Introduction – My Nomad Anniversary
This is article 2 of 4 in a series about my experience over the last year as a digital nomad working in the coworking industry. The introduction below is repeated across all four articles, so feel free to skip it if you’ve read it already!
I celebrated my first digital nomad anniversary last week. It was October 14th, 2016 that I flew from New York City to London, began work with coworking space software company Habu, and officially became a (drumroll please) digital nomad.
This series of articles talks about a few of the things I’ve noticed over the last year and what, if anything, should be done about them. Each is a different insight I’ve gained or reinforced as a digital nomad working in the coworking industry. Some are related to coworking, and some are related to nomad life. If you’re not interested in a particular subject, just skip to a different article. However, I think each is filled with valuable insights for people whose lives relate to coworking or digital nomadism in some way. You can find the links to the other articles at the bottom of this one, as soon as they’ve been published.
Wait, this software doesn’t make toast?
This article looks at the issue of product expectation management, focus as a competitive advantage, and coworking staff development through the lens of coworking management software. It’s certainly relevant for people running coworking spaces and building products in the coworking industry. However, product developers in the digital nomad community will find it insightful as they work to build new tools and manage the expectations of customers in their industries.
At Habu, the coworking software company I joined in October 2016, we’re regularly speaking with coworking founders and manager all over the planet, from Sydney to Copenhagen and Sofia to Jakarta. We’ve had just about every conversation you can have about software and coworking. In all that time I’ve come to one major conclusion: coworking managers need more technical experience and technological proficiency.
I joined the Habu team because of the impressive technology behind it. Even at that early stage, the product had a great tech stack. But more than anything, it was the team’s commitment to simplicity and speed that I loved. Habu was one of the newer, dedicated coworking management tools built to handle nearly everything from member sign up to monthly billing to space access, and these days it does it beautifully.
I’m lucky to have contributed some to the direction of the product because of my experience in both managing and consulting coworking spaces in the United States. I think that my contributions to the product have helped make Habu ridiculously easy to use for automating critical aspects of a coworking space’s daily and monthly administration.
But even with how intuitive we’ve designed Habu to be, and even though we continually get praise from our customers for our platform’s user experience, what continues to surprise me are the high expectations about what software should do for coworking space managers. A fellow coworking thought leader once told me, “coworking managers expect the moon, and they don’t want to pay for it.” In my experience at Habu, this is at least somewhat true. And I’m confident that this partly due to a lack of technical proficiency and technological expertise by some coworking managers and founders.
Because coworking founders and managers are often generalists in their coworking roles and can be under-experienced with management technology, they implement a wide range of questionably-suited tools and systems for things like recurring billing, resource management, access control, networking & wifi, power management, and more. This makes the average coworking space a minefield of technological SPOFs (single points of failure), places where if one thing fails the entire system goes into disarray. What’s more, navigating the technology stack of the average coworking space is a veritable maze of logins, passwords, Zapier plugins, and Google documents.
I believe this is because, when many indie spaces start, they are often managed by founder(s) or entry-level employees who have yet to use much tech that would be useful in a coworking space. Sure, they’re likely familiar with standard desktop applications like Excel, Keynote, or Photoshop; tools that have been under development for some decades. They’ve probably utilized platforms like Spotify, Netflix, or some VPN service. On the rare occasion, they might have used something like Asana or Trello for project management. They’ve also probably used a keycard access system, but have never implemented one. In short, their experience with managing coworking-related tech is rather slim.
This means three significant things: (1) coworking managers expect software to do things it shouldn’t, (2) most coworking management tools are severely fractured, and (3) that coworking founders should invest heavily in technological skill development for themselves and their employees in order to make their lives easier, gain a competitive advantage or a bit of both.
Most highly-funded software platforms aim to do one or a few things well. Excel is excellent at showing large amounts of data in its rawest form and at providing ancillary tools to work with that data. It’s neither a word processor nor an out-of-the-box data visualizer. Photoshop is, at least to some, a great photo manipulation tool. It is not great at making fantastic vector graphics or editing videos. Asana is great for particular kinds of project management, but it utterly fails at tracking expenses or billable hours for employees. And this makes sense. You don’t expect these tools to do everything.
However, when it comes to coworking management software, often coworking managers believe the tool should run their entire coworking business so that they don’t have to do much of anything. At the risk of sounding harsh, this is ridiculous because it’s impossible. A tool just cannot be great at handling billing administration, resource management, creating social connections, access control, accounting, business intelligence, and point-of-sale transactions. What’s more, any given space will run each of these administrative tasks differently. It’s unrealistic to demand that any tool do all of this with complete flexibility, without becoming overly complicated. Therefore it’s silly to build a platform that does all of these things, but that doesn’t stop some coworking software companies from trying.
This is why so many coworking management platforms are fractured, with mountains of technical and design debt. If they want to redesign their user interface, they risk alienating all the customers they already have. In order to rewrite their codebase to be faster and easier for the developers to build new features upon, they need to dedicate valuable resources that could be spent on adding new features to their existing codebase or on marketing and sales.
This is what I’ve loved about working with Habu. We don’t aim to be everything for everybody. We strive to be great at the things we do, so we spend the time that’s needed to make those things as good as they can be before we move onto new features. This sometimes means we develop features at a slower pace, but it also means we do a lot less rewriting.
It could indeed be said that I’m biased. But I am coming from a highly informed perspective. I’ve implemented many coworking platforms for coworking spaces over the past few years. I also wrote a 125-page guide dissecting 14 platforms last year, before working for Habu. I’ve seen coworking managers switch platforms up to four times because they are continually dissatisfied with whatever they pick. And it all has to do with fractured products.
Coworking managers that want to stop being frustrated about technology need to understand the limitations of technology and become more familiar with modern tools. Ten years ago you would have had to manage your space with a dozen tools or more. Or have a budget of $70k a year for one piece of software! These days we’re all pretty fortunate that we only have to use a handful of tools to manage our workspaces. And it’s going to take time for coworking software platforms to become as mature and fully-featured as the 20+-year-old tools we grew up with.
In the meantime, coworking founders and managers can become more technologically proficient by experimenting with new tools, taking online courses, and hiring people onto their teams with above average technical skills. Once that’s in place, working to both codify and disseminate that knowledge across the organization becomes simple.
Doing these things will put your space at a competitive advantage. Having a better handle on technology ensures you can create more seamless member experiences. It means using various tools to manage systems within your space will be easier and faster. And perhaps most important of all, it will help you recognize what tools you should use to perform which tasks, and which tools are merely trying to be too many things for too many people.
This is article 2 of 4 in a series about my experience over the last year as a digital nomad working in the coworking industry. Here are the other articles:
- Article 3 | Coworking is Dead, Long Live Coworking
- Article 4 | Community is Hard, But That’s a Good Thing