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Community is Not the Panacea

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Don’t get me wrong. I love community. I think what Alex Hillman writes is fantastic and inspiring. My latest friend in the coworking world, Jenny Feinberg, has built an amazing community at Makespace and I was delighted to be a part of it yesterday.

There are two assumptions behind my criticism of community as a strategy:

  1. It is often the only strategy. People endlessly pursue community sacrificing space quality, great staff, sound policies, and beneficial amenities.
  2. It is often poorly executed

Community as the Only Strategy

At the end of the day, even what Jenny is building is a business. Without good management and a friendly staff it would fail. She takes a community-centric approach to many of her decisions and it’s visible from the way she conducts herself in front of the community, but she still knows it’s a business. At the end of the day the numbers make sense or they don’t.

If your business strategy relies solely on community you will absolutely fail. I guarantee it.

Poor Execution

This gets back to the “unsupported claims” idea. Just as you shouldn’t put false claims on your website, you should never claim you have a community when you don’t. Many founders believe the community just shows up and the truth is it doesn’t.

Most coworking space founders falsely believe the community (a) builds itself, (b) is investing or should invest as much as they are (time, energy, even money), and (c) will create a resilience that can overcome poor business practices. The truth is the community often doesn’t exist yet, is here for themselves (not you), and will run when they see deception or poor resource management. The community is a precious byproduct of your actions that can be used to create exponential results and resilience but if over-exploited or under-resourced it will fall apart.

As a leader you must form the community yourself by bringing the initial often-hard-to-find individuals together to create it, one or two at a time (tedious, I know). You will hit a critical mass whereupon your tactics will change and you’ll focus more on the whole of the community as opposed to individuals. However, this initial focus on the people who show up is critical. Revere their early participation and you’ll enjoy a better chance at success.

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I plan to chat with Jenny more about her earlier days, but I can tell you what I bet I’ll find: meticulous curation, reverence for the early supporters, and activities that enabled and expanded the individuals in her community. I do not expect I’ll find that she idly sat by hoping the community would build itself.

To bring this all home I want to call out all the folks saying that coworking is ALL about community. I wholeheartedly disagree. It is about the convergence of community, autonomy, flexibility, mastery, purpose, comfort, and some sort of “manufactured serendipity”. It’s about a lot more than any sense of community could ever provide.

So yes, make community a priority, but take the rest of your coworking endeavor seriously. Otherwise your community will never call your space home. Focus on the whole thing, even on the hard things, and you’ll not only enjoy success, but perhaps you’ll even make a difference in the world.

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