Unfolding Beijing

M.E. Strickland

posted on October 13, 2017 2:47 pm

It’s noon on a warm day in Beijing, and I’m standing outside the red-lacquered gates of a traditional courtyard on the southern side of Ritan Park, twin stone lions on either side of the doors. This is the heart of the capital’s embassy district, and there’s a Russian cafe just down at the street corner, but otherwise there’s hardly anything else around, just a sleepy, tree-lined street with the wall of the park on one side, the fence of the Polish Embassy on the other.

I don’t have to wait more than a minute before Fan Yang, the man I’m there to meet, comes out from the courtyard gates to greet me. Tall, with short-trimmed hair and an easy smile, he’s wearing a blue t-shirt with the plain words “Stay Calm” printed across the front. He leads me into the courtyard, through the lobby of a high-end restaurant (not open until the evening), and into a second courtyard where a wide screen wall gives a peek directly into the park beyond. There, he takes us to a room tucked off to the side. Spacious, high-ceilinged, with classical Chinese design in the wooden beams and window screens, it’s outlayed with moddish furniture, a set of four sittingchairs on a rug in the back, a long table, and a kitchenette and bar to one side for preparing tea or coffee.

This is Elsewhere. Or one part of it, anyway. Fan’s young company is an app-fronted, on-demand sharing service, seemingly like a million other startups. Except, where there have been dozens of bike-sharing startups in China, and shared power pack startups, and even shared umbrella startups, Elsewhere seems to be something genuinely one of a kind.

Superficially, Elsewhere is a pretty simple concept: you can book small, private rooms and spaces all over the city, places where to hold meetings or small parties, or just while away some time. But in talking to Fan it quickly becomes clear that Elsewhere’s mission is something more than just giving people some space to fill. It’s about creating places for connection and repose, opening up the nooks and crevices of the city, and revealing surprising points of interest, imagination, and beauty. Ultimately, Fan says, Elsewhere is meant to allow people to extend their homes “to every corner of the city.”


A studio located within a temple near the Forbidden city

Fan’s path to becoming an entrepreneur doesn’t seem exactly linear. A native of Xi’an, he studied chemistry in school: “So by profession I was trained as a scientist.” Yet in 2009 he moved to New York to work at an early stage venture capital firm. Since he was young, however, he’s always had an interest in art and architecture. Even while deep in the world of New York venture capital, outside of work, he says, “most of my friends were either designers, architects, [or] artists.”

Which was why, when he moved to Beijing two years ago, he started spending a lot of his time with artists and architects, calling on them at their offices and studios, spaces they had crafted with the same sense of design and artistry as the rest of their work. It was not long before he had the idea to try connecting these spaces together, and as he met with more and more owners of such creative spaces, he found them welcoming of the idea. And so Elsewhere was born.

For Fan, stepping out from the investment world to the world of creative designers was a natural progression: “Because I’m a user of these spaces. The reason I thought to turn this into a business was that, in Beijing, the two biggest headaches are transportation and finding a place to meet.” He discovered that almost immediately after moving to the city. “One day I had three meetings, and I spent about three hours on the road in taxis.” Pretty much the only halfway quiet places to meet up, regardless of the neighborhood, whether it was bar-stacked Sanlitun or corporate-heavy Guomao, was a Starbucks. And despite the fact many people have made Starbucks into a quasi-office—and Starbucks has seemingly accommodated them—Fan argues it’s an imperfect adaptation. “[Their space] isn’t designed for people, it’s designed for the business.” But, at the time, there also weren’t many other choices. “There were very few places to find privacy or peace of mind.”

Perhaps it's no surprise that given his investment background, Fan is attentive to all sides of the business. Whether talking about the potential market for Elsewhere’s services, branding, user needs and psychology, or partnerships, it’s clear he has a detailed, well-studied strategy in mind.

So, when Elsewhere first started and was beginning to bring together and develop its first slate of spaces, he made sure to stitch together diverse networks of both owners and users “from all walks of life: architects, designers, lawyers, brand creators.” Doing so allowed Elsewhere to reach farther and faster, building in no small part on word of mouth and the enthusiasm of its userbase. But it was more than just canny marketing. Fan wants to open up and share the older, more eclectic, more colorful side of the Beijing that was there “before [it] became Silicon Valley.”

Beijing, Fan says, is a city that, in its current incarnation, “lacks joy.” It’s big, and it’s prosperous, but for years its most distinctive and storied places have been getting bulldozed (literally and figuratively), crusted over with newer developments that, while often pleasant enough, don’t always have much to distinguish them from one another. “You might have seen in China's sharing economy that every random thing gets shared, but we select [our] spaces because we think they're truly interesting and creative.”


A cigar room

Most of Beijing is invisible. That’s true of most cities, actually. Stand on any urban street, anywhere in the world, and look around. Behind all the shops and storefronts there’s an even larger volume of space taken up by offices and apartments, places that are off-limits in one way or another.

Behind the walls of private homes, tiny art studios, and hidden-away small businesses, there is almost an entire other city to explore—and, yes, a huge untapped market of spaces that Elsewhere can make available. To date, they have opened up previously sealed away spaces in historic temples, workshops, homes, hutongs, and high-profile locales like the 798 arts district.

At first glance, Elsewhere’s model can look a bit like Airbnb, or a bit like WeWork, a fact Fan is well aware of. But a certain amount of ambiguity is, in a sense, intentional. Fan says there's no one word to describe the spaces that Elsewhere offers, “although we like using the concept of ‘living room’,” because it encompasses both work and entertainment scenarios.

At the most basic level, part of the need Elsewhere seeks to meet is a simple one of providing space. Although Chinese urban homes have gotten larger in recent decades, they’re still nowhere near as spacious as the stereotypical American suburban house, and never will be (depending on the city, the residential space per capita is somewhere in the range of 30-40 square meters, or about 320-430 square feet). Kitchens, dining rooms, and living rooms are usually not large enough to accommodate more than a couple people at a time, let alone a party, so most Chinese don't do much entertaining at home.

But in Beijing, if you want to find somewhere besides either home or school/work to spend your time (what the sociologist Ray Oldenberg dubbed a “third place”), the options aren’t as bountiful as they might seem. Like so many Chinese cities, Beijing is a place of walls. Apartment complexes are typically gated. Public parks are often fenced in (and sometimes require a nominal entrance fee). The easiest and most accessible options are simply commercial spaces. Beijing is already dotted with bustling six-, seven-story shopping malls; chain cafes and Starbucks galore, or the occasional independent coffeeshop; and maybe some more traditional teahouses, if you search hard enough for them.

That is where Fan hopes Elsewhere can provide an answer.

Elsewhere bills itself as the on-demand alternative to Starbucks—not for the coffee, of course, but for space where people can meet, sit, and talk. The company’s website even makes the analogy explicit: what Airbnb is to hotels, or Uber is to taxis, Elsewhere means to be to coffeeshops and other third places.

If Elsewhere does seem to share something with Airbnb and coworking spaces, it’s because they are all in the field of what Fan calls “citytech.” But he notes that, although they’re all businesses that are working at breaking up, opening up, and providing spaces for individual use, Elsewhere is a more purely “on-demand” service. Its spaces are available for booking by the hour, more private than coworking spaces, and more flexible than Airbnb. Perusing through the listings in Elsewhere’s app, there are indeed plenty of general, multipurpose spaces fit for business meetings or just some afternoon conversation with friends, but there are also meditation rooms, rooftop gardens, and even private gyms. “If I want to find a painting room, a piano room, [or] a teahouse, then I can quickly find one in the city,” Fan says.


One of the first locations in Shanghai, robots included

But there is still something to the Airbnb comparison. The service businesses of earlier generations succeeded by offering precisely standardized experiences across selfsame locations. The interior of a Starbucks is immediately identifiable, whether it’s in Seattle or Shanghai, even if you strip away all the logos and signs. Of course, cookie-cutter design and product offerings help tamp down supply and logistics costs, but they have also a psychological use—a customer walking into a Starbucks, whether in Seattle or Shanghai, knows exactly what they’re getting.

The new on-demand businesses such as Airbnb and Elsewhere, on the other hand, contract with individual owners to offer existing spaces. For obvious reasons of cost and practicality, they could never standardize those spaces, but again, the constraint becomes a selling point: every separate space offers a unique experience.

Elsewhere does get involved in the styling of the spaces and owners it works with. “We’re like a shareholder in the space,” Fan says. That might mean bolstering the design if need be, or equipping it with the necessary smart devices, such as smart locks, Wi-Fi speakers, or projectors. But even so, no two are made exactly alike.

The appeal for businesses in Elsewhere’s services is clear enough. Smaller companies with less impressive offices might want better digs for holding meetings when receiving special clients or partners. Or people on far ends of the omnisprawl that is Beijing may just need a convenient (and private) midpoint to meet at. Fan notes that large companies like Didi, China's Uber, have used Elsewhere's spaces because their main offices are located far on the outskirts of the city. Elsewhere gives them the option of claiming a little bit of space in the center of the city, exactly when and as they need.

For the owners of the spaces, the appeal is not just making a bit of money off of rooms that might otherwise be left idle much of the time, but the opportunity to make connections. Fan cites a couple of cases where some artists were able to catch the interest of companies like Adobe and Sonos after some of their staff borrowed the artists' studios for meetings.

But Fan says there have been surprises along the way, use cases that they could not have predicted. Even cash-strapped students, he says, have been making use of the service to hold get-togethers (pooling their money to cover the booking fees), while, in a testament to just how special some of the spaces can be, teachers have even used certain sites for small field trips with their classes. In other instances, Elsewhere’s spaces have been used for photo shoots and Game of Thrones viewing parties.

Fan is pragmatic, and knows that business users constitute a significant part of the demand for their service, so Elsewhere does tailor some of its spaces more for business meetings. But Fan is careful to insist they maintain something of a more distinctive, yet relaxed, atmosphere. Plenty of their business users, he points out, are used to holding offsite meetings in five star hotels. And those places “are boring.”

And he does not mean for Elsewhere to paint itself into a corner and become just a platform for booking meeting spots. “If in five years all of the spaces are conference rooms, it'll be a very niche app, and I don't think there will be any joy or imagination in it.”

Elsewhere has already expanded to more than 200 locations across Beijing, and has just begun opening locations in Shanghai. Fan is also contemplating an expansion to Japan before long, and has an eye on Singapore, Hong Kong, and, eventually, lower tier cities within China. But he is mindful of the challenges awaiting the company as it scales up and out. He knows that what works in Beijing, for example, “doesn't work in Shanghai,” where design standards can be higher, and a subtly different social fabric means an also subtly distinct market of spaces to draw on and interests to cater to.


But whatever its prospects beyond Beijing, Elsewhere marks a new, and peculiar, experiment in “citytech,” an attempt to not just cut up and repackage space for some preconceived purpose, but to unfold the city and reveal its hidden sides and little idiosyncrasies. If it succeeds, even longtime residents will find an entirely new city open to them, right next door.