I recently got invited to present FAILURE at the Global Coworking Unconference Conference in Toronto, Canada. I take spectacular pride in my ability to fail with flourish and since the GCUC crowd always likes a good train wreck among stories of 43 Billion Dollar valuations and epic expansion stories, I indulge them. Below is the narrative of the failure and here is a link to my slides.
Near the end of 2013, 4 years after Cohere hit the coworking scene in Old Town Fort Collins, I had to start turning away would-be members. We were full, things were great. So naturally, I would make a series of unfortunate mistakes that would lead to the 2nd space’s death in early 2015.
To be clear, I did SOME of the things right. In fact, all early indicators would point to Cohere’s second location being a raving success. Here’s what went right:
- I had a wait-list of members who wanted to join Cohere.
- Cohere was nearing auto-pilot. Systems helped manage the behind the scenes tasks, 3 members had a strong hold on the day to day in the space and I was getting bored.
- I selected a location that was near to OG Cohere but further south in an up-and-coming neighborhood called Midtown where rents were still affordable and the housing market was blowing up in all the right ways.
- I took many, many members through the building pre-lease and they steered me away from one suite into 3 other suites they were much more excited about.
- The members lovingly name it Cothere. It sticks. It’s perfect.
- Natural light, windows, trees and parking were in abundance.
- After we got into the space, the Coherians partied to clean up the parking lot and build furniture. It was spectacular fun and had all the trapping us Veterans look for in budding communities.
- I paint everything, repair broken door knobs and make our entrances more safe. I pour all my love into this physical thing that will allow Cothere to grow and flourish.
- I met and offered up our space after hours to our brand new Girl Develop It chapter. We love each other so much.
Things start to take a turn for the worse:
The landlords fail to make improvements to Cothere that are in my lease: working windows, safe stairs for our private entrance (my mother-in-law almost falls 2 stories after the railing breaks away during move-in) and cleanliness issues in the common area start to clog my inbox
And A LOT worse:
- Nearly every day, concerns about lack of health and safety in our parking lots and common area restrooms begin to flood in.
- My repeated requests for help from the landlords are met with either silence or passive aggressive notes in the common-area bathroom saying, “PLEASE KEEP THIS RESTROOM CLEAN!!!”
- I become mortified when new members ask where the restroom is. The members say, “this building is dicey but Cothere’s areas are NICE!”
- I spend 3 hours cleaning bathrooms just to prove to myself that I’m right about how dirty the bathrooms are. I am right. I get pneumonia 5 days later.
- The restrooms are dirty again. ALL. THE. TIME. I have to explain WHY we need more toilet paper. Sarcasm floods through my veins. “We have explosive diarrhea!” “All the women are synced up this week!!” “We are STEALING it because we are terrible people!!”
The last straw:
- The landlords tell me in an email that goes out to all the other tenants of their building, “you don’t pay enough to have the right to complain.”
I check out. I resent the space. I no longer care about it. I do the bare minimum that an office space rental agency does. Paper towels? Check. Vacuumed? Check. Coffee? Check.
I bring on a friend to help the Cothere community and she tries really hard but we are broken. Midtown is broken, the gross restrooms are broken, our parking lot is an ice skating rink in winter and a mixed-media nightmare of dead squirrels and fallen tree limbs in summer. I refuse to pay more for basic tenant rights.
I stop coworking at Cothere. I repeat. I STOPPED COWORKING AT COTHERE. <—-really important warning sign
I spend all my time at Old Town Cohere. I breathe a sigh of relief every time I cross the threshhold and see the man that takes care of our lawn. I run into the landlord and he inquires about my well-being and asks if everything is okay in the building. He compliments Cohere, the members and how proud they are to have us as tenants. They are always a text away. Quick to fix and utterly un-involved in our day-to-day ops.
I get out of my lease free and clear on their breach of contract. After an extremely polite email exchange requesting the termination of my lease and having them agree, I feel this:
Down from a high of 20 members, the 3 remaining Cothere members join Cohere and love it. Just. Love It. “It’s so happy here!” “Everyone talks to me!” “I thought I wouldn’t like Old Town but I DO!” Several private office members at Cothere REMAIN in Cothere’s space after we leave. <—-this blows my mind.
So Really. WHAT went wrong?
As a veteran of the coworking community, I was raised up to always put the people first and see the physical space as a useful container that merely facilitates connections between people. Sure, I always made sure that Cohere’s container was lovely, cared-for and well-tended but none of my spaces until Cothere had ever existed inside a larger shell of a bigger building that I had no control over.
I began to think like a member as I approached the larger shell of Cothere’s space. Unkempt parking lot, dead bugs and leaves in the lobby, outdated decor in all the wrong ways, a soul-less, colorless hallway and then finally, the mecca of entering Cothere’s suites.
But sometimes the journey to mecca is just too far.
Post-hoc, I realize that Cohere has a really important value as a company and as a community that I had never said out loud, never consciously thought about and never wrote about. And this value includes the entirety of our physical container from the grounds around the building, to the entryways and all the way to the inner sanctum of our coworking areas.
To BElong to Cohere you must BE eager to help everyone feel proud of our space and the people in it.
Because Old Town Cohere has always had a loving landlord (we actually call him the Innkeeper) who tended to our grounds and common areas we had never truly felt the pain of a building owner who literally could not hold our container with positive regard. That, in turn, caused me to spend all of my Cothere energy trying to help the landlord learn how to hold the container that held US! He made it clear that he couldn’t hold the container. Won’t. Wouldn’t even pick it up and try.
As the community manager, I had nothing left to give the people of Cothere. My usual zest for connection and energy to give and listen was tapped out. My arms, my heart, my brain, were overwhelmed by TRYING to figure out how hold a container that didn’t actually belong to me. To us.
After asking the members what I should do about Cothere, all but one say a version of this, “we’ll follow you where ever you take Cohere (as long as it’s not in THAT building). Do what is best for you.” So I laid down the container. Permanently. After 14 months I gleefully get out of my lease and bring everyone back together at Cohere. The community is overjoyed that the saga is concluded.
As if the universe was bulging with abundance while it waited for me to sort out my shit, its fabric rips open and pours forth a rush of people who want to join Cohere. Tours are joyous again, filled with people and introductions and I don’t have to make excuses for the common areas. Each day we border on being full. Full of members, full of laughter and connectedness, donuts and lunches out together.
A hot dog potluck marks the closure of Cothere and the revitalization of Frank Friday
I immediately refine and add our values to our membership page:
BE yearning for interaction
BE willing to introduce yourself, make friends and help
BE ready to participate in impromptu and planned events
BE eager to help everyone feel proud of our space and the people in it
BE prepared for abundance (work, laughter, goodwill, and more)
When considering expansion, don’t look for a building. Look for people.
- Look for a community helper who is invested, excited and willing to put in the hours needed to bring people together.
- Look to your existing members for feedback and talk about what expansion means for both communities.
- Find a commercial Realtor who can add very specific language into your lease about maintenance and responsibilities.
- Look for a landlord who is capable and willing to hold a container for you. MEET your landlord(s) in person before you sign.
Brave enough to share your epic failure? Post it in the comments or email it to me!