The lesson of long runways is often misinterpreted as an hommage to the have-a-lot-of-money approach to starting a coworking space. After all, the more money you have to start with, the longer your runway will, in fact, be.
That’s only half true.
The reason it’s called the runway concept instead of the have-lots-of-money-concept is due to the other half of the equation: expenses. Keeping costs low or even almost non-existent for as long as possible also extends your runway. Two sides: money (investment, revenue, etc.) and expenses (rent, utilities, staff, etc.).
A bootstrapped coworking space is entirely possible, and to some even more desirable than being fully funded. You don’t give up equity when you bootstrap, you learn a lot when you bootstrap, and sometimes you have more fun.
If you’re bootstrapping, resist the urge to be big. You don’t even need to start with a building, you don’t need to start with fancy furniture, you don’t need to have 20,000 sqft, you don’t need four full-time staff members. In the beginning, it’s fine if it’s just you with 2,000 sqft, Mon-Thurs, and you’re bartending on the weekends to pay for the thing.
To me a bootstrapped space would go something like this:
Start with a small space you can sustainably afford and invest as much time, energy, and resources as possible into how it feels. Coworking spaces are much more about how a person feels when they are there than the nuts and bolts of desks, chairs, and amenities. Yes, have functional furniture of course, but don’t sacrifice the vibe for anything. Vibe includes people.
Get the most amazing and connected people you actually know to come work and hang out there. Not for money, just for fun, for a while.
People beget more people. Ever been to an empty coworking space? Depressing.
Take great pictures that tell the story of your space. Every social gathering and every project produced becomes a new chapter in that story. Create an alluring image; something people want to actually be a part of.
At some point, it’s time for people to pay. Start with newcomers who want to connect to the vibe you’ve built.
Treat every new member as if they were your best friend. After all, you just allowed them into your exclusive club, so they better be pretty awesome. This will keep them coming back and bragging to others about it.
Once filled, ask your founding members if they can start contributing each month to help cover costs. Chances are, they probably will after all the good will you’ve shown them. Maybe they get a discount for being there from the beginning.
Find a new location when you outgrow the old one.