Michael Cockburn, CEO at Desana: “No matter what you do, get a great accountant!”

There’s a reason we picked Desana as one of our top tech companies in Edinburgh: it has grown from a great idea into an international company. And Michael Cockburn, Desana’s CEO, has been there from day one: as a Co-Founder, he’s seen it transform from a company with three employees to one with almost 50. And with aspirations to be even bigger: “we’re aiming high”, says Michael.

It helps that Michael clearly isn’t afraid of hard work, or taking risks. He created his first business when he was 19! But that graft and ambition have seen Desana scale to 66 countries, which means that global organisations such as Dropbox, GitHub and Elastic now use it as part of their workspace strategy.

That makes a lot of sense in today’s working world because Desana helps companies move out of their big, expensive, fixed-cost offices that no longer meet employees’ needs and into local, on-demand, shared workspaces that do. The key is that everything is on one platform: companies can use Desana to manage access to office space and pay for it, while employees can use an app to book space on demand.

To find out more about Michael’s journey, and the importance of a good accountant, read on.

What’s your elevator pitch?

In the simplest terms, we’re like a B2B only, “Booking.com for workspace”. 

We work with some of the largest companies in the world and make it easy for them to give their globally distributed teams access to high-quality workspace. 

What problem are you trying to solve?

As a result of the growth in hybrid working trends, companies are wasting billions of dollars a year on office space that no longer meets the needs of their workforce. 

When they have people in hundreds of locations globally, who also have flexibility on when they use workspace, it becomes difficult to know where the company would even need an office. Even if they think they do know, procuring a larger number of smaller solutions becomes near impossible for large companies. It’s also difficult to measure and know if these offices are even being used.

To solve this, we provide a single solution to manage, pay for, and use workspace, across a company’s own offices and the global flexible workspace market – streamlining the procurement and use of offices into a single platform, saving a significant amount of capital, and improving employee experience. 

Can you talk us through your journey so far? What’s a major milestone you’ve reached?

In 4 years we’ve gone from three of us running the business, with a couple of workspaces bookable on our app in Edinburgh, to being partnered with over 6000 workspaces globally and serving active users in over 66 countries, from companies like Dropbox, Microsoft, GitHub and more.

Michael Cockburn, CEO of Desana
Michael Cockburn, Co-Founder and CEO of Desana

A really cool moment has been these companies transitioning from seeing us as a ‘perk’ for their employees, to Desana becoming a core part of their real estate strategy globally. The kind of business we’ve needed to become to accommodate that is dramatically different to where we started – today we’re nearing 50 people across the USA, UK, Europe, and most recently Japan! 

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made and how did you overcome it?

I think this whole process is about learning from and being better because of the constant mistakes you make when you build a business. There are far too many to name. 

Personally, the biggest in my whole entrepreneurial journey happened when I was 19. I was running my own little business, didn’t file my tax return on time, put my head in the sand, and got fined. As well as always paying your taxes, the key learning was to get a good accountant – now, we have a great accountant!

Where do you hope your startup will be in 10 years?

Our vision is to be powering the complete hybrid workplace experience for citizens of the world’s largest cities. We aim to cultivate a more empowered population who have choice and autonomy in where they work, with shorter commutes, more efficiently used buildings, and fulfilled lives in more optimised cities as a result. We think there’s a public company to come out of our vertical – we’re aiming high – so watch this space!  

What would you say to potential investors reading this interview?

Real estate is the second highest cost in most companies, and the nature of the way the largest companies in the world direct that spending has fundamentally changed forever. At Desana we have a unique opportunity to radically redefine how that works, through our infrastructure that improves outcomes for their business, their people, and the planet – you should invest in us!

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs and anyone looking to launch their startup?

I’m a little old school — I think you need to work really really hard and be prepared to sacrifice a lot in order to build a successful company at scale. I also think entrepreneurship is over-glamorised — I don’t think everyone needs to aspire to build a large company, small is good too, but don’t raise venture funding if that’s your ambition. We’re choosing to try and think that will require a bit of brute force to get us there, especially at the early stages as we are now. 

Forget all that though, no matter what you do, get a great accountant!

We hope you enjoyed this interview

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Tim Danton

Tim has worked in IT publishing since the days when all PCs were beige, and is editor-in-chief of the UK's PC Pro magazine. He has been writing about hardware for TechFinitive since 2023.