I met Mario from OK Kontor last year, when we travelled to Norway and visited Bergen. I was looking for interesting co-working spaces to talk to in the area and found him online, and he was good enough to show me around their space (they’ve now moved somewhere new), and later to do an interview about how the business came about.
Co-working spaces have fascinated me for a while – how they come about, how you create a working culture when people come together from different disciplines and organisations, and how you make it a fun and interesting location for that cross-section of individuals. It’s challenging to do well, and really interesting to talk to the people behind them. Look out for future interviews on Masters of Many, as we have a few founder interviews of co-working spaces coming up, in locations as diverse as Bali and Auckland.
I caught up with Mario to find out more about his personal journey with OK Kontor…
Tell us about your background and how OK Kontor came to life…
Bergen is a really musical city, it’s probably the musical capital of Norway. Growing up I had a lot of friends in bands, but being tone deaf personally, I had to contribute in other ways. I learnt Photoshop and started making posters. Looking back at them, they are really terrible, but I guess I knew instantly that I wanted to be a graphic designer. My parents were architects, but that seemed a bit tedious to me.
I decided to be a designer, and applied for arts school right after high school. It was a lot of fun and I worked on the side, but never really found someone to work with longer term. I did an exchange semester in Vienna which was really inspiring and gave me a lot of job opportunities and I was even more determined to work as a designer.
However, since I have an architectural background through my family, I always fancied working with different disciplines, as other creative fields were a big inspiration.
I was the first in my group of friends to finish my studies, so there was no-one to join me in my freelancing. Last Christmas, a couple of friends of mine finished their studies as architects and I thought we could all sit together to create an office experience, that feeling of someone waiting for you in the office to get you up in the morning and the discipline can be lacking when you are on your own. The more we talked about it, we realised that this concept was missing in Bergen.
We set up a project based share space and pay day beer for small companies, particularly in architecture, design or management, to get together. We started having Monday meetings where we say what we have to do this week. Even though we all work separately as freelancers, we're up to date with what the others are doing. On Friday after lunch, we go through the week and see if we've done what we planned to do.
During the year we had in our first office, we were able to polish our idea and concept, to find out what kind of studio would be the best for us. We opened a new studio in December, which is more like a gallery space, with the potential to have exhibits. We had an architecture contest a few months ago, and we invited companies to have a talk about what they were doing, one week before delivering. They were surprised at this approach, but in one week you wouldn’t change your main concept. The spirit we’re working in feels like we are a team, with different mini offices joining together in a milieu.
You trained in graphic design and therefore could have simply gone full-time working for someone else. What made you take the leap to do things differently?
My parents started their architecture firm when they were my age. Architects only know architects, so for my entire life I’ve just been meeting these people who have set up their own businesses.
When I started working, the work just came and it felt like working for myself was something I could do full-time. I applied for a job once, when I had to pay back-taxes, so I applied, but I didn’t get the job. I realised ‘why should I be hired?’, I should try and get to the point where I can hire someone. Working for myself means I can enjoy the freedom of travelling, and I also arrange club nights, go on tour, make music videos. If I’d been hired for a job, I would have had to apply for days off to do that.
How does OK Kontor work as a business?
We are a core of 5 people in the business who have put money into it as a limited company. We are the ones financing the refurbishment of the office. We have a daily fee, and a monthly fee, and a project based fee for members. We are still figuring out how that side of it works.
As you’ve got new companies coming on board, are you formalising the approach?
To date, it’s been done on trust, but in our new space it will all be based on contracts and more official. We’ll be focusing more on the gallery space too, and if we can get more companies involved, based on exhibiting work, we can get small companies and bigger companies meeting together.
We thought it might be good to all work under one name as well as working separately. So, for customers, it would look like a more organised, bigger company, which can be good for customers to put trust in it, vs. a single person.
Why is it called OK Kontor?
Finding a name is always difficult. They all sound stupid the more you say them! So, we decided ‘It’s going to be OK – that will be good enough’ and then ‘Kontor’ means ‘office’. So, it’s an ‘OK Office’.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in the co-working space?
The main reason we moved is that we couldn’t get in touch with our landlord for about 5 months, even to get finalised contracts. That made it really difficult to rent it out to others with any level of certainty. That made us think a lot about what we wanted to do. Now we’ve moved offices, and totally refurbished / renovated / rebuilt an old store in the city centre, which we’re putting the final touches on it now. We’ve started to get some news coverage for some of the different projects that are based around the studio. We’re having a pop-up bike repair shop / café / bar here next week (to align with the UCI Road World Championships based in Bergen next week). We’ve got an intern now, Kris from Estonia. We’re doing talks in the office during the Bergen Design Festival. Our spirits are high!
How often have you felt like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
I felt it the first time when I had to pay my taxes back, and I briefly looked for work! On the whole, I’m an optimist, so why shouldn’t it work? If you really want to do something, you should do it, and in some shape or form it will work out, as long as you put some effort in.
You’ve founded OK Kontor, your own design practice, and have run different things like the competition and the festival. What do you find difficult about managing multiple jobs?
What Norway has done quite badly (but are working on it) is the accounting for small companies. It’s a real hassle, and it makes it really hard to start a company because of the way you file your taxes. It’s particularly complicated, when you’re doing things in different fields. The administration side is hard, you don’t want to spend time on it, but you don’t feel you earn enough to really have an accountant.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
Jobs often come on a rollercoaster, either too much or too little. We did a festival in Bergen, almost like SXSW which was a lot of work and it was really hard to do work at the same time. As long as you try to have some kind of structure, it works out. You can’t get out of the working loop, even if you don’t have much paid work on.
Tell me about the festival?
We have a really good worker’s union for music in Bergen, which has been growing into a festival for the last 10 years. It was in Oslo previously, and it was felt that it had lost its purpose. I was one of the first people in Bergen who started to work on it, and next year we’re going to enable more people to join on the arranging side of the festival. Bergen is really good at being friends not because you’re the same age, but based on interests, so we have a really nice cross-age influence. It’s nice to get your ‘troops’ together, and get a good team involved.
What or who do you find intimidating?
I wish I knew more about cultural funding. There are a lot of good funding systems, but I feel like it’s too intimidating and it’s for everyone else, not us. There are a lot of design / award systems and contests, but I never feel like they speak to me, or that I’m too included in the ‘high up there’ design world of Norway. Bergen is such a musical town, so you get a lot of that DIY band vibe about doing things yourself.
Pricing your services is also really hard. We don’t learn that in school and we should. I try to talk as much as possible to new young designers in Bergen about it without sounding like a jerk. The German designer’s union have a set of really good guidelines. There are some funny laws in Norway about not being able to compare prices. Some people get out of education and price themselves way too low and that can ruin the industry. I try to get people to demand a higher minimum price.
You talked before about getting people together so they can feel they have a place to come to and feel good about work – what makes you feel good about what you’ve done?
One of the people who are based here has had two job offers and she said no to them because she wants to be here, and that is great. I feel really good about having conversations around creativity and graphic design and to bring more people into seeing that different disciplines are all the same thing in some way. I can give good feedback to an architect, even though we’re not the same – we can help each other.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
Enjoying the moment, definitely. I really enjoy bringing people together. My parents brought a big house with 7 of their friends that we grew up in, it was like a hippy house with all of the other families. I have always liked bringing people together and that’s what drives me – it’s great when a friend gets a new job or does good work.
How do you define success now?
If you’re happy then you’re successful, that should be the main goal in life. I’m always shocked about rich people who do bad things to earn more. Once you’re rich, you’re rich, what’s the point in being a little bit richer? You don’t need that much to have fun. We just had a film festival in Bergen about what you can do to stop the world going to shit. There’s a lot of small things you can do. In Norway, we’re one of the countries that spends the least amount of what we earn on food, and basically if you don’t use more than a quarter of your income on food, you’re not covering what it’s worth, so I’m spending more on food!
Where would you like OK Kontor to get to?
We made a 3 year goal, to have OK Venice. I was at the Biennale, and to be able to go there and do work would be amazing. It would be great to start a prototype hub. It would be like a co working space, but more like a workshop, where you come in to use tools and develop prototypes. That would be amazing to have in Bergen and contribute to.
How do you start your day?
I like to get up a bit early and read the papers. I prefer to be in the office between 9 and 10, go in and do my emails and start doodling about. It’s very dependent on the projects I have at the time. I have a bit of a chat with other OK people to find out how their projects are going, and we have lunch together. It’s good to have non-job conversations, but still topical. We play a bit of ping pong after lunch to have a break from our computer work. We’re all probably going to get arthritis by the time we’re all 40!
I’m not much of a planner, I’m more about taking it as it comes. It’s good to have a job to go to, but then also go home from your job. I work till 4 or 5, then go home, and not think about emails or work. When you’re working freelance it’s important to have a cut off.
How do you organise yourself? Any useful tools / tips? Essential apps you can’t live without?
I love apps! I got everyone to use Toggle (the timer app) and Trello. It’s important when you’re working together, splitting commission according to hours spent. I love Slack for teamwork as I’m terrible with unnecessary email threads. If it’s good enough to land something on mars, it’s good enough for me. I really love mix cloud, as music is really important for me, and I probably spend a bit too much time to find the right music for the day. Everyone here is good with working with music, and it’s fun to see how music affects the flow and rhythm of your task.
Also for planning your taxes and finances, there is an app I use to scan my receipts and it scans my accounting – called Fika. It makes that part so much easier.
How do you come up with new ideas?
I use mood-boarding a lot. With logo’s its really helpful to see what similar brands have as their logo, so you can see what not and what to do. I also check out Tumblr for the trends, again to avoid them. Being half Austrian, I’m probably closer to the Swiss school of design, and there is way too much style and too little content very often. A lot of people use imagery and styles as opposed to thinking what it says and why. I like to find the core of what I’m trying to say.
What idea do you wish you’d come up with?
It would be fun to have come up with Uber or something, but for the moment I’m content in my little bubble! It really feels like we are on the start of a good path, I’m really happy with it. I enjoy working with it and figuring out how to visualise something and it’s really clear, which is really exciting and feels right.
The first zero waste food store has just opened in Bergen, and I think that’s really inspiring as it’s also design. About 3 or 4 years ago in Bergen, there was a hospital which had hours of queues. They hired a design firm to look at how the patient information was designed, and they cut down waiting times by 60 or 70%. Design is also behavioural design, which is really interesting.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to do this for a long time. I applied in junior high to go to the drawing high school as it was better to get into art school, so this was predetermined I guess. The 14-year-old would be quite ok with 28-year-old me.
Single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
Sometimes the first idea you have is the best. Don’t toss it away because it’s gut feeling, as that is important. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.