What Happens When Coworking Spaces Stop Competing?

Coworking spaces can be a lot of different things depending on where they are and the community they exist to serve. Some are startup incubators or event centers, while others are hubs for all types of sharing. Some coworking spaces are free, though most charge monthly membership fees. 

No matter what shape or size, the mission of most coworking spaces is the same: to facilitate collaboration and success among a community of talented people who believe they are better when working in close proximity with their peers.

What's funny is that coworking spaces sometimes forget to excercise this mantra of openess and sharing when formulating their own business plan. As coworking becomes more popular, multiple spaces may crop up in the same town, neighborhood, or maybe even on the same street. Owners and community managers sometimes view these newcomers as competition, their constant questions an annoyance. It's natural to want to "protect one's turf," after all, most space owners gained success through a hard process of trial and error. But these reservations just don't make sense for a style of work based on tearing down walls and collaborating with those around you.

At the 2012 Global Coworking Unconference Conference I had the pleasure of sitting in on a discussion about the value of regional coworking alliances. Over the past few years, we've seen coworking spaces band together to provide mutual support, host events, or provide additional benefits for members. 

One statement by a coworking space owner seemed to resonate with the group. He pointed out that coworking spaces don't need to view each other as competitors. Their biggest competition is the home office, the executive suite, and the coffee shop. Working together to educate the community about the benefits of collaborative work is the best way for all coworking spaces to grow and prosper.

The Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance is a great example of what can happen when people stop competing and join forces instead. Formerly known as Coworking Seattle, the group consists of a handful of volunteers from Office Nomads, The Maple Leaf Branch, Coworking Eastlake, The MillMakersCivicActions, and Jigsaw Renaissance. The name change came about because the group also wanted to embrace maker, hacker, artist or any group that may share the same core concept of collaboration within a shared space.

Participants provide a support system for new owners, collaborate on events that encourage socialization between members of different spaces, and share the responsibility of educating Seattleites about the world of coworking.

"I found out about the Seattle group and knew I had to participate, so I plugged in right away," said Ryan Murphy of Coworking Eastlake. "I wanted to learn and understand what I was already getting myself into, I wanted to feel out how this group interacted without being competitive, and lastly I didn’t want to miss out on any opportunities or potential benefits the group might be able to provide my space."

The group has developed in a very organic, low-pressure way, but they do have some goals they'd like to achieve as a family of spaces.

"We are looking at 3 primary areas: Supporting folks who want to open, or have just opened, a collaborative space in the area; assisting members of existing spaces with worthwhile projects; and helping spaces invest in tools and projects that will further the culture of collaborative consumption as a whole," said Chelsea McClain, a volunteer from Office Nomads. "We are still figuring out what kind of help we will offer but funding and organizational support are definitely part of the picture."

Are you an established coworking space owner wondering how to take your community to the next level? Are you tired of having to answer the same "what's coworking?" question for everyone you meet? Are you new to the world of coworking, and looking for a way to connect with and learn from the larger community?

A regional coworking alliance might be for you!

Here's some advice from Seattle for those who might like to start or join a coworking alliance in their area:

1. Free Your Mind, And Collaboration Will Follow

Letting go of the idea that other businesses with a similar model are your competition can be difficult, but it's necessary to access to power of collaboration that makes coworking such an attractive alternative.

"...the future is not in competing with each other, it’s in collaborating with each other the exact same way that you encourage your members to collaborate with each other," says Murphy. "Think about it...what additional opportunities to share events, resources and networking appear when you shed the boundaries of your walls the same way you encourage your coworking members to shed the boundaries of their cubicles? If you isolate yourself from a collective of coworking spaces, you are isolating your members as well. As a coworker, would you rather join a space that was involved in the movement and gave you additional opportunities to collaborate with a wider network of people, or a space that saw all other spaces as competition, leading to a culture of isolation and ego (“our space is superior to theirs, our members are better, we have a better mission, etc. etc.”)?

2. Stop, Drop, and Organize

Hanging out and chatting is fun, but that's not going to get much accomplished. Talk with other coworking spaces about the best way to structure regular meetings so that time will be spent working toward and achieving goals set by the group. Meetup and a Google Group were two tools that helped the Seattle spaces used to find interested participants, schedule meetings, identify goals, and discuss issues, and since they're free, these tools could work for your collective as well. Then devise a plan for how to stay on tract when you get together. "We meet for the first hour with structure, and the 2nd hour as social, so we still keep an element of open discussion while also being able to add the necessary structure we were lacking before. It also keeps the momentum we had for anyone to show up and participate instead of only the same board members each time," says Murphy.

3. Defend Against The Idea Machine

This may sound counterintuitive in the coworking environment, but the job of an organization like this is to set focused goals based only on what matters most to the organization, and ACHIEVING THEM. Most people come to meetings full of ideas. But what's really important to the owners, members, and larger community? What will help spread the word about coworking while helping individual members to be more successful, productive, and happy?

"You can throw the spaghetti of ideas against the wall when you are coming up with your top priorities, but afterwards, defend against idea spam that may take you off course until you have achieved your top priorities and are ready to refresh your priority list," advises Murphy.

4. Talk To Each Other

Remember that you're all on the same team, and actively cultivate a sense of community between spaces. "There are enough folks looking for coworking space and enough variety between spaces that there's room for everyone," points out McClain. "We have to remember to work collaboratively between spaces as well as within them. For example, whenever we hear about a new space in Seattle, we reach out to them, welcome them and try to visit to show our support. They don't all want to participate to the same degree, but I think it really helps to set a supportive tone right off the bat. We also send each other leads and recommend other spaces to members who are looking for something other than what Office Nomads offers."

5. Share Your Smarts

This whole sharing/collaborating/community building thing doesn't work unless people show up. Participate for the sake of participating. If you are unsure of the value you will get, try to have faith and allow yourself to believe that it will be worthwhile.

"Participating helped me understand better what the coworking movement was all about, which in turn helped me understand my own business and space a little better," said Murphy. "I was able to ask probing questions and see other space set ups to help me figure out my own thought process and decisions. I had a lot of questions, but as I did my own research and exploration, I found that I started coming up with some answers that I could also contribute back."

Bonus! Get online.

Some would argue that if you're not online, you're nowhere. The Seattle group purchased the domain www.collaborativespaces.org, but then started thinking that it’s possible other cities/areas may want to utilize the same concept. So, in the true spirit of sharing, they'll be moving their site to a sub-domain (seattle.collaborativespaces.org) and allow other groups to utilize a collaborative spaces sub-domain for their region, if they want. "We don’t know yet exactly where this will lead," says Murphy, "but anyone interested can inquire at info@collaborativespaces.org."

Has your coworking space made an effort to collaborate with other businesses or organizations in the area? Tell us about it in the comments!

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