This is one article in a series about my experience over as a digital nomad while working in the coworking industry. In it we look at the issue of product expectation management, focusing as a competitive advantage, and coworking staff development through the lens of coworking management software. This article first appeared on Coworker.com.
I celebrated my first digital nomad anniversary on October 14th, 2017. One year previous, I flew from New York City to London, to begin working at Habu. And I officially became a (drumroll please) digital nomad.
I joined the Habu team because of the impressive technology behind it. Even at that early stage, the product had a great tech stack. But more than anything, it was the team’s commitment to simplicity and speed that I loved. Habu was one of the newer, dedicated coworking management tools built to handle nearly everything from member sign up to monthly billing to space access, and these days it does it beautifully.
I’m lucky to have contributed some to the direction of the product because of my experience in both managing and consulting coworking spaces in the United States. I think that my contributions to the product have helped make Habu fantastically easy to use for automating critical aspects of a coworking space’s daily and monthly administration.
It goes almost without saying that our team regularly speaks with coworking founders and manager all over the world, from Sydney to Copenhagen and Sofia to Jakarta. We’ve had just about every conversation you can have about software and coworking. And in all that time I’ve come to one major conclusion: coworking managers need more technical experience and technological proficiency.
Despite how intuitively we’ve designed Habu, and the praise we continually get praise from our customers for our platform’s user experience, what continues to surprise me are the high expectations about what software should do for coworking space managers. A fellow coworking-thought leader once told me;
“coworking managers expect the moon, and they don’t want to pay for it.”
In my experience at Habu, this has at least a few grains of truth in it. And I’m confident in saying that this is partly due to a lack of technical proficiency and technological expertise by some coworking managers and founders.
Because coworking founders and managers are often generalists in their coworking roles and therefore can be under-experienced with management technology, they end up implementing a wide range of questionably-suited tools and systems for things like recurring billing, resource management, access control, networking & wifi, power management, and more. This makes the average coworking space a minefield of technological SPOFs (single points of failure), places where if one thing fails the entire system goes into disarray. What’s more, navigating the technology stack of the average coworking space is a veritable maze of logins, passwords, Zapier plugins, and Google documents.
It's my belief that this is because many new indie spaces are often managed by founder(s) or entry-level employees who have yet to use lots of the tech that would be useful in a coworking space. Sure, they’re likely familiar with standard desktop applications like Excel, Keynote, or Photoshop; tools that have been under development for a decade +. They’ve probably utilized platforms like Spotify, Netflix, or some VPN service. On the rare occasion, they might have used something like Asana or Trello for project management. They’ve also probably used a keycard access system, but have never implemented one. In short, their experience with managing coworking-related tech is rather slim.
This means three significant things:
(1) coworking managers expect software to do things it shouldn’t,
(2) most coworking management tools are severely fractured, and
(3) that coworking founders should invest heavily in technological skill development for themselves and their employees in order to make their lives easier, gain a competitive advantage, or a bit of both.
Excel is excellent at showing large amounts of data in its rawest form and at providing ancillary tools to work with that data. It’s neither a word processor nor an out-of-the-box data visualizer. Photoshop is, at least to some, a great photo manipulation tool. It is not for making fantastic vector graphics or editing videos. Asana is great for particular kinds of project management, but it utterly fails at tracking expenses or billable hours for employees. And this makes sense. You don’t expect these tools to do everything.
However, when it comes to coworking management software, often coworking managers believe the tool should run their entire coworking business so that they don’t have to do much of anything. At the risk of sounding harsh, this is ridiculous because it’s impossible. A tool just cannot be great at handling billing administration, resource management, creating social connections, access control, accounting, business intelligence, and point-of-sale transactions. What’s more, any given space will run each of these administrative tasks differently. It’s unrealistic to expect that any tool do all of this with complete flexibility, without becoming overly complicated. Therefore it’s silly to build a platform that does all of these things. However, that doesn’t stop some coworking software companies from trying.
This is why so many coworking management platforms are fractured, with mountains of technical and design debt. If they want to redesign their user interface, they risk alienating all the customers they already have. In order to rewrite their codebase to be faster and easier so that their developers can build quicker, they need to dedicate valuable resources that could be spent on adding new features to their existing codebase or on marketing and sales.
This is what I’ve loved about working with Habu. We don’t aim to be everything for everybody. We strive to be great at the things we do, so we spend the time that’s needed to make those things as good as they can be, for now, before we move onto new features. This sometimes means we develop features at a slower pace, but it also means we do a lot less rewriting.
I'm definitely biased. But I'm also coming at this from a highly informed perspective. I’ve implemented many different coworking platforms for coworking spaces over the past several years and I wrote a 125-page guide dissecting 14 platforms in Summer 2016, before working for Habu. I’ve seen coworking managers switch platforms up to four times because they are continually dissatisfied with whatever they pick. And it all has to do with fractured products and expectations.
Coworking managers that want to stop being frustrated about technology need to understand the limitations of technology and become more familiar with modern tools. Ten years ago you would have had to manage your space with a dozen tools or more. Or have a budget of $70k a year for one piece of software! These days we’re all pretty fortunate that we only have to use a handful of tools to manage our workspaces. And it’s going to take time for coworking software platforms to become as mature and fully-featured as the 20-plus-year-old tools we grew up with.
In the meantime, coworking founders and managers can become more technologically proficient by experimenting with new tools, taking online courses, and hiring people onto their teams with above average technical skills. Once that’s in place, working to both codify and disseminate that knowledge across the organization becomes simple.
Having a better handle on technology ensures you can create more seamless member experiences. It means using the various tools you have that manage systems within your space will become easier and faster. And perhaps most important of all, it will help you recognize what tools you should use to perform specific tasks and which tools you need to dump because they are trying to be too many things for too many people!
This is article 2 of 4 in a series about my experience over the last year as a digital nomad working in the coworking industry. Here are the other articles:
Marketing Director, founder at Coworking Insights, coworking maven, digital nomad, lover of wine & tacos.