Clever Hybrids with GabyV

S4E4: Coworking in the Suburbs?! | Mariya Denysenko from FlexOffice | Ukrainian Founder in Frankfurt, Germany

Episode Summary

Are co-working spaces always going to involve a commute to a space in the middle of the city? Mariya Denysenko the founder of FlexOffice doesn't think so! In this episode, she explains how co-working spaces in the suburbs are the next wave of this trend.

Episode Notes

Are co-working spaces always going to involve a commute to a space in the middle of the city? Mariya Denysenko the founder of FlexOffice doesn't think so! In this episode, she explains how co-working spaces in the suburbs are the next wave of this trend.


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Episode Transcription

GabyV: Hey, Mariya. It's nice to finally meet you. Nelson has told me a lot about you. So I'm very excited to get to know you a little bit better.

Mariya Denysenko: Hi, thanks for having me here today. My pleasure.

GabyV: But it's really nice to meet you as a fellow female entrepreneur. I'm really excited about this and you're also a polyglot. I was like, 'Yay!' speak English, German, Russian, and your native language Ukrainian. You worked as a freelance interpreter in the past. What was that like?

Mariya Denysenko: To be honest, I came up with that job [randomly], and I was looking for jobs. I was 18. I was like living in Germany for only one and a half years [at that] time and then a friend just suggested [that I should] apply there for the international fair. It was the first experience I've ever had in this huge international environment. It was quite interesting, but also quite challenging because someone would come to you and you need to help a client to choose the right product and switch between languages.

And back then, I was not super confident talking German 24/7. So it was a bit challenging and tricky, but I always say that when you are speaking more than two languages it's always learning by doing, and it's a process and you get used to it. So in the beginning, it can be quite confusing to look for the right word. Or just you have a sentence and you are completely fluent and then there is one little word and you have no dictionary [on] hand or no one to ask and you have to be spontaneous and look for a synonym from your vocabulary and so on. So it was quite challenging, but also very helpful to proceed with the language itself.

GabyV: Yeah, that's a good strategy. So when you get stuck... how did you find the synonym? Did you just describe the thing or you tried to find another word to explain it. What did you do?

Mariya Denysenko: Yeah. So what I did was exactly the first thing, I would just describe what I needed because sometimes you need really very specific vocabulary you wouldn't have on your radar normally, unless you are working in that industry for example.

And in the beginning, people would tell me, 

'Oh, it's so sweet that you explain that little word in three sentences.'

But at the end of the day, if everyone understands you, [that's] what it's about. In the beginning, I was feeling a little bit intimidated that I [could] not come up with the right definition or right term but at the end of the day, you feel that, 

'Okay, look, I'm here. I'm doing my best and it still works out.'

I did it for roughly four years, so throughout my bachelor's, and I worked in Frankfurt, Vienna, Berlin also, Munich. The industry is always different. So sometimes you work for something around decorations and manufacturing and textile industry. And sometimes you work around cars and automotive industry and aftermarket. I'm a political scientist. So I'm not very familiar with the technological parts. [That's] why it was always very refreshing to dive into a completely new industry and to get a grasp of what it's like and how does the industry work.

GabyV: But how did you prepare beforehand? Did you know what industries were going to be there? What did you do to prepare?

Mariya Denysenko: So normally you're always assigned to a client and your client also sends you a kind of a one pager with the company overview in advance so that you can always. Who google their site and understand what kind of service they're providing. You're just a middleman between the company and the client [who] doesn't speak the language. Then you just translate on the go and you don't have to know all the details.

But exactly as I've said earlier it's learning by doing, you get a feeling for that and by the end of the fair after five days, you feel like not an industry expert, but you definitely don't feel so unfamiliar as in the beginning.

GabyV: That's very cool. That's a nice process. So to be an interpreter, do you have to be certified or they just check your language level? What's the process?

Mariya Denysenko: So I worked with an external agency and this agency, they do castings. You have three different steps of [the] recruiting process before you get the job actually. You will be matched and you get the first round of talks with the client where you just have basically your language skills and your experience. And sometimes they ask you to do some simultaneous translation. That's it. 

One short comment that just came to my mind this job is normally very female dominated. And I remember that some male friends of mine they would tell me, 

'I was applying for this job, but I got zero chances',

because everyone wants to have a girl standing in the front of that little [booth]. Because as sexist as it sounds, but it's still the preferred way of presenting your firm and if you go look around, it's primarily women standing there and you also have to wear business attire where you have a dress and a skirt and high heels.

And sometimes in these jobs, I would say 80% of the clients, as sad as it sounds, but they don't look at the skills and the comparison of the skills, but they just choose the girl. 

GabyV: Sometimes they just want you there to be eye candy. Is that what you're saying?

Mariya Denysenko: Kind off. Yeah.

GabyV: Oh man. Okay. That's very old fashioned. Hopefully they change that soon. Even, I can't walk in high heels at all, so that would not work for me.

Mariya Denysenko: I worked in high heels as well in the beginning when I was still like 19. I would need the job. And I said, 

'Okay, I can do that.',

And then you come home and your feet are completely destroyed after five days of standing, 40, 50 hours. And now "d just say, 

'Hey, I'm there for my skills and for what I can offer and not for my high heels. So if it doesn't go hand in hand with your culture, fine. I'm not doing the job.'

GabyV: Now why did you make the transition from being an interpreter to now having your own business? What was the reason behind that?.

Mariya Denysenko: I was looking for something more to grasp an understanding of one specific industry and that's why I [ended] up in the beginning in diplomatic institutions. I was working as an intern in the Consulate of Ukraine in Hamburg.

It's a fascinating process, but I didn't like the structure so much. So I changed to the side of the economy, and I chose the private sector, working in a small agency around strategy and communications. I worked there for six months. Due to the size of the company, it was fairly small like seven employees, you always could get direct feedback and you got a mentor on your side giving you constant feedback and insights and having all these kind of talks with you. So it was very helpful. And after that, I realized that I want to be able one day to do something similar on my own.

And I applied for a program that was matching corporations with young talent. Yeah, we were working towards ideas for the future of work and during the program I noticed 

'Wow, this is so cool. I really enjoy working on it.'

I really like the way we had our team structured and the unique opportunity of solving a problem that is not a hypothetical one, but is a real case. And there are real people that are affected by this problem. And we can be the-the people helping them to overcome the problem. So this is where the entrepreneurial journey started for me.

GabyV: Yeah, it's nice to be able to work on like this. 

'This is a real thing and I fixed it.' 

and you're like, 'Yes, fixed.' (laughs)

But how did you get from 'Okay, I like entrepreneur stuff' to actually starting FlexOffice? Why that industry?

Mariya Denysenko: Kind off by a chance also, because originally I applied with an idea that had nothing to do with the real estate industry. I was working towards a software platform that would match talents within one corporation from different levels to make sure that the top management gets a chance to hear what the junior associates also have to say, because they are shaping the culture.

The company culture influences a lot of employees, but these employees are not being heard. So I wanted to change that. But throughout the process, we found out that our partners were more interested in solutions that were about hybrid working models and this is where FlexOffice was born at that time.

And we started working towards again a software platform and with the passing of time, we just noticed we have to make some alterations. We switched from a completely software type of a solution to a solution that also offers consulting services for companies that are looking for someone who helps them with their remote work and hybrid work strategy.

GabyV: Yeah, that's very good. I've been seeing a lot of companies that are like 

'App, Software, AI.' 

But then they forget the human component. So that's very good that you guys kept that in there.

Mariya Denysenko: Exactly. I'm also as a sociologist, first of all, a big fan of always remembering that a human is a social being and that we need other humans around us. That we are working together and do you go to work and you're excited to see your fellow colleagues because you can have a little coffee chat and when you have a project and you work together, you learn so much with other people.

GabyV: Yeah. The one thing I really like about FlexOffice... which we're seeing a lot of companies decentralize the office, and then there are other companies too. They're like, 

'Yeah, we have a co-working space.',

but it's usually right in the middle of the city. So FlexOffice is about sustainable workspaces in suburban areas.

Why did you guys choose that particular sector - suburban areas?

Mariya Denysenko: The pain points we have identified while talking to employees were that there were no alternative spaces to work in close to their home. So we are used to having co-working spaces in the cities, as you fairly stated, Gabrielle, but we don't have coworking spaces where people actually live.

And due to the fact that all the employees are distributed and you have to engage in a very high end analysis of like demographics and so on to identify that sweet spot for the coworking space it's not very common that you find it a coworking space in a suburban area. And the trend is also very new.

It's been there for five years or so, but still it's very evolving. So we need to create supply as well because just the demand is not enough. We need to match the market and create supply in the areas where there is an actual demand for coworking spaces.

GabyV: And now that we're getting more people have the vaccine of course coffee shops will be opening again. So what's the difference between a coworking space and coffee shop?

Mariya Denysenko: As much as I love working in coffee shops myself, it's a completely different installation, because if you come to Starbucks and I don't know, 10 people working with their laptops and so on, but still you have the noise of a coffee machine, still you have people passing by all the time and you don't have a proper, not even a dedicated workspace, but you are sitting in a cozy chair or you have your laptop positioned on a table. But it's not to be compared with the coworking space where you have, first of all, a community, this is something that you don't have in a Starbucks or in your local coffee shop. And you have established yourself within the community, who is coming there every day, you have familiar relations and you have all those social processes going on, like an after work beer or whatever, which is not a part of the coffee shop working culture and will never be. The coffee shop culture becoming more like coworking is very [unlikely], because it's more about the individual and the freedoms I want to use as a private person. But if I want to have a collective impact or to experience this community, I have to be in a spot that enables me to do so. It could be very tricky if you just go to a random Starbucks and you would approach people working with their laptops, looking for a small chit chat. I wish we had more people who would be open to that, but from what I've experienced, working in a coffee shop that people work there and they're not really looking for new friends or new connections. They are just there [concentrating] on their stuff and they don't want to be disturbed. 

GabyV: Yeah, it's very much personal space bubble. Like 

'Why are you looking at me? Let alone talking to me.'

Oh my goodness. Now that you mentioned the German culture a little bit, I've had friends who have told me that, trying to get even one day a week working remotely is very difficult. Has that culture changed during the pandemic or is it still the same?

Mariya Denysenko: Yeah. It's a very good question. So from what we have observed during the pandemic is that this corporate culture or the corporate mindset of wanting your employees to be physically there in the office to be able to control what they are doing and how long they're staring at their screen or whatever.

No matter are they being productive or not? 

'I just want my employees to be in the office.'

This is a very old pattern we have, and we observe this working culture that has been established for 50 years. So it's hard to change it overnight and Corona helped to speed up the process to make work more flexible. And in fact, studies have shown that during the pandemic, there has been a rise in productivity, even though people were not there in the office. So people would say that we have now the phenomenon that if you are working from home, you're prone to have less distractions as well.

Now the top management also know that remote work works, but still it's a challenge to find how we can fit the remote and the hybrid together. How we can make a model that will bring the best out of two worlds together and how we can make this model not only fit for the short term, but for the long run.

And what I have witnessed also myself is that it's all about the mindset of the company. If the mindset is, 

'Oh my God, I see remote work as a constraint or it's dangerous for my company to lose control over my employees.'

Then it's a different story than saying,

'Hey, I want to go hand-in-hand with time. I want to be the top employer. I want to retain and attract the best talent. That's why I'm giving them the options they can choose from. And I don't care where my people work from.'

And if your target group are Millennials and Generation Z, they have the work anytime, anywhere mentality anyways, and you have to feed that into that demand of your workforce.

GabyV: Definitely, internet gives us a lot more options and we're even going right now the great resignation where there's a lot of people who are like, 

'You don't treat me well. Ciao.' 

Mariya Denysenko: Yeah, so we definitely see a shift, but I still think that it will take us some time to find out also in terms of all the compliance and regulations. It's a huge hot topic right now. 

GabyV: Now going into some of these issues that you mentioned in a LinkedIn poll about 10 months ago. You mentioned we have this coworking option, which will be more of an option as people start to get the vaccine. But how can people deal with the two main issues that people mentioned in your poll? Lack of human interaction and, I know this one is hard for me, separating work from home, what are some tips you have to help people do that?

Mariya Denysenko: It sounds very ridiculous, but I think we underestimate the influence routine has on us and it was very hard for people who used to be traveling 24/7 to suddenly find themselves within their own four walls. So tip number one, create a routine that you stick to, tip number two create a structure that works for you that enables your best productivity flow and tip number three, I know this is the most difficult one, or at least for me the most difficult one, try to stick to your working time.

So you say, I start at nine and I finished by, let's say seven. Then you just close your laptop and

'Okay now this is the line that I put for me between work and home. The work is over and now I can engage in activities that are of a private [nature] and don't have anything to do with a work nature.'

These days it's especially tricky because you're available on all channels and even worse I think on all devices. If you don't have a private phone for work or a work laptop, it's very hard to not look at your work email that pops up at 9:00 PM while you're watching Netflix. And I'm that kind of person that would stop my Netflix and jumping right into my work email because I don't want to have a pile of unread emails by the next morning.

But I learned that I have to deactivate those if I really want my mental health to be in a good state because it's impossible to put yourself into that roller coaster of not knowing, 

'Hey, which social role am I in right now? Am I the employee or am I the Mariya, the private person just enjoying my time off with my friends or with my family.' 

GabyV: Yeah, that's a good one. I even had to delete my outlook from my phone because I just couldn't handle it. 

Your English is superb. So I want to know how does a Ukrainian learn to speak English as well as you? When did you start? Give us the whole backstory.

Mariya Denysenko: So thank you first of all, very much for the compliment. I appreciate it a lot. It took a lot of effort to be honest. So I had English starting from the first grade and it was a very intense amount of hours. And back in school, I wanted to go to the US to study. I applied also for the exchange program and I was learning very hard to pass a test. And during the first year I failed, I missed only one point during my exam. It was quite bitter, but the next year I couldn't try anymore because I decided to concentrate on German. Long story short, I was in this school for foreign languages and also studying a lot by myself, like watching a lot of English movies, also American movies, and [the] language on all my devices was English and still is, trying to get in touch with the exchange students we had in our school so that he can also practice with the native speakers and so on. Yeah, every time I went somewhere, I was looking for, as stupid as it sounds, but I was looking for someone to practice with because it's a huge difference if you see it with your books and learn all your grammar by heart, but you never have had this hands-on experience in real life.

I would just come and talk so that I learned, and it worked at the end pretty well because I was learning exactly by doing, and I was not afraid to make a mistake or something.

GabyV: Yeah, that's not stupid at all. Learning a language is just like learning to swim or riding a bike. You can read all the books you want to, but unless you get in there and almost drown or cut your knee up, you're not going to learn.

Mariya Denysenko: It's just how it works. 

GabyV: That's amazing. So now that you're working in Germany, I'm assuming you speak German most of the time. How do you keep your English fresh? Are you still doing the same things or you had to change up the strategy a little bit?

Mariya Denysenko: So first of all, I speak English was my Salvadorian boyfriend. And this is what keeps it also, I wouldn't say it keeps it alive, but it definitely keeps me on track because if you are studying in Germany and you only take German courses, it's quite dominating the German language and it kicks out all your other languages pretty fast.

So I'm happy that I get a chance to work and to practice still every day with my boyfriend. Actually with a lot of friends who are Germans we still talk [in] English a lot of the time. As I'm also based in Frankfurt, it's a very international city and a lot of people speak in English. So it's never been a problem to find someone to talk to in English.

But sometimes it can get very confusing especially after a day full of business-related meetings in German and then you come from a university where everything is a very like on a meta level, very scientific, and vocaulary that no one uses in a daily life. And you would just come and say some very weird stuff and people will be like, 

'Why are you talking as if you were someone from a novel by Jane Austin?'

So we have to be balanced.

GabyV: Yeah, That's true. Nobody really uses collegiate level language in any language in real life anymore. We don't talk like that as much.

Mariya Denysenko: Yeah. Sometimes I think it's quite cool to be able to use it. But on the other hand, it's the old English that not even the native speakers would understand. As much as I like this whole challenging process where you have to see it and Google it up in the Oxford dictionary and so on it's still something that is more for the literature and for writings, for your essays and so on, but not very common in daily life.

GabyV: That's true. 

Mariya Denysenko: Yeah, actually English is the main language we use at home as well. So we talk about everything in English.

GabyV: Okay. Cool. So that's the language that unites you two. I like that.

Mariya Denysenko: Yeah. Talking about the basics. I tried to learn Spanish a little bit better. I used to go to language courses. But then somehow I lost the track of it because of coming back to Germany and working in a completely German environment, it was hard to keep up with the Spanish.

And as Nelson, is for El Salvador, I was always asking him, 

'Hey, can we start talking just in Spanish for about, you know, at least five minutes a day? Just to have this small chat. Like how was your day and all of that very down to earth stuff, nothing fancy, nothing complicated.'

But it also didn't work out because we're just too used to talking in English and it would bring some constraints or it would slow up the process. So we have to come to resolutions fast and in Spanish it would not be possible for now.

GabyV: have a suggestion for that, if I may.

Mariya Denysenko: Yeah, sure.

GabyV: I know I have the same thing with my husband because we both speak English at home most of the time, but he speaks an East African language. So sometimes he's not here, I will listen to the news in his language. So I can hear some of the words and then I might take some notes, write a few sentences or 

'Oh, I heard this word. I have no idea what that means. I need to look that up.'

So that helps me to keep improving my vocabulary.

Mariya Denysenko: Yeah, totally. Also podcasts are great assets for that. I used to listen to one on a regular basis for one year and it was great. But then soon as you just switch your routine and your structure and you don't make a commitment. It's gone very fast, right?

The language, if you don't listen to it, both the passive and the active understanding, I would say.

GabyV: Yeah, it's true. How long was your session?

Mariya Denysenko: I would say a max of thirty minutes, because this is my limit after and hard working day, the limit of concentration I'm still able to deliver, and I would listen to a podcast, not about very sophisticated grammar or something else, but rather down to earth people engaging in very simple conversations.

Conversations that happens on a scale that I can relate to, like someone sitting outside, ordering a coffee and having a little chat with their neighbor, for example, or listening to adventures of a student who was an exchange student and tries to learn Spanish in that environment.

Something you can relate to from the vocabulary as well, right? Not diving into a completely new topic. The odds of me understanding that would be very low and it's counterproductive and you come out after the session quite depressed and devastated because you didn't get a thing, but it's not because you are stupid or so, but because you just chose a level that is not out of your league, but the levels that you haven't reached yet. 

GabyV: Well, there's a really good Abraham Lincoln me with this sometimes where most people think for the whole session, you gotta be doing something. But our brain is very complicated. Sometimes we spend maybe a quarter of the session actively doing something and then the rest thinking about something.

So Abraham Lincoln has this quote where he says, 

'Give me six hours to chop down a tree I will spend the first four, sharpening the ax.' 

I don't know. That helps me too not to get frustrated 'feel like after that 30 minutes that I'm spending the next 30 minutes thinking about it while doing something else and I feel like I didn't have time to process it all. But does that happen to you?

Mariya Denysenko: Yeah, totally. Also and I think, you have to take your time also. And it's okay to say, 

'Sorry, could you repeat, please?',

if you don't understand, because in many cases I recall while learning German, for example, I was just so intimidated by the fact that I don't understand it, that I had to say

'Yes. Yeah, sure.'

And then I would go out of an appointment being completely lost, not having an agenda or a clear understanding of what the message the person wanted to communicate [was], right?

People also have respect for people who learn something completely new and not random, but complicated also. So learning the language is also from my standpoint, a sign that you are strong and you have courage to do something you've never done before.

GabyV: Now I know why Nelson's happy all the time. He has a good partner. What does a typical day look like for both of you? I know no day is the same, but what's a typical day?

Mariya Denysenko: It all depends also on the amount of meetings you have during the day. Sometimes your day is so full of meetings, you have to accomplish that you don't have literally any time to actually work on stuff on the work that has to be done so that you can move forward.

We come to the office normal around 9:00, 9:30. I have my morning routine. I reply to all my emails. I check that I have a to-do list on my Trello board. It's very helpful to keep an overlook of what are your current milestones and what are your next objectives you want to achieve and you have that one big goal, right? But you break it down to 10 little goals. So that you're not so scared by the idea of this one big goal because 

'Okay, this is a process and it's a step-by-step process and today is the day where I get this little part done, so that in three months, I can achieve my big milestone.'

I personally work a lot with these online tools helping me to strategically approach and to divide my work and then we also in my team have some sort of a standup call we call it where we just discuss the agenda for the day. And we make sure that no two people do the same task twice, for example, because of miscommunication and so on, which can happen quite often in teams. But it can vary from, for example, content production for LinkedIn or for your pitch decks, for one-pagers to having cold calls with firms you want to acquire as potential customers. Today, for example, was a day where we got sudden visit [from] a politician from the federal government and they were interested in knowing more about the ecosystem of startups in Frankfurt and we were having a kind of an open discussion with her about that. 

Yeah, I talk a lot to different clients from public industries discussing their current pain points and discussing their strategies about new work. Being an entrepreneur, I enjoy the freedom I have to choose. 

'What do I do next? How do I approach things?'

So depending on the project, I can be talking to someone from the management board and someone from the junior level where I will find out:

What are the needs of the workforce? 

What do they envision for the future? 

And what are the features that are important for them?

So that we can incorporate that into our solution. 

In a startup, especially when you have a small team, you have to outsource some tasks that are not your core competence, for example, like building websites or creating UX or UI design.

It's not that you cannot learn it, but you know, that you're way more efficient in doing other things and you can outsource these things to someone else.

In German, there is one saying, and it's from the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, 

'The enlightenment, it's not the end state of being, but it's a process, right?'

So this is how I can describe the startup life and routine in a startup. It's a continuous process as well.

GabyV: That's an excellent point and to wrap up here, Mariya, how can someone reach you? How can they become a client of FlexOffice? Please tell us how to contact you.

Mariya Denysenko: You can just contact me via my LinkedIn page and I have an email address it's, and I would be happy to get in touch with you.

GabyV: Okay. Cool. And what's the name on your LinkedIn?

Mariya Denysenko: It's Mariya Denysenko.

GabyV: Thank you so much, Mariya. Now we know both halves of the power couple of Nelson and Mariya. Thank you.