How to Build a Healthy and Self-Sustaining Coworking Community

This post was written by Christine Andrews, the owner of Toronto-based Acme Works.

I opened the doors of Acme Works in June of 2013 and I didn't have a community in place before I launched. The day after I opened, I walked through 9,600 square feet of awesome emptiness. I joked with friends and family that I had the largest office in the city—because I was the only person working at Acme Works.

A great deal has been written about how to build a community before you open, so I’m not going to write about that. I'm going to share my knowledge of how to build the ideal community after you open.

In my opinion, there are three phases to building a coworking community—attract people, curate and trust your membership.

Build Membership Quickly

If you have an empty space or a membership level below the number you require, your first step is to immediately attract members. We’ve all stood outside an empty restaurant deciding not to enter because there is no one else inside. We might be missing out on the best meal ever, but the emptiness of a space that should be filled begs the question, “Why is no one in there?” Coworking spaces are the same. People attract people.

While, in the long term, you don’t want members who are only motivated by low price it’s okay to bring these folks onboard in the early days. Offer deep discounts and free memberships. I did deals with two large teams and offered 75% off. I knew they were unlikely to stay longer than six months, but I brought 15 folks into Acme in my first month of operation that were here every day. These teams attracted others and I started to gain traction.

However, the challenge inherent in this approach is the quality of your membership. If you only attract people motivated by price then they will eventually leave for a less expensive option (both of the teams I incentivized left in favor of cheaper space). Additionally, if they join because they want a deal, and not because they want to be part of a collaborative environment, they will not engage with other members. This will result in minimal interaction and ultimately a high level of churn, as those who want collaboration go elsewhere; therefore, offering deep discounts is a short-term tactic and even while you leverage it you also need to focus on bringing quality members into your community.

Share Your Vision And Be Willing To Say “No!”

This brings us to the second step necessary to curate a healthy community: Ensure all members understand the values of your coworking space. Your narrative has to start with your values and the benefits of community. You are creating the story of your space. If you place community, collaboration and values first and communicate why these are a priority, you will attract members who share your vision. The ability to meet a potential member’s specific physical and budgetary needs are where you begin the conversation, but it’s what you communicate next that will help define your community.

It’s important you share your story with potential members up front. Watch to see how they respond when you speak about community and collaboration. Do they exhibit interest in your members and ask about opportunities to engage professionally and socially with them? If they only ask whether the private offices lock or how many meeting room hours they get take those comments as a cautionary note and talk further to understand if they could be a valuable addition to your community or not.

Once you have a base membership that is contributing revenue and energy to your space you need to learn to say NO to those looking for offices who are not interested in community. It is very difficult to say “no” when you are at 40% occupancy; you have empty space and someone willing to pay for it; however, if you don’t begin to curate for quality members then you will continue to experience high rates of churn and you’ll never be able to build the type of community you need for long-term success.

Create Positive, Unexpected Interactions and Trust Your Members

When you have a growing community, and you’re attracting true collaborators, you can make your community self-sustaining. And yes, I’m talking about leaving meeting rooms tidy and emptying the dish washer; but, more importantly, I’m talking about members finding ways to collaborate, support and help each other, share learning and participate in member-initiated activities.  

Your number-one priority should be to spend time learning what matters to your members then facilitate unexpected interactions and create opportunities for collaboration. Sometimes I describe my job as talking to people because that is the most important thing I do on a daily basis. It’s how I tell if a member is feeling isolated, needs help with a project, wants to celebrate a success or needs to find focus. Learn how to strengthen your member’s connection to each other through these conversations.

It’s also important to identify and leverage your “Super Members.” Those who love your community, sing its praises to anyone who will listen, and whom you can rely on to take a new member under their wing and facilitate collaboration on their own. Retaining these members is critical because they strengthen and enrich your community.

The final way I discovered how to make my community self-sustaining was to hand them responsibility. The first time I went on vacation I was so worried about what might happen. Would the members follow the rules or would it be mayhem without me? I didn’t have staff, at the time, so I left the members to their own devices. I asked them to respect the rules, treat each other kindly and take care of the space. And guess what? They did. Nothing got broken, no rules were violated, and the daily business of coworking continued. By trusting my members to do the right thing they rewarded my trust and did just that.

Remember, these tactics should not be executed in a linear fashion, you should apply them concurrently. Build your membership quickly. Apply discounting to attract members; but, don’t rely exclusively on this approach as it will work against you in the long term. Curate your community, share your vision, be willing to say “no” and focus on those members who value collaboration. Create positive, unexpected interactions between your members, leverage your super members and learn to trust your community. 

Happy coworking!

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