Inspire9 is one of those spaces that just oozes community as soon as you step through the doors into the wonderful, high-ceiling space inside a former knitting mill. It’s a legendary hub that impresses an atmosphere of respect and tolerance on you. In and around the open plan collaborative workspace, there are a couple of children quietly playing (it’s summer holiday), several dogs around, and a couple of coworkers playing pool. And yet it feels like a productive and tranquil space to work in. A big part of it comes down to this; as Melbourne’s first community-led coworking space;
The community began organically, with friends getting out of their own homes to work together starting out in a small office space back in 2007. When they moved into the Australian Knitting Mill in 2011, it was the community that came together and helped furnished the space that’s now home to a flourishing 200-person coworking community. And with ten years of experience and insights into creating a fantastic workspace, the team recently opened The Dream Factory, a space dedicated to design, technology and social impact.
As always in our Coworking Heroes series, we take a deep dive into what makes a coworking hub tick, what makes the space stand out, and share some of the key insights. With Inspire9 being a treasure trove of coworking knowledge, we’ll be splitting the article into two parts.
In part 1, Community Manager Anelia Heese explains how they manage to naturally curate the people, events and the space through an engaged and empowered coworking community.
Inspire9 offers a free trial day to potential members. It's a useful sales promo, but far more than that it's a valuable tool for new members to self-select whether or not they’re a good fit for the space. Anelia explains:
With that in mind, Inspire9 have identified their key potential members as those who place a high value on the interpersonal aspects of a work community.
For these potential members, Inspire9 goes the extra mile. “I normally get a great sense from giving someone a tour whether they’ll be a great fit,” notes Anelia. “If so, then I’ll work hard to draw them in rather than somebody who might be complaining about the speed of the wifi connection, the lack of light or whatever.” Not everyone who walks in the door is a good fit. For some, Anelia will guide them toward a serviced office as it will better meet their needs. The Inspire9 mission centers on building a community of independent, yet engaged members.
Once that person becomes a member, their integration to the space isn’t over yet. “The onboarding process is essential for setting the tone for future relations. One of our other philosophies is helping people help themselves. That’s also part of the curation process. If I find someone is really needy and needs me to be a secretary or a PA, that’s not my role.” Looked at this way, Anelia is helping strengthen the community by educating new members about the essence of coworking and clarifying roles in this new work age. “Some people need to be guided into what coworking actually is, which is communal working. This means you need to put in your bit, and with that, you get something back.”
Anelia highlights the crucial difference between conventional workplaces and coworking spaces;
To clarify the roles within the traditional office and Inspire9, new members are called residents, not tenants. Words are powerful, and the vocabulary choice highlights the overall shift in mentality.
The space reflects the needs of the members, and it’s an on-going evolution. Anelia encourages members to be active in space co-creation. As teams arrive and leave the space, members have a role in reconstructing the space to better serve the community. “Our roles as Community Managers are to say ‘Hey, this is what we've got. These are the options. These are the physical boundaries of the space’,” describes Anelia, “Let’s see how we can make it work for you.” While some residents found this open offer intimidating, the freedom and ownership of the space ultimately empowers members and helps them feel at home in the space.
The co-creation process can be exciting, but also challenging. We all know that change can be difficult but, especially in coworking, change is a constant. Additionally, as a Community Manager, Anelia has had her own personal challenges and came to the insight that stepping back allowed the community to help co-create the space.
Inspire9’s space is intended to host coworkers and events. To accommodate both, Anelia explained that they keep their space modular. Although the space is capable of hosting events with audiences ranging from 30 to 500 people, the team is strategic about which events they bring in. They want to ensure they are suited to the community. “It needs to feed back into our three founding principles: personal and professional resident growth, community connections, and empowering business sustainability. We host events that benefit our community and feedback to the broader community. We try to empower people to use the venue in a way they like.” Venue access is Inspire9’s way of contributing to the Melbourne community.
The space itself helps curate events in its own way. Inspire9 haven’t gone all in on trying to provide the highest spec equipment for hosting events. For example, the audio-visual infrastructure isn’t fancy and instead based on what they could afford, meaning the space could be less suited for more corporate clients. But this incidental strategy means that Inspire9 brings events in-line with their community, rather than the physical space.
These connections are based on the membership, but also arise from it. As a Community Manager, Anelia saw the need to step back and allow the community to come forward. “We systematically empower people to do their own thing. The magic happens when somebody comes to me and says ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea for a Meetup.' For me, it’s that energy that I put in, to empower people with that connection to the space.”
Anelia abounds with examples of other instances of this community magic that arise from different strategies. These can be more informal things such as taking the time to get to know new members, to find out what their skills and interests are and to explore if there’s an opportunity to contribute “because if they can contribute, they feel like they belong. And it can be anything. For example, we have a writer here who loves bikes so he did a ‘I’ll fix your fixie’ day.”
Alternatively, that community magic can come from more formal things such as getting member feedback. Anelia elaborates more on this “from previous feedback, people said they wanted more fitness and wellness in the space. So we started with yoga sessions. Since then spontaneous running groups have started up, and we’ve got physios in the space doing physio work. So everything we do, we try to feed back in and that’s how we align our partnerships.”
In the ten years that Inspire9 has grown as a community-led coworking space, they’ve been refining their community building process. Within this ongoing process, there have been lots of lessons. Anelia shares her insight into best practices, systems and their tools for thoughtful growth in the second part of this interview.