On May 24, 2018, Sajid Islam of Discover Coworking interviewed Sajani Amarasiri about Colombo Cooperative.
Sajani was born and raised in Sri Lanka until she came to the Pittsburgh for university, at 18. Her career took her to Seattle where she worked with Amazon and Microsoft.
The year Sajani left Sri Lanka was the year the civil war ended. When she returned to Sri Lanka, it was interesting to see how different it was when from when she left. Sri Lanka was flourishing. She was inspired by all the people now doing their own thing. However, Sajani saw it lacked a sense of collaboration and community. It was like disconnected pieces of a puzzle that could be powerful when put together.
Upon seeing Sri Lanka, Sajani wanted to bring her experience from the United States back to create community. That vision eventually morphed into the idea of starting a coworking space. This way, she could give back and bring the people of Sri Lanka together.
Sajani and her husband started out by building a website with the name, values, what she wanted to get out of the space, and what it was going to be. She did not even have a physical space yet. However, her narrative emphasized how it would bring the community together. People in Sri Lanka wanted something like that. Just by putting $10 in Facebook to advertised it, her space garnered about 300-400 email sign-ups over the span of two weeks.
After building a significant online community, she put out a link that allowed them to book a time slot to come talk to them. Through this, Sajani learned what potential members were looking for.
It was evident to her that there was a gap in the market for a space where these beautifully minded people could come together and collaborate. Starting a space in Sri Lanka had challenges. South Asians have a stigma for being independent and competitive but it is time to change that. The world is becoming a shared economy where we crowdsource everything.
Design and Layout
Sajani used Pinterest to create a board for what she wanted the space to look like. She began this process before she even found a location because the space should not be location dependent on what it feels and looks like. Colombo Cooperative was designed to be collaborative. It would have been more profitable to create more private office spaces. However, she wanted to stick to her original mission of creating a collaborative community which requires more open space.
The Colombo Cooperative currently has three private office spaces, one conference room, a lounge area with an ocean view and swing with playful fun colors, about 30 dedicated desks, and a small kitchen to make lunch and have coffee with some collaborative community tables by it.
The interior designers that brought her vision for fruition actually reached out to her through her website. They saw the design inspiration on her website and wanted to do something similar. The designers were also just starting out their business and thought it would be a great opportunity for the both of them. Unfortunately, it is very expensive in Sri Lanka to get anything done or imported because there is a 300% tax. Everything was made because it was more economical.
Since Sajani was living in the United States, she focused on building a strong online community and email list until she went back to Sri Lanka to look for spaces. She found a great space and rushed into signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU). She asked the landlord to hold the space for her but something in her gut that told her something was not right. While she loved the space, something felt off about her exchange with the landlord. The deal fell through and she lost money.
She was a little relieved, but the deal failure also caused trouble because she had already communicated to members that the space would be opening. The decision whether to be transparent and tell the truth or not had to be made. In the end, Sajani sent an email out to her 600 email subscribers telling them what happened.
Luckily, she was able to find another location soon after with a beautiful ocean view. The negotiation of the agreement went smoothly. Both sides had an understanding and there were no issues in signing the lease. That is when she knew it was the right place.
Sajani was mindful throughout the marketing process. She wanted her marketing to come primarily from word of mouth from friends and referrals as well as social media. This causes slower growth but brings in members that really want to be a part of the community and fit the values you have which creates a great dynamic within the space.
Colombo Cooperative started with social media and putting small dollars into advertising on Facebook and Instagram. They also went forward with email subscribers and referrals. With referrals at Colombo Cooperative, if you refer someone to the space you get a certain amount off the next month of your membership.
Sajani asked their members how they found them and why they are interested in joined. Most of their members found Colombo Cooperative through social media. The biggest reason that members were drawn to here space was because there were none like it that instigate and inspire creativity in the way they do.
Watch the full interview here.