Co is for Collaboration: Reflections on the Coworking Unconference in Bansko, Bulgaria 2018

by Birthe “Bee” Menke

It is still early on Monday when I sit at Sofia International Airport observing that hustle and bustle in the departure hall so typical to these places of transience and mobility — rolling suitcases, coffee in paper cups over subtle chatter, people staring spellbound at their laptops answering a last few emails before connection cuts off. I’m staring at a laptop screen myself, gathering my thoughts that I’ve written down as fragments of an eventful weekend at the CUBB 2018, knowing that it’s going to take a few days for me to process all that input. And I observe my fellow mobile workers with a new curiosity; one that’s anchored in discussions on the nature of their being and the future of their belonging that took place over a weekend among coworking mavens in the mountains of rural Bulgaria.

When Friday came

It all began with us participants walking through the glass doors of Bansko’s notorious coworking space, greeted by smiling faces of coworking community members against that vivid orange backdrop that is the unmistaken personality of the walls between which digital natives and nomads work their magic. In that exact space most of us participants got to know one another on a rather personal level during a small welcome session, a round of BetterMe which encourages players to reflect upon their experiences, share their stories, and commit to conscious acts of self-betterment. We spoke of our understandings of families and the natures of our connections, listened to anecdotes of tiresome cycling trips that were less than voluntary and liberating resignations from less than fulfilling jobs, sat together in a minute of silence, and laughed at terribly rehearsed dad jokes.

What CUBB 2018 was all about

But now, down to business. What we were there for — aside from networking opportunities and great demonstrations of German-Bulgarian hospitality — were the unconference sessions in which we expected to engage in constructive dialogue and exchange learnings on the matters of space management and community building in the coworking environment. By collective effort we created a pool of questions on burning issues in existing communities and addressed a number of pain points in the different stages of coworking stories:

First things first: How do you get started?

The question of how to get started is best answered by those who have built coworking spaces and communities and, admittedly, made a few extra loops in the process. We heard stories of overstaffing, overpricing, and overcomplicating, of shifts in location and last-minute arrangements, of crowded opening parties and yawning emptiness thereafter. We learned that building spaces and communities is a gradual process and that it is important to be active and present throughout that entire process to build a strong network — and that flexibility is key.

CUBB Insight: Start out with informal meet-ups, arrange ‘Coworking Wednesdays” (or Tuesdays, or Fridays, or whatever you prefer), and get ambassadors on board who are willing to be there for very first day of coworking and will spread the word for you — with an authenticity that comes from the bottom of their hearts.

But then: How do you go about branding?

What are you, and who are you? These are questions, not in a philosophical as much as in a communicational sense, that accompany anyone who has given thought to or already started building their concept of an own coworking space. You want to send a clear message to the coworkers and soon-to-be coworkers out there about what your values and objectives are and why they should be part of it all. In order to build a successful brand with an authentic feel you must build a community of like-minded individuals whose values you share.

CUBB Insight: Listen, reflect, and go from there. Answer two questions for yourself: (1) what is your story? and (2) where do you want to go? and integrate them with the brand identity, type of space, and community spirit you’d like to find yourself surrounded by.

For when you’ve already gotten started: How do you promote your space?

This session was opened with a straightforward query on how to generate online reach and overall visibility for a space. The question of marketing for coworking spaces, however, runs much deeper than mere promotional activities — it revolves around the questions of how to target the audience one would like to reach, and how to listen to the coworkers one would like to populate their space with in the first place. Do these people even know that their best work opportunity might just be joining a coworking space or are they still working from their mundane office setup at home? Research has led to the conclusion that people generally look for either of four benefits when joining coworking communities: inspiration, learning opportunities, networks, or jobs — and operators of coworking spaces ought to consider themselves moderators and facilitators in the success of their respective members by seizing every opportunity to add value for coworkers and ask their opinions.

CUBB Insight: Promotion comes most naturally if you as the operator of a coworking space are part of the community, if you actively reach out and connect with your members so that, at the end of the day, they will spread the word for you and make others want to be part of the community too.

Taking it to the next level: How do you approach collaborations with other spaces?

The general notion among participants was that the difficulty of collaborations is not a lack of aspirations — quite the contrary, if one considers the many (so far unsuccessful) endeavors of establishing coworking visas as member exchange programs — but rather the absence of true commitment to the cause for everyone’s benefit. While everyone has ideas, no one is able to (or willing to) direct their members towards certain places simply because coworkers act autonomously in making mobility choices, they do whatever the hell they want, and they should! One participant advocated for collaborations in the field of awareness raising about the coworking movement in general rather than micromanaging the issue, because the biggest competition to a coworking space is not another coworking space but those who are unfamiliar with the concept of coworking altogether.

CUBB Insight: Consider your ultimate motive for collaborations and closely attend to the spaces across the world that your members end up at — the overlaps will give you an idea of what spaces in what places are a fit for your community — and please, do not invent another digital nomad visa! At the end of the day, collaborations must go beyond member exchanges and facilitate the flow of ideas, strategies, politics, and resources.

CUBB 2018 Takeaways

Whether they are reflections on our unconference sessions, the results of one participant’s PhD dissertation, or the thoughts on dinner table conversations, one message is clear beyond a doubt: When getting into the coworking business, or even thinking about it, one needs to be a contributor first. Get involved with existing communities or bring likeminded people together, know their pain points and understand their mindsets, contribute to their endeavors and contribute what makes their endeavors more visible in the world, and facilitate their needs and engagement with one another. It’s all about communication and how you handle your responsibility as the receiving end of the communicated.