At what point does an ambitious entrepreneur realise their madcap business dream is unreachable and set it aside? For Vibushan Thirukumar and Paul Nelmes - who quit their corporate jobs in 2019 to build their first start-up dream, an eco hotel in Sri Lanka - it was two weeks into their location-scouting mission on the south Asian island.
“We had the address of a plot of land, and when we arrived, we were surprised to find it had a half-built house on it,” explains Thirukumar, who moved to London from Sri Lanka with his parents aged two, as refugees escaping civil war. “But no one was around, so I climbed over a gate to get into the house, where I found six intimidating guard dogs all staring at me and chased me off the land. It was the wrong address.”
When the pair found the correct one, the entrance was blocked by “an intimidating, massive guy with huge gold chains, who looked exactly like a movie villain and explained that any ownership changes had to go through to him.”
Later in the trip, Thirukumar had his drink spiked. “It all just highlighted how naive we were - you can’t just rock up to another country and start something from scratch.”
After a fortnight of drama, Thirukumar - an accountant who met Nelmes whilst both worked at office-sharing firm Second Home - announced to his co-founder: "we're going home to London and sticking to our knowledge of coworking.” Nelmes agreed as long as it could include a yoga studio - “he was hellbent on incorporating wellbeing into our daily lives.” To which Thirukumar concurred, “as long as we could include a restaurant.”
So it came to pass: the pair have so far built two community-focused co-working spaces, ORU, in east Dulwich and, just opened, in Sutton. Alongside airy desks, eastern influenced decor, and rainforest-style greenery all around, upstairs workspaces host almost 400 members whilst downstairs there’s a Sri Lankan restaurant and yoga, meditation and other wellbeing classes.
Turnover is expected to hit £6.9 million next year, when the 40,000 sq foot Sutton hub will be fully opened.
But Thirukumar is adamant Oru is propelled by purpose over profit: “We were motivated by the big social and environmental issues - loneliness and disconnection from ourselves and each other, local communities and high streets disintegrating, the climate crisis and rising mental and physical health problems. We wanted to create somewhere we ourselves wanted to be every day, so that’s what we built.”
Members pay around £180 a month for co-working, and for £25 extra, can access unlimited wellbeing classes. “We wanted to find ways to bring people and communities together. We also have free breakfasts, community cook ups, and offer bounceback memberships [free coworking access for three months for individuals looking for work, launching a new business or starting as freelancers] to local people that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.”
In the early days, the entrepreneurs had their own affordability issues. Thirukumar, who is 38, grew up on a council estate near his new Sutton empire. “At the start, we had little to no cash,” he says.
“But my parents had stopped running their grocery shop - they couldn’t compete with the likes of Tesco Express - and I convinced them to let me take it over. Paul and I converted it into three residential homes and rented them out, then mortgaged the flats and convinced my parents to invest that £250,000 into Oru rather than paying off their own mortgage.”
That cash helped lease their first site, a former NHS mental health centre in Dulwich, where they took on much of the build themselves. “We were breaking down walls, painting, building - one of our neighbours thought that we were running a brothel because we’d both leave at 2am. She couldn't understand what else could be happening in a derelict old building so late at night.”
After four months of graft, the entrepreneurs opened their co-working and wellbeing space and restaurant a few days before the start of the pandemic. “We had this big building, with only the four of us in it. But we opened up takeaway food and coffee once it was allowed, and became a food bank collection point. Then after six months, we finally launched the co-working space, initially with 24 private rooms. It was a tough couple of years, but we persisted because we had to make it work. It had to be a success because it was all we - including my parents - had.”
The entrepreneurial team expanded quickly, their second site in Sutton opening in September this year. “We like to build one large site at a time - continuously grow but at a stable, sustainable level. After Sutton, we are thinking about going somewhere rural, taking all of the elements of Oru - community, wellbeing, sustainability - with us for more people to benefit from, but staying lean, accessible and affordable.”â
Turnover: £1.8 million