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Chat over Chaat with Workhouse Founder - Kunal Pawa - Little India Directory

Chat over Chaat: Working the Workhouse

Vasudha Srinivasan | March 20, 2015

Interviews  

Think of a Little India anywhere in the world and you envision explosions of bright colours, sounds of various languages jostling for attention, the frenzied bustle of people and the lingering scent of jasmine laced with a trace of curry. You don’t think hipster, you think ethnic. You don’t think startup, you think mom and pop.

Well, come 21 March 2015, one man aims to change that in Singapore with the “Little India Revolution”. Meet K. Pawa, the face of Workhouse, a co-working space in Little India. Tucked at the back of Veerasamy Road, two minutes away from the roaring traffic of Serangoon Road, Workhouse is a refreshing oasis of calm for anyone looking to do some work while in the heart of city.

We sat down for a chat (saari, no chai available) with K. Pawa, a former national tennis player, on how he put down the racquet for a bit to start Workhouse.

Why a co-working space….?

I was with my cousin in New York in December 2013 and we visited an office space known as WeWork. It housed every sort of profession in this space and small companies could have their own private workspace and simultaneously, have a chance to interact with other companies.

I prefer meeting people from every sort of industry. I learnt, from my previous job, that when you’re working in only your company environment, you become enclosed in a bubble where you’re only talking about your own workspace, your own problems, your own politics.

Sometimes, you need to talk to someone else to be like, “hey wait a second, there’s another way you can look at our problem.”

So what’s the story behind Workhouse?

As the concept of the a co-working space is fairly established in Singapore, the focus of Workhouse became more about collaboration; a way for companies to interact with each other in a manner they ordinarily would not have had access to.

We had a shophouse in Serangoon Road which was partially vacant and my background was in hotel management so this just felt right!

That’s what we’re all about. We have private spaces, spaces where you can spend time with your own company, then there are these collaborative spaces, where you can talk, grab a coffee with someone.

Workhouse is a co-working space in Little India Singapore | View of the Exterior of Workhouse

You know, this sounds like a really fun place but uh, you call it the Workhouse?

There was a whole bunch of people we spoke to and they said don’t put the words “co” or “work” in the name. But “Workhouse” occurred to me one night and it just felt right for me – this is a shophouse and really, we work here! Some of them felt that it was industrial, warehouse, grunge, a bit like “why don’t you just call it sweatshop”

But it resonated with the main architect and myself so there’s that!

So basically, “Damn you, this is what I’m going with this no matter what you guys think?”

Mmm, not necessarily. *laughs*
Okay maybe a little bit. Sometimes you gotta stick to your guns!

Do you still feel that way?

I love the name.

Is it because you came up with it?

Well, I haven’t had any complaints with it yet.

Little India Revolution is happening on 21 March! Give us a sneak peek please !

Little India Revolution, an event we’re organising is really about highlighting that Little India is not that far from Arab Street, Jalan Besar or Tiong Bahru in terms of culture and diversity. There are such different categories of businesses here and we’d like to showcase that. Just a peek, we’re having Growell to talk about urban farming and the Hangar’s coming to make their “sexy coffee”. The School of the Arts will be having a visual arts exhibition and We Jungle, an arts collective will be showing some of their sculptures.

Seems that Workhouse embodies the spirit of collaboration – is this a solo project?

By no means. I’ve got my cousin – he’s very busy but he keeps an eye on the family businesses. Then there’s Farm, the architecture firm that designed this space as well as RePlaid, the guys behind “Summon Auntie” – they were invaluable for the website. Many friends in the tech startup scene and just, well, friends! As I’ve spent a long time away from Singapore, I didn’t have a very strong network here and they were instrumental in helping me do groundwork and research

I have to say that as I’m sitting here, the feel of the Workhouse – while, industrial and functional, nevertheless retains a very organic and natural feel. Care to share on the design?

I didn’t think I’d want to go industrial, like everybody else but I can’t deny that there is a sense of comfort. People will like it and I do see that it will be around for a few more years.

The initial design was kinda offbeat – each desk was to have a frame of a house (you have to see it to know what he means) and because we wanted the space to be flexible, it was suggested that everything be put on sliding tracks. While they would be separate units, you could still move them around to change the configuration of the room. Essentially, they would all be connected as one unit.

But that got a bit complex, so we decided to take that concept and separate the areas …so now, each area has a house frame and each company, can have it’s own “workhouse”!

The interior of Workhouse, a cowork space in Little India with the founder Kunal Pawa.

You guys seemed to have had a charmed journey – any hiccups along the way?

Of course! Hiccups will always happen. We had to do many things on own towards the end but even then, in the long term, that worked out because now I have a reliable database of people whom I can work with in the long run.

Actually, there was a WTH moment. Our initial plan was to have exposed brick walls – they weren’t meant to be plastered, as they are now. For the whole design process from conceptualization to finalisation to execution, we were all like “Yeaaaah, its a shophouse, let’s bring down the walls, let’s expose some bricks”

And then in the first week of construction, when we stripped the walls, we realised there were no bricks. It was, uh, concrete.

Hahaha! Well, that’s awkward…?

It’s so funny – I have been through the hotel building experience but I had come in at the tail end . This is the first time that I had been with something from the start. Even the architects, who were very experienced were equally surprised, as most of Singapore’s shophouse architecture has always been bricks. It’s not even something that we contemplated!

How about a fond memory?

1 Jan 2015. Everyone else is chilling after NYE. I’m here at 9am, bleary eyed as the landscape guys came in to put the majestic trees at the entrance. They had to bring in the cranes and I was very nervous. One of the staff, this Bangladeshi gentleman – he was such a nice guy. Kept reassuring me everything would be fine and it was just nice talking to him about his family.

Before the Workhouse, you were working in Bali in a boutique hotel?

Yes, so it was my first job out of school and I started out in operations. I mean, I was so fresh that I never used the function “reply all” in email until then! This job taught me so much on learning to work with people.

Basically you were told off a lot ?
Okay yes. But that’s fine because how else do you learn!

If you could distill 3 lessons for young ‘uns starting out in the business?

  1. Communicate and collaborate
    Someone once commented that tennis players don’t work well with others. I was very upset when I first heard that comment but you know what, it makes sense. As a tennis player, you are always alone, you travel alone; when you’re on the tennis court, you’re fighting for yourself. When I started work, I brought that mentality, wanting to always do what I thought was right. But I quickly learnt that there is more than one way to look at things and other people, honestly are very knowledgeable. Communicate and collaborate.
  2. Just do it
    Obvious right – I learnt this from a very hard way when I was in the hotel but still brought it along to Workhouse at the start. Don’t procrastinate, just do it, right at the moment, not later. Because you’re going to end up spending more time fixing things later.
  3. Don’t rush to make decisions.
    It’s not the end of the world. Like the brick walls : You think brick walls, then they’re not brick walls and then you’re like oh my god, what do we do now!
    You just stay calm and find a solution.

You know, procrastination is not a word I would have associated with athletes!

*laughs*

That’s not true! While, sports is an area you need to have discipline, every athlete I knew procrastinated. But funny, for tennis, I had a more “I need to do it now” attitude. Perhaps, because I had so much passion for it and when you’re young and naive, you really think it is all about winning.

Uh, you actually sound pretty driven?

Well, I was for tennis but for everything else, I was like meh. Tennis was basically all I cared about for a while.

Tell us about your tennis story? I mean, you played for Singapore and everything!

Tennis tournament - Canggu Club Classic in Bali featuring Kunal Pawa.Well, I really liked soccer but wasn’t really good enough. I went to a tennis camp in the US and I was spotted. I didn’t take it up immediately (and I don’t remember my actual thought process) but there was a moment, I was sitting in SJI, in a room filled with everyone like me and I was like “ damn this is boring! I’m getting a chance to go play tennis full-time! I’m going to do it!”

I got into William & Mary but wasn’t good enough to play for the team there so I moved to Chicago after 2 years. I hated the move at the start but I got into the college team and really started playing a good game. I had done the Davis Cup trials a few times by then but never made it – absolutely heartbreaking as I worked really hard but when you fail many times, it becomes easier.

When I finally qualified, we were playing in Bangladesh but I fell sick 2 days before the first match! But the thrill of playing for Singapore wasn’t diminished even though I didn’t win my matches. I was proud of myself for having made so much progress in my game.

What do you carry over from tennis into your daily life?

Drive and perseverance.

If you want something bad enough, don’t let anyone hold you back. I had many setbacks, and I didn’t achieve everything I wanted to do like being on TV! Moving to Chicago was also tough as I had to work twice as hard. But it all paid off in the end!

(For the record, KP protested that this question was terribly boring but I insisted he answer)

You sound about 60 years…

I said it’s going to be boring! Which is why I didn’t want to answer the question – I sound so cliche!

Did you ever think you’d be an entrepreneur?

No. When I finished university, I wanted to work in a bank.

You know you’re not helping your 60 year old image here right?

It’s the truth! I really wanted to be an investment banker and really, only because, that’s what everybody was doing.

What stopped you?

*laughs*

I couldn’t get a job! Thank god, I didn’t regret it. Everybody wants a chance to start something on their own so I’m glad I got to do it from the get-go.

Is entrepreneurship what you expected?

I thought it would be breeze.

Oh, how young were you?

*looks sheepish*
Oh right, it was,umm, just about year ago when I thought it would be breeze.

Now’s the bit where we prop up the Indian bit of our name so tell me;

Favourite Bollywood Actress?

Deepika Padukone

Favourite Bollywood Actor?

Ranbir Kapoor or Aamir Khan

Favourite Indian Tennis Player?

Leander Paes. He gets some bad press but at 41, he is one of the best double players. His anticipation is unrivalled and he has got such good touch.

Undiscovered gems in Little India?

I’m going to mention two. The first is Gandhi Restaurant on Chander Road, people do know of them but they are not super famous. Their banana leaf is really underrated.

The second, is this uncle who used to sell fresh coconuts right here, at the alley. He’s moved to Hindoo Road now. Get a coconut and walk around Little India, you’re set.

For more information on the co-working space Workhouse and rates,click here!

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