We all hear about successful coworking spaces being built on community. But how do we start building community?
Meagan Slavin of 25N Coworking sat down with the GWA to give insights into creating a supportive, congenial environment within your space — one members want to come back to, one that makes them excited to come to work every day, and one that attracts and retains the members that will make your space great.
Slavin explained that building great community starts long before you open. Prelaunch events, networking activities, and community involvement all contribute to your area knowing not just that your space exists (or will soon exist) but that it is poised to be a hub for productivity and innovation.
“Have as many prelaunch events as you can,” Slavin explained. “Start to network, and host or sponsor certain networking activities for other associations.”
Even if you’re not at the point where you can have events in or centered around your space, Slavin said being involved in helping related groups meet their goals can help you develop the relationships that turn into members and the all-important word-of-mouth marketing. Joining organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and other local business groups, finding ways to get involved, and hosting as many events as possible should begin six months before you open your space — maybe earlier.
If you’re not ready to host events in or focused on your space, research the businesses and entrepreneurs in the area, and brainstorm a list of networking or professional development activities they might like, and start trying to host events that meet those needs. This way, you develop a reputation for your brand as one that identifies needs and serves clients — even before you open the doors to your space.
Hiring your community manager early in the game — several months before opening — also allows them to be involved with these prelaunch activities. Since your community manager will be the face of your space after it opens, it makes sense to position them that way leading up to opening day, Slavin said.
As you start to develop partnerships — both before and after opening — be sure you’re not just focusing on businesses that could give you potential members. Slavin suggested forming partnerships with everyone from dry cleaners to restaurants to local gyms. Ask them to host events for members or offer discounts or perks in exchange for marketing to your members. Partner with local coffee shops through either buying coffee from them and/or developing a discount program that would give the coffee shop more business while also offering an essential perk for members of your space.
“At the end of the day, a coworking space in the middle of the downtown of a community is such a huge benefit to that town,” Slavin explained. “Leverage that.”
Pricing or Structure Operations
Part of a successful community is its ability to adapt to change — and that doesn’t just mean change in size or in membership. Slavin explained that flexibility — especially early on — is just as critical for pricing or structure operations.
“Don't set anything in stone in the beginning,” she said. “Make sure you can make changes easily and quickly. I think it's a big mistake when coworking spaces have so many membership packages and they're so specific and there's no room to wiggle.”
As you develop your sense of your target clientele and design with them in mind, creating some options for that target client can be helpful. It’s important to remember, however, that actual members often turn out to be quite a bit different from who they were (and what they needed) on paper. If you lock yourself in to full-year membership only, punch cards only, etc., then you’ve lost one of the most valuable draws of coworking: the ability to customize based on actual client needs.
“Really try to filter people into only a few different options, but also be a little flexible on that and really listen to people,” Slavin suggested. She said surveys and careful observation and recording of what’s working and what isn’t will be critical to creating a successful community where everyone feels like they are supported.
“At the end of the day, it’s better to get people in your space within the first year instead of being really strict on your guidelines, procedures, and pricing and then having no one,” she said.
In the first two years of 25N Coworking, Slavin said they almost never said no to a potential client. Within reason, she said they were flexible on plans, pricing, and structure in order to get people in.
Design and Structure
Although often overlooked, the design and physical structure of your space is also a huge contributor to the success of the community (or lack thereof). Slavin recommended lightweight, easily movable furniture that can be altered and customized based on changing client needs (especially in the first year when you are really just beginning to learn about those members and their needs).
She also recommended either movable walls or, if that isn’t an option, planning the HVAC, sprinkler, and electrical work on a grid system so that you can easily add walls when needed.
She also stressed the importance of dual use space, such as meeting rooms that can double as offices (and vice versa).
“You never know what's going to work and what's not,” she said. “Be really open. We can always plan ahead and really do a lot of work on the front end of that.”
If a space isn’t selling, change it up. Put in desks or take them out. Survey your members about what they like or dislike about the space and alter accordingly. Don’t let unsold space sit unchanged for more than a month or two, Slavin advised.
“Don't hold on to anything for too long, and don't get too attached to things, because the way that people work changes often, and it's something that we're here to accommodate,” Slavin said. “Even if a space is beautiful in a certain layout, it can certainly be beautiful in a different way, too.”
Member Retention and Acquisition
“Your best clients are the clients that you already have,” Slavin said. While getting new business and members into your space is important, keeping your current members supported and satisfied with the space should always be top priority.
While big things, like design and pricing customization, certainly factor in to client retention, Slavin said the little things are just as meaningful.
“Make sure you have their birthday written down,” Slavin said. “Make sure you know when their daughter's basketball game is. Really engaging in small things is going to make them feel a part of your community and really seal the deal for them.”
If you can build a community that members don’t want to leave, you can focus on recruitment to grow your business, rather than maintain it.
Another key component is helping foster connections among members.
“That's really important to really make a point of [noting] your members' needs from a business standpoint and how you can connect them with each other inside your space,” Slavin said. This function of your space as a connection point for your members can really cement the sense of community into a cohesive whole.
Members can also give you ideas for recruiting through the groups they already affiliate with.
“Pick a few groups current members are involved with, [and] host them for free or host them for next to nothing. Get people in your space,” Slavin stressed. “Join other community associations and get really involved in those. Host fun events and invite the public.”
While marketing, PR, SEO, and Adwords is all really important, Slavin said it’s the community that counts the most.
“At the end of the day, creating a vibe and creating a community is really huge, and we have to let people in the door in order for that to happen,” she said.