Notes from a coworking founder to his younger self
Last September, I took the first steps towards opening a new coworking space in Columbus, Ohio. I went into it pretty blind and made a lot of assumptions along the way. If I could go back in time and sit down with my younger self before he started down this road, this is what I would want him to know.
Opening a coworking space is really easy
When you stop to think about it, the physical space is the easiest thing in the world. Getting yours “member-ready” is going to take a little more than a month and about five grand in materials. Slap on a coat of paint, install a decent laminate flooring, buy a ton of IKEA desks and chairs, and get Internet piped into the place: You’re done.
That said, don’t blow your entire cash investment up front. Things are going to come up in the first few months you haven’t even thought of yet. Lockers to allow members to secure their equipment overnight. New desks, because the ones you bought first weren’t quite right. And you will be amazed at how much coffee an office full of people will go through on a cold winter day.
People are going to love it
Every single day, someone is going to stop in while you’re painting or assembling furniture to ask what’s going into the space. When you explain it to them, they’re going to get really excited about it. They’re all going to tell you that they know someone who works from home who would love to work at a place this this, and they will all promise to let them know about it. Your expectations are going to soar. You will never hear from 95% of those people again.
You can’t take this personally; They’re right, coworking is a really great idea. But people are forgetful, and although they have the best intentions, the don’t always follow through. I’ve heard it said that it takes hearing a new message seven times before it really sticks; So just keep spreading the word.
There will be days when it’s just you
Be ready for those days, because they’re the worst. So much worse than just working alone at the house. The space will begin to feel like a millstone around your neck. You won’t take lunch breaks, afraid you’ll miss someone stopping by while you’re out. You won’t take vacation days, just to make someone is there when people finally decide to check the space out.
It’s going to be hard, but you can’t let the place become your own self-imposed prison. Don’t be afraid to put signs on the door with your number, saying you ran out for an errand. Take a day off here and there, and trust that if someone is truly serious about coworking they will be back.
There will be days when it’s just you and another guy
This is almost as bad as being alone. You’ll finally get a couple of people interested, but they never stop in on the same days. You’ll make small talk and get to know each other, but it’s going to be a little awkward. Your space isn’t going to have that spark that coworking spaces have, that energy is going to be lacking, and you’re going to have no idea how to get it there.
Stick with it. Eventually you’ll get two people in at the same time, and they’ll be the ones making smalltalk with each other. After about six months of this, you’ll even feel comfortable going out for lunch and leaving someone else in charge while you take a lunch out. Slowly but surely, your members will turn into friends, and a young community will be born.
People will try the space out and not return
You’ll rack your brain for days asking why people don’t come back. Was it too loud? Too quiet? Did you talk too much or not enough? Are the membership rates too high? What is going to kill you the most is that these people who never come back genuinely seemed to like it there. Most of them will never give you any indication why they didn’t come back. Maybe they just needed the one day while their internet was out, or maybe they live too far away to justify the drive.
You’re going to want to dwell on this one, but don’t waste your effort. You’ll never know why some people don’t come back, and obsessing about it isn’t going to make the space better. Instead, focus on making the space the best it can be for the people who do come back. Ask them regularly what they like and don’t like, and adjust accordingly.
Member retention and growth will haunt you
Hang in there. People will get on board. By the time you’ve been open for six months, you’ll have days with five, six, even seven other people working with you. It’s going to be great. But it’s never going to be enough. Your brain is going to be constantly churning, thinking of new ways to attract people to join up. You’ll start thinking about expanding to a larger space, and how many people that would take. Occasionally, a member will cancel and it will absolutely ruin your day. But then, the very next day, someone new will join up at a higher membership level and everything will be sunshine and roses again.
Don’t let these natural ebbs and flows get you down. Despite your fervent belief that coworking is for everyone, not every coworking space is for everyone. Keep working toward your goal of adding one new member a month, and as long as membership is moving in that direction you’ll be fine.
Build the space that you want to work at
Opening a coworking space is a rollercoaster. You’re going to meet and work with some really cool independent professionals. You’ll have a front row seat as they meet each other, work on collaborations together, and even hang out together after work talking about and planning really cool projects. You’re going to have days where you see a spark of what you will have put hundreds of hours of work into, and it will have all been worth it.
But you’re also going to have lots of days where it doesn’t feel worth it. You’re going to invest your heart and soul in this project and feel like nobody shares your vision. Keep at it. Some businesses become wildly successful overnight, but most of them — the really good ones — take years of effort. It’s going to depress the hell out of you. All you can do — all you should do — is keep working at building the space and the community you want to work at. It may take time, but it will happen.
I don’t have all the answers — I’ve only been doing this for about ten months — but I’ve figured out a lot since beginning to put this vision into action. It’s hard to get people to share your vision when they aren’t financially or emotionally invested, and people aren’t going to want to wait for your little coworking space to be the large, successful space they’re looking for. But you will find a few dedicated people who see what you see and are willing to help work to get there. Embrace those people and let the others figure it out in their own time. They’ll come along when they’re ready.