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Australians building empires from their local café

Tuesday, 16 July 2013 | By Nina Hendy

Hunched over a laptop with a smartphone by her side, Andrea Sophocleous is a familiar sight in the cafes around the trendy Sydney suburb of Newtown.


The freelance publicist and writer heads into a café, orders a pot of tea and transforms a table into a makeshift office for a few hours, returning calls, tapping out some words and checking her emails.


Sophocleous is one of a growing army of Australians grabbing their laptop and escaping their home office to work from a café in search of new input and stimulation. Choosing a café over an office space is of course a far cheaper option, making it particularly appealing to start-ups.


Sophocleous regularly works from Maynard’s Café, set within Berkelouw Books in Newtown. She spreads out her MacBook and paperwork on the vast collective table, which means she’s just taking up a single seat rather than an entire table, which she admits alleviates any guilt.


“The reason I work from cafes is to escape the limited confines of my home office and hopefully benefit from external stimulation and inspiration. Some noise and excitement is good, but too much would be distracting,” Sophocleous says.


“There are generally other people – freelance workers and students – working away on laptops, so at times it can have the feel of a hip open-plan office, particularly with all the books surrounding the café tables.”


Melbourne businessman Paul Meissner launched his start-up from café tables, admitting he took over a table at a different café across the city every day for two years.


He openly admits this saved him having to fork out for office space while setting up his cloud-based accounting firm.


“The experience was amazing. In fact, many café owners were really appreciative of me being there.”


Travel bloggers Caroline and Craig Makepeace also frequent cafes with their laptop to work.


The pair works a six hour stint in their local café on the central coast, an hour north of Sydney, every week. When they’re on the road, they write from cafes across the country most days.


The ideal café is one with comfortable couches, relaxing music, good coffee, power point access and where possible, free WiFi.


Sophocleous opts for establishments with lots of light, enough space so you don’t feel like you’re tying up a table and a medium level of noise.


The unwritten rules

But there are some tips for ensuring you’re not booted out of a café for breaking any unwritten rules.


Meissner recommends asking staff if they mind giving you a table near a power point to get some work done. Ordering a drink straight away, or order food if you’re there during meal times, he advises.


“Try and order drinks steadily during the time you’re there. You don’t need to always have a drink on the go, but don’t sit there for hours on one coffee.”


And if the café has a Twitter account or Facebook page, promote them as being friendly to business, he adds.


Makepeace often asks the waiter if it’s OK if to work, just to be polite.


“It’s a good gauge on whether it is the right working environment. You don’t want to stay if they will be resentful towards you.”


If the café is busy, she’ll order a meal.


“But if it’s quiet, I don’t think that’s important because you’re helping fill up the café and make it look popular.”


If a few rules are followed, the majority of café owners welcome workers armed with laptops.


In fact, a Brisbane café has taken the concept of welcoming workers one step further by renting desks for $10 a day to creative people wanting to work in a café.


Located near Fortitude Valley, The Rabbit Hole Ideation Café provides WiFi, desks, chairs, lockers, a meeting room, air conditioning, and an outdoor patio for those wanting to work in a relaxed shared space.


Melbourne’s Cupcake Central also welcomes workers. It is one of many cafes to provide a recharge station especially for workers.


Paul Lange has worked in dozens of cafes over the years running his virtual business incubation program. He suggests hosting meetings at your favourite café, which brings new business in for the café owner. As people come to meet you, try and introduce them to staff and the café owner, he says.


“When you find the right place and go regularly, you’ll find the owner will be happy for you to stay longer. You may even find that the occasional coffee or lunch is on the house.”


What not to do


But Brianna Robinson of Perth café Esprezzo doesn’t like workers parking themselves in her establishment for hours, so purposefully doesn’t offer free WiFi.


“We find that generally, people who come in and work for hours on end on their laptops don’t purchase enough to warrant the seat they have taken up. One coffee does not justify staying three hours.”

Correct etiquette would be to pay for your time by at least ordering a meal or a few drinks, she says.


“If you intend to stay a while, perhaps ask staff where would be the best location to sit. We have nothing against people on laptops, so long as they pay their way,” Robinson says.


Andrew Huffer of fellow Perth establishment Food for Me agrees not all workers play fair.


“I’ve been in the position where I need to find a place to just sit down and get some work done. A cafe is the logical spot when you’re on the move,” he says.


“But when I’m on the other side of the counter – things change. I get frustrated when someone plonks themselves down with a laptop in a prime real estate position and orders one latte over the course of three hours. That’s really pushing the friendship,” Huffer says.


Although his business sense takes over and he works hard to make patrons to feel welcome so they return.


Top tips – To find the ideal café to work from:

  • Consider asking if the waiter minds you working before you sit down
  • Opt for cafes with relaxing music, good lighting and lots of space
  • Rotate cafes to bring new input and stimulation
  • Make sure you order something, preferably a meal if the café is busy
  • Choose a table with privacy so people can’t see what’s on your screen
  • Come with fully charged equipment
  • Be conscious not to speak too loud into your mobile phone or disrupt other diners