Since deciding to launch a community-based coworking space two years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a number of cities, visit some amazing venues and meet an eclectic mix of local businesses. My coworking space, altspace, has been open for six months now in South Manchester. While it’s been a steep learning curve, I have real confidence in our business model and feel we are well prepared to scale up our offering as a result of this experience.
As a small independent coworking space, I’ve bootstrapped the launch, met significant challenges and learned lots of valuable lessons. I’ll share some of my experiences in this piece in the hope that it will inspire more people to open spaces that encourage collaboration and meet a need for the growing remote workforce. I’ve kept the advice specific to the coworking movement, but please do combine this with general business advice that’s more freely available.
There aren’t many books or guides on how to startup your own space so it’s important to show a lot of diligence and patience when looking into whether you can open a successful space. The first 'must do' therefore involves doing research and there are no shortcuts or cheat sheets if you’re thinking about creating a new workspace.
Read as much as you can online. Good places to start include the coworking wiki and the coworking google group. There are also some great industry publications such as Deskmag, Allwork, and Coworking Insights. Contacting established coworking spaces for tours and general advice is also essential. There are lots of blogs out there from owners, members and even those who run a Jelly (a regular informal coworking meet up). Visiting or arranging a Jelly helps you canvas opinion on whether local people would use a space. Be sure to ask for feedback if you arrange the event. Personally, I’d recommend casually interviewing people over a coffee to get your questions across. It's difficult to get e-mail responses after the event.
Beyond personal meetings, you can send out e-mail questionnaires to local businesses. I lived in London, so the 200-mile commute to Altrincham was a problem which I overcame by using Survey Monkey. Be prepared to send out a lot of hopeful e-mails and expect a low response rate of 10% at best. If you can attach a personal invite, it really helps. Busy people have an aversion to spam. I’d recommend a 6-8 multiple choice questionnaire with short, incisive questions. Schedule these to go out in the early morning on a weekday to optimise responses.
My favoured approach remains attending local networking events and getting to know business people in your area. Despite the long commute, I found this to be an extremely valuable method of research for altspace. The supportive networking groups in South Manchester gave me a lot of time and faith. They’ve collectively taught me so much over the last 24 months too. I’ve met some amazing people from inventors and artisan makers through to management consultants who’ve all helped better define my approach. If you’re interested and engaged with local businesses, it will greatly assist your early business planning.
I'm an advocate of doing every job that I can safely do before I consider paying others. When starting up a space, it’s important to learn as you go. You’ll have to work really hard, doing some frankly terrible jobs. I missed the delivery man when my desks arrived and had to transport all of the flat packs from the street to the second floor before assembling them. My role currently involves cleaning, serving guests refreshment at all events, managing bookings, marketing, promotions and until just recently, doing all the invoicing too.
When looking for suitable space, I’ve had to learn a lot about commercial property, contracts, and insurance. This is detailed and specialised work. Ideally, I’d have learned the theory before I searched for space. You can pay for professional help but I wanted to understand the processes, so I crammed in a lot of work prior to the negotiation with the landlord.
Even with a big promotional campaign, it will take time for people to take note of your business and find you. Make use of this time or risk months of slow boredom watching your twitter feed and mail box. Some of the things I did include:
- Organising events in the space
- Handing out flyers
- Meeting my neighbours and the wider community
- Operating another business and doing contract work
In the early days when you have a lovely shiny new office it can be soul destroying on quiet days. Initially, I offered free trial days at the space and hoped that would be enough to build momentum. My logic was that if I illustrated the benefits, people will return and pay for the service. In reality, this doesn’t happen, so don’t be offended. You might have a great chat with potential members and feel they are a perfect fit for the space only not to see them again and not get any feedback.
Coworking isn’t for everyone. Just because we are evangelical about the scene, lots of people still prefer a coffee shop or home office as a venue. I’ve learned that as with other services you can’t take this business personally. If you set a good impression, you will in time get a good share of returning visitors. When your members start referring people, it’s incredibly rewarding.
One of the biggest dilemmas you’ll face is with setting pricing. There are a myriad of elements to consider, and it’s been a challenge for me setting up in a town without a similar offering. I received some great advice; do not undersell the business and think of the relative pricing in catering and hotels. Our day rate is comparable to a lunch and two coffees in a local cafe. We’re also very central in town and within easy access of the local amenities. This gave me faith to stick to my guns and not discount early on, despite the temptation to. If you have a meal or hotel room in a central spot you’d expect to pay more for the location and convenience. Why would a workspace be any different?
One of my primary motivations in opening altspace involved balancing my lifestyle, so I try to exercise and stay social when not in the office. We talk a lot about sport and have now arranged a cycling event for members. Similarly, we listen to music all day and have now organised our first office gig in town. The workspace you create reflects the culture you build, so make it fun and spontaneous. Easy wins include Thursday or Friday local beers or even having lunch together on occasion. We’re creating spaces that we want our members to enjoy. It should be no different for community managers and coworking founders so remember to enjoy what you do.
This is a guest post by Steve Upham, founder and all-round doer at altspace coworking office, Altringham.