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Some Frequently Asked Coworking Questions

7 minute read
by Alex Hillman

I really do enjoy answering coworking questions that find their way into my inbox, and the best questions are the ones that are discreet and to the point. I recently was emailing with Joshua Hill, the director of a new coworking effort in Bozeman, Montana.

I visited Montana last summe with some close friends and it earned a special place in my heart, so Joshua got some “special treatment” and extended answers. I gave him a little bit of tough love, but the results were positive – he replied with a clear understanding of his newfound goals, in his own words, and that was rewarding. I asked for his permission to post his questions and my answers, and here they are.

Q. I am planning to open with a “launch week” Aug. 15 – 19. I have a speaker on innovation as part of our speaker series set for one night. An art showcase for another night. I’m wondering what you did for events at the beginning to get people in the door to see and try out the space?

A. Sounds like you’re already making it about the space and the “things” in it, rather than about the people you want to attract. You’re going to need to go out and meet people on their turf, earn trust and respect, and get them excited about how awesome THEY can be one they walk in the door.

We spent 6+ months attending OTHER peoples events, as active participants of the community. We earned a ton of trust and started rolling our own events based on what people obviously wanted but nobody else was doing. What we did doesn’t matter – what you see, the gaps of opportunities you see, will matter the most.

Q. I am working on an “orientation packet” and I have read on the google groups that no one actually reads these. However, I do think it’s important to have. My question is what do you give to your new members when they sign up and does it vary depending on the membership model they join?

A. You need to do one of our drop-in days before signing up. We’ve minimized rules, regulations, and policies so there’s really not much that goes into our first-timer one-sheet. Our goal is for somebody to go from door to sitting down and working as quickly as possible, with as few things to do/review as possible. That said, over the course of the day, needing to ask where the bathroom is, how to make a cup of coffee, etc, are social interactions that new members actually gain immense value from.

We look at every interaction carefully and determine if it’s valuable from a socialization perspective. If not, we try to automate. If it is, we work to preserve it (even if it’s more difficult than the streamlined alternative). That friction creates opportunities for people to share experiences. That’s the value we provide.

Q. How do you have your building access set up? Key, keyless, open-door, etc…

A. We’re low tech and simple – keys for entry, a front desk (with a person at the desk from 9-6) for non-keyholders to get access.

We have a social system for distributing keys, too. Only full time members are eligible to receive keys, and they must a) wait 30 days and b) get 3 signatures from other existing key holding members. This forces people to interact, and build enough trust. It’s not really about the keys, it’s about creating opportunities those interactions that make bad things less likely to happen.

Q. How do you bill coworkers?

A. We used a google spreadsheet for record keeping for 2 years until we couldn’t anymore. We accept google checkout and paypal because most people know how to use them. We use Zoho invoicing now that we’re over 100 members and rely heavily on automation of our billing systems, but if you’re looking for something to get started with a great tool, I recommend Cobot.

Q. I have been hired as director of the space. Do you act as the director or employee people to operate the space or is it run by your members?

A. I’m going to be honest: I don’t know what a “director” does. We have a single part-time office manager position to keep an eye on things and keep the space open during business hours. It’s a highly sought-after job, because this person gets to interact with the most members and gets paid a stipend (on top of free workspace at Indy Hall) to do it. It’s not a full time job – every person in this role (myself included) has had another primary source of income, and they were in this more for the opportunity than the cash. All three people (four if you count me) grew personally and professionally – inside of a year they needed me to hire a replacement because they were swamped with their “other work”, or they’d found the thing that they really loved to do as a result of the position, and wanted to focus on that for a while.

At the end of the day, we’re an LLC and a profitable company. We did that so we could be sustainable, and have the operation outlive my and my business partner’s involvement.

But the other thing we needed in order for that to happen was our “members first” approach, which has produced members who have a strong sense of ownership even though they don’t have specific titles, or even ownership of the business. They know that if they want to see something, done and it’s aligned with our goals, we’ll help THEM do it – but we don’t do it for them.

My role is and always has been being a leader and a catalyst. Apart from going out and talking about coworking, signing checks/contracts with vendors, and making strategic business decision, my most common role is two fold:

  1. Provide context – help people see themselves as members of Indy Hall
  2. Provide permission – its a societal norm that you need to ask for permission to do something. My goal is to break that apart. Most of the time people want something or want to do something, and the only thing in their way is they don’t know who to ask for permission. Even if the permission isn’t mine to grant, I do what I can to grant it.

There’s a massive industry of “innovation and entrepreneurship” that’s full of whiteboards, whitepapers, and theoretical concepts. If you look closely, nothing is really happening. My job is to look for things that are likely to happen and make sure they have a fighting chance.

Q. Last question! I know the community is the most important part for this idea to grow. Any thoughts or pitfalls on getting the community to be a community?

A. You can’t get a community to be a community, so get that idea out of your head as quickly as you can. A community is an organism. It’s like asking “how do you get a fish to be a fish”.

You don’t own the community, you don’t manage the community. You garden. You observe. You catalyze. You support. You belong to them, not the other way around.

Some recommended reading:

http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2008/12/a-roadmap-for-community-organization-and-mobilization-harvey-milk/ http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2010/09/coworking-lets-things-happen/ http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2011/03/coworking-zones-of-proximal-development/ http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2011/04/on-monocultural-coworking/ http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2011/05/should-a-coworking-space-run-itself/ http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2010/12/on-economic-development-centers-and-coworking/ http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2010/11/take-interest-dont-fake-interest/ http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2010/11/encouraging-collaboration-in-coworking/ http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2011/05/designing-coworking-for-collaboration/ http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2011/06/a-coworking-parable-the-game-of-chess/

Also, pick up a copy of this: http://www.amazon.com/Starfish-Spider-Unstoppable-Leaderless-Organizations/dp/1591841437

Lots to read through, but this should help your head get into the right place.

I hope I get to visit an epic coworking community in Montana at some point in the future. Keep me posted.

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Hey, thanks for reading!

Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.