At a time when China’s zero COVID policy continues to disrupt offline work and face-to-face interactions, Dominic Penaloza, the former head of innovation and technology at WeWork China, presents a bold idea: on-demand work booths placed in public locations – and was able to quickly raise capital for the company.
Penaloza named his new company Peace in hopes of improving the mental health of those who use the company’s quiet, private space to avoid crowded offices and noisy cafes. Peace announced this week that it has raised seven-figure funding from a group of business partners and entrepreneurs.
Peace is the latest iteration of Penaloza’s ongoing experiment with flexible working. In 2019, the executive led an internal project to deliver pay-as-you-go spaces at WeWork China. A year later, he founded his own proptech-focused startup studio, which incubated a similar on-demand workspace service, but using third-party owners.
Seven-month-old Peace launched its first batch of wearable pods last week at three high-end shopping malls and two office buildings in the heart of Shanghai. It aims to deploy 1,000 in the metropolis over the coming year, Penaloza said in a video call from one of the mall’s pods.
“We sell privacy on demand,” the founder said when I asked if cabins would be equipped with security cameras, an infrastructure that has become ubiquitous across China and often raises privacy concerns.
“We don’t plan to install cameras…I think it’s more important to make our users feel like this is really 100% private space. No one can hear what they say. And of course, no one can see their screen or them.
Each Peace pod measures 35 square meters with a meeting table that seats four people. The portable box comes with an app-enabled lock, electrical outlets, WiFi, soundproof walls and fans. It also includes COVID-19 prevention technology provided by a startup called LumenLabs which uses the new Far UVC method to inactivate viruses and bacteria.
The long list of equipment explains the high cost of the pods – around tens of thousands of yuan ($1 = 7.16 yuan at the time of writing) to make one.
Penaloza believes his team has found a sustainable revenue model. Each pod costs 11.25 yuan for 15 minutes, but this is a benchmark price, the founder said, and in the future the cost may vary depending on location and supply and real-time demand. It’s not cheap – an Americano costs around 25 yuan in an average cafe in the most prestigious Chinese cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen, but if four people were to share the cost of 45 yuan, plus the benefits that a module brings – privacy and stable Internet – and if peace reaches significant density, it could be a viable business.
Peace has also found a sweet spot in its relationship with landlords, including retail spaces, office building lobbies, urban renewable spaces, transportation hubs, exhibition centers and residential developments. .
“We don’t rent the space,” Penaloza explained. “Our formula for working with property companies is one of our most secret sauces because this material, in landlord parlance, is actually asset valuation. It should be part of the renovation budget they have from year to year to improve the building and keep it competitive, so the Peace modules would encourage white collar workers to spend more time in a building.
“Even when we put it in an office lobby, even though everyone has an office upstairs, people still use it, especially in China where hybrid working is not yet popular because Small meeting rooms in offices are often fully utilized and everyone needs some peace and quiet once in a while,” the founder added.
Working with owners also helps Peace save on maintenance costs. Since the COVID outbreak, the Chinese government has started requiring confined space operators to clean their facilities after use. Peace’s technology platform automatically alerts the property manager at the end of each reservation, and a cleaner will be sent to the pod, a process that can be as quick as spraying surfaces with disinfectant and wiping them down.
Investors in Peace is made up primarily of entrepreneurs, including Joachim Poylo and François Ammand of Aden Group, Chris Brooke of Brooke Husband, Pablo Fernandez of CleanAir Spaces, Patrick Berbon of CM Venture, Hei Ming Cheng of Kailong, Wei Cao of Lumenlabs, Penaloza itself, and Panda Eagle Group.