During my travels, I try to sit down with coworking leaders any time I can. Lately, I've been recording these conversations. In this video, I talk with Tobias Kremkau, the Head of Coworking at St. Oberholz about collaboration over competition, keeping it simple, and why Tobias' 2018 goal is to make coworking visible.
I was in Berlin recently and had the opportunity to interview Tobias Kremkau. Tobias is the Head of Coworking at St. Oberholz and a renowned speaker at coworking events throughout Europe. He joined the St. Oberholz team over three years ago and has brought his passion for learning and love of coworking culture to the St. Oberholz team, helping them grow and refresh their coworking and cafe business while expanding into new services. As a dedicated member of the German Coworking Federation, Tobias regularly travels to other spaces around Europe to teach and share his coworking knowledge, and learn from other leaders. Tobias is also, impressively enough, a chess master and former beer drinking champion.
St. Oberholz encapsulates the pioneering spirit of Berlin as one of the world’s first coworking spaces. After opening their doors in 2005 as a working cafe, St. Oberholz quickly went on to create dedicated coworking spaces, alongside meeting and team rooms. Now with two beautiful, bustling, and vibrant locations, the team at St. Oberholz regularly consults with Europe’s most innovative companies on incorporating coworking into their organizations and how to open coworking spaces for their customers and employees.
While Tobias and I have had many impactful, in-depth conversations about coworking, I'm delighted to share one of our most insightful discussions for your viewing pleasure.
Below are some of the key highlights from this interview.
It’s a regular thing to see Tobias giving tours of St. Oberholz to would-be coworking founders and organizations interested in coworking. And while a full-scale coworking tour for a large organization comes with a price tag, Tobias makes them available for indie and startup coworking spaces at no cost. And that even goes for other spaces located in Berlin too.
This is due to St. Oberholz's approach to building value for their members based on their niche. Their focus is on being hyper-local, so they have a super relaxed approach to competitors because they know what makes their members tick. The concern that other spaces might ‘poach' their members or ‘steal' their ideas just doesn't worry them "We're interesting because of our community, and our community is our neighborhood. And it's here in the middle of Berlin; a very international neighborhood… and this is something no other space can copy because wherever the other space is, it's a different neighborhood."
Tobias and his team see collaboration as a rising-tides-lift-all-ships type of phenomenon. “There is actually no hard competition in the coworking world,” claims Tobias. “We benefit from every other coworking space that is out there that helps to spread the idea of coworking.” In other words, by working collaboratively with other spaces, the entire market grows, making the opportunity for all spaces greater.
And the benefits of collaboration go both ways. Even for an incredibly experienced and successful space like St. Oberholz, being willing to share their knowledge means they also learn a lot from other founders. "I love to travel," Tobias admitted, "but on the other hand I think I have to travel to visit other coworking spaces because it's still such a young industry. We don't have so many traditions, and we don't have the big books that everybody has to read to understand what coworking is. So, in my opinion, the best thing is still to visit other coworking spaces... [Even though] St. Oberholz is one of the first coworking places in the world, I'm still learning [so much] from younger coworking spaces."
One of the critical lessons Tobias has learned in his time with St. Oberholz is something he wished he'd known in the beginning. And that's to keep it simple which is part of our DNA at Habu.
When Tobias started at St. Oberholz, there were a lot of custom deals with members that he felt obligated to maintain until the member left. In hindsight, Tobias told me he would have been better off ending the deals himself instead of waiting. "I needed like one year to end every single deal and to have it [be] more like ‘there are no special deals anymore'... This cost me a lot of time and a lot of nerves to negotiate with people about a special deal that I didn't want to run anymore, just because the managers before me in this position had a smaller community. I came when we opened the second house, and this was the point where it didn't work out anymore to make special deals."
Another valuable lesson for Tobias and his focus for 2018 is to make coworking visible for people. We all understand the frustration of explaining coworking to people who are experiencing it for the first time. So instead of telling people about coworking, Tobias advises that you use media to make it visible.
Tobias recently completed an Instagram project based on this idea of visibility, called #100CoworkingSpacesDE. Tobias and his team posted photos featuring, as you may have guessed from the name, 100 coworking spaces from Germany.
It's always been my belief that Instagram is one of the most underutilized channels by coworking spaces, which is a shame because it's ideally suited for the coworking industry. Coworking spaces are often eye-catching and lend themselves to highly visual marketing channels that focus on image and video.
The lesson there? Show, don’t tell. 😀
While meeting hundreds of coworking founders over the years, Tobias has noticed a common trend among all of them. They were, at some point, inspired by openness.
“Openness can be really challenging,” Tobias confesses. “So we gave members keys to everything, and it happened that I entered the space on Monday morning and all the tables and chairs were in the corner of the room. And I asked myself, what happened here?! Sometimes I saw it on Instagram what happened in the coworking space on the weekend. Birthday parties, baby parties, cake testing, everything! But nothing was stolen, nothing was damaged. They just didn’t put everything back in the right order.”
I can relate, and I'm sure you can as well. How many times have we found our spaces messed up over the weekend, office supplies misplaced, and meeting rooms left in chaos? It might feel like we need to chastise our members into more respectful behaviour. Maybe. But I think Tobias would let it be.
“I said to myself: okay they used the room without your knowledge, without asking you for permission, but on the other hand they spent their leisure time here. They love this place, which is their working place, so much that they spend their free time here in St. Oberholz. And this felt like a compliment.”
Openness might be scary. It might feel like letting your members run amuck. But the benefit is that you create a second home for them, which will keep them coming back, inviting their friends, and forming an intimate bond with your space, brand, and community.
This interview was one of my favorite interviews in a long time. Tobias is a well of incredible insights. If you haven't met him in person, I suggest you make it a priority for your coworking journey. You definitely won't regret it.
Marketing Director at Habu, founder at Coworking Insights, coworking maven, digital nomad, lover of wine & tacos.