Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Top 6 Trends in the Coworking Industry

Anyone would jump at the chance to learn something new and meet unique, smart industry people in a cool out-of-town spot. When I discovered the Austin Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC, pronounced “juicy”), I knew this would be one of those moments. And it was more than I could have imagined.

First of all, going to Austin, TX in any vicinity of SXSW is going to be 1) the perfect time to run into "startup celebrities", 2) an educational opportunity to share best practices, and 3) a heck of a good time!

But even though the majority of my Austin experience was beyond amazing, my trip had a rocky start.  It all began with another crazy Kansas City snow storm which delayed my arrival to the conference by two hours. However, starting my day at GCUC during lunchtime wasn't all that bad. GCUC provided a delicious Austin barbecue lunch and by the time I got through the line, I already said hi to Campbell McKellar from Loosecubes and Liz Elam of Link Coworking (the diva behind GCUC). I sat with the Loosecubes crew and finally got to meet the faces of the people I'd been emailing for months. For the next few hours, every person I talked to had something to share that I didn't know before. More on what I learned in a bit.

The unconference/conference was packed with coworking space managers, owners and aspiring founders. But what is an unconference, you ask? GCUC was actually split into a few rooms: three unconference rooms, a conference track and a pop-up coworking space. The unconference was determined by the attendees themselves by selecting a topic, time and room and that's what built the agenda for the day.

The conference track was full of the most commonly known coworking space owners/managers and top industry coworking space service providers. Topics included “How to Design, Build and Grow your Space for Collaboration,” “What to do When you Hit A Bump in the Road,” “Leveraging Technology to Enhance your Space and Community” and “Why You Need to Get in the News (using PR and Social Media to attract the right members)".

The pop-up coworking was for anyone who wanted to catch up on work, try out the modern collaborative furniture by Turnstone or be a part of the Google hangouts. The day concluded with a Tex-Mex after party sponsored by Turnstone.  It ended up being a great opportunity to talk with people in a more casual environment. On Friday, I participated in a coworking space scavenger hunt and then a closing party at Austin’s own Conjunctured.

In my conversations with other managers, thoughts from panel sessions and discussions from the unconference, these are the top six things I learned:

1. Community is one of the most powerful tools to operating a successful space. A sense of belonging does multiple things: members keep each other accountable to be productive, be on good behavior and achieve stellar collaboration. It’s also a great way to recruit new members. As NextSpace says, “Working Alone Sucks!” When people make the switch to being an entrepreneur, one thing they miss the most about the office is having unexpected conversations (sometimes those are the best kind!), eating lunch with coworkers and energy through interaction. A coworking space community brings the best pieces of bringing coworkers to the entrepreneur.

2. The software and technology solutions for coworking spaces is about to dramatically increase. Up until the past few months, the technology tools specific to operating a coworking space have been slim pickings.  Therefore, many spaces build their own on simple solutions like Google Docs. But now, multiple companies are answering this market opening. Desktime, deskwanted, and cobot, to name a few, are in process of building what they think is best for owners and managers (if you want to share your feedback with these companies, do it now and get an almost customized software solution!). Features for software management tools include internal social networks, payment mechanisms, issue reporting, forums, check-in stats, capacity tracking, mobile access and more. Hardware solutions penetrating the coworking world include internet portals for controlling bandwidth and tracking who is using the Internet, key cards/codes for entry, and security systems on building (insurance rates go down!). Aspects of managing a coworking space should soon become simpler with the new developments.

3. There is an increasing trend of collaborative consumption. There has been a societal shift in the comfort level of sharing. Companies like AirBNB and Zip Car, along with coworking spaces, have inspired a change in the industries of travel and work. Renting out your house and office or renting a car by the minute is no longer a radical idea. Instead, it is a unique way to meet new people, save or even make money and lower a footprint on the environment. The market for companies with the “collaborative” nature is on the rise. Therefore, the market for coworking spaces is doubling each year according to deskmag’s recent Global Trends Survey.

4. A coworking space and the people working there can match each other. In the early-adopting markets like San Francisco and New York, there are enough options of coworking spaces now, and some of them even have themes, are industry specific or cater to a stage of entrepreneur. When the “right” liked-minded people collaborate, beneficial relationships can be made. Iris Krivnaugh of NextSpace says, "Don’t stop marketing, even when you’re full." Coworking spaces should continue the effort to attract the right people.  In addition, members should try multiple spaces to see which feels right to them. What makes a space and a member the “right” match? Both need to be specific about what their needs and resources are. In smaller markets, this may not be possible now with the available options, but  keep in mind: the market is growing!

5. There is an unsolved problem for employment benefits for entrepreneurs. The options for health insurance, disability insurance, retirement funds and the like for entrepreneurs and startups are slim to none. Innovation is clearly needed to create options for the growing self-employed industry. Insurance companies need to find new ways to offer benefits packages on an entrepreneur’s budget.

6. The flyover states and the Midwest are hungry for public education on coworking. There is a gap between the coastal and the Midwest coworking spaces. The large, early-adopting cities have markets more willing to try and demand coworking opportunities. Coworking spaces in the less progressive markets have to work harder to reach full capacity because there is an extra hurdle to educate the general public on the benefits. A discussion about a coworking association or alliance was a hot topic at GCUC. There is a desire for the creation of an organization that shares best practices, educates the public and sets industry standards.  At the same time, others are weary of a “corporatization” of an industry built on a unique, non-corporate place to work.

Events like GCUC are where many important conversations happen and hopefully some action towards innovation and growth will positivity impact the (un-hyphenated!) coworking industry. I truly enjoyed meeting other coworking managers, owners and aspiring founders and look forward to collaborating throughout the next year.

Read more on GCUC from deskmag's perspective here.

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