Natasha Guerra - CEO of Runway East and Chair of the ICE List

Posted on 18 July 2019

Susan Freeman
Hi, I’m Susan Freeman, welcome back to our Propertyshe Podcast brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum where I get to interview some of the key influencers in the incredible world of real estate and the built environment.  

Today, I am absolutely delighted to welcome Natasha Guerra.  Natasha is a leading light in the UK tech start-up world.  She is the CEO of the co-working hub Runway East with over 1800 members and 150 companies spread across four locations in London and Bristol.  She also Chairs the ICE List, a thriving community of over 300 entrepreneurs and investors working together to embolden the UK tech scene.  Natasha’s core interests lie in nurturing high growth start-ups and building collaborative tech communities. Prior to Runway East and the ICE List, Natasha has contributed to the success of leading companies across Silicon Valley and London as well as launching Task Firm which provides on demand, vetted freelancers to start-ups and entrepreneurs.  So now we are going to hear from Natasha Guerra with her insights into the exciting world of tech start-ups, entrepreneurship and her plans for the future.  Natasha, welcome to the studio.  You play a key role in the start-up world and you co-founded Runway East in 2014 and you’ve got locations in London and Bristol.  As CEO you’ve said your mission is to be the backbone of the UK tech economy so what actually inspired you to start the business back in 2014?
  
Natasha Guerra
If I tell you how Runway came about I think if I take you back a little bit further than that to around 2011, I met a gentleman called Alex Hoy who is currently the Chairman of Runway East, he runs a company called Faction Skis which is a fast growing ski brand. He had a passion project called ICE and ICE is a network for founders and investors in the tech community and I joined him creating ICE and building this to the largest community in Europe for tech founders and entrepreneurs in that space.  What happened was we kind of saw a great opportunity, ICE’s real thing is helping the personal and professional lives of its members.  The start-up journey is one that is you know, is a really tough challenge and people come… there are highs, there are lows and you want someone to share those times with.  People want to share their successes, their failures, their triumphs, their challenges in a kind of supportive environment so ICE kind of does that in, in three ways.  It does that through cubes which is creating forums which people meet up and share experiences once a month.  It does that through in real life events and trips, we take people skiing, we’ve been kind of all over the globe taking entrepreneurs and founders away from their, their day-to-day lives and creating an environment for them to connect and share and it also does that through a mailing list and through this platform Runway East was born.  Alex and I at the time were both working in another co-working space in London and we knew each other and it was great to be able to share challenges that we were having on a daily basis and connect with each other and go for a drink sometimes when the day had been tough and we kind of used the platform of ICE to start Runway East and create a home for those members to also call their workspace.

Susan Freeman
And I understand that the ICE events are quite legendary and that I think you as Chair actually are responsible for organising a lot of these events and you get all these interesting people together.  There was a quote on one of the ICE films somebody said you are the average of the five people you spend most time with and actually I thought that was interesting, it sort of underlines the importance of spending time with people who you can learn from and is that something that you’ve sort of taken through to Runway East, getting like-minded people together to bounce ideas off each other?

Natasha Guerra
Yeah absolutely I think it is one of the key drivers that we have taken to Runway East.  ICE is a lot about human connection, I think it is something that gets lost a lot in today’s world and that is something that I think is what makes it so popular and creates so much value for the people that joint it.  I think Runway East we have taken that and really applied that to everything that we do at Runway East and made social connection a really core part of our proposition.

Susan Freeman
Yeah so I was interested by your Runway East flight code, using the flight analogy. I think it is community first, being open, giving a damn and always thinking like an entrepreneur.  How does that work?

Natasha Guerra
So what that’s really all about is creating a customer centric organisation.  I think a lot of people think about being customer centric as good hospitality or good customer service and actually a customer centric organisation goes quite a lot further than that and really it is about putting the customer at the forefront of everything that you do from brand awareness, through to your referral scheme, through to every aspect that one of our members might touch and I think it’s how we, we think about it when we hire people, we hire people that have an entrepreneurial ability, that are excited about start-ups and it is about thinking about that element in everything that you do.

Susan Freeman
An important part of all this is then the sort of social connection, people feel happier and do your start-ups work together or is it a question of getting ideas from each other and just being in this sort of incubator environment where everybody is trying to do something new and interesting?

Natasha Guerra
So it is not about working together.  I think it is fundamentally about the concept of going to work with your friends is just so much more exciting than I think going to work with people you don’t know so having a friend in a next door office when you come in and you chat about what happened last night or you know, what’s going on in your businesses or a challenge that you are having and I think friendship is something that gets overlooked by a lot of spaces, actually people are becoming lonelier than ever in today’s society and I think like recent surveys suggest it is actually a much larger problem than we think on par with obesity and substance abuse and actually I think that is something that we really work hard to try and bridge that gap at Runway East to make sure that people feel like they are connected with other people and this is a social place where they can make friends and have fun.

Susan Freeman
It sounds as if it is working. One of your London Bridge start-ups said ‘every trip to the kettle is an opportunity to learn something’ and I thought that was really nice.  Better than being sort of stuck in a little cubicle on your own working.

Natasha Guerra
Yeah the world of work is definitely changing.
 
Susan Freeman
And are you selective about the start-ups that you take on. Do you sort of focus on sort of making sure that they will fit with the community that you’ve already got?

Natasha Guerra
Yes, so we pride ourselves on being a curated community.  We reject around 30% of people that come through the door looking for space and we do that both for our members and also for them because the members that we are bringing in to the space, they want to learn from each other, they want to grow with each other and it is actually not a suitable space for people that aren’t you know, that aren’t like-minded and aren’t on the same journey.

Susan Freeman
So I think it might be interesting to talk about some of the members, what sort of business areas they are in, how they’ve grown, are there any start-ups that you are particularly proud of that have just rocketed to fame?

Natasha Guerra
Oh so many.  I couldn’t even count them.  I think it is easy to talk about the start-ups that have raised a lot of money and our start-ups collectively have raised over £300 million pounds but I think for me the start-ups that I love the most are the ones that I really think are changing the world we live in and that’s a really great thing to be a part of.  Some members that we’ve got at the moment, a company called Beam, they help homeless people get off the streets by providing work support so basically it is like crowdfunding, you go and you would crowdfund to become an electrician or a beautician is another one that I have sponsored recently and I think they are doing something really meaningful, tackling like a really big problem in the world and so I think those are the types of businesses that I get most excited about.

Susan Freeman
One thing I was wondering, just looking at Runway East is whether you are a tech business or a property business?

Natasha Guerra
We don’t consider ourselves a property business. We consider ourselves a, well we are an operator.  I think the co-working market is moving in a quite similar way to how the hotel market did.  We also aren’t really a tech business, we’re a platform for tech companies but also not a tech business and I think for us that not being a tech business is quite important because the focus on you know, a lot of other companies are focusing on data, data, data, data and first and foremost we put human connection first and that’s always our priority.

Susan Freeman
So that’s how you would differentiate yourself from the other companies providing flexible work space, it’s about community and people first and foremost?
 
Natasha Guerra
Yes.

Susan Freeman
What sort of leasing arrangements do you enter into?  I mean I saw that at London Bridge I mean you are doubling the size which is pretty amazing after just a few months but do you enter into traditional leases, or do you have partnering arrangements with landlords?

Natasha Guerra
So because we don’t consider ourselves a property business we actually partner directly with landlords on a kind of I think management agreement, operator model basis.  So we work directly with the landlord and they share in the upside when the space is going well and is full.  So at London Bridge we initially took 25,000 square feet back in November.  The building is owned by Great Portland Estates.  We took another 25,000 square feet in May. 

Susan Freeman
Did you expect to expand so quickly?  I mean were you surprised at the amount of take-up South of the river?

Natasha Guerra
I think South of the river is a really exciting place for tech businesses.  Yet in the past people have said that technology companies are all based in Shoreditch.  That’s definitely not true anymore and you can see them all over London but we filled the space in you know, in record time and we are amazed at how quickly we’ve managed to fill all 50,000 square feet.

Susan Freeman
You are in Bristol as well.  Are there any plans for expansion to other UK regions or globally?

Natasha Guerra
Yeah so our plan is to expand to lots of other regions in the UK.  So you know, for us the regions are really important for a number of reasons.  I think the UK as a country is a little bit too London centric.  It is kind of a challenge we’ve always had, if you look to Berlin or other countries in Europe, sort of Germany you know they’ve got Berlin, they’ve got Munich, they’ve got lots of places which you would consider a global city.  In the UK you know, historically we’ve only had London.  I think the way that connection, on the internet and away that like all of that stuff is changing is actually enabling cities outside of London to become global cities too.  I think for us like Manchester and Bristol are really poised to do that and lots of businesses are actually growing fairly large there which was something we didn’t really see 10 years ago so we kind of think it is time for the regions to have their kind of heyday as you would.  We opened in Bristol last September.  We opened at 88% occupancy.  We anticipated opening at maybe 25%.  We’ve been full ever since we opened and have a, you know, forty company wait list for people awaiting the space.  So I think that the regions are really changing.  Firstly lots of people are leaving London, they’re leaving London for a better quality of life and for you know, a slightly slower pace of life and for something more affordable.  I’ve actually seen recently a lot of my peers you know move to outside of London and move to places like Bristol.  We are also I think Universities are working really hard to keep their graduates and places like Bristol, Manchester, a lot of technical people are leaving Universities and they make perfect people to hire for start-ups because it is actually good talent in these cities and so there is also a lot of encouragement  from Universities to start businesses which probably wasn’t the case 10 years ago.  So people are really building businesses straight out of University.  There is a lot of incubators and we are really focussed on not space for super early stage businesses but on that grow on space which you know, 10 years ago you probably would have got to ten people and really needed to move your business to London and it might have been a challenge to fundraise, to find flexible space and to grow a team in smaller towns but that’s totally changing and Runway East is aiming to support that across the UK.

Susan Freeman
That’s great, that’s really, really good news for the regions.  At this stage we’ll maybe mention the Brexit word and how your start-ups are affected.  I don’t know whether you have businesses that are European rather than UK based but do you anticipate they will be affected by Brexit?

Natasha Guerra
Yeah our anticipation is that everyone will be affected by Brexit. Hopefully it is a short-term affect. I think the, you know the key things that where it really hits start-ups hard is access to talent because previously like a lot of talent has been coming from the EU and at the moment that is not very attractive either the people you know, someone living in Spain isn’t currently thinking ‘oh why don’t I move to England’ you know I  know that our start-ups are really struggling to hire from that pool so I think if the UK can make access to visas across the board for other countries simpler, that should go a long way to helping that challenge.

Susan Freeman
Now just turning to investment, one of the things you do at Runway East is to provide support for your businesses which includes access to investment and connecting with a range of VCs and Angel Investors, how do you do that?

Natasha Guerra
So over the years we’ve built a network of over a hundred VCs and Investors in London and on a monthly basis we host events and we host office hours where we connect directly investors to entrepreneurs.  We also have an investor digest where once a month we send an update to all of our investors with how our start-ups are doing, who’s fundraising, what’s going on and on the back of that we make around 20 connections a month between companies looking to fundraise and investors who could potentially be interested. 

Susan Freeman
So you’ve said you are not a real estate company but obviously you have quite a lot of interaction with the world of real estate.  Do you think that the traditional real estate market understands the shift in how people are working and how to work with start-ups or are we not quite there yet?

Natasha Guerra
Real estate companies have made some good strides I think you know, leases are shortening, operators are becoming more flexible, they are thinking more about the customer, they taking data into what they do and it is definitely shifting but I think you know one of the things that we do is we partner directly with landlords.  They are property businesses and that is where their expertise lies and our expertise lie in building a network, building communities and helping start-ups grow and that’s why we work directly with them to support them in that.

Susan Freeman
One of the things that’s come up in, in the research that’s been done in real estate recently is there is a bit of a language gap between real estate and the tech sector.  Do you find that exists and are you a bridge?

Natasha Guerra
Previously to Runway Estate my like whole career has been in technology and the kind of tech world is a very collaborative environment and you know, you go to events and everyone is chatting, sharing ideas, sharing numbers, sharing data between companies and you know it would be common to know your competitors and to be kind of friendly with them.  So when I first kind of entered the property world as you will, I found that quite an interesting experience where actually property is quite a closed environment, a very black book type, systems kind of archaic like back of hand shake type industry. I think that is definitely changing but that is historically kind of been how it is so it is definitely an adjustment and I think that will continue to change over time.

Susan Freeman
Good.  That’s definitely moving in the right direction.  What do we need to encourage more diversity because 20% of tech founders are female which is not a very high number and in real estate only 15% of the property and construction workforce are women.  What can be done to actually get more women into tech and get more women starting new business?

Natasha Guerra
I can speak for the technology founders at Runway East and ICE and I think looking at the statistics only 2% of venture capital goes to females, you know there is a lot of theories round why that is and why that has historically been the case and I think some really interesting research has been done recently which suggests that one of the reason why females actually raise less money is because we ask men promotion questions and we ask females prevention questions.  So if you take an example of a house, a VC and this goes for both female and male VCs asking a potential founder, would ask a man a question like ‘how big will you build your house?’ and a man will you know, will tend to respond with a promotion focussed answer but actually happens is we tend to ask women prevention focussed questions.  So an example would be instead of ‘how bit will you build your house?’ we’d ask ‘how will you protect your house from burglars’ and then when you are asked a prevention focussed question you tend to respond with a prevention focussed answer like ‘we will install CCTV’ and ‘we will…’ but actually and this is what tends to lead to people perceiving often women-led businesses in a more negative light because the minute someone, anyway, either sex answers with a kind of prevention-led answer we perceive it naturally psychologically in a kind of negative way.  We need to move away from the gender bias of what we assume  women will do and what we assume men will do.

Susan Freeman
Yes it is difficult to know how, I mean it has been suggested that we, I mean VC investors should apply some sort of diversity quotas but I don’t know what you think about that?  It could be a way to go?

Natasha Guerra
I think women want to feel like they achieve something not because they were a quota but because they deserved it.  I definitely have been on the receiving end of getting an invite to something and being like ‘oh we really needed to get more girls along’ and I have always taken the invite quite gladly because often it is to quite exciting stuff but in the back of your mind you are always like ‘okay I’d rather be invited because you think I am valuable to be there not because you needed to get another girl on the agenda’.

Susan Freeman
Yes that happens and do you, one of the things that people say is that women lack the confidence, that men are more confident about what they are doing and I suppose if you’ve got a completely new idea you’ve got to have a lot of confidence because you know, people will criticise you and say ‘well it’s not been done this way before so why would it work?’  So do you find that the women that you’ve got working in your locations are less confident than the men or…?

Natasha Guerra
I mean for the Runway East team I would say quite the opposite because our sales and marketing team  is quite female based and our like finance and ops team is quite male based and actually they tend to be characteristic-wise the more like calm, passive and are the girls that are doing sales and marketing actually tend to be the more confident outgoing people so I think I don’t think that traits are female or male but yeah often we do find that some women can have quite like calmer personalities and often it is seen in business that men are like the outgoing but I don’t think that is true at all anymore and I think that’s something that is shifting and especially not true of the Runway East team.

Susan Freeman
No well I did ask somebody how they would describe you and they said a force of nature.  So you are obviously, you are not a shrinking violet clearly.

Natasha Guerra
No.

Susan Freeman
Do you think that’s a fair assessment?  How would you describe yourself?

Natasha Guerra
How would I describe myself… quiet.  Outspoken.  I don’t know how I would described myself.  

Susan Freeman
I think we’ll stick with force of nature actually, I think that’s quite good.  So how, I mean you studied physics didn’t you?  What took you into the start-up world initially?

Natasha Guerra
So I studied physics because I felt like my teacher at school, my physics teacher at school didn’t really think I would ever amount to anything and so I thought it was a kind of good kick in the teeth.  I don’t even know if he knows that I did a physics Degree so I am not really sure I achieved that goal but…

Susan Freeman
What’s his name?

Natasha Guerra
I can’t even remember his name but I’ve always been very, very competitive and I’ve just, I’ve always, I quite like to win so I am no longer allowed to play any games at Runway East, I have to stay out of company games because apparently I just get to competitive and no one wants to see their boss win all the time.  Apart from me.  And yeah I think I sort of just did a physics Degree, it really wasn’t for me, it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, I was terrible at physics at school, it was my worst subject and I went from there to business school which suddenly felt like a walk in the park comparatively and so I guess I felt like, god this must be for me, I am clearly an aspiring business leader because it just seemed so easy comparatively to physics so I went from there I actually, I went to meet a, they had a careers guide at University and the careers guide said ‘oh you are outgoing and you love doing, you love planning events, you should go be an event manager’ and after a series of kind of going to meet some event companies I felt like that wasn’t really the path for me and I ended up taking a job as a product manager in a start-up by a kind of a shared series of kind of very fortunate events and ended up within 6 months managing a remote development team building a web product and just loved the tech world and all the people that I had met and you know, I started going to events, really product based events and learning all about agile lean methodology and minimum viable products and I think the only natural path was to eventually start my own business.

Susan Freeman
Has anybody been a particular role model or an inspiration, it clearly wasn’t your physics teacher?

Natasha Guerra
I think probably our Chairman who was my original co-founder at Runway East, Alex.  He moved here from the US many moons ago.  I am making him sound old which he is not going to like but yeah he moved here and built a company that was kind of like Ebay but for you know, kind of commercial industry units and listed it on AIM before there was even a kind of tech scene really.  I think he moved here in 1996 and he listed it on AIM and since then has been a really active Angel Investor in the UK.  He started the ICE Network back in 2009 before I met him and I think he is a real, he is actually a force of nature and a real inspiration both to me and lots of other people in the tech community.  He is really generous with his time and has helped so many people get off the ground, be that via investment or via time helping them structure their business model.  I think his passion for the start-up community has always inspired me.

Susan Freeman
In terms of advice, what’s the… I was going to say what’s the best advice you have been given but actually what’s the worst business advice you’ve been given?

Natasha Guerra
Oh you get bad business advice every day and I think when I, my first company I didn’t really have a strong a true North, I was sort of… I kept flip flipping between different business models and the more advice I’d get, the more I would change our strategy and evolve what we were doing so I think you know, as someone running a business especially in the early stages you are going to get so much advice and you really need to just to weed out what the crap is.  But Alex actually gave me the best piece of business advice I’ve ever received and one day we were having a particularly dark day at Runway East and things were quite tough at that time and he said to me ‘things are never as good or as bad as they seem’ and I think that’s helped me through a lot of bad times and also kept me grounded through a lot of good times. You might have a really good day and remember that even though really good stuff is happening, like challenges will still come up and I think that is a sound piece of advice that I’ve kept with me through the highs and the lows.

Susan Freeman
That sounds like a really good one to have on the wall of the office really.  Do you have any spare time or is it work… you obviously love what you do so do you take time off and do other things like flying or…?

Natasha Guerra
So my primary focus in my spare time is ICE and building that community and running events.  I love organising and planning events too and trips and all of the things that go with that so I kind of consider that fun.

Susan Freeman
And just thinking ahead, obviously the business is expanding very fast, 2021 where would you like to be?

Natasha Guerra
Our plan for 2021 is to be in eight cities across the UK and home to over 10,000 members.  We are looking to partner with landlords in cities like Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester to deliver them an upside on their rent.  At the moment the people we are working with are typically an averaging around 30% premium and what we really want to do is be in those cities helping those members to raise money to connect with other cities to build great teams and to hire excellent talented people and we want to do that to keep the UK on the map.  I think the tech economy is currently contributing around 130 billion to the UK’s GDP and it is around 7% of our economy and I think that’s only going to grow and we want to help those businesses to be at the forefront of that.

Susan Freeman
Well, there will be a lot of landlords out there listening so hopefully they will get in touch so Natasha that’s brilliant, thank you very much.

Natasha Guerra
Thank you.  

Susan Freeman
Well it really is a whole different world.  Fascinating to hear from Natasha on how she is working with the tech start-ups and entrepreneurs who are already shaping our future.  Management Today named her as one of their 35 Women Under 35 and Biz Now have her as one of their 49 Women who will shape the future of the Industry so she is most definitely one to watch.  That’s it for now, I really hope you enjoyed today’s conversation please join us for the next Propertyshe podcast interview coming very shortly.  

The Propertyshe podcast is brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum and can be found at mishcon.com/Propertyshe along with all our interviews and programme notes.  The podcasts are also available to download on your Apple podcast app and on Spotify and whatever podcast app you use.  And please do continue to let us have your feedback and comments and most importantly, suggestions for future guests and, of course, you can also follow me on Twitter @Propertyshe for a very regular commentary on all things real estate, prop tech and the built environment.

As CEO of the successful coworking hub, Runway East, and Chair of the ICE List, Natasha’s core interests lie in nurturing high-growth startups and building collaborative tech communities.

With over 1800 members and 150 companies spread across four locations in London and Bristol, members at Runway East include ClassPass, FutureGov and Tech East, with a community that has raised over £300m in funding to date.

The ICE List is a thriving community of over 300 entrepreneurs and investors, striving to improve the professional and personal life of members, as well as embolden the UK tech scene as a whole.

Prior to Runway East and the ICE List, Natasha has contributed to the success of leading companies across Silicon Valley and London, as well as launching TaskFirm - providing on-demand, vetted freelancers to startups and entrepreneurs.

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