Building Digital Communities Where Entrepreneurship Thrives
At Talent Garden, we’re catalyzing a digital renaissance in Europe.
Spread across eight countries, Talent Garden is is Europe’s largest network of digital innovation hubs. It is more than just a coworking space. It’s an ecosystem where we support companies to grow and accelerate their business by giving them a place to work, contents and methodologies to learn, and the ability to connect—all with a focus on digital entrepreneurship.
Our mission is in that word “community.” It’s more than just a buzzword. What we mean when we talk about community is something greater than what our members could achieve within their own spaces. The most important thing we do is providing personal connections between humans. Those connections happen both by bringing people into the same physical space and by creating network connections.
That’s where I come in. As Chief Digital Officer, I am responsible to enable our members getting the most out of the space experience, right from when they enter to when they leave a campus. In this context, physical and digital spaces have the same relevance even if they play a different role. This is what makes Talent Garden so valuable: the unique way we’ve found to blend physical and digital spaces together.
Connecting Devices, Connecting People: Big Demands on Our Network
This approach to digital space, along with our founding philosophies and the unique needs of our membership, all place incredible demands on our network.
Something that differentiates Talent Garden from typical coworking spaces is that we do not provide any premium service. An environment where some people can pay for better access or better resources is antithetical to our goal of building communities. The network is the same for all our members and its main role is to enable our services. This egalitarian approach is essential to what we do, because our spaces are created for making connections, not hierarchies. Given that our members are digital innovators, that standard network has to be of very high quality. Providing a fast, stable, secure network is foundational for us.
You need to consider that when we do run into a network issue, we need to fix it immediately. We have to pinpoint whether a problem is on our side or on the user’s side, and with the number of access points at any of our campuses, this isn’t easy.
There’s an additional challenge: the thing about digital innovators and entrepreneurs is they tend not to stay in one place. They have a home base, but they travel. To accommodate this, Talent Garden provides flexible membership. So a person who buys a membership at one of our campuses might spend part of their time at another one. As our members move through our different spaces, it should be easy for them to connect.
It Worked Locally, But for How Long?
The way our campuses were initially set up, each building had its own IT solution, and this caused problems. For each single campus, it was fine, but now we are going to be in 23 campuses across 8 countries and counting! For our members moving from campus to campus, experience was inconsistent. It was also difficult to ensure the same quality across all campuses, because not all of our campuses are the same size. It was a massive task to manage all these networks and pinpoint where issues arose.
We intend to grow Talent Garden at a rate of five additional campuses a year. That works out to around 200 more access points per year to install. This was going to become a mess if each campus continued to have its own setup. I knew we needed to apply a solution across all campuses, and that meant a cloud solution that, once we fixed the hardware, would continuously update itself to accommodate new needs and services.
I had used different cloud technologies before, and they were good, but I leaned toward Cisco Meraki because the consistency of their products sets them apart from everyone else. They continuously improve the product following customer requests. Their hardware was originally geared toward consumers, but they are now at the enterprise level. Moreover, their support team is incredibly proactive—if you have an issue they will ship you a new device without question. I prefer to change a product rather than fix a computer issue.
With scale at the forefront of my mind, it made me biased toward Meraki. I knew Cisco could handle our rapidly growing needs.
An Installation Playbook: Planning for Growth
To plan for scalability, we have developed—and keep updating—our installation playbook with the help of our partner, FAR Networks, here in Italy. It’s essential to know that every installation will meet our needs, so we created a standardized implementation plan, which spans from sizing to pre- and post-implementation checklists. As part of our process, we label every digital asset in the building, so if we run into any issues later on, we know exactly what’s working and what’s not. Even if we are trying to standardize, every new campus is a challenge to be accepted. And if we find an area to improve, we try it and then retrofit it consistently to all the others, at the speed that only the cloud can provide.
Once we implemented Meraki security appliances, switches, and access points at every site, we noticed a clear difference. Across the board, the network is more stable and we’ve found a better balance between performance and stability. And this is not a small network. Our campuses currently produce an average of two terabytes daily, and we’re growing every day. The difference now is Talent Garden is getting ready for that growth.
We built this out in our campuses—some of which are sized over 5,000 square meters and 500 members—and now we have more than 300 managed access points. All of this is manage with basically no dedicated support to our members. We were able to train our teams locally to manage issues because the Cisco solutions are so simple to be used. You can segregate the network in areas to give access just to the people you want. Since we started with good standards, all our local teams have to do is matching a number to a name and they’re done. With a focus on members' experience, local teams are now responsible to run customer satisfaction surveys that inform us about potential problems and requests for improvements. This way we believe campuses will be able to soon operate in a completely self-service mode.
By 2020, we expect to run through more than 800 access points. Now, with our installation standards and Meraki’s ease of deployment, we can install an entire building in less than a week.
Meraki: An Ecosystem Built Around the Network
With Meraki in place, it's natural to focus on the network. Nowadays, in addition to the more typical network solutions, we use Meraki as the center of an ecosystem made of different solutions. We use the network as a provider of information for the people using our spaces. Solutions like Cloud4wi are a key in this process since they support us to manage a critical touchpoint—the login—making it seamless, while adding extra information to network users.
Integrating network with our backed platform through our automation partner Stamplay, we are able to link sets of different APIs and code blocks automating a set of processes like the onboarding. This way we can automatically configure other services like Access Control where we are moving from local solutions to cloud-based services on Sofia and ISEO technologies, which manages door opening through an app.
In addition to this partner services, Meraki is extending its portfolio in a very smart way. For example, we are deeply exploring its own solutions for business surveillance and people analytics.
A Network That Validates Entrepreneurship: Let’s Have Coffee
Let’s bring this talk about building networks back to building digital communities. Integrating each services into one single system is ultimately about connecting people. One example is our APP TAG People where we can rely on the network to create physical connections. Let's think about the ability to “share a coffee" with another member based on the presence: it’s a way we encourage our members to meet someone new and bounce ideas off one another. You never know what could emerge out of that coffee meeting.
Every step we’ve taken in our network transformation brings us back to community. With a strong network at the base, we can keep on building integral pieces on top of that foundation. Our members are some of the most innovative minds in the world. They won’t let anything slow them down—and now we won’t either.