For the last ten years, Ivan Lopez Garrido has been the Community Manager at Republikken, the first-ever coworking space in Copenhagen, Denmark. In that time, Republikken has been through many changes and expansions, giving Ivan a front-row seat to the challenges that come with this rapidly changing industry. In this interview, Ivan takes us through some of those challenges, how the team at Republikken overcame them and teaches us valuable lessons that come from trial and error.
Coworking was not well known in Copenhagen back in 2008–2009, nor was it in most of the world. But for some, the early introduction to coworking was fated. And Ivan was one of those lucky few.
"After university, I was working as a copywriter," Ivan said. "I not sure if I was really good at it because I hated it so much. I was so lonely, and I was just thinking, ‘Damn. I need to work with people."
He didn’t know what job that would be, just that he needed a change.
So he spoke with a friend of his, a graphic designer working from Republikken. She recommended that Ivan speak with the guys who ran Republikken because working with them would give Ivan what he so desperately wanted: community.
"She set it up, and I met Emil," Ivan said. It turns out, Emil was coincidentally thinking of hiring their first employee ever. That meeting would be the beginning of a decade-long journey into the ever-evolving world of coworking, complete with its share of challenges and opportunities.
This story isn’t uncommon. People get into coworking for all sorts of reasons, but one of the most common stories is that of things falling into place out of a desire to connect to other people. The intention is set, the stars align, and suddenly you find yourself organizing a community of hundreds of amazing people.
When Ivan started at Republikken, the space was only 800m2, and the team was just beginning to think about expansion. The vibe was becoming more professional as more founders, creatives, and ideators were joining the space.
Within two months at Republikken, Ivan took over all community management and sales. It was a good move as, in the beginning, the founders were too keen to make deals with anybody that wanted to join. Ivan instituted a lot more structure, boosting the profitability of each member.
Ivan also built a mega-spreadsheet that’s, strangely enough, still running Republikken to this day, even after the team tried out several coworking management systems. “It’s the golden spreadsheet… of hell,” Ivan laughed.
It's surprising to see a space of this size still operating on a spreadsheet, but it goes to show that it can be done. Many coworking platforms have come up short in recent years and that there's always more work to be done to make platforms better. For example, at Habu, we've spent much of the last two years adding incredible new features that allow coworking spaces to almost entirely automate member signup and billing, plus a host of other beneficial features.
Perhaps Ivan will give software another go soon, but until then, the “golden spreadsheet of hell” reigns supreme at Republikken.
Ivan and his team have tried a lot of experiments over the years, some successful and some not. If you can think of it, they’ve probably tried it.
“I’ve been through building teams, getting rid of teams,” Ivan said. “I’ve been through building new ideas, new business plans and getting rid of parts of the business plans that didn’t work. Making decisions that are positive, but also hard.”
Flipping the Cafe on Its Head
One of the biggest challenges the team had needed to overcome happened when they expanded into an adjacent space. The new space had previously been a hairdressing school, which meant it required a lot of renovations to be suitable for Republikken.
But, under a tight deadline and a limited budget, the team managed to pull it off. They opted to turn the new space into a cafe just in time for the Minister of Culture for Copenhagen to perform the official opening ceremony.
However, the team was in for a big surprise.
“We didn’t have any experience running a cafe,” Ivan said. “We didn’t know how to do checks and balances. We didn’t even know what to search on google.” The team spent three years trying to make the cafe and kitchen work, but instead of success, they watched money evaporate before their very eyes.
What’s more, the cafe guests and the members weren’t meshing well. Cafe guests who arrived during the lunch rush were noisy, often talking about their personal lives while nearby coworking members were trying to have meetings or complete important projects.
They needed a way out, a way to turn this lousy move into something positive.
“The first thing we did was get rid of our event space,” Ivan said. “We subleased it. Then we did the same thing with the kitchen.” The team tried to do the same thing with the cafe and found somebody to take it over, but the subtenant only stuck around for half a year before pulling out.
Obviously, the cafe still wasn't working, and a critical decision needed to be made. So the team opted to shut the cafe down and turn it into a dedicated members' space. And vital to this story, they kept the cafe equipment.
That meant that members could make their own coffee and enjoy the cafe vibe, but were no longer distracted by the cafe guests. "We turned it into a DIY cafe," Ivan said. "A cafe for entrepreneurs."
Two great things came from this approach: a more productive and work-focused environment, but also that members would connect more as they learned how to use the espresso machine and made coffee every day.
From personal experience, I can tell you that the result is marvelous. The space feels productive and professional, but still has that cozy cafe feel, complete with the ambient noise of the coffee grinder, a little music, and light chatter.
“The coffee is always included in the membership,” Ivan said. “And now everyone comes to use the space for what it was intended for in the first place.”
Putting Members to Work
With all that latent talent sitting around the space, it was only a matter of time until somebody thought about putting the members to work.
The Republikken team did just that by starting an agency, where members would be utilized to work on client projects. The idea was that this would create a win-win situation where Republikken could generate more revenue and members could get more work. (Coincidentally, I’d met the founder of Atolye while on this trip in Copenhagen. Atolye is a workspace in Istanbul that seems to have nailed down the agency-coworking model.)
However, it didn’t work out so well for Republikken.
"The members were not too happy," Ivan said. "Sometimes we were the landlord of the place, and sometimes we shifted, and we were their bosses. That made some of the members insecure." Needless to say, they ditched the agency.
Ivan's learned a lot from these experiences. "I would not pursue an idea or business idea if we weren't partnered up with someone who was passionate about the idea and also had experience. For example, I was doing events at one point, and it didn't make sense. I am the people guy. You need someone who is jazzed about the idea of booking the conference, getting the numbers up, and not just focusing on the idea, and it makes them happy. I've seen people get a rush out of it."
Ivan now knows something critical about coworking success: focus on what you’re good at and what moves you. Everything else is a distraction.
It’s clear from Republikken’s example that failing at an endeavor is fine, so long as the fallout isn't devastating and you learn from the mistake.
In fact, it’s the only way Republikken has survived and thrived for so long. The team focuses on mitigating risk, experimenting, and correcting course when things aren’t working.
Republikken is now over 3,000m2 with more than 200 members. And, after all the lessons they've learned, they're getting back to basics. The team is currently hard at work, focusing on all their attention on connecting members to one another and turning Republikken into an even better home for their community.
Marketing Director at Habu, founder at Coworking Insights, coworking maven, digital nomad, lover of wine & tacos.