When I was thinking of setting up a coworking facility back in 2011, one of the things that came up on the the coworking Google Group (a worldwide group), was that if you were going to start a coworking space you need to form your community. FIRST.
I had no idea about how to do that, and the idea of starting a business with the customers first, before you even create the business, was entirely new. Having now done that with Convivium Coworking, I now wonder how ANYONE starts a business without creating their customer community first.
So many businesses fall into the “build it and they will come” trap. They create a product that they think the whole world will want and then try to force it on a world that doesn’t know that they even need it. This method is totally the opposite – it is find your customers first, spend a whole lot of time with them – I spent nine months just talking to my customers and building my customer community before I ever looked at a physical space or formed an LLC, or any of that.
We started off by meeting in local restaurants and people bought their laptops with them (though we spent most of the time chatting), and some of those people ended up coworking and some of them didn’t. I asked them lots and lots of questions so that I could find out what they needed and what they wanted. Listening to what’s needed and wanted – by your target customer – not your friends or family – is crucial. There was so much that became clear over those months of talking to them that I never would have even dreamed of if I had just gone off and started the business with what I thought people needed and wanted.
For example, if I had just gone with what I thought people would have wanted I would have spent a ton of money on furniture for the space – it would been beautiful, looked amazing, but probably would have been totally unworkable for the community. Instead, I have only been adding furniture as the community needs and wants it and they get to basically pick it out. So we ended up with desks on wheels, that flip up and store easily because the space needs to be reconfigurable for events etc, something I would not have thought of in advance.
The community came up with a need for a place to take phone calls – the small conference room was getting too booked up and busy, so the community came up with a design for moveable, sound-proof cube – which we call call “The Cube of Silence” – and they got together over a weekend and built it. It was not only an opportunity to provide the members with what they wanted, but it was also an opportunity for the members to get together as a community and accomplish a goal – and that in itself is an important part of community building.
How you know when your community is really starting to gel and be successful is when they start working with each other, more than just with you. That is really a sign that your community is moving to a new level of maturity. So even if your community isn’y physically together, it is when they start talking to each other you know you have really got something going.
To find those first couple of people to start the process off I looked to the people I already knew, and who also happened to be part of my target community. The important part was that I reached out to them one-on-one and invited them to lunch and asked them whether they would be willing to sit down and talk with me about what their needs were as a person who works from home, would they listen to my ideas and if they liked it they could become one the founding members and really help shape what the end result would finally become.
The first few people are the most important, because they are going to drive everything about this business. And sure enough, that’s what happened. Gradually, the group grew from one or two to, four, five and eventually we had a group of a dozen people who would meet pretty consistently, we started to get a feel for what people wanted to happen at our weekly meetings – I pretty much let them run with it. I’d send out the email announcements and then I’d let the community take it from there.
When it came to choosing the space I found four or five places that fitted the criteria that the community had already said they wanted and then invited them to look at each to see which one suited them best. And that’s how I ended up choosing the space we are currently in. It was totally the choice of the community who were going to be using the space.
It is a long process and you can’t lose heart. You have to keep going and nourish the community and stay with it. But track your results, because there are going to be some things you try that are never going to produce the results and you need to know that.
But one thing I was clear about from the start, even when it was only one or two people, I was that I was going to nourish the community I had – not get sucked into spending all my time looking for new members and end up ignoring the people I already had. Your community is everything so you need to make them your priority, and then you will attract people wanting to be part of that community because it is so great and happening.
People ask me what happens when you get someone join who you don’t think is a good fit for the group. But if you let the community act organically that problem will sort itself out – you find that if someone isn’t a good fit with the group they will feel it they almost always self select out – they just stop coming.
The key is that for everyone who has come to Convivium and participates in the community, everyone has found that they have benefited both personally and in terms of their business. Everyone wants to belong – they want to feel like they are part of something. An that’s what they get as part of our community.
Guest: Deborah Reese – Founder and Catalyst at Convivium Coworking in Albuquerque, NM
A master at offline community building, a believer in all things ‘Local’, the collaborative economy in general and coworking in particular, surrounding herself with other independent professionals, creating authentic long-term relationships, and freely collaborating.
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