I told this story at TEDxSoMa a couple of weeks ago.
One day, shortly after we moved into our “new and improved” Indy Hall office in 2009, a bunch of chess pieces showed up on one of our kitchen tables. Interestingly, there was no board – just a bunch of chess pieces, arranged as if there was a board.
A few days later, a board appeared below the pieces, along with a simple chess timer, and a sign that said “make a move”. A long game emerged. Anyone could walk up to the chess board, know which side’s turn it was, and make a single move. These games sometimes went on for days into weeks, and perhaps weirdest of all, was when you’d be playing against a move you made a few turns back.
Some regular players started recognizing each other at the board, and decided to change things up and start a game of speed chess. After a few days, speed chess became a spectator sport in the kitchen. People knew they could come by the kitchen around lunchtime and see a <10 minute game of chess played, and cheer on some of their coworkers competing.
Not content with the disparity in skill level, some players found a new chess timer app on the Android app store that started with 60 seconds on the clock, and it doubled your remaning time with each turn to build up a time bank. Essentially, you’d make a very fast series of irrational moves in order to accrue as much time as possible for the 2nd half of the game, where you’d need that time in order to “unfuck” the irrational game that’d been played for the sake of accruing time. The rationale behind this for leveling the playing field was: “no matter how skilled you are, nobody can reason with crazy”.
This warped version of speed chess turned into TEAM speed chess, where people played 3 on 3. Usual teams consisted of someone tactical, someone strategic, and a heckler. And let’s not forget – this is all done with an audience!
The final iteration was unexpected. A chess puzzle book arrived. Each chess puzzle is the last few moves of a game, designed by a chessmaster, and your goal is to figure out the series of moves to produce a checkmate.
A journey had been shared, from a largely impersonal long game, to the players combining forces to play against the game rather than one another.
On your first day, you show up and there is very little structure. It’s uncertain what the rules are, but there are moves to be made if you’re brazen enough. You need to be patient, and you do need to look for opportunities to take your turn. Eventually, you will find the people you have genuine interests in. They may work on things similar or different than you, but excitement about finding others will build and the pace will pick up.
You may find that experiences vary, but at the same time, there’s no “smartest kid in the room”. Everybody has an opportunity to be that smartest kid for their speciality, a unique experience in the workplace. It’s that experience that allows trust to form, and allies/teams to organically form and disband as needed, as quickly as needed.
And, given the time for the process to complete, the ultimate working environment can be achieved – where the coworkers are no longer considering themselves competitors, but instead allies: the game changed, from being the battle ground, to the new opponent.
The players are given an opportunity to see that they’re best competing together, with the game as a mutual opponent, than against one another, to individual ends.
This understanding and expression is the key element that’s missing from most business environments, especially in America. Coworking isn’t just a new kind of place to work, it’s a better way to work, and a path to heal to the brokenness of business and our society.
We spend most of our lives reacting.
Somebody says something, we respond with the first thing that comes to mind.
Somebody does something, we do the first thing that comes to mind.
Somebody writes something, we comment the first thing that comes to mind.
It’s not that our reactions are wrong, it’s that they’re reactions. They’re not fully formed thoughts or actions or statements, run through the filters of critical thought and reason. And most of the time, they’re shared in a way that’s only going to elicit more reactions, rather than more critical thinking and reasoning.
The next time you’re about to react, stop. Pause.
Take a deep breath.
Count to three.
Do this ten times.
And see how your reaction changes.
In the Spring of 2010, I started in on a project that I hoped was going to be the coworking book that the world needed. A few months later, I stopped – discontent with where I’d started, and unconfident that I knew what book about coworking the world needed.
The original idea was a curated shared narrative that would help people create successful coworking communities. I’m still in love with that idea, I’m just not sure that I know enough alone to start that curated narrative.
This past week I spent a bunch of time writing a new talk titled “Doing it in Public”, about the value of taking ideas that are incomplete and, in spite of your fears and insecurities, executing them in public – either the the end of learning new perspectives, finding collaborators, or simply finding out that you’re not alone.
I realized that perhaps that was my path to finding the coworking book that the world needed.
So I am taking the beginnings of the book that I’m not pleased or proud of, and am sharing them with the hopes that the world will help tell me what book they’d like me to write. Even more, I’m sharing them in a publicly editable document. Editable by anybody, even if you’re anonymous. Add things delete things, comment as much as you’d like. Reply to others’ comments. Point me in a new direction.
Google Docs keeps revision history so if nothing else, we can always look through the revisions. I can also scrap the whole thing and start over.
I hope you’re join me in doing it in public. Let’s see what happens.
Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, blogged about his expectations for the impact of an “Instapaper-like” utility to appear in Apple’s next version of OS X. Near the end of his thoughtful analysis, he suggested this could be a huge boon for Instapaper, in the fact that it would introduce people to the need for an Instapaper-like product in the first place:
My biggest challenge isn’t winning over converts from my competitors: it’s explaining what Instapaper does and convincing people that they actually need it. Once they “get it”, they love it, but explaining its value in one quick, easy-to-understand, general-audience sentence is more difficult than you might imagine. If Apple gets a bunch of Safari users — the browser that works best with Instapaper — to get into a “read later” workflow and see the value in such features, those users are prime potential Instapaper customers. And it gives me an easier way to explain it to them: “It’s like Safari’s Reading List, but better, in these ways.”
In my last 6 months of working on Postmark, I’ve had a similar experience. For the uninitiated, Postmark is a service created by my friends (and long time Indy Hall members) at Wildbit. We give our customers a reliable way to send and monitor valuable transactional emails – stuff like welcome emails, order and shipping confirmations, forgot password emails, etc – without worrying about the pain of configuring and maintaining a mailserver.
While our customers overwhelmingly love Postmark for it’s approach to this problem, the challenge is in that the product itself is helping define an entirely new market for the need. Many people don’t even know that a simple solution for email delivery problems exists to solve their pain, let alone that it exists as an option.
I’d qualify that as our biggest competition, moreso than some of the companies I’d consider our actual competitors.
Thinking about the business this way keeps us focused on what’s best for the customers.
It Doesn’t Stop at Software
In another part of my world, I’ve learned the value of defining your competition when creating something that never existed before. When speaking to people about Indy Hall, I periodically get asked who our primary competition is. People assume that it’s cafes. They’re surprised when I say that our primary competition isn’t another place – it’s people’s motivation to get off the couch, put on pants, and walk out their own front door.
I’ve noticed an increase in interest in systems like “swipe card entry” for coworking spaces, both from the perspective of security and automated billing. In a recent thread on the coworking google group, I mused:
If we’ve learned anything from history, people just loved punching their timecards in factories. 😉 Even as we approach 150 active members, Indy Hall can’t be the only place that values a human interaction as the foundation of a transaction. Who else is actively avoiding swipe card systems and looking to introduce efficiency in other ways?
Which has me realizing, perhaps I should share a couple of the alternative systems we’ve devised that have streamlined our days, and why we’ve prioritized them.
First and foremost, we’re an active community and making decisions for the community requires clarity – we approach this by investing time in coming up with core values, a set of ideas and ideals that we value above all, and every decision gets run through them. This means that we can make consistent decisions, and quick decisions, and even help others make the most effective decisions for themselves.
That’s actually automation step #1:
1. Make Others Autonomous
If you’re spending your days showing people how to do things, or worse, doing things for them, you’re missing out on one of the most unique aspects of coworking: it’s DIY! That’s not to say that the space manager isn’t there to help – but rather than answer an inquiry with “What can I do for you?”, answer, “How can I help you get ______ done?”.
Working to training members to be autonomous, and make decisions and judgements that benefit the entire community pays off many-fold, especially the earlier you start. As you grow, existing members will lead by example, and new members will be inspired to “JFDI” themselves.
2. Automate the Amenities
I’ve said it many times before and I’m not the only one, but “stuff” is the most common distraction & timesink in coworking space operations. Apart from minimizing the amenities, automate them!
Look at the things you’re buying often – paper and cleaning supplies, coffee, snacks, etc. and find a way to automate their delivery. In the US, Amazon Prime is worth every penny. For $79 annually, you get free 2-day shipping and $3.99 per item next day shipping (for emergencies). On just about everything you could possibly want for your office. Better, Amazon offers the ability to “subscribe” to many household items, so you can get them delivered at a regular interval.
The amount of time this saves in thinking and even going to the store is able to be returned to humanizing transactions with the people who matter the most – your members.
That’s really the key.
“People first” is one of our most important values. While it places a burdon on business systems of a coworking space, prioritizing the ones that allow you to keep a “human touch” around the necessary transactional elements of a coworking space keeps it from becoming “just another place to work”.
Looking around for the other daily tasks that don’t result in an interaction with your members are the places to start looking for automation.
What else have you automated so you can spend more time interacting with your members?
In the course of one week I spoke at length with Kelani about new media performance art happening in North Philly, had a discussion in Swahili about coworking spaces in East Africa, and met the girlfriend of my friend Elijah Dornstreich. It’s ridiculously clear that there is tremendous power in simply being in one space, coworking together–so thank you for being the flagship for this movement here in Philly.We hosted Marcel, the operations manager of a new coworking jam in Philly focused on the arts and heratige community & organizations last week, and it was really great to hear this experience summed up in a sentence or two of his own words.
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