Growing Under Pressure

How to get members fast if you’ve gone space-first, instead of community-first.
Ryan Chatterton
July 23, 2018
13 min read
Coworking Essentials

“Build your community before your workspace,” goes the typical advice for new coworking founders. But if you’ve already signed a lease, that ship has set sail. And that’s okay. In this article I’ll tell you how to grow fast when you’re under a deadline.

By far the most common piece of advice doled out to would-be coworking space founders is to “build your community before your space.” It’s excellent advice. And it’s probably the best early stage advice you’ll get. Unfortunately, it often comes too late.

Many coworking founders in their haste and excitement, find themselves going building-first, instead of community-first. But the excitement quickly dissipates with the first rent payment and an empty space. Founders might console themselves by thinking, “I’ll hit the marketing hard and get to break-even within the year. If I can fill it up by then, I’ll be fine.”

This is the starting point I’ll assume for you, dear reader. Stuck in a lease, little to no members, and a mounting feeling of dread as that next rent payment is coming due.

#1: Give It Away

Empty space? Nobody understands your value? Nobody wants to be first to pay? No problem.

Just give it away. If your space is good enough to build, surely it’s good enough to share.

While ultimately your goal is to be sustainable, in the beginning you should set aside some of your financial runway to offer free memberships to help build your base. This simple, yet almost entirely overlooked tactic will multiply the effectiveness of your marketing efforts and have your space full in no time.

Start by identifying influencers, organizations, cool individuals, and great companies that will make your workspace feel alive and build the public image you want. Then give it away. As in, let them work in your space for free.

If you don’t want to be called out for potentially discriminatory practices, make the whole thing a type of scholarship program where individuals can apply and be vetted based on a publicly stated set of criteria. Display it on your website. Make it a thing. This scholarship program can also be a great way to reinforce your branding.

Four things happen when you give it away.

First, and most obviously, your space fills up with people.

Second, regular people start hearing about your community through the grapevine. The cool people you recruit tell their friends, and their friends tell their friends, and momentum starts to build.

Third, your scholarship program creates a sort of scarcity or exclusivity effect, which makes prospects want to be a part of it even more, even if they have to pay.

Finally, when people show up to tour your space and it’s no longer empty, but filled with a buzz, putting their credit card down is that much easier.

Now, the question here is: when do you stop the scholarship program?

Let’s say you’ve filled up the space about halfway with amazing people who pay you no money. My guess is that having only 50% of your base paying you won’t take care of the bills. At least not for most spaces. So there should be a time when you cease these aggressive conversion tactics. And how you end or reduce the program is something you need to think about from the beginning.

So I thought I’d outline a few guidelines for your new freebie/scholarship program thing. Here they are:

  • Criteria: create set criteria for offering free space to people. This is important for keeping a handle on your own brand and so people don’t feel like you’re playing favorites unfairly.
  • Timelines: have a set end date or renewal date for every deal. This ensures you can reduce the number of deals you give in order to rebalance your free vs. paid members down the line.
  • Transparency: make your free members aware of the end date of your mutual deal and let them know that renewal is not guaranteed. In a nice way of course. Be upfront about your goals and your plan to decrease the amount of scholarships in six months or a year. Transparency lets free members know this won’t last forever and possibly keeps them on good behavior.  

I’m of the opinion that you should keep the scholarship program around forever, though scaled back. It can be a great way to attract interesting new people to your space who might not be able to afford the space or who might go to a competitor. Also, it’s a nice way to give back and creates a great content/media opportunity for you.

#2: Get Out of Your Space

Founders that seclude themselves are founders that fail. The most important takeaway you can have from this section is that you and your space don’t exist in isolation. You’re part of an ecosystem made up of your neighborhood, city, surrounding regions, and all the people and businesses within.

Especially when your space is pretty much empty, you and your team should be spending most of your time out in the larger community engaging with those people, organizations, and businesses.

But before you misinterpret my advice and start sneaking into every meetup event with a stack of business cards and free day passes, understand that’s not what I’m advising. Sure, go to meetups and take stacks of free day passes and business cards. But don’t be Dan.

Dan is a great guy. I met him a while back in my home town and he ran a local coworking space. However, Dan did something I consider to be sleazy. He went to another coworking space’s event and handed out business cards and free day passes. I was at that event also, as yet another competitor to the host coworking space, but I wouldn’t dream of handing out promo materials there. And the same goes for every event. Nothing turns off an event organizer more than the guy who shows up only to promote his own agenda. Let’s just say Dan didn’t stay in the coworking biz much longer.

Your goal is to befriend event organizers and community leaders in your area. You want them as allies.

So don’t go spend time outside of your space only to promote yourself and your business. Do it in order to build relationships.

Think about which events you can co-host with other event organizers. Can you volunteer for organizations in your area? How can you help local influencers build their own momentum? Not for anything in return aside from the rapport you automatically get by being of assistance.

Possibly the best book I’ve read along these lines is Thank You Economy by Gary Vaynerchuk. It outlines how basically being a good person is the ticket to influence and ultimately sales/marketing success. He followed that up with a book called Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. Which is to say: give, give, give, ask. Both are must-reads following this article.

In a surprisingly short amount of time, all your contributions to the greater community will make you an invaluable member of it. Which gives you incredible influence and builds an impeccable reputation for you and your affiliations, including your coworking space. What’s more, people love recommending spaces that were created by those they know and trust.

So get out of your space, make friends, be generous, build influence, and use it all to grow your space.

#3: Content, Content, Content

Most spaces get content marketing all wrong. And here are the worst offenses:

  • List articles
  • Articles about why coworking is great
  • Articles about coworking in general
  • Blogs that are poorly maintained (most are)
  • Bad pictures and pictures without people
  • Boring or uninspiring content
  • Not experimenting and utilizing new media
  • Awful social media presence

First up, know this: your prospective members don’t care about you. Nada. Zilch. Zip. They care about themselves. This also means they don’t care about coworking. I know the meta-world of coworking is super interesting to me and you, but for most people it’s just a place they work and sometimes go to happy hours.

Think about restaurants. Diners don’t care about the pan with which the chef cooks their meals, they only care about the quality of the food and experience they have when they enter the dining room.

When it comes to creating content for your coworking brand, your primary goal is to show potential members and partners how their life or work will transform by being associated with your brand.

I’d like to tackle this topic in more depth, but that will have to wait for another time. However, I’ll leave you some quick tips for coworking content marketing:

  • When writing articles, go deep, not wide. List articles might get more clicks, but they aren’t changing anybody’s lives. List articles do not convert.
  • Tell stories. Stories about your members, stories about your community, your city, your neighborhood. Make them riveting. Good stories let potential members know you’re connected with what’s going on around you.
  • Create content for your audience, not for yourself. If you’re building a fintech space, don’t write about why you’re building your space to bring fintech entrepreneurs together and collaborate. Create content that fintech members will find interesting, fresh, and inspiring. And yes, that takes work.
  • Keep your content channels up to date. I usually tell people to never start a blog because most blogs start with good intentions, but then go as cold as an ice cube in Antarctica. You don’t have to have a blog. Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn are great channels for building your brand. Whichever channel you use, keep it alive and energized.
  • Delete all pictures without people in them. Replace them with the opposite. Same goes for poor quality or ugly pictures. Have a diverse mix of excellent photos. Bring your friends in for an hour if you need to. Okay, maybe don't delete all your photos without people, but at least 70% of your photos should have people in them.
  • Don’t produce content for its own sake. Something is only good enough to make if it’s good enough to consume. Uninteresting content isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
  • Experiment with and master new media. Videos, podcasts, Instagram Stories, comics, voice, and VR (someday) are all much more popular than written content. I started experimenting several months ago and the results are phenomenal. Producing these types of media can often be less time consuming than written content. In any case, it’s 2018. It’s time to get with it.
  • Think about the social media content you interact with and that which you swipe past without a thought. If social content existed on a linear spectrum, to which side would your content lean? Study what others are doing that works and adapt your content in turn. Just as with blog content, if it’s not worth consuming, it’s not worth posting.
  • Social media copy is the primary variable to social media success. You’d be surprised how a post on Twitter with a grainy and boring picture can get dozens of likes and click-throughs because the copy was interesting and gave an enticing preview of what’s on the other side. Get good at copywriting or hire somebody who is.
#4: Don’t Forget to Care

This section may be last, but it’s actually more important than all the others.

None of your marketing tactics will be worth much if people show up at your space and you’re an arrogant jerk. Or if the wifi sucks. Or if the chairs suck. Or if anything sucks. Remember that marketing is only about getting people in the door. Marketing is not about conversion or retention.

If you want to convert Looky Lou's into full-fledged members, you have to make the experience of being in the space as comfortable, inspiring, and productive as possible.

This starts with knowing who your members are and who you’re trying to attract. Certain amenities and brand messages will resonate with different types of people. If you’re going for tech types, then incredibly fast and reliable wifi is a must, as well as comfortable furniture, and ample desk space for all those monitors. In my experience, techies also love ping pong, great coffee and tea, tasty snacks, and beer, but your experience may vary.

On the other hand, if your space is focused on childcare, you can easily imagine that you’ll need all sorts of amenities that wouldn’t fit in a tech-focused space (unless you’re doing both of course). You’ll obviously need a childcare area, toys and books and games for the kids, somebody to watch the children, a feeding room for new parents, and maybe an outdoor play area. All of that is in addition to the regular workspace amenities you’ll need.

I recently wrote an article about constructing perfect membership plans where I described the story of Irina, a would-be coworking space founder focused on artists and creatives. That story illustrates exactly what I’m suggesting you try here. Do a thoughtful dive into who you are, who you want to attract, and how you need to set up your space in order to satisfy both.

Bonus: Be Visible

My friend Tobias Kremkau, Head of Coworking at St. Oberholz in Berlin, is on a kick about making coworking visible. For him, 2018 is about exploring how to show coworking to more people through new media. If you want to hear more of his thoughts on the matter, watch the live webinar we recorded with him in February.

One of the simple and often overlooked tips that Tobias offered is so obvious it makes me look like a novice for including it in this article. And I apologize for that, but I’m constantly dumbfounded by spaces that don’t do it.

In an age with dozens, if not hundreds, of workspace directories, there’s one that you absolutely can’t do without, and that you need to be on from the start. And that’s Google.

Yes, the piece of growth marketing work which far too many new spaces forget about is setting themselves up on Google Places and generally making themselves visible on Google Maps.

When an experienced member who’s worked in other coworking spaces previously moves or wants to try something new, the first thing they do is open up Google and type “coworking space [city name].” And you don’t end up there automatically, at least not for some time. Google even now has a place category called coworking space.

If you haven’t done this yet, don’t wait. Do it now.

You should certainly add yourself to other major coworking directories, but get on Google first.

Hindsight is 20/20

Things always look clearer in hindsight. I know you’d do things differently if you’d known better from the get-go. But don’t stress too much. You’re not alone. Almost everybody has been in this boat.

It’s true you may have started out the wrong way, but the best thing you can do now is get to work and make the most of your situation. And the strategies I’ve outlined above are some of the best ways I know to grow quickly and effectively with the least amount of additional expense.

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Ryan Chatterton

Marketing Director, founder at Coworking Insights, coworking maven, digital nomad, lover of wine & tacos.

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