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GCUC Austin: “Bottom of the bell curve”

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The crowd is changing, the topics are professionalizing and the competition is intensifying. The Global Coworking Unconference Conference in Austin was a huge day of information and interaction, where new space owners mixed with experienced operators, and big businesses dropped in to spy on the action. Everyone agreed that the movement is undergoing intense growth and change. As conference director Liz Elam said, “we’re at the bottom of the bell curve.”

Austin, Texas - home to the huge South By Southwest interactive, music and film festival – has hosted a coworking meet-up for each of the past four years. The first meetings were small informal gatherings that took place before the official SXSW schedule. In 2011 these developed into an “unconference”, and in 2012 it grew into the Global Coworking Unconference Conference, or GCUC.

GCUC director Liz Elam opened the event yesterday, standing in front of a ballroom full of participants who looked surprised by their surroundings. For the coworking “veterans” (those who have been around the scene for two, three or more years), the surprise was due to the professionalization of the movement and the influx of new businesses. For the newcomers, the surprise came from experiencing the potential of coworking.

“If you’re in this room, it’s because you’re a visionary and an innovator.” Elam said. “I’m always looking for that thing at the bottom of the bell. Coworking is that thing for me. We’re at the bottom of the bell curve and there’s nowhere to go but up.”

A total of 250 people attended the AT&T Conference Center in Austin to hear 38 speakers across 9 planned panels and 20 unconference (spontaneous user-generated) panels. Attendees drank 50 gallons of coffee, ate 48 dozen giant cookies, and enjoyed a big Texan BBQ lunch. Thousands of tweets went out using the hashtag #GCUC

Many big businesses dropped in to see what all the fuss was about. Google, AT&T, large real estate companies, office furniture companies and plenty of start-up web companies were in attendance, some just listening, some actively pitching for business.

The topic of forming an official association again came up. An unconference session heard passionate arguments for and against it. Iris Kavanagh from NextSpace Santa Cruz said she believed there were many reasons coworking spaces should band together – for the sake of their members. In the U.S., freelancers often cannot get adequate or affordable health insurance. A unified and politically active coworking association may be able to lobby and negotiate with both government and companies to get a better deal for their members. “That’s worth putting aside the philosophical difference about whether there should or should not be an association,” Iris said.

Looking for management software

A major part of the Unconference was spent discussing the web-based tools coworking spaces use to manage their internal processes. Participants voiced their needs: an all-in-one payment processing system with social elements for coworkers, meeting room management, and event organization. Until now many spaces have been using various pieces of online software to do the job. Now there are several companies emerging with solutions for this problem. Deskmag’s sister site Deskwanted was one of them, demonstrating its new coworking community management tool, which will be launched soon. Interested users can sign up to be part of the early adopter round.

How to use the media?

We chaired a panel on how to use the media effectively. Craig Baute from Creative Density in Colorado shared how he records video interviews with his members and posts online them every two weeks. He also explained how he used social media to build his community before launching, and how he harvests Twitter regularly for job offers for his members (for example, he regularly searches for “Denver” and “Wordpress” to find companies seeking blog installers). Manuel Zea from Coworking Spain shared a similar trick: some of his colleagues record “Knowledge Pills”, short and highly specific “how-to’s” on certain topics. They both educate the members and draw attention to coworking in general. Neal Gorenflo from Shareable told how he launched a blog on the topic of sharing, and was soon invited to be interviewed for Fast Company magazine. Blogging regularly helps draw attention from regular media outlets, he said. And Tony Bacigalupo said coworking spaces should insist that visiting media spend some hours actually coworking and meeting members; coworkers themselves are the best people to explain the benefits.

Liz Elam closed GCUC with some words about her desire for the future: “I want to see a world where coworking isn’t hyphenated, a coworking space in every city, and where I don’t have to explain to people what coworking is,” she said. “We should never forget it’s all about the people.”

Plans are already underway for the 2013 event. A survey will be sent to all attendees to determine if the next conference should stay in Austin, and whether it should take place close to South By South West. Check the GCUC site for the survey.

Missed the conference?

If you couldn't make it to Austin, you can get a taste of what was discussed by attending Deskmag's Coworking Space Ship, a travelling roadshow of information and insights. The Space Ship will visit nine more cities in the U.S. and Canada this month.


To find and book coworking spaces in Austin, visit Deskwanted.

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