Premeditatio Malorum for Coworking Spaces

How coworking spaces can avoid tragedy by planning for the worst.
Ryan Chatterton
November 9, 2018
5 min read
Coworking Essentials

Starting a new business, coworking-related or otherwise, is a project fraught with pitfalls, sharp turns, and setbacks. Plus, most new founders begin with high hopes and only basic knowledge of how a coworking business should operate. But it doesn't need to be this way. By engaging in premeditatio malorum, or "the premeditation of evils," we can significantly mitigate potential disasters on the road to coworking success.

By all accounts, there's no such thing as a business journey devoid of bumpy roads. And considering that coworking businesses are an amalgamation of several business models, the roads for coworking founders are beyond bumpy, they're downright rough.

That's why I advocate the ancient stoic exercise of conducting a premeditatio malorum. I first read about the practice in Ryan Holiday's book, The Obstacle is the Way, which is a must-read for any ambitious human. In the book, he outlines how to conduct a premeditatio malorum, but I’m going to adapt it to our industry.

Holiday starts with describing the process by which doctors analyze the death of a patient, called a post-mortem. In it, doctors discuss what went wrong that led to the patient's loss. Was it from natural causes, a misdiagnosis, or perhaps an error while dosing a medication? The idea here is to identify mistakes and correct them for the future. By all means, it's a smart practice.

But you aren't a doctor with an never-ending list of patients and the financial security of malpractice insurance, not to mention the backing of the hospital itself. You likely have only one chance to get it right, which is why the idea of a pre-mortem, or premeditatio malorum, is your best bet for weathering the storm.

Here’s how it works.

Future Casting

Imagine yourself sometime in the future, perhaps a year or two from now. You launched your space, did everything you could think of to fill it, and worked your veritable ass off.

And you failed.

Whatever you did, no matter how hard you tried, the planned success you’d envisioned never materialized. Bummer.

What went wrong?

This stage is the most crucial in your premeditatio malorum.

Think of all the things that you or your team might have done wrong which led to your space’s demise. Perhaps you:

  • Judged the market wrong
  • Built too large or too small a space
  • Weren’t prepared for the gigantic winter-season electricity bills
  • Trusted a business partner who stole a pile of money
  • Hired the wrong marketing manager (or no marketing manager)
  • Alienated your audience with poor communication or operational processes
  • Anticipated a much higher growth rate than was possible
  • Suffered from a data or network breach which caused high-value corporate members to leave
  • Were too focused on other projects to give the right amount of attention to the business
  • Built a dull or uninspiring space
  • Couldn’t get a grasp on cultivating a proper community
  • Had constant wifi reliability issues
  • Never gathered member feedback
  • Didn’t allow dogs in the space
  • Did allow dogs in the space but it turned out many members disliked dogs or were allergic to them

As with many lists, this one could go on ad infinitum (bringing out all the Latin today). It's not so important to think of every possible little thing that could have gone wrong. What I suggest instead is to identify the following:

  • Major disasters (e.g., floods, fires, market crashes, etc.)
  • The too-obvious-to-write-down issues (e.g., not enough customers, wrong branding, the team was too lazy to execute, etc.)
  • The creative, out-of-left-field pitfalls (i.e., things that highly seem unlikely, even hilariously so)

Keep in mind that it’s unlikely any one of these problems buried you, but that several of them occurring at inopportune times did the job.

Once you've identified and analyzed the potential pitfalls, it's time to come back to the present. Each of the disasters on your list is the result of miscalculations, poor preparation, or just dumb luck. But now that you have the list, you can prepare. Each possible problem is a starting point for planning your disaster prevention and recovery strategy.

Prepare for the Worst

With your list of doom in hand, let’s think about prevention and recovery.

  • What should have been done to prevent these problems in the first place?
  • What could you do to at least mitigate their impacts?
  • Lastly, what can be done to recover from the effects of those events outside of your control?

Is there a chance a burst pipe will flood your space? What structural upgrades can you do now that could minimize damage if this event were to occur? Perhaps you can add better insulation to your pipes or, better yet, the entire building.

Are you worried about members signing up too slowly to break even before your runway ends? Double the length of your pre-launch campaign. Sign up founding members with a small discount and make them feel special. Involve your first customers in crucial decisions to help them understand this is their home. Make it worth spreading the word like wildfire.

If wifi reliability issues are a potential pitfall, hire a professional to set up your network. Better yet, make sure one of your founding members is a network infrastructure wiz.

You should undoubtedly trust your business partner, otherwise, don't do business with them. But things do go wrong. Instead of leaving it up to chance, set up your accounts in a more secure way by keeping your capital in a secure account that requires sign-offs from you and your partner for transfers or withdrawals. Then keep a separate account for ongoing operational costs with an automatic transfer between the two. That’s best practice and prevents unauthorized access.

The point is to take the outcome, then track it back to all the potential causes and prevention mechanisms you could create. Doing so thoroughly, ensures that while several pitfalls at once may be dangerous, they're not enough to put you underwater. This process makes you and your coworking business more resilient.

Accept the Inevitable

Once you’ve done your future casting and preparation, you might be in a state of anxiety. In fact, you might think I’m advocating that such a state of fearfulness is where you ought to be. That’s not what I’m saying.

At this point, you should assume a stoic posture. You've anticipated the "evils" that can happen. You've made ample preparations for them as well. You've done everything within reason to anticipate the unforeseeable.

But there’s one more piece to this puzzle.

There are some things for which you cannot prepare entirely, and you must accept that. As Mike Ziedler, a coworking pioneer who has weathered many storms, said in one of our webinars; “carry things lightly”. Something will go wrong and that’s ok By using this process from the outset of your coworking adventure, and at regular intervals going forward, you'll be in an excellent position for damage prevention and reparation when something terrible does happen!

Imagine. Prepare. Accept. Repeat.

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Ryan Chatterton

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

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