Review: ushering in a new era for the coworking phenomenon

Ramon Suarez has produced a very practical book, based on his own experience as one of the pioneers of coworking. And let’s be clear – it is coworking (not “co-working”; there is no hyphen), as Suarez explains, “a coworker (a member of a coworking space) is not the same as a co-worker (somebody who happens to work for the same company or in your same office)”. On his business card, Suarez describes his role as “Serendipity Accelerator”- you will understand that if you read the book. Suarez differentiates coworking from its many (and mostly false) aliases. Shared offices may be collaborative, but do not provide the network of people found in a good coworking space. Networked offices, where more than one company shares space and may collaborate, “come close” to coworking. Hacker & Maker spaces, Accelerators, Incubators and Cafes are similarly differentiated.

It is clear that “community” is what Suarez believes makes coworking; and crucially, building that community. He says “the community of coworkers (of which you are part, as an operator) is what makes a coworking space sustainable in the long term and what brings more value to the coworkers themselves”.  There are 14 pages on creating, growing and nurturing your community, covering key issues such as building trust among members, participation and relationships. Some of this reminds me of the book “Trust Agents” by Chris Brogan, who talks about building trusted relationships in an online community. What Suarez describes is similar, but bringing together an actual (rather than virtual) community or “circle of trust”.

The next 60 pages are on marketing; before the section on “space”; which is interesting in itself, and aligns with other conversations and papers I have read on coworking. The sequence: 1. Community, 2. Marketing, 3. Space; is very different to the real estate market’s approach. It argues that coworking operators and real estate providers are both essentially “selling space”, but clearly in an altogether different way. The fact is, a coworking operator can lease space from a real estate provider, and then sell it on to its coworking members at a profit. This begs the question “is coworking further up the value chain than traditional real estate?” Coworking is an added-value product of real estate; the latter provides the raw material, whereas the coworking operator adds the real business value – the trusted community.

Suarez is clear that one of the key challenges in building the community, and in the marketing of coworking membership, is that it “is still in its infancy” and most people “haven’t heard of it, or understand it to be something different”. Clear communication, and helping people to generally understand the concept, is an important precursor to sales. Even better, is to get people from understanding, to engaging, and on to become enthusiastic evangelists for the concept of coworking. Much of the development of membership will be word-of-mouth, on personal recommendation from the community itself.

“Space” is covered in the next 36 pages, but if you are looking for an ode to architecture and interiors, you will not find it here. Suarez again clearly differentiates coworking space from the expensive corporate places which many of us frequent. He says, “Even if community is more important …your coworking space counts a lot, but maybe not for the reasons you think”. A coworking operator can be successful in a variety of spaces and places. Suarez states, “…location and function trump looks by a long shot”. He goes on to cover location, size of facility, distribution of the space, usage (desk area, meeting, eating and drinking), productivity (noise, comfort), companionship versus privacy, furniture, access and security, cleaning, internet, printing and scanning. And the vital coffee, tea and snacks – but Suarez notes, “unless you run a café in your coworking space, this will not be a significant source of revenue. Don’t spend too much time on it”. All of this is written very much from a customer standpoint, and will be very familiar to any facility manager.

The last 40 pages cover the business, finance and legal aspects of building a coworking operation. There are few surprises here, but Suarez provides a useful overview (or reminder) for anyone starting up a coworking-based business venture. Key points are that coworking, in Suarez’s view, is mainly a membership-based business. Most services are included in the core membership. There is some useful information on pricing plan options, and combinations of fixed and variable desk plans. The end of the book has a section of useful checklists and further information.

The book is a comprehensive and readable introduction to the topic of coworking and packed with useful tips and I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to consider setting up and running a coworking space. Suarez is an experienced coworking business owner, and generously passes this knowledge on to any new business owner or manager of a coworking business venture.

This article is also available in issue of Work&Place

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Paul CarderPaul Carder has over 20 years postgraduate experience in the corporate and consulting sectors, specializing in real estate (property) and facilities management/ workplace strategy, outsourcing, performance management and measurement. Currently Doctoral Researcher and Tutor at UWE Bristol, he is also publisher of Work & Place and Occupiers Journal which works with several partners around the world. paul.carder@occupiersjournal.com

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