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Canning Town: How Keyboards And Dreams is a workspace created (almost) by accident

How serial entrepreneur Jonathan Fren landed his latest business at Caxton Works in east London

Keyboards And Dreams creator Jonathan Fren
Keyboards And Dreams creator Jonathan Fren

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Black swan” is the image  that comes to mind when trying to sum up Jonathan Fren.

That’s because the entrepreneur appears calm on the surface but there’s a sense he’s working busily beneath.

The founder of Canning Town co-working space Keyboards & Dreams, is something of an anomaly.

When we sit down to chat, the mellow-voiced hipster seems exactly the sort of person who would own an easygoing office complex in Caxton Works, where members are surrounded by plants and stripped back decor.

He said it all came about “by accident” but I’m not sure that’s the right word.

“I randomly came across the development about three years ago and was interested,” said Jonathan. “I liked the vibe of what they were doing with independent businesses and I liked the architecture of the space.

“I thought it would be a cool place to have a community. It’s a very residential area and, with Keyboards & Dreams, I wanted to create a living room that people could go to when they’re not working from home.”

This is not the first business the 32-year-old has owned. It isn’t even the second or third. 

Jonathan has never totted up the companies he’s run, but I have. It’s 11.

The first, Magivend, he started when he was 10 after seeing some sweet machines for sale at Exchange & Mart.

“My parents were always entrepreneurs, and supported me,” said the Northampton native. “I bought three machines and put them in our local health club — they paid for themselves in a month, so I kept buying more and putting them around town.”

By the age of 12, he had 32. By 13 he was “bored” and bought tyre sealant franchise Nopunctures.

Part of the workspace at Caxton Works
Part of the workspace at Caxton Works

Despite its success, nine months later he gave it up as “the need to be face-to-face with businesses as a 13-year-old was difficult”.

There was no stopping him now though – at 14 he left school with no formal qualifications and became the youngest person to attend the Open University, studying robotics under a special arrangement with the council. 

“I wasn’t allowed to ever meet my tutors as staff weren’t vetted for working with under-18s,” said Jonathan.

“And I only spent two weeks actually preparing for the exams as I was too busy learning about the internet.”

He started taking apart websites and learning how they worked, building CaribGo, a revolutionary webmail client but said he was beaten to the punch by Gmail.

At 16, he moved to Barbados to run a watersports business, but within months realised his passion lay in cyberspace.

“I’d gained some great contacts online, and spent the next few years travelling and building things for clients like Barclays Bank, General Motors, and Oxfam,” he said.

“None of them knew my age – it was my most closely guarded secret. But of course I’d have told them if they’d ever asked.”

The rest of his CV includes co-founding identity management service ProfileBuilder, face-to-face networking platform PowerMeeter, fashion designer finder Osmoda and magazine It’s Rude To Stare.

Some only lasted months but by 2016 he seemed to have found a more secure footing in Clerkenwell, spending four years running tech company Rebel Minds.

Exhausted yet? So was Jonathan.

Keyboards And Dreams is located at Caxton Works in Canning Town

“By then I was 25 and I was finding it all really stressful,” he said.

“The company I had created had become something so different from what I started. 

“I ended up with 20 employees in central London doing things I just didn’t believe in. We ended up being an agency just making websites for clients.

“I wanted to do super awesome things and have products that I really believed in. I tried to pivot it first, but I was in this really bad place and ultimately decided to shut it down.”

He said making all his staff redundant was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my working life”.

The phoenix from the flames was his office block nestled among the jewellers in Hatton Garden.

During the five years the tech company existed, Jonathan had acquired more floors of the building and the first Keyboards & Dreams evolved naturally.

The site can cater for up to 95 members
The site can cater for up to 95 members

“We had a really cool space and I’d always had lots of friends interested in it,” said Jonathan.

“Initially I just rented it to them for their tech companies and then to more and more people and eventually it became this great co-working space.”

He managed the building remotely for a few years while travelling through Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and San Francisco and had no intention of launching a second site. But then he discovered Canning Town. 

“I didn’t know much about the history of the area when I started, but now I can see that in three or four years it is going to really go up,” said Jonathan. 

“At the moment we are a little bit in sleepy mode, but so much has happened just in the year we have been at Caxton Works.”

These days Jonathan lives in Poland with his Yoga instructor girlfriend, but moved back to the capital to get the unit ready for launch in November 2020.

He said: “We had a waiting list of about 60 people but then Covid rules changed and we ended up with 10 members. It was a lot less people than I expected, but I didn’t want it to be an empty building, I wanted it to be used.”

Today, the site has about 25 members and space for another 95.

But Jonathan is confident it will take off and he has just launched Yoga space Wonderful Things in the unit next door.

“The concept is to create a really modular space that is not just about working but enabling people to do whatever they’re doing,” he said.

“We have podcast spaces, private desks, open-plan spaces, storage, meeting rooms, a photography area, lots of different spaces to enable people to do lots of different things. I’m super optimistic.

“Throughout Covid we have had lots of people drop out, but also people joined. Clerkenwell has been used throughout the pandemic. 

“With Canning Town we have had nowhere near the number of people walk through the doors I expected, but I think that’s part of being a new place in a new area.”

So was this really all by accident? Like the black swan, it seems more like effort rewarded.

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Canning Town: How Wonderful Things hooks Yoga up with co-working

Space at Caxton Works is neighbour and sister company to Keyboards And Dreams

Wonderful Things' space in Canning Town
Wonderful Things’ space in Canning Town – image Matt Grayson

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

A new space that embraces the increasingly blurry lines between home, work and wellbeing is about to emerge in Canning Town.

Wonderful Things will offer traditional Yoga and meditation classes alongside sessions such as sound healing, moon ceremonies and ecstatic dance.

Inspired by the autonomy of co-working spaces, it promises to shun rigid schedules and memberships and instead mould itself around the needs of teachers and students to create a sanctuary from stress.

Set to open in March at Caxton Works, general manager Sean Reilly said it was a “beautiful but no-frills” space run with a laid back philosophy.

The 27-year-old, who is a trained hypnotherapist, has spent weeks talking to therapists and Yoga teachers about what they need.

“People are looking for a space that’s super simple where they can just walk in, no faff, start their class and they know where everything is,” she said.

“They want to know they are in a space that is safe, that they can relax and nothing is going to go wrong so they have peace of mind and don’t need to worry about a thing.

“Creating that is our sole focus now, so we can slip into people’s lives as if we have always been there and they can just click and book and it’s done.”

Sean Reilly of Wonderful Things
Sean Reilly of Wonderful Things – image Matt Grayson

She turned to the wellness industry after becoming disillusioned with her hospitality job during lockdown.

“During the pandemic, there was a drastic change and it came to a point where I was doing 12-hour shifts by myself, back-to-back, which wasn’t good for my brain,” she said.

“The Deliveroo drivers and I were best friends. I loved hospitality because I love talking to people and it lost the magic for me a little bit.”

Despite no office experience, she landed a role at Keyboards And Dreams, a co-working company set up by Jonathan Fren with sites in Clerkenwell and Caxton Works. 

They quickly discovered a shared passion for wellbeing and have been working together to create Wonderful Things in the unit next door.

The 150sq m space offers 24 Yoga mats as well as straps, blocks, blankets and pillows.

There is also a changing area, kitchen and a dedicated street entrance, which will be accessible via a mobile app.

It is a new direction for entrepreneur Jonathan but a natural one.

The 32-year-old started out in tech as a teen, but a decade later shut down successful web company Rebel Minds after it grew into something he hated.

He went travelling and began renting out the central London office space he had acquired and Keyboard And Dreams was born.

He launched his second space in Canning Town in November 2020, after he fell in love with the area and then jumped at the chance to start another business at the development.

Entrepreneur Jonathan Fren
Entrepreneur Jonathan Fren

“I took this new space on a year ago without even having an idea of what to do with it because I just really believe in that area,” he said.

“I’ve always wanted to do something in wellness but hadn’t crystallised the idea.

“For the past year I’ve been living in the countryside and my girlfriend is a Yoga teacher, so I’ve been doing a lot of that and meditation and it just clicked at some point that I wanted to create a space in London where people can go and just be with themselves. 

“Now, more than ever I think it’s really important that spaces have more than just offices. A lot of spaces in London are made by people with lots of money and that’s all it’s about, especially with a lot of gyms.

“We want Wonderful Things to be warm and inviting, but it will really be about creating a space where people can discover themselves.

“When I go to London one thing I miss is being in a silent room where I don’t feel I’m being watched or have to talk. I want Wonderful Things to be that safe space.”

Jonathan never returned from his travels. He now lives in Portugal, managing both businesses remotely with Lewisham resident Sean on-site.

In addition to being a hypnotherapist, she is studying psychotherapy and hopes to see clients at Wonderful Things in the future.

Yoga mats ready for use at Wonderful Things
Yoga mats ready for use at Wonderful Things – image Matt Grayson

She said: “When I first met Jon I told him my idea of the perfect space and he told me about this project and asked if I wanted to be involved. I knew it was where I was meant to be. It worked out perfectly.

“There are so many brilliant therapists looking for affordable spaces to use. Renting a space can be extortionate, so you have to do a joint contract where one person uses it one day and another person another. 

“It’s always complicated. You want the focus to be on your clients’ wellbeing, but you spend half the time worrying about whether you can afford the rent.

“We said it would be great to have an all-round well-being hub and make it the kind of space we would want to go to.

“Hopefully, if it goes well over the next year, we will open the mezzanine space with meditation spaces and break out spaces where people can be alone with their thoughts or have therapy sessions.”

Classes will “start with a trickle and turn into a flood” with a schedule being developed over time, but room will also be left for ad hoc events. Teachers will pay a set price to use the space and then be responsible for promoting their classes and deciding ticket prices.

“There’s nothing in the area that really has the same vibe,” said Sean. “We are very relaxed and if you need anything you can just talk to us.

“It’s open to anyone who wants to be there because the space is so adaptable. It isn’t going to be the right fit for everyone.

“If you are looking for a big, mainstream space, this isn’t that. 

“Our space is beautiful but has no frills and is all about welcoming people. If that works for your idea in your mind then please come down.”

The space can be used for a multitude of activities
The space can be used for a multitude of activities – image Matt Grayson

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