Starting a coworking space can be a risky proposition. Most founders take on the lease responsibility and then sell membership to make revenue. If you sign a lease with no members, it’s even riskier. Grassroots and DIY coworking spaces take time and effort to fill when there isn’t a huge marketing budget on which to rely.
That’s why I always recommend to catalysts to build a community first. You can read more about using meetup to do that. Next, you can parlay your meetup group members into PAYING members of your space even BEFORE you sign a lease. What a world!
I’ve called on four incredible women founders of coworking spaces to drop some knowledge on how they got paying members before or shortly after opening. Notice a little theme in that many of them fully understood the importance of “community first, space second” and found a lot of fear around putting themselves or their business idea out there prior to have a physical space. Take heed and take heart! You can do it.
Panel of Women Coworking Catalysts
Kayla Pendleton Founder & President, Her Space, Fresno, CA | Founding Members 15 and growing
Lisa Akinseye Visionary Team, Evolve Workplace, West St. Paul, MN | Founding Members 17 and growing
Marion Majou Founder, Entrelac, Annemasse, France | Founding Members 0
Emily Rose Antflick Founder, Shecosystem, Toronto, Ontario | Founding Members 18
Tell me a little bit about your coworking community.
Kayla: Her Space aims to provide the education, connections, and resources ladies need to propel their businesses forward. We support women in all phases, whether you are trying to launch or grow your business. The thing that makes our community special is that we are forming the space in order to create a movement of change in the economic landscape of our city. Fresno has a huge unemployment problem, and is flooded with things like human trafficking, substance abuse, and homelessness, especially in our downtown region. We want to open a non profit that helps support the rehabilitation efforts of the victims of these life events. We will provide a place to introduce these folks to the concept of entrepreneurship, help them in the formation of their business plans, and present opportunities to pitch their business ideas to potential investors.
Lisa: I think that what makes Evolve Workplace special, particularly in our community, is that we are a bit more casual than some of the national corporate “business centers” that are trying to rebrand themselves as being coworking spaces. Our goal is for members to see the space as their workday haven, knowing they spend most of their waking hours within Evolve’s four walls. We, like many authentic coworking spaces, strive to be member-focused, and plan to add features and amenities based on their wants and needs.
Marion: Entrelac is special because it is both a great space to get work done efficiently, but more importantly a friendly community. The majority of members are new to coworking when they first start – some are even new to working in an open plan office. I always emphasize the community side of things and all members take it in their stride to do their bit – whether that’s just leaving a mug free sink (and we know how crucial that is) or organizing events.
Emily: Shecosystem is a work-life space rooted in feminine and feminist values – which happen to be very similar to the values of the coworking movement – openness, collaboration, accessibility, sustainability and community! We’ve built a culture where holistic wellness and self-care are part of the workday. We opened with 18 founding members and currently have close to 60. It’s a warm community where folks really come as they are and we hold space for the totality of eachother’s experiences. It’s a women-centric space but all genders are welcome. Shecosystem’s 1650 square foot space in Toronto opened in November 2016 but the community predates it by a year.
When you decided to start a coworking community, how much did you focus on finding people BEFORE you signed a lease? Why/why not? Did you find any super useful resources online that led you to want to build community first?
Kayla: I have worked on building the community over a year now before getting into a space. What is the point of having a space if you don’t have wonderful people to share it with?? I also wanted to make sure the concept was going to be 100% solid before investing my life savings into it.
Lisa: We started doing our homework in June. Some of the names that kept resurfacing were Cat Johnson, Alex Hillman, Tony Bacigalupo and others. For about a week, I turned into “absorber of all” and read more articles, visited more coworking websites, and watched more YouTube videos than you could imagine. In short, everyone I’ve reached out to says, “community first”, and we’ve adopted the mantra.
Marion: Even though I had read the articles (Alex Hillman’s blog and Angel’s blog and ebooks too), combed through the coworking google group, for a long time I had the classic attitude of a shy entrepreneur about my project: “I can’t quite go public about it yet, I still need to improve this and to confirm that….”
I did raise awareness of the project and a couple of people did come on board early. But most were sort of waiting on the sidelines: “Let us know when the space is set up and we’ll come and check it out…” They were all focusing on the space, rather than who was going to be in it and what would happen between those people. At the time, it felt overwhelming to educate people about coworking (when I didn’t even feel legit myself!). I was working on getting this business off the ground while raising three kids! So, something had to give and it was the community side of things.
Emily: Starting with community building intuitively made sense, and was in line with my professional experience as an educator. I’ve always loved “holding space” for people to connect, and in this case the permanent physical space was an extension of the intangible containers I was used to creating, not the other way around.
Taking on a lease is a huge risk, and I wanted to validate my idea first. Because I was creating this space from a feminine place where it’s all about circles rather than pyramids, I wanted the process to reflect the values; it made sense to start with community and find out what they need rather than come up with top-down policies. Soon after I started gathering my tribe, I attended GCUC Canada and heard industry leaders like Angel and Alex Hillman talking about how important building community had been to their spaces and knew I was on the right track.
How did you find prospective community members? Did you host Jellies or meetups? Have events? Do personal outreach? Attend events? What method was most successful for you?
Kayla: I have been a member of a networking group called Polka Dot Powerhouse since the beginning forming the idea. This group has helped me meet my tribe and give me the support I needed to launch. I have hosted meet ups for my Pop Up Coworking Days. I basically get a group together at local coffee/tea shops and we all work together- no structure- just getting to know each other and knocking out projects. I also host a Monday Morning Motivation group- where we grab coffee, do a guided meditation, and goal setting for the week in a peace garden. I attend several events a week besides the events I host myself. Being visible and showing up constantly is what works.
Lisa: in addition to social media and in person meetings, we are hosting two of our own Meetup groups. Our most exciting event to date was when we hosted 48in48 last weekend. They did a hackathon-style event to build 48 websites for 48 local nonprofits in just 48 hours. The energy was phenomenal. It was also interesting to see how the space could be best-used for tech teams. We told them to move furniture as necessary to meet their needs, and it infused new ideas into our space!
Marion: Early on, I set up a Facebook page and a landing page for our website and started communicating online about my project.
Coworking was still very new in this area and not very present in mainstream media. I attended networking events where local authorities and local businesses were present. I got a bit of traction across the border in Switzerland where the startup/digital scene was a bit more active. But everyone I met there weren’t particularly interested in coming to us.
I also visited a number of regional coworking spaces, who all emphasized that what worked for them was a mix of “community before space” and of “get a space up and running and they will come”. At the time, I think they were right because coworking was so new that people need to “see it” before they could “try it”. Three years later, the market is very, very different and I would now feel a lot more confident to start with jellies, meetups and basically no space.
Emily: Shecosystem started as a weekly gathering of women who were looking to connect with a tribe of likeminded others who shared values and experiences that are underrepresented in the dominant entrepreneurial paradigm. We rented a private studio for two hours Tuesday mornings for close to a year in a really cool and vibrant community arts building, charged $12, and provided coffee and tea. At first we partnered with an established online women’s network – a win-win where they provided more face-time value for their members and I got a platform to leap off of when I had no brand recognition.The format was a micro-version of what I wanted a day at Shecosystem to look like: an opening circle focussed on intention setting and authentic sharing (not elevator pitches!), 90 minutes of coworking, an onsite business mentor for one on one check-ins, and a 20 minute holistic wellness experience to end the session. I also did monthly events like a new year yoga and writing workshop, a panel of women social entrepreneurs, and a World Cafe style event looking at challenges and issues facing women entrepreneurs. These events were often in collaboration with groups like Startup Toronto and Women in Biz Network, or with facilitators from the community. We also did a 3 day pop-up in collaboration with the Gladstone Hotel, with coworking, wellness breaks, a marketplace showcasing women artisans, and daily circles. I also started a closed facebook group that grew to a couple hundred over the course of the year and sent out monthly newsletters. Finally, I got out there and talked about the idea constantly. I did a lot of public speaking on panels, led workshops at conferences and had lots of coffee dates!
Did your community members begin to press you to find a physical location or did you spear head that decision? How involved in finding/planning the space were your members?
Kayla:I knew from the get-go I needed a space for this to work long term. My members have helped me decide what part of town to focus my search, but I for the most part did it on my own.
Lisa: We had the space before members so we held some pre-opening food ‘n’ beer nights to get input. We’re certainly not done furnishing the space, and our hopes are that members will show us what works for them.
Marion: For months, there was uncertainty around our location as the plan was to share premises with a publicly funded incubator, hence my hesitation to go public. In hindsight, I could have shared a lot more about the journey itself – the good, the bad and the ugly!
A handful of prospective members were involved in the finishing touches: putting together furniture, painting and webmarketing. The bulk of it felt lonely and fairly scary to be honest – but also very empowering. I’m doing this, on my own!
Emily:I took the initiative to find a space after I did a quick impact assessment survey with people who had been attending the meetups. I found that being a part of the group was working for people – in terms of revenue, belonging, happiness, networking etc. – and that people wanted a more permanent space. I then created a really detailed market research survey to find out what they wanted in terms of location, amenities, price points, and other priorities.
Once I found the space, I held tours and info session during renovations, and several members signed up during this period. It was also an opportunity for members to give input that shaped the design of the space. There were also a lot of one on one conversations with potential members.
Did people give you money before you opened the physical location? How did you ask for that?
Kayla:I ask for a $100 deposit and an agreement from those that are interested in becoming members that states what membership level they want to sign up for.
Lisa: we did some really unusual and leased our giant parking lot to some contractors to generate some revenue prior to our soft opening.
Marion: We had a soft launch in early September. Basically, the space was equipped enough to say: “We’re open!”. Three weeks later…. no one had joined! So I decided to go all out and organized a free coworking week. Anyone could register to come and work for free for as long as they wanted that week. We had a full program of events with daily workshops and shared lunches. This was during the ice bucket challenge fever, so I even got a little wet in Lake Geneva to promote this….. Oh the things you do to get attention! ;-)
By the end of that week, there was a nice little group of about 8 people who had enjoyed hanging out together that week and even got s**t done! On the last afternoon, we had a signing up session and all of them joined. I was so thrilled, I could have cried!
The lesson for me here was that people attract people. There is nothing harder than convincing someone to join a collaborative work community if the space they are touring is empty.
Emily: Yes, I launched a Founding Members plan where people could pre-commit to a 3 month membership at 15% off, 6 months at 20% off, or a year at 25% off. I launched this as soon as I found a location – around 3 months before the doors opened, with a guarantee that if I had not opened by x date, they’d get a full refund.
How did you structure what they got in exchange for pre-paying? Did they get membership? Bragging rights?
Kayla: In return I give them the 1st month rent free and waive my $99 initial fee, plus make them a sponsor of the launch party- and they get a free t shirt. Pretty sweet deal.
Lisa: We didn’t have pre-pay pre-launch. What we are offering now is a dedicated desk for just $25 more a month than a $300 hot desk.
Marion: Whoever decided to join during that week would get a 50% discount on their membership. There were only three discounted memberships available for each membership plan. In return, people committed to a 6 months membership. After that we returned to month-to-month contracts but this was a great way to get started. Money was less of a hurdle for prospective members and for me, having these people in the space for 6 months was guaranteed and a great way to finding new members.
Emily:Here’s what I told them:As a founding member, you’ll get early adopter rates, more input in shaping the space to suit your needs, and the social capital that comes with being part of the foundation of this growing community. You’ll be among the first Shecosisters featured on the website, and I will promote your business on social media. Plus I’ll throw in a few free passes to launch events, and other opportunities to get involved as we lead up to launch. I will do my best to deliver these benefits to you in a timely fashion, but I ask that you join me in being patient, trusting in the unknown, and sending lots of good vibes as I work toward launching our home base!
Would you recommend that new coworking catalysts find community members BEFORE they open a coworking space? Why? Why not?
Kayla: Yes. I can’t imagine trying to get into a lease on a space with your finances on the line, not knowing if anyone will walk through the door for months. Unless you just have a lot of money to invest and aren’t worried about it.
Lisa: For space utilization ideas and cash flow purposes, I wish we had more members pre-launch. On the flip side, we have so many square feet (30,000), that we would like to see a ton of different kinds of businesses that can interface and learn and grow with one another, trading knowledge, and bartering services. So far, most new members are coming in on direct referrals. Others have walked through, and are tied to longer-term leases elsewhere, but are interested in the concept down the road.
Marion: Yes, yes and yes! From this story, I think you will understand why and there is even more advice on community building now. Even as a space is growing, community remains the keystone. For the past six months, we have been working on moving to a co-op system where members take a bigger role in governance and operations. I can’t wait to see where this will take us and I feel so empowered by it all.
Emily: Yes! Yes! Yes! There’s nothing worse than putting your heart and soul into something and then sitting in an empty room. Having founding members means that from day one there is an energy in the space, and other prospective members can get a feel for what their experience will be like. These folks become your goodwill ambassadors in the community – even now, most of my members have come through word of mouth.
I believe that a coworking space truly benefits from collaborating with members to shape the space; plus, input leads to ownership. For example, a member who is a counsellor told me her clients like to look out a window in session, so I swapped the intended board room for the Healing Room because it has a window. Another member told me she hates when spaces have all one kind of chair because people have different bodies, so I got a variety of chairs for the desks. And members are literally embedded in the space – they contributed stones, shells and other mementos to a custom mosaic backsplash. The Shecosystem community really feels that this is OUR space, not mine.
Also check out the Ultimate Coworking Launch Sequence.With a clever mixture of readings, resources, introspection and writing exercises, you’ll have a team of Founding Members before you can tweet #collaboration.