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Alex Hillman

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The first advice I give to almost everyone starting a new coworking space

08 Apr 2016
by Alex Hillman

Dozens of emails pour into my inbox every week from around the world, people eager to start a coworking space in their city. Some are simply introducing themselves, others have questions or seek advice for a specific problem.

Reading and replying to these emails is one of my favorite things to do, and gives me tons of fuel for writing and sharing.

Interestingly (but not really surprisingly), most questions are about getting started. The exact scenarios vary widely, but the problem space doesn’t change: you want to start a coworking space and the first steps aren’t as obvious as you thought they might be.

Earlier this week, I got an email from a guy named Eric who had just been awarded a scholarship for our upcoming event, the People at Work Summit.

I had almost forgotten that I had given Eric some tough love in the past. I challenged a bunch of his assumptions. I wasn’t really sure if my advice had stuck, but was very happy to read his excited reply:

Thanks Alex! You were right, you were right, you were right. I emailed you in reply to your first follow-up email after joining your list back in November. I was all ready to pull the trigger with starting a coworking space here just north of Boston – I secured the loan, picked out the furniture, made my logo, and just before pulling the trigger I found you online… So, it was really hard, and a brutal exercise of being honest with myself but I listened, and put the brakes on the project a bit. Guess what? It’s proving tough to find remote workers like myself and convincing them to get off the couch and come hang-out, never mind getting them to join a coworking space. I’m enjoying the process of building my little community, learning a lot about myself, and I’m meeting a bunch of cool people along the way. I already feel in debited to you for this advice, so your kind words and scholarship just made my week!!

My #1 advice for people starting a coworking space

Space seems like an asset, but it’s a liability if you don’t have a community involved from the start. My #1 advice is to start getting out into the community, and getting to know people you can bring together as LONG before you have a space as possible.

This is the most counter-intutive part of starting a coworking space. It seems like you’d want to go out and find people who would want a coworking space, or any space to work for that matter.

But even when those people exist, you’re likely to run up against the human version of Newton’s first law: as an object at rest will stay at rest, peoples work routines are difficult to change. Even if the cafe they work in is uncomfortable and the wifi is crappy, even if they can afford an upgraded workspace.

Just because people in your “target market” exist doesn’t mean a damn thing about your ability to get them to come together and share space successfully.

The best advice I have is to make it your job to go out and find people who want to be around each other. That’s what I really mean when I say build the community first.

Here’s how to find your community

1 – Start by finding a few places where people are already gathering.

Get out of the house, as they say.

Go to other peoples’ events. Get to know people – not to sell them coworking, but to learn who they are, what they’re about, and what they might have in common with other people you meet.

Small events. Big events. Just get out there.

This will help go from “I know people are out there” to “I know Don and Jane and Steve and Lauren and….”

2 – Look for patterns in what people have in common.

Shared interests, goals, values.

This is the key to building a community! It’s not enough to put butts in seats, or people in a room.

You need people who are likely want to be around each other, which also happens to be a much more powerful force for overcoming Newton’s first law than wanting a desk.

What do Don and Jane and Lauren and Steve have in common? The answer might surprise you.

3 – Look for ways to bring those people together.

Now that you know a bunch of people whom YOU know have things in common, it’s time to help them see that for themselves.

You can do this literally anywhere – but my #1 recommendation is that you DO NOT do this in your own coworking space (if you have one).

Cafe work-days together. Happy hours. Skill sharing. What kinds of things are they already doing, personally and professionally? What about things they WANT to be doing more of? Are those things that can be done together?

Whatever they’re interested in, your job is to be the facilitator. Do it WITH them, instead of FOR them.

Not sure what they’re interested in doing together? Go back to step 1 and try learning about the people you meet instead of collecting business cards like they’re Pokemon.

4 – Lead by example.

The best way to create a collaborative space is, well, collaboratively. Invite them to be a part of opening your space. Not just pre-sales, actually get them involved in planning, design, promotion, etc. Invite them to make it THEIR space, their work home, something they can care about.

Not just pre-sales of desks, but actual community support and buy in.

Start with people who would be upset if the space couldn’t open, instead of people who would quickly switch to another coworking space down the street if it were cheaper.

Start with people who are invested in the success of their peers has a far more enduring impact than people who need a desk with power and wifi.

This playbook is literally a game changer in every way.

On one hand only can you can save yourself from LOTS of wasted time and money if it turns out you can’t get people together.

At the same time, when you DO end up opening a space you’ll always have an edge over the people who don’t follow this process…even if they hurry to open their doors and you take 6-12 months to follow this process.

You might open later, but you’ll stay in business longer if your members actually want to be around each other.

The biggest mistake you could make right now is opening an empty space without a community.

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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.