#CUBB2018: A weekend retreat for coworking enthusiasts

by Javier Fernandez

The Third Edition of the Unconference Bansko was a very special occasion for a group of Coworking enthusiasts to meet each other and talk about many interesting topics. But why an Unconference? Let’s say the idea behind it is mixing formal and informal sessions where the participants are not just active listeners, but lead and decide the contents of the discussions.

Most of the participants were founders, experts, managers and operators of coworking spaces, but the audience were not limited to it. In the #cubb2018 also met graphic designers, journalists, content writers, software developers and users with a deep interest in the operation of a Coworking space.

Day 1: Getting to know you

People open their mind, body and hearth to a genius card game called Better Me; an inspiring ice breaker session lead by Birthe Bee Menke. Everybody who played the game commited to be an improved version of themselves, which actually is pretty hard because every participant of the Unconference was already awesome.

Little by little the room of the social space at Coworking Bansko started to get full and from the beginning the rich diversity of the group made everybody feel accepted, included and relaxed. It is time for Matthias and Uwe to welcome the participants, which at the same time introduced themselves choosing hashtags that represent them.

During the introduction round we met a digital nomad who came to Bulgaria looking for freedom and happiness, a coworking founder who dreams with sailing, a location independent content writer who is also an environmentalist, a very social duo making an impact in the Coworking Community in Sofia and Tel Aviv and a #writer passionate about wine and tacos, among many others.

Coworking Bansko founders ended up the session explaining why they chose Bulgaria and how the babas (Grandmothers) and other locals recognize them in the picturesque streets of this mountain town. Being generous seems to be the recipe for the success of a Coworking space that definitely have made an impact in the local economy. The best example is that more than 20 digital nomads has moved in but Matthias is still waiting for the first Coworking Bansko baby.

It was friday night and every participant join for a traditional dinner in a mehana (restaurant). The organizers asked the participants to be on the space next day at 9 o’clock sharp, just because there are germans attending the conference!

Second day: Time for discussion

The second day started with a keynote held by Dr. Anita Fuzi, Strategic Adviser at Cowork 7/24, who did a thesis after a massive research on coworking spaces between 2013 and 2016. During that time she visited more than 50 offices in 10 countries, but she focused on the ecosystems created in Cardiff. In her opinion, it is a commonly held opinion that community is the most important thing for a Coworking but her research shows that the physical space is the first thing people checked and also affects creativity. In other words,community is everything but is not enough. When asked about which Coworking spaces are making a difference, Anita wanted to highlight the success of Impact HUB Bratislava and Indy Hall in Philadelphia.

After Anita’s keynote, participants made comments on the importance of investing in infrastructure, which should be the first step for a great workplace. Only afterwards the operator can establish a “sharing is caring” culture in order to build a community. In the case of Coworking Bansko, the greater diversity among its members is what attracts success. But even being successful, can the smaller spaces sustain?

The rest of the morning session were discussions held in two parallel working groups. Uwe distributed papers and stickers and the participants wrote a topic, a burning issue or just something to talk about. This system allows you to pick the session you were interested in. We discussed about the following topics, among many others.

What activities are you making? How to build a community?

We agree that there are so many cool activities for a Coworking space, from cooking lessons to personal development events. The guys from Networking Sofia/Tel Aviv know how to have fun and they deserve a visit next time you are in one of these cities. Their famous Happy Hours reinforce the feeling of community. .But what about the members who can’t join because they have to work?

Or those who do not want to be bothered? We think an acceptable level of bothering is not a big deal if we want to keep a happy community. Uwe thinks the events are also a great moment for asking for feedback to the community in order to improve the space. Great idea!

Remy Lasset has lot of experience as a web content writer. He started his nomadic life almost a year ago staying in well known Coworking spaces like Sun And Co (Jávea, Spain) and some others that are starting like Novovento (Azores, Portugal) and Arctic Coworking Lodge (Norway). In his opinion, the operators are just orienting and creating a feeling of community, but only the members can develop a sense of community in order to be a big family. Everybody can be part of a Facebook group and ask for a Mastermind about a topic and later organize a Skype session. That is why is important to organize remote events even when the members are away from the Coworking space.

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, that it is important to be active and present throughout the entire process to build a strong network, and that flexibility is key. Start out with informal meet-ups, arrange ‘Coworking Wednesdays” (or Tuesdays, or Fridays, or whatever you prefer) thereafter and get ambassadors on board who are willing to spread the word for you.

When a community hates you!

Serkan from Cowork 7/24 put a hard topic on the table: What to do when you repeat events and people do not attend it anymore? If the members of your Coworking space get bored and lose interest you should think again what your community is interested in. Maybe the best idea is to organize something outside the walls of your space, like a dinner in a restaurant or a bar. Every community is unique and there is a huge difference between coworkers in small and big cities.

Change the environment or organize free events bringing outsiders to your coworking can be also beneficial. In conclusion, always try something new and assume that something works well with a group of people and next month may not work. Have you try with a community breakfast or a chess evening?

How do you promote your space?

Makis from Office Club Thessaloniki opened the session with a straightforward query on how to generate online reach and overall visibility. 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 by Cowork 7/24 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. 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.

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 because coworkers simply act autonomously in making mobility choices. Ryan Chatterton from Coworking Insights and Habu advocates 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. 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.

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. Thilo Utke from cobot, a management software for coworking spaces, takes it further and states that in order to build a successful brand with an authentic feel you must build a community of like-minded individuals whose values you share. 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.

Best niche coworking space

Niche coworking spaces are growing in number as more coworking businesses try to win customers over by targeting individuals’ specific needs. Do you know what is Kinky coworking about? Have you ever cooked in a communitarian kitchen? If you were an artist or a filmmaker, would you be happy to share a space with people from your industry? During this session we discovered so many new concepts that could be so efficient, but what about a coworking space for brewing in the rural Baviera. Thanks to Hans-Peter Sander from Ammerse Denkerhaus for such a great idea. Cheers!

Talking about problems

Have you ever had to kick out a member? How do you create, and more important, how do you execute the rules of your Coworking space? How to deal with a member who made an unfair use of the printer? Probably writing a manifiesto with the values and rules of your Coworking space is a good idea, but how to enforce the rules? For many owners their biggest fear is an internet cut, a real headache that could lead to fatal consequences.

Occasional collaboration VS Long term collaborations

They called themselves small players within the coworking sector. They are far from being competitors and have shared values and interests. What they wish is more people talking about their respective Coworking spaces in order to spread the word. The Unconference in Bansko was an opportunity for the participants to set common goals and strategies. So why not to make an alliance?

Until now every attempt to create an association or some kind of synergie between independent coworking spaces has failed. In opinion of Uwe, it is “extremely difficult” because everybody is very friendly and have many ideas but no one “want to send their members” to other coworking space. That is why the operators has to get rid of the idea that they own a community.

Yes, we had too much tasty food during the event

An hypothetical alliance could bring new opportunities. In the case of Bulgaria, the remote work is still nonexistent. That is why an alliance could have the capacity to organize a big event with the HHRR departments of big companies in order to convince them about the possibilities of coworking and remote work. In short, an alliance could help to approach bigger clients as a collective showing professionalism and being able to compete with bigger players.

The best example is Coworking Indonesia, which brings together more than 200 businesses of this sector in the south asian country. It has been proved that Coworking Indonesia has made very good things for their members because they have gained the recognition of indonesian government and media.

During the Unconference, every coworking founder agree that the objective of an alliance could make grow the local market and make people know more about coworking. We can say some people were very enthusiastic about this idea and some other do not believe in an alliance since it has never prove been beneficial for the coworking spaces. In opinion of Makis Psycoulas from Office Club Thessaloniki, the alliance could be a platform for sharing ideas, strategies and resources, while the group offers a forum for problem solving.

During this session was discussed which would be the benefits of being part of an alliance. For some participants, like Veljko Bogdanovic from Smart Office in Belgrade, it could be great to offer packages for digital nomads traveling around the Balkans. The risk is to become tour operators and for that a license from the europeans regulators is needed.

It is true that offering too many services can be a risk for a Coworking space. Even a simple Just Landed Package can be a headache for the operators. That is why it is even harder to have partners like hotels or gyms because a member end up complaining to the operator of the Coworking space. A Coworking Visa is neither an option because it is a huge effort not very money wise. But what about a card or a blockchain token that allow the members to choose? What an alliance could definitely offer to their users is a premium membership with many advantages in order to reward loyal customers.

Some of the participants in the Unconference tented to think that most of the remote workers prefer to be member of a big player of the industry. Actually the small coworking spaces struggle to be sustainable and the profits became a secondary objective. But an alliance can give new hopes not only for its owners, but for the members who believe a medium or small space is the only place where a community ecosystem can be developed.

Third and final day: It’s very hard to say goodbye

The last day of the Unconference was about the importance of having a quality software for improving your business. Thilo Utke from Cobot was the first participant to show a management software for coworking spaces that helps you with billing, invoicing, bookings and member management. For its part, Serkan Kurtulus, from Coworking 7/24, made the presentation of an app for finding a coworking space whether you’re working from your neighborhood or traveling for a few weeks.You can download it through the website https://www.cowork7x24.com/. Finally, coworking fanatic Ryan Chatterton showed the benefits of working with Habu, a “simple, smart software for flourishing & happy coworking hubs”.

Ryan also closed the third edition of the Unconference with an interesting analysis about how to build an ecosystem for a Coworking space, a process that is way more complex and important than find a cool space in an industrial area of a hip neighborhood. The chances of failing if you do not think first about your potential community are very high. We strongly recommend you to follow his new personal blog (ryanchatterton.com) on mindfulness and personal growth (and also Coworking, of course).

There was one more important announcement before closing the Unconference held in Bansko.

Veljko Bogdanovic took the floor for announcing a new event that will take place in Belgrade next month. Between 9th and 11th October the Coliving Coworking Seeconference will bring more than 40 speakers who will complete about 40 workshops about networking, creativity, personal development, remote work, women entrepreneurship and social responsibility among others.

The #CUBB 2018 will be remembered for the fantastic atmosphere generated by all the participants, who showed a great motivation and passion for what they are doing. Apart from talking about coworking, the 3 days of coliving were full of fun for those who join the Unconference.

Ending the unconference at the a local mineral pool

We had time to share lunches and dinners in great local mehanas, relax in thermal baths, enjoy the nature and even attend an improvised concert given by three of us in a cute little wine bar. Many more things happened during this journey, but you should come next time if you are looking for joining a family that have the same community spirit.

About the author:
Javier Fernandez is a journalist from Spain currently living in Bansko, where he is learning what coworking means and how important is having a real community behind it. He has lived and worked in Poland, Canada, Mexico, India, Sri Lanka and Scotland. If you are interested in volunteering, entrepreneurship or alternative music, Javier will be glad to talk with you until wee hours of the morning.