The 5th edition of the Coworking Unconference in Asia is being held in Goa, India this February 2019. Over the years, the event has consistently been one of inspiration, connection and co-creation. That won’t be any different this year. But instead of just sharing about the tools and tricks of our industry and trading fist-pumps for how awesome our community is (because it really is!) – we’re going to get down to some bigger brass tax. This far in, it’s time to take stock and get ready for the next phase of the journey.
In other words, it’s time to grow up.
Why grow up now? We were having so much fun!
At five years old, the conference has lived the average lifecycle of a do-or-die start-up. This is the moment in almost every business story where (if you have managed to survive that long) you need to ask yourself this fundamental question: can we keep going like this?
Once you open that existential door, you will find a whole host of other questions rushing in, like what really works, and what doesn’t? What, and who, do we need to acquire to keep going? And who/what do we need to let go of to grow? Is bigger really better? What parts of our vision are we willing to trade off in exchange for a greater reward? Who can we ask for help? And (if you are brave and humble enough) am I the truly best person for the next part of this journey?
10 things we learned (sometimes a little too late) about owning a coworking space
We thought Hubud, as the main coworking space organizing the event (this year with the very able assistance of 91 Springboard) should take the lead on telling our warts-and-all story five years in.
What follows is our own version of ‘brass tax’.
Know this before you read it, though. It’s hard to write about the essentials of our experience without trotting out a series of cliches. Apologies, but when we tally up our wins and losses, the sum total of what we learned does feel a lot like a series of bumper stickers; catchy little warnings we want to paste on the cars (read: ‘business opportunities’) in front of us so that we never, ever, need to crash in the same ways again.
Stuff like: “Pull over. You are going in 10 different directions at once!”; “Don’t look in the rear view mirror too much or that sh#%t will sneak up on you”; or “Slow down a little. Enjoy the ride”.
Is that dramatic? Yeah, it feels like it sometimes. Of course a good life, as with a good business cycle, always has its spectacular crashes. After all, it’s our failures that make us real, right? (there’s cliche number 1).
So here goes…
When you put an idea into the world, it’s no longer yours.
You may have had a great vision for the way in which YOU wanted to do coworking, but the truth is, once you put your version into the space everyone grabs it and makes it their own. And rightly so. Coworking is about community, and the members should drive the vision every bit as much as you do. Chances are, they will make it even better. It gets hard, though, when their vision feels like something you are no longer called to. If that happens, it’s a red flag. Let go gracefully or your space will have claw marks all over it. Your community owns the space, even if you paid the highest price for it.
It is never, NEVER, just about the space.
You can spend a lot of time building the ‘space’, but what will ultimately make or break it is what happens inside it. Most coworking spaces focus on building community before they build the clubhouse, and this may be the marked difference between the coworking world and the halls of a regular office. This may be our path to growth as well. Most spaces are not profitable from membership income alone, but require a series of layered services like programs, events, food and beverage, retail and a host of other profit centres to be financially sustainable. Without them, your space will sink. Diversify and you won’t die.
Knowing something about everything is *enough*.
Startup founders – especially bootstrappers – who take this advice may find themselves bouncing from accounting to architecture, product development to podcasts, investor outreach to member management, and from cleaning toilets to serving food in the restaurant… all in the same week.
All this activity is engaging at first, but it’s not a recipe for sustainability. Be discerning here: you need to know enough about every aspect of your business to oversee it well, but please, don’t try and do it all yourself. Likely there is someone far better suited to most of those jobs than you. Hire the help you need. And if you don’t have the money to hire them, find it, or don’t do it… yet.
Confidence is not competence.
Like any industry, the coworking world is full of white knights and big egos. When it comes to hiring, partnering or collaborating there will be people who can promise the world and underdeliver, and those who promise little but surprise you with results. Choose your associates carefully. And be wary of what the hype of a new growth industry can do to colour your judgments. The coworking world has grown fast and furiously since its inception, but so did DotComs in the 90s. (Remember that crash?). Corrections come to every market, and coworking has already started to show its blips. Also remember… egos are everywhere; beware of yours.
The people who start things are not the people to finish them.
Many failures happen when founders hang on longer than they need to. To avoid the trap of founder’s syndrome, you need to know yourself well enough to recognize when you are out of your primary zone of influence.
There are a myriad of tests to take (Strengthsfinder, 16 personalities, Wealth dynamics, Jungian Archetypal quizzes, 4habbits, The Grit Test and Human Design, to name only a few) that can help you get a better sense of what you are, and are not, good at.
Knowing yourself well may not automatically lead to the kind of internal fortitude you need to call it quits when it’s time, though. In that case, the best measure of your relevance is probably your staff and closest friends. They have an eye on you that you simply cannot have from inside yourself. Listen to them, and take their feedback seriously, because it’s gold.
The final fact is that different phases require different strengths at different times. You may not be the person your space needs right now. Admitting this is not a failure, it’s a hallmark of emotional and professional maturity.
You won’t burn out when you are working from source.
Are you exhausted? I don’t mean are you falling into bed at the end of the day with that feeling of happy accomplishment, ready for deep rest. I mean, do you have that wild-eyed, world/weary strung out feeling from too much caffeine and adrenal glands that are firing on all cylinders.
If it’s the latter, you are likely out of fuel. The fuel that you need more of is not about good coffee and high vibe food (although that helps). It’s about the enthusiasm and inspiration one feels when they are connected to a greater source of power. People have all kinds of names for this reserve, but whatever you call it – Meaning, Purpose, Vision, Ideology, Gaia or God – it is a renewable resource. The more you create from that place, the more energy you find to keep going. Disconnection = depletion.
The pain pushes until the vision pulls.
When it’s time to grow up you are likely to suffer from growing pains first. Weaknesses and pain points are often hard to bear, and when too many of them amass it can be overwhelming. But as it is with the body, pain in and of itself is not a judgement; it is only information.
There is always a solution to your problem, but it’s not likely to come on your preferred timescale, or from the same mindset that created the problem in the first place. Likely it’s where you’d rather not look. Growth demands deep change, not just in your business plan, but in you.
‘Powerful strangers’ are not always your enemies, they may be your allies.
Change often requires new attitudes. The coworking community has a healthy skepticism about big players in our industry, and rightly so because commercializing the virtues of coworking has sometimes been disingenuine.
It would be remiss to condemn all big players in the same way, however, because there are many ‘intrapreneurs’ within parallel industries like Real Estate, Banking, Venture capital, and national/international governments who are not only deeply curious about what happens within the niche markets of coworking spaces, but enthusiastic supporters. Reaching out across the divides of our perceptions – not to entire industries but toward our allies within them – is proving to have a significant impact on the world of work. The ecosystem is evolving.
Money-making is not the most important motivator
We hear a lot these days about how coworking itself—- at the very basic level of selling memberships— is not as lucrative as many first believed it might be. So if you are a new operator and you are in this for the bucks, you’d better look elsewhere for big payouts. (See paragraph above re: being more than a space and layering services).
Yet despite the financial risks and sometimes meager rewards, many people persevere in the industry. That’s because the rewards of being part of the *movement* rather than just the industry are far beyond what can be captured in a P and L sheet.
If your idea of a wealthy life includes working with a variety of driven, fascinating people from all around the world and all walks of life; of supporting businesses that are making a big and unique impacts, of truly changing the way the world works and learns, and building community between people in a time where loneliness, mental illness, and burnout threaten to isolate us all, then your payback will be huge. That’s why CU Asia is so much fun. It’s a time to get together and celebrate it all.
Does this ring true for you?
In preparation for CU Asia 2019, we have been talking to a lot of operators who are looking deeply at their own bumper stickers. Some of them have pretty sobering stories to tell about crashing, too. We’ve invited them to share not just the answers to these questions, but how they have acted on those answers in concrete terms.
We have a great line-up, with a lot of truth-telling in store. If you add the more vulnerable stories to those of people who are ‘growing up’ to do big and bold things with the coworking model— like building entire creative cities, using A.I. to broaden and deepen their community network, while exploring what coworking can do to change the world… and you’ve got a weekend of truly inspiring conversations.
We hope you’ll be a part of it.
See you at CU Asia.