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Tough Love & Oxygen Mask Coworking

5 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Let me save you from a hard-earned lesson in being helpful

Earlier this week, I got an email from a reader asking advice in a tough situation:

We partnered with our City to create a vibrant community for entrepreneurs in exchange for a rent- free space.  It hasn’t been easy, or perfect, but it is working and is valued by many.   

We are at a crossroads right now.  We just got notice that the City is taking over the facility at the end of our lease… which is in June.  That does not leave us much time to find a new home for our community! 

Our current building is definitely not ideal office space, but it is rent free.  Even so, we’re just barely breaking even.  My team and I are currently exploring all kinds of options for where should move, and what implications that will have on our finances. 

I am concerned that we will take on too much expense and not be able to bring in enough members to cover it.  I am also concerned that there will be so much pressure to bring in revenue that our culture will be damaged, and we will turn into a soul-less office park, not the vibrant, fun, bootstrapping group that we are.  

Have you encountered a problem like this before?  We really aren’t sure what our next move should be, and we have only a few weeks to lock down a new location that will serve our community, and allow us to grow our impact and revenue!

Ouch, right?

Situations like this hurt. You work your ass off, scraping by, because you believe you’re doing something important and helpful.

And in the moment, it’s easy to find yourself wondering…what the hell do I do now? Here’s how I answered.

First – is the space actually most valuable tool in your toolkit? 

If the answer is yes, then you need to do some serious re-evaluation of your model. In your current configuration, you’ve built your model that makes space a liability, not an asset. That needs fixing.

Have you thought about what your community would look like if it were “homeless” for a little while instead of scrambling for a space?

Who would stick around? What could you do together if sharing office space wasn’t the most visible aspect of your offering?

Even if you’re not in this situation YET, use it as a thought experiment. What would you do if the coworking space you run burned to the ground, or got knocked down? How would you deliver value then?

If the answer is “I’m not sure” – that’s a problem. And it’s going to be a lot easier to solve that problem NOW then when you have your back against the wall.

Second – have you talked to your community about the fact that you’re barely breaking even even though the space you use is provided for free?

If they don’t see that as a problem, again, you have a much deeper rooted issue.

If you’re actually an asset to the community, it’d be worse if you weren’t able to keep doing what you do.

But you know how the airplane security videos tell you to put on your oxygen mask before helping others put on theirs? That’s because if you put someone else’s oxygen mask on first, there’s a chance you’ll die in the process and that means you won’t be able to help anyone…and you’ll be dead.

Fact: Your model isn’t sustainable even with free space. That’s a problem you owe to your community to fix. 

Fact: Even if you found another free space, what’s going to prevent you from being in this situation again in the future? This is a problem you owe to your community to fix. 

Because if you ignore these problems in this transition, you’re only delaying the inevitable.

You need to put on your oxygen mask. 

My biz partner Amy Hoy coined the term “Oxygen Mask Entrepreneurship” – it’s often emotionally counterintuitive, but absolutely crucial for long-term success.

Fear and Scarcity make us do and say stupid things.

Did you notice this quote from the original email above?

“I am concerned that we will take on too much expense and not be able to bring in enough members to cover it.  I am also concerned that there will be so much pressure to bring in revenue that our culture will be damaged, and we will turn into a soul-less office park, not the vibrant, fun, bootstrapping group that we are.”

If this feels familiar, I’d bet you $100 right now that giving away free/cheap space isn’t what makes your community awesome.

And won’t it be worse for your culture to be damaged by you not being able to exist any longer if you don’t address your sustainability issues? You have to take a longer view than just replacing your space.

And I’m not just saying YOU should do this…I speak from experience

When I started Indy Hall, all of the models for coworking were dependent on free or subsidized space. On one hand, I didn’t have access to that. But I also saw it as a liability. Space that’s free is space that’s likely to go away.

Why would I want to put in all of this work to help my community…just to put them in a vulnerable position?

Our membership model is even designed specifically to make it less likely that a single entity or group could put our community at risk.

More recently, I’ve been following this advice myself for the last 12 months.

From the moment I shared the news with our community that our landlord had lost their mind and we would need to find a new home, I made it clear that of all of the things that were possibly going to change WHO WE WERE wasn’t going to change and that’s all that mattered.

I talked about this at length in this two part podcast. I highly recommend listening to that one closely.

And then taking a serious look at your model and take care of that oxygen mask, stat.

It’s hard work, but the people in our community are worth it. I bet the people in your community are, too.

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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.