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Are you stealing from your community?

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Everybody talks about the importance building community in the coworking industry. It’s the secret ingredient in the coworking cake, the panacea for poor business health, and also the most misunderstood and poorly implemented piece of advice given to would-be coworking leaders.

True, community building has immense value. However, the question we need to ask ourselves when we set out to create, participate in, or lead a community within our coworking spaces is: are we adding value or stealing value?

Adding value actually reinforces the community and makes it stronger. Stealing value, or rather attempting to create community merely for value extraction, deteriorates communities.

But how do you know which you are doing?

Adding Value Looks Like This

  • Hosting gatherings, events, and meetings for the specific niche of people you aim to serve, at any price necessary to ensure they gather in your hub. Even if that price is zero.
  • It’s working with that group to host events and meetings rather than merely unlocking your doors for them.
  • It’s providing the right tools and resources in your space for this group. Tools and resources that enable them to do more and better work.
  • It’s participating in events, gatherings, and initiatives outside of your space which this group is involved in.
  • It’s helping the group grow and attract new members. Not members for your space necessarily.
  • It’s being a committed member of the group first, before being a leader.
  • Similar to the prior point, it’s being okay with being the reliable and effective #2 to support somebody that’s a better and more capable #1.

What’s in it for you?

There are a lot of benefits to this approach, both tangible and intangible.

  • It’s authentic and it feels good. Growing a community should feel this way.
  • Because it’s authentic and feels good it’s less stressful. At least less of the bad kind of stress (distress vs. eustress).
  • It builds trust.
  • You gain knowledge and experience as an insider.
  • It’s the only way to ever be a leader in the community you want to serve.
  • Doing deals, selling memberships, and renting space becomes al lot easier when you have all of these benefits.

What’s the downside?

There are downsides to this approach which are the reasons many avoid adding value to their communities.

  • It’s harder to track results. The financial and business results you want for your space may not appear, at first glance, to be coming from these activities, but they are.
  • It takes time. This is why I advise new coworking founders to have a huge runway and why all coworking advice-givers tell you to do the community building before getting a space.
  • It doesn’t feel like business. Business is supposed to be numbers and spreadsheets and sales and marketing, right? It should feel like work, not like the joy, fun, and excitement you get when you make a genuine impact on a group of people and create meaningful connections. If it feels good, people often think it must not be work, and therefore not worth much.
  • Your boss might not like it. Often, the boss wants you to create value for them, not for the community. Any work or value you create without a tangible result might be seen as preventing the company’s success.
  • You’ll be viewed as an outsider at first. In the beginning, some communities are rather insular. They have their ways of doing things and don’t always want external parties offering to help. After all, you might mess up their vibe. It takes persistence to belong to some communities and being an outsider feels uncomfortable.
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You can’t have the benefits without the downsides, but the alternative is to steal from your community, which gets you nowhere.

How to steal from your community.

  • Host events and meetups for any group that contains persons likely to become members, regardless of topic, niche, or the interest of your existing community (i.e. anybody that can reasonably work from your space and has a bank account).
  • Offer nothing extra of value to the groups you host. Provide them with an empty room and a stack of chairs. Leave the rest up to them.
  • As early as possible, incorporate your most impressive members into your sponsorship materials. You need to show potential sponsors how many cool startups they can reach with their sponsorship dollars.
  • If your members aren’t impressive enough for your sponsor materials, it’s okay to use anybody who’s expressed interested or was ever involved in the space as well. Surely, they won’t mind.
  • Need some extra help around the space? Not to worry. You should expect your members to contribute back to the space with free work such as graphic design, sound and lighting for events, and marketing help. Hell, why not ask them to be a sponsor while you’re at it.
  • When a member’s bike gets stolen due to your faulty security system, cite the membership agreement and theft policy. You shouldn’t be responsible for them not reading the fine print. Besides, who leaves their bike in the office overnight?
  • If a long-time member asks for some leeway because they are moving a few days after your billing cycle, make them feel guilty for not financially supporting the space. They should pay the day pass rate for those days. You’re not a charity.
  • Host events in your space at any time on any day if the money is right. Tell your members to put up with the noise. After all, the space wouldn’t exist without paid events so they should be grateful. Besides, they can have some of the leftover food at the end, if there is any.

What’s in it for you?

  • You get to feel self-important. After all, you’re the benevolent creator of this place. You risked your money and poured your time into it. They should be bowing to your noble efforts!
  • You’ll never be too busy. In fact, you’ll probably have to invent seemingly important things to do to fill your schedule.
  • You’ll live life on the edge. Because people tend not to stick around for long, you’ll constantly be in survival mode. Constantly recruiting new members, hosting any and all forms of paid events, and reluctantly doing custom office build-outs will become your new norm. Anything to keep the lights on.
  • You’ll constantly be meeting new people. With your membership turnover so high, think about all the new people you’ll get to meet!

What’s the downside?

If you’ve made it this far and you’re still curious about the downsides of claiming that you’re building a community when your sole goal is to steal value from it, then I think we’re at an impasse.

Adding value to a community is the only long-term way to win. If you’ve been faking it up until now and stealing from your community, today is the day to change everything.

As my favorite author, Seth Godin, says, “Do something today you’ll be grateful you did a year from now.”


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