What We Can Learn From Coffee Shops
Recently I decided to relocate back to the Mountain West temporarily, to the city I was raised in, the city where I built my first community. One might find this decision counter-intuitive. Why leave New York City where there’s such a high density of coworking spaces? There are many reasons, mostly to do with quicker access to the rest of the United States for work purposes, but one of the biggest reasons has to do with that first community.
In a city like this, it’s quite likely you’ll see a few people you know while wandering around the downtown area throughout the day (it’s not very big; a few square miles at most).
Just about every morning, at around the same time, I go to the same coffee shop. The barista has learned my name by now, even though it’s only been a week.
At the coffee shop, there’s about a 70% chance of running into my old co-conspirator from my Impact Hub days. He’s typically working on some project or shooting off a few emails. He says he’s more productive there. (Let’s be honest, do any operators actually get work done in their space?) We chat for a while, about coworking, about his business, and about our lives in general. We connect on a professional and personal level.
The shop is always buzzing, but never too crowded. You usually see the same people there, chatting and relaxing, working and reading. The place has a good vibe. The kind of vibe you want from a good coffee shop. The kind of vibe that makes you feel at once comfortable and energized.
As coworking operators we talk a lot about the coffee shop. We say how uncomfortable it is. We talk about the lack of amenities and slow wifi. We claim to be better than the coffee shop. And in many cases we are. But what I’m interested in talking about are the cases when we’re not.
My morning coffee shop doesn’t even offer wifi, and yet people go there to work (utilizing the data on their iPhones), even though there are 5 coworking spaces within a mile of the location, even though there are other coffee shops with wifi nearby. The shop doesn’t provide comfortable furniture and the menu items are actually rather expensive, albeit delicious.
What’s going on here?
What’s going on is that in an attempt to create a great coffee house and gathering space, The Rose Est. inadvertently created much of the things people look for in an ideal coworking space. They baked community in by opting out of wifi, so people would talk. They designed the space with character, and have changed the layout several times to accommodate their changing business and the use of their customers. The people who work there are great; people you’d even want to hang out with if asking your barista to be friends wasn’t so awkward.
Coworking spaces bent on converting coffee-shop workers to coworkers often overlook the things that actually make a coffee shop ideal to work within. They opt for nice furniture, fast wifi, and a professional-grade access control system, but lose all sense of vibrancy and charm. They design spaces that feel contrived instead of molding them to fit the needs of their ever-changing tribe. They create community-building protocols and systems instead of treating members like humans who just want to connect authentically.
I believe we need to go back to first principles here, as Aristotle advised. What is the whole point of your coworking space anyway? If, as many claim, it’s about community, collaboration, and connection then I propose that the traditional coffee shop is that first principle. In fact, in the 16th and 17th centuries, coffee houses originally arose as a place for lively conversation, political debate, and the exchange of new ideas. And that largely hasn’t changed.
Ultimately it’s not very productive to try to convince coffee-shop workers that your space is better than a coffee shop if you don’t understand why they congregate there in the first place. No amount of business cards, or free day passes will have much affect because in many cases your space just isn’t a better place to work, at least not in the ways your community wants it to be. What is productive is taking the time and energy needed to understand and transplant the vibe from the coffee house into your space with as much care and intent as possible.