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Tools & Tips

Community building tips... before opening a space

IndyHall has a populous, and most importantly, strongly knit community. Photo credit: Ben Leuner, www.benleuner.com

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While the coworking community as a whole can concede that there is no textbook approach to starting, opening, and operating a coworking space, there are several good reasons to start with community. It is, after all, the essence of the movement, and that which differentiates it from other work trends. Here are some reasons to why community building pre-opening is a good idea, and nine - sometimes contradictory, but nonetheless insightful - community building strategies which are tried and tested by coworking space operators.

Coworking spaces look different, feel different, and are home to a vast array of professionals making up vastly different communities. But there are at least two common factors that string all coworking facilities together. The first is, naturally, that they are places of work. But it is the second that distinguishes them from other workplaces: the community. And it is this element that must be cultivated.

Alex HIllman is a vociferous and passionate advocate of community building before opening a space, and attributes much (if not most) of the success of Independent's Hall to the community he and his cofounder, Geoff DiMasi, established before opening the doors. One of his members even suggested his space’s name. While he does admit that there is ‘no one right way’ to go about community building, he does offer a number of convincing reasons as to why community building pre-opening is a wise idea.

Firstly, for very pragmatic reasons, having a community and a number of people who will commit to membership guarantees a portion of initial capital. As with all businesses, coworking spaces have overheads. Having a percentage already accounted for will reduce financial pressure once a hopeful operator has found space.

Moreover, finding and securing a space - completing all the logistical matters - are generally easier and take less time than building a strong community.

‘It’s generally easier to do things like sign a lease, buy desks, lay out an office than it is to find people, get them interested in the idea, and get them interested in each other,’ said Alex. ‘That’s the hard part. And when you wait to do the hard part until after you have all of this overhead, you then have two hard parts.’

Completing practical matters too become easier when there are people with a vested interest whom you can consult.

The second reason is more psychological. When you start with a space, Alex argues, your dialogue becomes space-centric, and you inadvertently begin to talk to potential members about the space, rather than the community within it.

‘When you already have a space, it’s really easy to make everything that you think about be about that space. But we know that the thing that members are most interested in are the other people. When you start with space, it becomes part of your dialogue. It sets a tone for potential members that the thing that they are supposed to care about is the space,’ he said.

Finally, if none of these are convincing, there is one lighthearted reason to begin with community. ‘One of the biggest benefits of starting with community first is you actually get to celebrate your grand opening... with people who celebrate with you... It kind of sucks to have a grand opening by yourself.’

Here are 11 tips that future coworking space operators can draw from to help build a community, and have one helluva party.

Events

One of the main ways to build a community is to gather people and encourage them to build relationships with one another, and inviting people to events is an obvious and effective way to do this.

Aim for casual events, rather than business-oriented ones as they are more successful in establishing personal, rather than professional, relationships. Alex, who runs coworking workshops, urges people to avoid branding these activities as a networking event, which can come with connotations of business card swaps and collecting contacts.

‘I like freelancers’ happy hours or entrepreneurs breakfasts. Meals and drinks are great because people do them anyway,’ said Alex. ‘If everyone who comes to your gathering has one to two great conversations, then it was a success. Think of it more like a cocktail party that a networking event.’

On the more ‘professional’ side of things, organizing your own events where you share something you know, or invite someone to teach something, can be a good way to get people together.

Other people’s events

‘One thing people often overlook’, said Alex, ‘is going to other people’s events as a group.’ 

‘Going together as a group visibly publishes the sense of togetherness in the real world, for other people to be like, ‘so you guys hang out together a lot, what’s that about?’’

Jellies

A jelly is a great way to demonstrate the concept of coworking to groups of people who are otherwise unfamiliar with it.

Coworking Slovenia started as a humble Jelly on January 19th as a part of Jellyweek. Founder Luka Piškorič and his colleague Eva Perčič only invited friends and professional networks to cowork at Kino Šiška, a popular center for urban culture in Ljubljana.

From their existing social and professional circles, 150 people attended. The participants and the venue were so enthusiastic about the Jelly that it became weekly event.

Sweetening up a weekly Jelly can also help attract newcomers. Luka introduced an afternoon session to the weekly coworking days called ‘Sit Down, You’ve Got an A’. Individuals from a range of professional fields are invited to present their projects and receive feedback from the group, and sometimes opportunities to collaborate were discovered.

‘These sessions work very well,’ said Luka, ‘because they attract people who wouldn’t normally come to the space. They come for the session, but then come (again) to cowork. We’re also opening up new possibilities for people to collaborate on different fields that they weren’t familiar with before.... exactly like coworking.’

Targeted meetups

While a Jelly is effective in introducing the concept of collaborative work, there will always be some who are not taken by the idea. This does not mean, however, that they would not eventually enjoy working in a collaborative environment.

Jaime Aranda and Alberto Pérez from workINcompany in Seville organized a number of targeted and ‘structured’ jellies on meetup.com, bringing people with similar interests together, but not necessarily to cowork. Meetups include japoINcompany for Japanese cuisine enthusiasts, chatINcompany, for those passionate about foreign language and culture, and an English conversation group, hosted by a friend of workINcompany.

All of the meetups take place at their coworking space, where coworkers can sometimes be found working. The environment creates a natural curiosity amongst the group, and Jaime says that there is always a gancho - or hook: a clandestine coworking spokesman - who can speak to other participants about what a coworking space is.

While this sounds somewhat sneaky, Jaime assures that there the conversations which take place are entirely natural, and open the door for people to ask questions on their own accord. This particular strategy is useful in a city such as Seville, where people are often skeptical about sharing ideas in the professional world.

Social Media Campaigns

Alex prescribes using ‘a combination of virtual and physical connections,’ but advises ‘taking those virtual relationships offline as soon as possible.’ 

Social media allows people to get in easy, casual, and instant contact with groups of people with certain interests. Understand that there are some limitations to social media, though, and online platforms are not ideal for ensuring that your groups will follow you into the real world. 

However, as is widely acknowledged, there is no ‘right way’ to build a community, and this fact is exemplified in Craig Baute’s approach, who built Creative Density’s membership in Denver... from Toronto.

‘I was very active for the five months leading up to (the opening) on twitter, having conversations, keeping people updated on our progress, and also sending out occasional emails,’ he said.

Since there was no face to face contact, keeping in touch with interested people and making sure they were updated took on an added importance.

Craig also stressed that community management is a skill that can be carried over to the virtual world. He actively targeted the people who would be interested in his idea, and involve them into new virtual networks.

By using the twitter hashtag ‘HighFive’, a certain type of person was drawn to the concept. Once a virtual connection was made, Craig made an effort to talk to at least two people at once. This acted as an initial introduction, and established connections between future coworkers.

Social media can also act as free publicity, so make sure to use of social media to show off an event’s success. Following Coworking Slovenia’s first Jelly, Luka posted photos on facebook and tagged as many people as possible. This exposed the event to hundreds of other social circles, and has guaranteed a healthy attendance - between 15 and 30 - at each of the weekly meetups.

Market research

Surveys are a good way to gage interest and get a feel for what your potential coworkers want. When Craig decided to open a coworking space, he secured all the web domains and social media handles of ‘Denver coworking’ and directed people to a survey, asking visitors what interested them most about the concept and where they would like to see a coworking facility open.

He also analyzed city reports commissioned by the Denver city council that described the neighborhood, the socio-economic background, and the state of the public transport. This research, along with his social media strategies, came together to establish a brand that people would relate to.

(Un)Conferences

Being an advocate of coworking is in any future coworking operator’s interest, so seize the opportunity to relay your case in front of audiences.

For Jaime and Alberto at workINcompany, this came in the form of a staged performance at Pecha Kucha, an annual architectural conference attended by around 400 people each year. During their presentation, they explained coworking and its benefits, and ended with a tongue-in-cheek ‘striptease’.

If you can't land a speaking position at a conference, organize your own. Coworking Slovenia did just that, and proclaimed June 1st ‘Slovenian Sharing Day,’ on which they held an open bar-camp style event in a public space, inviting groups from initiatives who were interested in collaborative consumption.

‘It was a fantastic event,’ Luka said. ‘We were completely surprised how it was organised by the community. We just set up the platform and everyone else contributed their programme. It was unbelievably successful.’

Where to start

According to Alex, you should have started yesterday. During his coworking workshops, he often hears people saying they are waiting for the right time, the right moment, but they never offer a good reason as to why they’re not doing it now. This is coming from a man with 'J.F.D.I.' tattoed on his forearm.

Once you’ve started yesterday, stop asking yourself about what your space will be, and ask your community. Craig stresses that the most beneficial thing he did was to ask his community where they wanted to work, and listened to their needs. ‘Let the community tell you what they want,’ he said.

Things you'll need

Patience is key when it comes to community building. No-one understands this better than Jaime and Alberto, who worked on building up their community for two years before opening a space.

‘People in our space often tell us that we are very patient,' confessed Jaime. 'Whenever anyone comes into the space, we take the time to explain things to them, but we also take the time to listen to them. They tell us about their ideas, and when you do that, once you listen to their dreams, you become a part of their dreams, and only then can you build a space with a community, because you know and understand them, and then you're able to give members the things they need. They might not want to be members first, but they remember you, because they have shared with you, and they start to think about the possibility of working differently.’

Evidently, listening skills are also necessary for building trust, respect and learning what your community needs from a future coworking space. 

‘You should listening twice as much as you’re talking,’ said Alex. ‘That’s where the clues come from. If the only thing you’re doing is waiting for an opportunity to talk, you’re not really engaging with people.’

A good dose of passion goes a long way when encouraging people to try a new way of doing something, and for each of these coworking space operators, the community building process has been a highlight of the journey of opening a space.

Moreover, if you feel passionate about your project, the process wont feel like work, which can debilitate your cause. Alex, Craig, Luka and Jaime all held down full-time jobs while they started to create their coworking circles, and while it was demanding in terms of time management, the social aspect outweighed the sense of obligation. Remember that, one day, the people in your communities will become your coworkers and your friends. Investing time into them is a personal gain, above all else.

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