Ottawa entrepreneur Maher Arar bets on Vanier with new coworking space

Maher Arar
Maher Arar hopes to gather like-minded entrepreneurs in his new coworking space. (All photos by Mark Holleron)

Ottawa businessman Maher Arar is hoping a focus on the fundamentals will bring like-minded entrepreneurs to his new coworking space in Vanier – a neighbourhood he believes is forging a new reputation.

Arar officially launched Coworkly last month from its home on Montreal Road. The coworking space fills the third floor of the building, which Arar himself owns, with roughly 4,800 square feet of desks, open event space and a kitchen area. On the first floor is a recording studio for entrepreneurs’ video or podcasting needs.

Arar tells Techopia that, while the space is officially open for business, that doesn’t mean its design is settled. Parts of Coworkly have been left open or unfinished, he says, and will be filled based on what the space’s regulars most want to see.

Letting people make decisions on the space they’re using, Arar says, gives them a sense of ownership in the business.

“I will let the community decide,” he says. “I want to leave it up to the creativity of people.”

Coworkly

Coworkly itself may pivot from its current form once it has reached maturity, he adds. It could become an incubator, a large studio space or something Arar hasn’t even thought of yet.

He says that too will be a decision made by the space’s early and loyal patrons.

“Coworkly is just a stepping stone to something bigger down the road.”

Back to basics

Most Canadians know of Arar’s national profile: During a 2002 layover in New York, the United States detained him without charge and extradited Arar to Syria, where he was tortured and held for nearly a year. He would eventually be fully exonerated and receive an apology and reparations from the government of Canada for the role it played in his plight.

Before and after that time, however, Arar has lived as an Ottawa-based founder and engineer. Arar says entrepreneurship has always been a part of his identity, and he takes a bit of pride in the fact that he never held a job at Nortel in the 1990s.

Coworkly, a side project that’s currently dominating the majority of Arar’s time, arose from a desire to fill a gap he’s seen in Ottawa for many years now – namely, a community of startups that focus on venture capital and raising money rather than returning to the basics of bootstrapping and profitability.

Coworkly

“I’m of the point of view that when people get money easily, they just burn it, burn it, burn it,” he says. “I’m not saying that funding or VC has no business here, but what I’m saying is there are many types of business that are suited very well for bootstrapping as opposed to funding.”

Arar believes he’s not alone in this attitude, and that Coworkly will attract his bootstrapping kin. Bringing together like-minded entrepreneurs, he says, will yield higher returns for everyone involved.

East-end entrepreneurs

At the crux of Coworkly’s success is an important question: Will startups come to Vanier?

Arar believes that Vanier has a lot going for it today. For one, he says relatively affordable housing and quick access to downtown is drawing first-time home buyers to the neighbourhood.

That, combined with hip food joints such as Quelque Chose Pâtisserie across the street and Bobby’s Table just next door, are strong lures to a younger generation.

“I don’t want to say it’s Westboro yet, but it will eventually be,” Arar says.

Coworkly

He also says there’s been limited attention paid to startups in Ottawa’s east end. After an initial Facebook experiment to determine where interested parties might come from, Arar found there was strong interest from Orléans and Gatineau.

Having owned his building for a decade now, Arar believes the Vanier brand has been slowly improving. He wants to build on that momentum and bring more first-time visitors to discover a side of Ottawa they didn’t know existed.

“It’s up to me, to people in the area, to contribute to bringing people here,” he says.

Arar realizes that entrepreneurs from Kanata or Stittsville might instead turn to the more centrally located Invest Ottawa, but he stresses that he’s not looking to compete with the regional economic development agency.

Catering to bootstrap-focused firms and startups looking for support east of downtown will help to fill a gap in the city and improve Ottawa’s business community as a whole, he says.

“My message is one of co-operation. There’s room for more players in Ottawa. Let’s all work together for the betterment of the city,” Arar says.