Emma Kennedy, founder and CEO of Grafter, shares her life and business lessons.
Grafter, established in 2021, operates a collection of beautifully restored buildings in the heart of Dublin city, and recently opened a new workspace in the heart of Bloomsbury, London. The overall aim of the Grafter proposition is to put ‘life’ back into ‘work’ by providing stylish, luxury, productive and creative workspaces that allow work and life to co-exist in harmony.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
I have always been on the move. In 2010, I handed in my college dissertation and moved to London – I wanted to be somewhere completely different. I took a role as a Manager in Primark, Oxford Street, which was an amazing starting point for my career. I was based in a fast-paced environment with people who work incredibly hard, and Primark’s training program really helped me broaden my skills.
“We know coming into the office – whether that’s five days a week or maybe one or two with hybrid working the rest of the time – gives companies a chance to connect, collaborate and build. They want to make the most of this time together”
I’ll admit it took me a few years to figure out what I wanted to do, but I believe it’s served me well in the long run. I had points where I was double jobbing it, working seven days a week. In 2014, I found myself with Marsh & Parsons, a leading residential estate agent in Notting Hill. It sparked my entrepreneurial mindset – I was able to build a client base, show residential properties, and earn a salary based on work ethic.
I moved back to Dublin in 2015 to take on a role in flexible workspace, which was at the time, a fairly small market with only a few main players. I took off again in 2016 for a role with global workspace provider Servcorp in Sydney, Australia. Both roles gave me an in-depth knowledge of flexible workspace, not to mention the knowledge and courage to set up a business of my own back in Dublin, which would become Grafter in 2021.
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
We all know the workspace is changing, and Covid-19 sped that change up even faster. People engage with the office differently now. Work is no longer a place you go, but something you do.
At Grafter, we know coming into the office – whether that’s five days a week or maybe one or two with hybrid working the rest of the time – gives companies a chance to connect, collaborate and build. They want to make the most of this time together. This is what we give our members: flexibility and reliability.
“We are strategic about which buildings we take on, and work with landlords who share our vision”
Our members are greeted on arrival by our on-site concierge team and have full access to all of our in-house amenities, including the standard flexi workspace offering like chairs, desks and peds, IT set up and utilities, plus our elevated amenities: fully-stocked kitchens with coffees, teas, continental breakfast, wine and beer; shower facilities with toiletries; bike storage; breakout spaces to meet for coffee or take a call and more.
We also understand how much business happens outside of the office. Relationships are built over shared experiences, be it a beautiful dinner with clients or a casual drink to celebrate a win with colleagues. We’ve partnered with over 65 of some of Ireland’s best venues – hotels, restaurants, bars, even spas, gyms and cinemas – to offer a membership that bridges the gap between work and enjoyment. From day-to-night, work or lifestyle, Grafter aims to build balance into your daily routine.
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
We’ve been in a fortunate position in having a shareholder in the background who believed in Grafter from the start. I have an entrepreneurial spirit and knew I wanted to go out on my own. When the right opportunity to found Grafter came along, I jumped and founded Grafter in 2021.
We are strategic about which buildings we take on, and work with landlords who share our vision. The buildings we take on have undergone extensive refurbishment, which has helped keep our upfront costs low so we can focus on expansion and growth.
“I find that if you are open with people and share your knowledge, it’s likely that people will reciprocate this and share their expertise”
In 2022, we opened our first building in London, Bedford House. We are actively looking at new houses constantly to ensure we can provide the very best experience for our members, both at home in Dublin and abroad. The idea has always been to operate a portfolio of workspaces that allowed our members the ultimate in flexibility, and travel is part of that. We’re looking at key locations globally to ensure we can meet our members where they are, and where they want to be.
We have three buildings in Dublin – Leeson House, Ely House and Tom’s House – and have recently announced a fourth. Smyth House is on the site of the former Topshop and Habitat, at the top of Grafton Street. Smyth House is a unique offering; in that we’ll have a dedicated retail element and barista café for members as well as passer-by. It’ll be a place to meet and connect in the heart of Dublin.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
Honesty and dedication. I don’t know everything, and I will never know everything. I find that if you are open with people and share your knowledge, it’s likely that people will reciprocate this and share their expertise. You don’t need to take every piece of advice you receive, but it’s important to listen to different viewpoints and then make decisions (which might be the wrong call, but it’s all a learning experience).
“Don’t be afraid of failure; it’s all part of the process”
As far as dedication goes, building Grafter is my top priority. I’m online 24/7, going over contracts, strategy planning, and checking in with my team and our members. The world talks about work-life balance, but when you are in the early stages of building a business, there is no point in talking about a balance. I’ll find that in time.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
When I was still trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do, my older brother suggested I look into sales. It was something I’d never thought about before, and ended up being my way of life.
My brother, and my entire family, are all brilliant when it comes to business. When I’m having a challenge in work, they’re always there to offer advice, or help me see things in a new light, even though we work in different industries. That’s the value of having a wide community of supporters and thinkers with you – there is always something to be learned from intelligent, driven people.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
Trust your gut and always back yourself.
When it comes to sales, it’s all a numbers game! The more people you speak to, the more deals you’ll do.
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
It’s important to put yourself out there. This is easier said than done – it can be uncomfortable to put yourself in unfamiliar situations or reach out to a stranger.
But if you get out there and meet people, more opportunities will open up for you. Don’t be afraid of failure; it’s all part of the process.
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
We don’t take it slow at Grafter. We’re in a period of really exciting rapid growth, but that comes with its own set of challenges. Time is the key resource in particular, and making sure we’re giving adequate attention to each new product or House when we’re bringing so many to the market so quickly.
“It’s hard to predict where a business will be in 12 months, let alone 10 years, so companies are hesitant to fix themselves into a potential long-term financial risk. We offer a flexible and agile solution”
It’s a testament to our team that we’re able to operate at this high-level fast-pace consistently. Everyone in Grafter is learning and growing together, which makes our big wins even more exciting.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
We opened the business during the pandemic which might seem like a strange decision, but the flexible workspace industry works well during uncertainty. Companies don’t want to sign long term leases, particularly when the environment seems unsteady. It’s hard to predict where a business will be in 12 months, let alone 10 years, so companies are hesitant to fix themselves into a potential long-term financial risk. We offer a flexible and agile solution.
We also learned that it’s important to work with your clients as best you can. Keep your door open and listen. Try working together to find solutions to what their needs are – not what you think they might be.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
Grafter is a service-led flexible workspace provider, and that flexibility means our members can work how they want, when they want. That flexibility comes in the form of shorter-term lease agreements, fully-furnished suites, but most importantly, in operating from an agile workspace.
“Looking back, I would have gone out on my own a lot earlier. I was afraid for a long time to make the jump”
Our members work across a wide array of industries. All have different needs, and our IT-set up in particular needs to be as agile as possible to accommodate those different requirements across different businesses. We’ve built state-of-the-art IT solutions into each of our buildings, including dedicated comms rooms, multi-tenant lines through our live ISPs and automatic redundancy swap-over to ensure there is minimal to no lag time should our connectivity run into issues. For a business like ours, where our members are in different countries and time-zones and might be dealing with sensitive information, we need to account for every possibility to ensure we can provide the very best, most consistent experience.
We’ll also be rolling out some very exciting digital products over the next few weeks and months, solutions designed to ensure working from Grafter is as seamless as possible.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Looking back, I would have gone out on my own a lot earlier. I was afraid for a long time to make the jump, but having confidence in myself and trusting my vision has made all the difference.
I have no regrets…even on the bad days!
“If an employee feels confident in their role and supported by the wider team, they’ll perform their best”
Who inspires you in business today?
We partner with the Press Up and McKillen Group, and the employees there are really impressive. They work extremely hard and at such a fast pace.
Nothing is ever an issue; they’re agile and adapt to any situation. If a business model doesn’t work, they switch things up and try again. They always display a positive attitude.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
Our internal talent is what makes Grafter exceptional. They are always front-of-mind in whatever business decisions we make.
We want everyone in the company to feel included, respected and valued. If an employee feels confident in their role and supported by the wider team, they’ll perform their best, because they take pride in that job. It begins with an in-depth training for each team member, and continues with regular, open and honest communication. At this early stage, we all lend a hand and help out where we need to.
I won’t use the ‘we’re a family’ line, but what we do have is a core culture of respect and understanding for one another. We seek longevity in new hires, people that we hope will be with us for years to come. I don’t think it’s been luck that we’ve built such a phenomenal team. It takes hard work, but it’s the piece that’s the most important.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
I’m always on the go, so I’m a big podcast person. Steven Bartlett’s ‘Diary of a CEO’ is one of my favourites. He’s an exceptional interviewer, and hearing from others who have been on the same journey is a hugely inspiring way to start the day. Whether his interviewees are entrepreneurs, artists or athletes, there’s always something I can take from their stories to incorporate into my own life and business.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
Call me old school, but I’m a whiteboard person! I have one in my home office. Being able to scribble out my thoughts and see everything laid out visually makes it easier for me to conceptualise it all – especially since we’re growing so quickly and there are a lot of moving parts.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
I’m not much of a social media person, but LinkedIn is my go-to. Our business is international, and LinkedIn has helped us connect with a new network abroad. I’m a big believer in constant learning, and LinkedIn is another platform for that – I’m always reading articles or research on the market or getting inspiration from other entrepreneurs I follow.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
In my view, an interesting space to watch is AI and personalisation through data analytics. Flexible workspace allows people to work how they want, when they want. Some of our members really enjoy chatting with our on-site team, while others would rather book themselves into a meeting room online. We are constantly reviewing our in-house experience to improve it overall, but using behaviour-driven data, we can deliver a truly unique and personal experience to our members. For example, we can offer specials on things like meeting room rates or catering depending on what workspace products they use the most.
That’s only the beginning. We have some really exciting innovations coming down the pipeline that we can’t wait to share with our members.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
Get out into the world and experience what you can. The best decision I ever made was moving to London. It’s shaped me as a person. I encourage all young people to move away, find their own footing and come home when they are ready. It can only ever be a positive outcome.