Communities and cycles (II)
Who is Your First Line of Defense?
In this second part of coliving communities and cycles, we’ll learn how to deal with events that will either disrupt your space’s energy, your community DNA, or both. Read the first part here if you haven’t already.
The best weapon against these disruptions is the House Manager (HM). Call them the Community Manager, or whatever title you give them, but it’s the person from your team that is in direct and constant contact with your community. They must live on the premises and should not be one of your colivers whom you offered rent-reduction in exchange for HM services. I will write a specific post on the role of the House Manager, so I don’t want to go deep on it today; I just want to talk about their role in reducing the negative impact of community cycles.
The Importance of a House Manager
I like to rotate the HM every three to six months. One of the reasons is to prevent burnout and keep high levels of passion. In some instances, I’m OK with extending their stay if they prove to be outstanding. Potentially you can have them rotating through different coliving locations.
Anyhow, whenever a new HM arrives at your coliving space, there will be a disruption in the energy of your community — it will be transformed.
Guests will be disturbed and will miss the previous HM. The new one will need time to understand their current community and adapt to it. One thing I often advise them is to be discerning with the first friendships they make. I remind them that they are not a coliver; they’re part of Startup Embassy’s team.
Usually, when there are problems in a relationship HM-guest, it’s with the ones they got along best from the start. So, they better start slow and be wary of the intense social dynamics that take place in a coliving, where in a few days you think you’ve found your best friend. Guests must understand that no matter how well you get along with the HM, there’s a hierarchy, and they must respect it.
At any given time, there’s always a hard nucleus in your community formed by at least three or four members. They represent the majority of your current culture. It’s imperative that the community is not hierarchized and that whatever they represent, it’s inclusive to other new members.
The HM needs to be the catalyzer that guarantees community health. When a new group arrives, they will clash with the previous group if they bring another strong, individual personality. A new HM can have the exact same effect, as they represent a hierarchized role.
In a case like this, the energy will drop. You might have a long-term guest that was feeling secure in your space, and suddenly, they leave because the new culture represents a different understanding of how to live, and they’re disrupted by it.
Sometimes a new guest arrives with the right profile for your community but finds out that they’re an ill fit with your culture and decide to spend all day isolated in their room until the day they leave.
Oftentimes, this happens when the new guest is shocked by your space’s culture on arrival, based on a lack of understanding of what behavior is expected. This feeling is amplified depending on the social and cultural differences.
For any reason, the newcomer felt insulted or hurt, typically because there was a misunderstanding. Your HM (or you as an operator) didn’t notice it, nor got any feedback, and they end up having the worst of experiences. This is your fault.
Two Ways Your HM Can Help
What’s the solution? There are two main things you should focus on:
- The House Manager must be trained to deal with these situations before managing your space. They are the anchor of the community. Your colivers should develop trust with them, and care about their opinion. The HM must be someone with strong emotional skills and the emotional intelligence to be able to manage these community cycles successfully. Studies on psychology help a lot.
- Always focus on setting the right expectations. This is an umbrella term, covering all processes your colivers should expect: community culture, content generation, space management, and coliving tools. Your standards should be so strong that your guests arrive with a deep understanding of your location’s values.
Colivers: Cases to Examine
If you are dealing with a coliver that suddenly develops a dislike for your new modified culture, first make sure you can identify these changes quickly. This implies noticing a change in behaviors. The most extreme case being self-isolation. You will notice this if they:
- Suddenly spend too much time isolated in their room when they usually didn’t.
- Are always in a corner working with their laptop, away from others.
- Stop coming to your events when they usually did.
- Spend most of their time away from your space, when before they didn’t.
Notice that I stress the change in behavior rather than the behavior by itself. For this, you must have a baseline, which implies that you know your colivers, which ultimately means that your House Manager developed a relationship when they first arrived.
This is the opposite of forcing your colivers to be actively part of all events of the space. That’s not it, and make sure you don’t do that, or you will end up running a cult.
I’ve had situations where some guests left for misunderstandings that could have been avoided if we had known in advance and had the chance to correct them. Other times it was a new group that took over the culture and made them feel uncomfortable.
If you’re unsure what this looks like, here are some case examples:
One coliver (let’s call him John) was the perfect guest. He ran a successful startup, was clean, tidy, hardworking, and would participate in most of our events. I remember him involved in many discussions about entrepreneurship we had late at night, almost every day.
When John first arrived at Startup Embassy, most of our guests were growing their companies and operated at this stage. Conversations revolved around general growth strategies like funnels, marketing, series A investing, etc.
But a few months later, new guests arrived. Most of them were now in a different stage. They were on ideation, and it was all about creativity, with long, loud, exciting debates.
When you’re in that stage you are energetic, much more social, which sometimes means more alcohol at night and not necessarily working much, because you still don’t know exactly what actions would be best for your company and you are in creative mode. This is OK, and it’s a stage of entrepreneurship — but John felt there was too much noise. Conversations were not that exciting for him anymore, and he got frustrated with so much noise and lack of work (It wasn’t that bad, but he was comparing it with the previous culture he had felt comfortable with).
First of all, you must be aware of the problem, and the person to notice this is your House Manager. If they have John’s trust, it should be easy to talk with John about the problem early enough. Sometimes you just can’t do anything about it, but in John’s case, we could have enforced quiet in the working place.
In fact, if you have the right technology in place (IoT and chatbots), you should already have known that the place was too noisy! We could have had a session with all the guests to solve this issue (sometimes talking helps), and sometimes it’s just that they didn’t have enough time to get to know each other.
Another way to correct this situation is to be preventive.
This usually requires that your coliving is large enough. In this case, put a quota on the profiles you accept in your space, based on the different stages of growth of your coliving (that, of course, requires that you are verticalized, and you understand your market very well).
For example, 10% of your space can be interns working on startups; not more because they have the tendency to play beer pong after work, but at the same time, having some of them is fun, and they contribute fresh startup ideas. Going with this percent style for balance, a good coliving for startup founders can have:
- 30% of idea-stage entrepreneurs.
- 30% of growth scale entrepreneurs
- 15% of people going through an accelerator program
- and 15%for people that are not founders but are related to the ecosystem, like investors, lawyers or event organizers, or reporters from the startup world.
This way, there will always be a group for any type of profile, and your coliving will be balanced, representative of the entire ecosystem you want to serve.
Another case involves an entrepreneur with Asian heritage — and I mention her cultural background because it’s important for the case.
In my experience, we had to be cautious with onboarding Asian entrepreneurs because of the Western culture clash. It was especially difficult for those individuals who didn’t have previous experience in Western culture (like having studied in a Western country).
This particular entrepreneur faced a far more challenging adjustment period than any other coliver we’ve hosted. Our Chinese entrepreneur had a bad start with us. On her first day, she was greeted by Angelika, one of my dearest friends and co-founders at Startup Embassy Kipling. And if you know Angelika, that can be great, or the worst day of the week for you. Let me first explain.
Angelika is tough, at least when we’re talking about advising startups. She represents the “Silicon Valley way” of doing things (which you might like or not, but hey, you did come to Silicon Valley, right?). She’s intense and brutish training Silicon Valley startups for decades, and she’s adamant on zero, absolute zero bullshitting. She will give you the advice you don’t want to hear because it hurts. But that’s actually the advice you should look for, and almost nobody gives, just to be nice to you.
Angelika doesn’t give a fuck, because guess what, she actually does care about you and your startup. The first interaction you have with her will be tough because she will ask you about your company and what you do. And she will interrupt you on the first phrase that comes out of your mouth because you are already not being clear or bullshitting. Angelika is the fox terrier of bullshitting. She smells it miles away, and she will assertively confront you in a constructive way. But if you don’t know her, you won’t perceive that constructiveness at the beginning and might feel assaulted.
Over time I’ve learned the pattern when she offended people. The ones who got offended always were people that I believe weren’t mature enough. And we’re talking about startup CEOs here. The ones that were open-minded, mature, and willing to accept good intended criticism about their companies might have felt surprised at the beginning with Angelika; until after some quick interaction where some difficult emotions were confronted, she became a mentor to them. So, in the end, when I thought about Angelika, I thought of her as an immaturity filter, sometimes an asshole filter.
Returning to our Chinese guest, it was not only that she might have been immature. The huge cultural shock she faced probably added to her discomfort. Like I said, she was greeted by Angelika, and as it always happens at Startup Embassy, they immediately started talking about her company.
Angelika went into brute-Silicon-Valley-mentor mode, and our guest felt shocked. The next thing we know, this girl ends up spending the rest of her stay in her room. I guess our space’s culture, with the addition of an already formed clique, didn’t help either.
But what is the solution for this case?
Was it Angelika’s fault? Well, yes and no. And mostly no. I’m not going to explore here the following discussions we had afterward as I don’t think it matters, she just did what she was supposed to do at Startup Embassy; it was her role.
The point I want you to focus on is the following. You should have a crystal clear, strong culture, whatever that is (and please, don’t forget about diversity). But remember to set the right expectations way before your guest decides to book your space, and that includes information about your location’s culture.
The way I now would’ve dealt with this situation is simple. Angelika is part of the team and it’s not only that I love her, but she’s both a cornerstone for our coliving, and her unique skills are central to our DNA.
But we should have communicated this in advance.
How? Well, build a story around her. I’ll talk in the future about gamification, storytelling, rituals, and how they should be part of building your brand and community. But in this case, as an example, I’d say that I would build the role of “Sergeant” Angelika.
In my brand’s content-building strategy, she would be an integral part, turning a potential liability for my brand into a strength. “Hey entrepreneur, this is Silicon Valley; we don’t bullshit here. You have to be tough to come here. Do you have what it takes and are ready to confront Sgt. Angelika?” If you focus part of your content on communicating this facet, now the applicants will be ready and excited about the moment they first meet Angelika. BOOM.
Mama Carlos says: The Rules to Minimize Negative Community Cycles
Situations will continue to happen, but now it’s much easier to deal with them because they’re part of a story. People are much more likely to accept information in the narrative form.
And even if it doesn’t work, you can use the information to improve on why. For example, a potential guest might clash with your version of Angelika. In this case, what could be different about your selection process? Remember, your brand’s DNA works for a reason. Stick to your standards. All of this doesn’t imply that the fault is always on the coliver, that’s not my point; you should always study these conflicts and get to the core of why it happened, assume your share of fault and correct it by changing processes and apologizing if needed.
I showed two random situations that can emerge, but you must prepare for an infinite amount of combinations going forward. The rules to carry you through all of them are:
- Measure and identify which situations change the energy for good or bad.
- Which of those might change your culture, also for good (or I say different) or wrong.
- Understand how they come about.
- Understand how to correct them.
To best utilize these rules, your strongest asset is your House Manager. As the direct connection and anchor to your community, their role is central to this process. Choose wisely when you hire for this position, and always be open-minded! If you remain aware, even a crisis can be an opportunity for positive growth.