20 September 2010 ~ 3 Comments

5 tips to start a coworking community

A few months ago, I decided that Beijing really needed a coworking location, and I would be the one to build it.  I immediately started to look at office leases here and quickly became discouraged because of the extremely high cost.  At the same time, however, I’d been reading  about lean startup techniques and customer development for my own startup.  Lean startups focus on ensuring product-market fit before investing a lot of resources, so I decided to apply some of these ideas to my coworking project.  I’m glad I did, because they forced me to slow down and saved me from making an expensive mistake.

If you’re also starting a coworking space and would like to know how I’m starting small and building up, here is the process I’ve used so far:

1. First, you have to find out who in your area is interested in coworking and what they are looking for.  I set up a free survey on Wufoo.com to ask some simple questions and so I would have a link that I could forward people to.

In my opinion, the most important questions here are ‘Why are you interested in coworking?’, ‘Where would you like us to be located?’, and ‘What’s your email address/name?’.  These tell you who what types of people will form the core of your community, where they are, and how to contact them.  I also asked a lot of other questions including ‘How often would you want to work at a coworking space?’, and how important each of a whole list of possible amenities would be.

One mistake I made on this survey is that I asked about price in a multiple choice question – everyone chose the least expensive option.  A better way to ask the same question would be to only ask ‘Would you be willing to pay $X per day/month?’  The best would probably be to randomize the price that gets shown to people, so you can tell when people actually start to hesitate.

You can see my whole survey here: http://mpdaugherty.wufoo.com/forms/beijing-coworking/.

2.  In order to get answers, you need to start distributing your survey, so start by thinking about where you think potential coworking are hanging out now. Twitter can work if you get someone with a lot of followers to retweet, but coworking is very local, so other techniques might work best for you.  If you just start talking to people at coffee shops and events, you’ll probably find a lot of people who are interested.  Get their contact info and follow up by sending them a link to your survey.  If you want to spend money, you can also put up an adsense campaign for things like ‘<name of city> coworking’ ‘<name of city> shared office’.  This has the added advantage of letting you know how actively people in your area are looking for coworkiing.

3.  You can’t have too much context on a survey, so put up some blog posts as well. Especially if your area doesn’t have anything coworking related, it should be easy to start ranking highly for important keywords.  This is much cheaper than an advertising campaign if it works.  Make sure your survey and your blog link to each other; you wouldn’t want people who come to the blog to not be able to find your survey.

4.  As soon as you have some responses, you should start an email list. I use MailChimp to manage mine, and it’s really easy.  This is far better than BCCing people on emails like I did at first.  For one thing, it gives people an easy way to opt-out just by clicking a link in your email.  Another is that you can keep track of how many people are reading your newsletter and manage your users easily.  I now automatically add people to an ‘important updates’ email list; basically, I’ll email them when we’re about to officially open.

5.  Once you’ve done all these easy steps and have found a few interested people, think about the minimum, most valuable part of what you are offering – generally, that is the community that you want to build. You should see if there’s a way to get people hooked on that without needing to invest in real estate immediately.  For me, this is getting people to work together informally.  I have a second email list for people who want to start working together right away.  I actually think Google Groups might be a better option for this step because it supports discussions, but that’s blocked in China, so I can’t use it here.

There are lots of coffee shops in Beijing, so every week I decide where I’ll work each day and send out an email on Sunday evening.  This has been really helpful in getting community around this idea and we can also start appreciating the benefits of working together sooner.  In person, you have much more in-depth conversations with people and gauge their interest better, so maybe you can even find some of them who are really excited and can help by suggesting locations, paying for a month in advance, etc.

If the coffee shops in your city aren’t very good for working, maybe you can find some other way to begin creating the community.  Perhaps get people together for dinner or run a jelly in your apartment every once in a while.

Right now, this is where I am in Beijing.  My next step is to look again at places to rent.  Two or three people who have been participating in our informal coworking group have already said they’d like to be core members in the beginning.  Unlike when I first looked at offices, I think I’m going to concentrate on finding an apartment to convert – these are generally smaller and less expensive, with more flexible leases, so three people is already enough to make the cost per person very reasonable.  Boston’s Betahouse also works out of an apartment, and it was great to visit.  It’s relatively small, but everyone is productive and there’s a very strong community, which is exactly what I’d like here.

I hope that if you’re considering starting a coworking location, some of these tips will be useful to you as well.

If you’d like to read more about coworking in Beijing, feel free to check out my blog at http://blog.mpdaugherty.com.

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