Alex Hillman at CUAsia '18 giving an idea about how to scale the space

Scaling Your Space: A Different Approach – Alex Hillman – CUAsia’ 18 Academy

“What if I told you, that no matter how many members you have in your space, you could double that number and still have more members?” questioned Alex Hillman, the Founder of Indy Hall, one of the longest running coworking space. That was how he started his presentation at CUAsia’ 18 Academy, giving the audience an idea as to what topic he was covering, which was  how to scale your space. Through the talk, he shared how Indy Hall scaled beyond what they were able to hold in the physical space.

When Indy Hall started in 2006, they had no example of other coworking spaces to point to, or other people to learn from, no form of documentation to refer to and they had neither the space nor the funding for a space. The concept of coworking was so new that they were in the dark about a lot of things; however before they even had a space, they started building their community. Although this approach was mentioned many times, people are still skeptical about how they should go about building community without a space. Alex talked about some of the key things they did before Indy Hall became a physical space, and he also encourages you to apply this method even after you open your coworking space. Alex and his team realized that there were a bunch of people who were already working from cafes, some of them knew each other, and a simple invitation to a gathering was one of the easiest community building efforts they have ever had. Since they did not have their space, they thought to go to a place people already like to go, and a simple phone call to the coordinator of that place instantly created the opportunity for people to be in a space together, not experiencing that space, but each other.

In between the opportunities of getting together (example-cafe meetings) out in the real world, how would you foster connections, when they are not meeting up? “At Indy Hall, they’ve got online communities, thus incorporating life events with continuity in online communities,” said Alex. A simple discussion on Slack or WeChat gives the ability for people to meet in-person, forms relationships and they continue that relationship over time between the initial event and the next one. “The fact that we work so hard to bring people together at our spaces just acts as a massive blind spot in realizing that our job is to simply bring people together, wherever it is they already happen to be” claimed Alex.

Alex pointed out that most coworking spaces treat Slack as an add-on, however, at Indy Hall, they use Slack or email discussion list as another one of those gathering places. The same way that you can get people together in your coworking space, you need to think about the things that people do, the interactions they have throughout the course of the day and finally, how you can recreate those opportunities online. One of the most successful channels in Indy Hall’s Slack community is daily goals, which is used by their members; those who are remote as well as those who are in their coworking space. Over 50% of Indy Hall’s community almost never comes to the physical space; this is a pretty big deal. They continue to pay the monthly membership to be connected to people they have things in common with, and they can interact with members through the online communities. “So things like daily goals gives them the opportunity to share what they are working on, ask questions on what each other is working on, build those relationships and turn that into real relationships,” stated Alex.

When you have a space, why go through the trouble of hosting meetups elsewhere? When people come to your space, they expect you to give them a sales pitch on how right your space is for them. When you do an event or gathering on somebody else’s turf, they see it as a fun gathering of people. Even if you have a physical space to host events in, finding other spaces can be valuable. Indy Hall goes for bars, restaurants, cafe takeovers, ice skating rink, pretty much any popular gathering places, which makes it easier to look for things people already want to do. Things that bring people together outside of the space does not need to be ‘work’; it could be people coming together to do tours, sightseeing (especially if you’re new to the area), it could even be taking classes together to learn languages.

In the last couple of years, Alex has come across a large group of people who were interested in joining Indy Hall before they even moved to Philadelphia. It made him think, what if they take their events, meetups, show and tell; and not just broadcasting it online but making it so people can participate in them. The participants then become an active voice at the table before they even show up in the room, and by the time they show up, they would have already built some connections. Alex mentioned a tool called Zoom; it lets you create an environment where you can form a grid of people no matter where they are and create the same kind of conversations that you have across the table at a meetup. He is working on something related to virtual communities, mostly with fellow operators, and it is called Indy Hall Braintrust. It involves fellow operators getting together on a weekly basis sharing their respective challenges, and through Braintrust they can get everyone’s perspective and attention for that period.

When Indy Hall started out, their membership structure was based more on people not needing to use the space all the time, but instead, have the opportunity to come to the space if and when they needed. Alex realized that they structured and communicated memberships based on whether people required a space or not, and they did not have an option for people who wanted to join their community but did not yet need the space. Their original member would come in once a month or less. Later on, more people were joining as coworking became more mainstream, and the primary members began canceling their membership stating, “I don’t actually need the space.” This got Alex thinking, “What if people had memberships where they could join both before and after they need a space?” He was thinking more along the lines of a ‘Chamber of commerce’ or a ‘professional association’; the idea of joining with a virtual coworking membership does not sound all that enticing to a lot of folks because they are just thinking of it as a cheaper version of an actual coworking space. It could be a real association of professionals or members association; however, it must have the ability to both attract the people before they joined the space or before they need the space.

Virtual communities sound cool, but what tools to use? Alex noticed that with chats and Facebook groups, you have to open separate apps to access it, and places like that tend to require a lot of attention to be valuable. When the conversation gains momentum, which is what you want, the overload of notifications burns you out. In Alex’s experience, to this day email is the most consistent way to reach people. At Indy Hall, they use a tool that they built in-house, called GroupBuzz. It is essentially an email discussion list for tight-knit communities, and they share the tool with others. The way it works is that participants get notifications from that particular threads; however, if the thread is less interesting, then one can choose to mute that thread without unsubscribing from the entire list. Chat rooms and Facebook tend to have at most 10-20% participation rate, and that is if you do a good job and people don’t feel overloaded. With GroupBuzz, they have seen 70-80% participation rate for the same community that was also using Facebook group or Slack group. Why the difference?- The discussion lists are tuned to be asynchronous, meaning one can chime into the conversations days weeks and even months later, thus allowing more people to participate in general and over time. It is not about either/or, in some cases, you may end up using more than one tool; so as previously mentioned think of your Slack group, Facebook group, email discussion list and even your coworking space as ‘individual gathering place.’ Alex explains, “Sounds like a bunch of things to manage but the reality is, the same way that people are choosing different requirements for coworking spaces based on what they need at that time, how they prefer to interact; online communities can be treated essentially the same way.”

During his talk, Alex had opened the floor to questions from the audience and he very skillfully incorporated the answers into his presentation; mentioned below are some of those questions and their answers.

Do you have a take on the membership structure?

“That is a shared responsibility between the rest of the team that does the community development in the fiscal space,” answered Alex. A big part of their job is to look for ongoing opportunities. They look for conversations that are happening in the real world (offline) and share them with the rest of the community that is not physically present. Same way, sometimes conversations are taking place online, and the team then works on sharing that offline. The idea is to create the opportunity to bridge the gap between those two places.

In Singapore, Standard Chartered converted their financial center into a collaborative space where people can work for free; there are collaborative booths that can be used for up to an hour for free. What they are doing is that they are commoditizing the hot desks offered in coworking spaces, which most of us price at 300-500 bucks a month.The revenue we generate is mostly from our spaces, and the hot desk is a small part of it, should we not think about the future and maybe change the model that we have been on? If I can tap into your network through Slack or something else, why do I still need to pay 500 bucks for a hot desk?

Alex replied, “There is a simple lead that there is a ton of value in having a place.”  Having a group of people associated with a place, forming pre-existing relationships makes that place inherently more valuable and defensible.” When people feel a sense of ownership towards a place, then that gives them a good reason to choose to stay. Alex mentions that there are a lot of people who find themselves in sticky situations, such as their lease running out, negotiations going south, etc. His suggestion is always to think ahead of time, and thinking of ways to modify your business model, your approach, even change how you talk about the value of what you offer based on the idea that if the space went away tomorrow that we would still be able to continue to do business.

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