have any advice for people looking to do something similar?
Yes. Trust your instincts. It was all completely new to me, so I had to feel my way through the dark. You come to realise who genuinely cares about helping you – and I don’t mean in a transactional, “you scratch my back” kind of way. I mean people who want to support you because they care about you and want you to succeed. You can’t just wing it though – you need to have some kind of plan in place.
You also have to understand it will take up a lot of your personal time, so make sure you have a strong support network around you. I think you have to be the kind of person who really wants to invest themselves in creating something new. If you are, you’ll get to reap the rewards when it finally comes to life.
And I’ve said this before, but it’s always worth repeating – never underestimate the importance of a strong brand. You need to have something consistent and concrete you can fall back on, especially if you don’t have huge advertising budgets. When you’re relying predominantly on social media and word-of-mouth it’s vital you have something to hinge your communications on.
What does a typical weekend entail?
I love taking my dog out for long walks. I’m a big fan of yoga, spinning and muay thai – all really good for mental health as well as physical. I also enjoy reading, baking and playing on my Nintendo Switch. I try and spend as much of my free time as I can with friends and family, making sure it involves a pub lunch whenever possible.
What do you love about the North of England?
The amazing countryside! The scenery is just so much better than down south – that’s just a fact. I love how close Leeds is to the Yorkshire Dales; within minutes you can be out in the open air, walking through rolling hills. And because Leeds always has a lot happening, you rarely feel you’re missing out on anything being based here. As a city, it’s very supportive of artists, illustrators and jewellery makers – it’s not hard to stumble across a decent print or craft fair, and you’ll find bars and pubs are always featuring work from local creators.
It’s generally less expensive to live up north, especially when compared to London, where people end up spending most of their wages on rent. I think more students from further afield are starting to stick around after they graduate and make the north their new home, which is a huge benefit. It’s not difficult to see why there’s been such a huge surge in tech agencies, media companies and the design scene in general.
At the end of the day, the north is home. I’m a northern lass at heart, although for some reason people don’t think I have a particularly strong Leeds accent! There’s just something comforting about being in Leeds, and I think, on the whole, people are generally really friendly. Having said that, my boyfriend is originally from Sheffield, and he says people are much friendlier there. We’re always arguing about which city is best!
Do you have any recommendations of cool places to see, eat and drink, or visit in Leeds?
Leeds has a fantastic calendar of events. There’s always something happening – whether it’s Light Night , Leeds International Film Festival or Leeds Indie Food . It’s packed with amazing restaurants; you can always find something delicious to eat. It’s also a city that’s passionate about good beer – the annual festival at the town hall is always a lot of fun, and there are loads of amazing local brewers based here, such as Anthology , who open up their Armley-based brewery to the public every month or so.
It’s also a great city for gigs, plays and films. The Leeds Playhouse just recently had a massive refurbishment. And we’re so lucky to have the Hyde Park Picture House – it’s over 100 years old and a really special place. As you can probably guess, I’m a big fan of green spaces, and you can’t get much nicer than Roundhay Park – it’s one of my absolute favourite parts of the city. Whatever you’re into, there’s always something to see and do!