How To Grow Your Coworking Space Without Losing Your Shirt, or Your Mind.
Coworking isn’t just a hot industry, it’s basically brand new. Even though I’ve been involved for over a decade, that’s a short period of time in the grand scheme of things.
When I started there were very few examples to look to, both for inspiration and what to avoid. We basically had to learn how to dodge bullets (which also meant taking a bullet or two along the way) in order to overcome our biggest challenges.
There’s a lot out there about getting a coworking space started. I’ve personally written over a hundred articles of my own on the topic and even recorded an audiobook detailing the process we used to build our community before opening the doors to our space.
But the problems don’t stop when the doors are open.
No, the challenges have just begun. Even if you do everything right and have a steady stream of people coming in to work and connect and share, the growth phase of a coworking space is full of it’s own pitfalls.
Whether you’re a founder, or an employee hired to keep the space running smoothly, here are 4 lessons I learned after we opened our space that can help you dodge bullets too.
Lesson #1 — Learn how to delegate, now.
When we first opened Indy Hall, I was there every day to open and close.
I was there to meet every new member.
I was there for everything, with my fingers in everything.
So not surprisingly, about 18 months after the grand opening, I was fast approaching a burnout.
I needed help beyond the support I already had from the community, so I decided to hire my first teammate.
Our first hire was a friend of mine named Dana. She had seen me build Indy Hall, and already knew a bunch of our members. She was organized and thoughtful and friendly. Maybe most importantly, she really wanted to be a part of Indy Hall, but she didn’t know exactly how to build a career that would allow her to be active in the community.
While preparing for Dana’s first day, I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure what Dana should do first. I’d been running on my instincts for so long that I couldn’t even fully quantify all of the tasks I did every day.
So I set her loose on my inbox and had her sit directly next to me every day. I said:
“Your job is to watch me work, and to look for things that I’m doing that don’t need to be me. Then take those things away from me, by force if necessary.”
Quickly, a large volume of the administrative work vanished from my field of vision…and I knew I could trust her to get it done. Better yet, she found ways to improve and streamline everything since it was now being executed by a fresh set of eyes.
Best of all, everything I was doing before was not only still being done, but much of it was being done better.
But if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t wait until I was almost burned out to get at least one more person involved that wasn’t a partner or community member.
Learning how to delegate freed me up to work on the things I actually cared about, the things that actually needed me (until those things didn’t need me either).
Without learning to delegate, Indy Hall couldn’t have grown.
“The best reason to gather power is to give it away.” — Geoff DiMasi
Lesson #2 — Avoid clutter and complacency.
Have you ever had trouble getting roommates, housemates, or family members to clean up after themselves in the bathroom and kitchen?
eah, it’s even harder at coworking-space volumes of activity.
Thankfully, we hired a cleaning service within our first year of operation. I know lots of spaces hesitate on this expense, but like hiring, I wish I hadn’t waited to start professional cleaners.
But even with regular cleanings, things accumulate. Member belongings stack up, while accessories and various left-behinds fill corners and closest.
And there’s a dangerous property of stuff: it attracts more stuff.
Now, I’m not against people keeping things around. In fact, I think its important that people can contribute things to the space for others to share, to improve the appearance and utility of the environment.
It’s extremely valuable for workspaces to feel lived in.
Many workspaces feel cold and sterile simply because there are no signs of human life. But there’s a fine line between a shared space feeling comfortable and lived in, and that same space feeling messy.
I’d much rather have a space feel comfortable and lived in than cold and sterile, so we’re always dancing on the line between cozy and clutter.
The secret to mastering this dance is being able to recalibrate on a regular basis, and not to wait until things are messy to clean them up.
One of our largest and most valuable efforts to regularly recalibrate is an annual event we’ve dubbed “Reboot.”
Reboots consist of a weekend-long hybrid of spring cleaning, with a community project weekend.
Leading up to our annual Indy Hall Reboot, we spend several weeks working with our community to map out a list of things that need cleaning and improving.
- We identify projects that need completing.
- Members suggest creative ways to make the space better.
- We source materials and supplies.
- We set dates — and then we leap into action.
With lots of warning, we ask everyone (including full time members) to pack up their belongings. We provide boxes and packing material, and organize everyone’s stuff in a safe place out of the way.
And then members of our community — a small army of doers — spend a three day weekend purging clutter, repainting walls, reorganizing art, cleaning out closets and cabinets, working together on construction projects, assembling new furniture, and whatever else we’ve prioritized for the weekend.
At then, the end of the weekend, we put everything back together and get back to work.
Our annual Reboot is designed for four major outcomes:
- The space we share is tidied and improved. Yay!
- People who participate in Reboot tend to find a special kind of appreciation and sense of ownership of the space they share. In the future, they’re more likely to tidy up after themselves
- People who participate in Reboot tend to meet new people in the community that they haven’t met before, or even if they have they get to spend some quality time working towards a common goal together. These bonds last long beyond Reboot weekend.
- A subtle but very important side-effect: Reboot also helps to reshuffle peoples’ seating choices. Post-Reboot, everyone is encouraged to try out different parts of the workspace, and to sit with different people. This helps curb the effects of people getting too rooted or territorial over a specific spot. We go out of our way to remind people that wherever they sit, they’re still at Indy Hall. There are no bad seats.
Complacency keeps average coworking spaces average.
I often look to urban planning and neighborhood for design inspiration in coworking, and one thing I’ve learned about neighborhoods is that a great neighborhood is built by people who want to be neighbors.
Proximity isn’t enough. People need to care about the things they share, and play an active and collaborative role in the care taking of those shared spaces and resources.
If you’re planning for humans to be in your space, plan for it to get messy, and have a plan for regularly removing that mess.
But don’t do it alone.
Lesson #3 — Anyone can be a leader, if you let them.
Expectations are so important.
If I expected every single person who works from Indy Hall to step up and pitch in, I’d find myself disappointed on a regular basis.
At the same time, I’ve found that if I don’t give people a chance to step up and pitch in — they probably won’t ever bother to try.
And I’ve found that simple changes to how we respond to inquiries has a dramatic effect on unlocking potential leaders from the community.
For example, when a member has an idea for how to improve the community or space, we’re always looking for ways to say yes. Sometimes that means adapting the idea a bit, or explaining why something won’t work but offering an alternative that better fits our overall goals.
But rather than simply respond with a “yes” we encourage them to own it.
“That’s a great idea. What do you think we need to do in order to accomplish it? How can I help you get started?”
Not everyone is comfortable taking ownership of things that they haven’t been told explicitly to own — but once people realize they’re working in an environment that rewards people taking ownership of their work, and people start to see each other reaping the rewards of leadership, members start coming to us asking what they can contribute. It’s amazing.
Lesson #4 —You don’t have to be a superhero.
Shit happens. Sometimes a ball gets dropped, or a misunderstanding turns good intentions upside down. 99% of running a coworking space is solving you’ve never encountered before.
And It’s tempting to be superman or wonder woman, leaping into action and figuring out the “best” way to alleviate the pain.
But the more times we’ve slowed down and encouraged our members to step in and help solve problems together, the easier it has been to find resilient and long-term solutions.
Something in the culture of a community changes when people feel comfortable spotting and solving problems together.
Don’t forget why you started.
In my experience, most of the secrets to running a successful coworking space have been the result of removing myself as a dependency so the community can do what it does best.
Very little change and growth happens directly by my hand. The majority of the value that any member of our community can gain comes from members of the community, not me.
And that’s not an accident.
Our goal isn’t to provide space, it’s to bring people together.
The job is less about making things happen, and more about noticing what is already happening and making space for it to succeed and thrive.
Desks and rooms are just tools in the toolkit. The real value comes from finding ways for your community do what communities do best: looking after each other while we achieve our goals.
Whatever your goal is in opening a coworking space, consider the magnitude of it’s potential if your members had each others’ backs and felt empowered to solve problems together…even if you weren’t in the room.
Founder of Indy Hall