In talking with my cohort group of new coworking space catalysts, the topic of how and why to build a community before opening a coworking space comes up a lot.
I used Meetup almost a decade ago to get the word out about Cohere before we had a space and it was wildly successful. Unfortunately, my memory is fading on how we actually used it so I’ve enlisted one of my group members, Mark Eaton, to tell you about his process and experience with using Meetup as a platform to connect prior to having a container (building) in Cochrane, Canada outside of Calgary.
Mark (pictured on the right) is an independent contractor, working in the software development industry. He had worked out of coworking spaces in the past and was well aware of the benefits to members. He was originally drawn to coworking to connect with peers, collaborate, network and to find a local tribe. It has been a thorough success.
Tell me a little bit about your coworking project?
When I went looking for coworking in my home town, Cochrane – Alberta, I did not find anything…what’s the next best thing to do? Create a Meetup group and cowork informally in our town of around 26,000. In July 2016, we had our first weekly Meetup, essentially a Jelly in all but name. We had six members present the first day. They are still members and still attend the Meetups. The next few months were transformative, for both myself and our Meetup group. We started to get together weekly and word of mouth was very important to our growth at this stage. There was clear demand, as we soon reached 50 members. Now we are about to hit 100 members!
We worked with local cafes that host our events, asking for discount coffee or baked goods for our Meetups, as we bring in a group on a regular basis. We even became known well enough that we had a cafe invite us to host our meetings with them.
In order to promote our group and build our membership, I have been able to leverage many cheap and free options. I made posters that are now on all of the town community noticeboards and many businesses will also let us place them on their boards (Starbucks, Safeway, libraries, etc). Our town has their own website where they maintain a community events calendar and all of our Meetups are published there…as well as going out to the Town’s mailing list and Twitter followers. We also utilize some digital signs the town has constructed to advertise community events. Finally, we have a couple of online news websites that maintain events calendars and we’re on those too.
I have a landing page that brings all of our web resources to one location, as well as a viability survey I created to gauge interest in our own space. We are about to start working on a site dedicated to our ‘coming soon’ coworking space, right here in Cochrane…we’re calling our space, The Corner Coworking.
Why did you choose the Meetup platform as the digital place to start building a coworking community?
As a member of a couple of other Meetup groups it seemed like the obvious choice to get our group started. The fact that they promote new Meetups in your local area, especially those they feel may be of interest to you, helped get us started. Facebook and Twitter have played a part in getting the word out to a wider community, perhaps those not already on Meetup.com, I feel that Meetup.com has a better reputation than other sites for getting started. People can get engaged without ‘friending you/your group’ on Facebook and Meetup’s RSVP feature helps with planning.
How is your group structured? Who joins your group and what kinds of meetings do you have?
Currently we have the one host, me! While this helps with consistency and a single point of contact, sharing the load could help at times. Our Meetup group is made up of a wide variety of ‘Coworkers’ as we call ourselves. Bookkeepers, graphic designers, life & business coaches, accountants, lawyers, marketers & PR experts, architectural techs, data analysts, personal trainers and many more business owners.They join the group and come along for many of the same reasons I started the group…to get out of our home offices and connect with like-minded contractors, entrepreneurs and location-independent professionals.
My goal with our Meetups is to provide an environment that is not just catching up for a coffee, where’s the value in offering something that can be done without the group? Instead, the first Meetup each month is networking-focused, introductions, reasons for joining the group, what you bring to the group and what you’d like to get out of it. The other Meetups each month are designed to be a mix of networking, coffee and coworking. This gives members the best opportunities to determine if coworking might be for them. For those few months where we can meet five times in one month we’ll hold our Meetup in a nearby town to promote our group or in a coworking space in Calgary, to do a bit of a ‘test-drive’.
“The very best thing about having the community first, is the level of buy-in that our members have in the space.”
What key learnings have you gained from building up a community of people before you have a physical space?
Lots of strong connections have been made between our members, several professional collaborations have formed and I have a good size group of resources that I can refer people to. It has also allowed me to determine the level of interest in coworking in our town, and whether opening a space for our community is a risk I’m willing to take. The very best thing about having the community first, is the level of buy-in that our members have in the space. I am working with 4 or 5 members to help get us up and running, designing the floor plan, working on PR and marketing as well as logo and graphic designs. As these members will join our space as coworkers too, their commitment is strong, they will have helped to build and shape their own community space.
One more learning, don’t be concerned about having a big Meetup.com membership list and only 10-15% of the members who attend regularly. This appears to be pretty average across Meetup.com groups, not just for coworking.
Would you recommend Meetup as a good platform for pre-community?
Meetup.com has been good for organizing events, having a landing page to send prospective members for the Meetup group, and for basic outgoing communications. Two-way communication is not a strength of Meetup.com, we use a combination of a Slack team as well as Facebook and direct contact (email), once a member has attended a Meetup.
If you could give one piece of advice to people who are looking to open a coworking space, what would it be?
There are a lot of generous, helpful and inspiring people in the world of coworking. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, and give something back to them, it seems that they will have time for you.
To name just a few, Alex Hillman (Indy Hall) has a great podcast and shares a lot of the basic getting started stuff. His work is very much grass roots, community-focused. Jamie Russo has a slightly different approach, focusing more on executive offices and a more business-focused theme to what she shares. I have also gained a lot from Angel, especially as the space I’m opening has several things in common with Cohere. Ours will not be a million dollar space, with the very best of everything. We’ll have the things that people really need, things that have been proven to work. We will also grow, as our membership grows.
There’s a lot of great information out there, just take a look. eBooks, industry papers and research, other coworking spaces! Many of these are free too, at least in a limited form, start there. Conferences are also a great way to make lots of very valuable connections….I know that from previous careers, and I’m looking forward to GCUC Canada.
Mark’s information is a great reminder that putting in the effort to build up a community first reduces your risk as a coworking business owner. If you’d like more help getting your coworking space off the ground, check out the Ultimate Coworking Launch Sequence. Use the code “blogfinisher” to get $20 off either the ebook or the ebook+Cohort group.