A major challenge for all software vendors is how to engage with the market especially where that market is incredibly diverse in terms of customers. In the age of cloud and pay-as-you-go service offerings, vendors are increasingly vying for the same broad group: from individual developers to enterprise IT. Trying to reach out to all of them is hard. One approach is to open the doors and let the customer (or prospective customer) literally walk-in. In major cities around the world the biggest vendors are creating physical spaces where they can engage with their customers on a personal basis.

Amongst those taking this approach is Amazon Web Services (AWS) which has been opening so called “Pop-up Lofts”. The first was in San Francisco and the latest has been in London which ran for a few weeks between September and October. The nature of a pop-up is that it’s temporary, however, the San Francisco Loft is now permanent and there is good reason to think that London could follow suit. As it was, the London Loft was located inside a shared working space (run by WeWork) inside a swanky modern building near Bank in the City.

The offering across all locations, which now include New York and Berlin, is the same. There is access to AWS Architects who can answer specific questions not just about what technology within AWS to use but how best to use it from a budget perspective. There are technical talks around different products and services within the AWS portfolio, hands-on labs where you can actually write code. The London AWS Pop-up which attracted 3000 members (one had to register online as a member to gain access) delivered 90 hours of content, 332 architect meetings and also boasted an Internet of Things Lab onsite. All of this is provided free and one simply registers online to attend. This is a significant turnaround from what has been available, where direct access to a vendor’s own techies is something big companies paid big bucks for.

San Francisco and London: Two Lofts with very different vibes

Having visited both the San Francisco and London Pop-up lofts, I found the locations could not be more different. The San Francisco Loft is exactly what one would expect of a tech loft space: low lighting, exposed beams and brickwork, well-worn furnishings with very much a young, start-up vibe. It is also located in the heart of San Francisco (on Market Street, a couple of blocks from Westfield’s shopping mall) and is a walk-in which makes it inviting and easy to access. Just step-in off the street and you’re greeted by a friendly receptionist who gives you a badge and in you go: Coffee, sweets and WiFi are all free and appreciated given that the London space got through 50 kilograms of sweets and 3000 cups of coffee.

The London Pop-up Loft, by contrast, is in the City of London i.e. the financial and business heartland, and is only a short walk from the Tech City UK start-up hub of Old Street Roundabout, but is very different aesthetically. This Loft was lots of light and glass and more tucked away on the sixth floor with various layers of security to get through. It was therefore less accessible and inviting than San Francisco and that is something AWS should consider if a permanent space is to be found. It was certainly something that was raised as being an issue among members.

That said, the benefit of the location in London is that it certainly pulled in a mixed bag of visitors. There were the expected young start-up types, but also city suits that may not have made the short journey up City Road to the trendier (or less well heeled) Tech City location. This mix of Loft attendees is seen by many visitors as a benefit because it gives start-ups access to enterprises (potential customers) and enterprises access to start-ups (opportunities to learn how to be more agile, innovative and disruptive).

Other vendors with similar initiatives to the Loft will also talk about them being an opportunity to bring these different communities together. But often that is done through specific events. At the London Loft they were simply hanging out in the same space.

Foundations for a permanent London Loft

Perhaps a good solution for a more permanent London home would be somewhere between the temporary location and Old Street roundabout, and somewhere one can just walk-in off the street. I think that would suit all comers and there seemed to be an appetite for a full-time AWS Loft presence amongst those who attended the Pop-up.

Other vendors looking to engage with a wider community have created their own versions of what AWS has now done with its Loft facility. Google has in grand fashion delivered Google Campus which is located between the AWS Loft locale and Old Street, and is a 7 level building that includes both permanent and temporary working spaces, events areas and a café. Again a lot of what is on offer is free and easy to access.

In contrast IBM’s Bluemix Garage is located at Level39 in London’s Docklands which is neither convenient, easily-accessible or particularly inviting (strict security) and a good 20 minutes by planes, trains and automobiles from Tech City. But, Level39 houses a number of start-ups but with a heavy focus on FinTech which explains the location. For a while IBM did have a presence at Shoreditch Works, just as Microsoft operated a temporary space called Modern Jago in Shoreditch for a few months between 2012 and 2013 before locating Microsoft Ventures a few blocks from Google Campus. This shows the success of the area as a vibrant hub of emerging technology which vendors recognise and feel the need to be physically present.

Who gets value from these spaces and why?

That vendors want to locate themselves in amongst the start-up community and have success doing it demonstrates both a demand for such initiatives and healthy competition. But the nuances of location, aesthetic and openness are key factors depending on who one is trying to attract and for what purpose. For AWS that purpose is to help people more easily on-board into its cloud and get greater value from it once there. To that end the London Loft looks to have been successful. The space seems to have attracted a diverse group from cloud natives to corporate IT with budgets that run into millions.

It is the latter that tend to need more help as the paradigm of cloud is new to them and their concerns are greater than many smaller organisations. Issues such as security, governance, regulation, data sovereignty, network latency, identity federation and hybrid cloud all make adopting AWS (or any cloud) more challenging. That they could get face-to-face guidance from AWS experts without any sales people or partners in the way has helped people to solve real problems and embrace AWS in a way that simply would not have happened before.

In fact, the traditional channels for seeking help from AWS have been criticised for taking too long, channelling too much towards partners and generally not being as helpful as one would hope or expect. The AWS documentation also comes in for some criticism as well. Combined with the size and complexity of the AWS offering it has meant that people find it very difficult in many cases to simply know where to start. Our own research has shown that large organisations feel ill-informed to make any sensible decisions about using cloud and AWS is often cited as the example of over complexity leading to confusion and inevitably procrastination.

While the pop-up Lofts do a great job of addressing this and are actively helping people the company should consider how it improves the underlying issues of making the offering more easily accessible, improving the existing support channels and providing better online documentation. All these are things that some competitors, as identified earlier, are doing better in many cases. If AWS wants to be successful over the long term in engaging beyond its traditional customer base who tend to be more cloud savvy, then all of these areas are critical.

On the plus side, there is evidence – especially from announcements made at the October 2015 AWS user conference re:Invent – that the group recognises the challenges faced by organisations looking to get to grips with its ever expanding and vast portfolio of services.

A permanent Pop-up would be good for AWS and its customers

Vendor spaces such as the AWS Pop-up Loft are a great concept and they are attracting a diverse crowd. Having somewhere that one can simply drop-in and work, perhaps meet some interesting people, or maybe get the solution to a technical problem that’s been causing you sleepless nights is highly beneficial and ultimately a more productive and effective learning and support tool. We are increasingly a nomadic population when it comes to work especially in the technology industry and these spaces are a better alternative to the nearest over-crowded Starbucks cafe.

From the vendors’ perspective it gives them an opportunity to engage directly with real customers and real users of their technology. What’s been good about the AWS Pop-up Loft in London is that it really has attracted everyone from start-ups to big IT enterprises and has helped them to navigate the complex world of Amazon’s cloud. It is clear from the visitors that I have come across that it has been a good thing for them. One London Loft attendee that I met even went as far as to say that it was the best exercise in marketing he had ever seen and was thankful for it because it had helped him and his clients solve some real problems and use AWS in ways that they would not have done before.

For AWS that has clearly got to be a good thing as well as a case for a permanent residency in London.