The three founders of Cobot discuss their experiences and advice on coworking and coworking spaces. Cobot is the leading management software for coworking spaces, office hubs, and flexible workspaces around the world.
Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us about your role at Cobot?
Alex: I’m the CTO, so I’m responsible for the development and tech support teams. I’m involved with a lot of decisions made in the company, and I also help with things like sales and support for larger customers. We have 15 employees now and we’re growing constantly, so there’s always something new happening.
Thilo: I have the role of CEO, which involves keeping an eye on the business and legal requirements for Cobot. Mainly, I keep track of our long-term goals. In terms of day-to-day business, I’m involved in technical support and developing Cobot. I’m very passionate about coworking, I also support national and international coworking communities directly. You can meet me at the monthly coworking meetups I organize in Berlin, and of course I’m also a regular guest at coworking conferences around the world.
Kriesse: My title at Cobot is CPO, where the P stands for product. My role is to plan and prioritize the feature roadmap and decide which direction the product takes. I am also still involved in the hands-on development of Cobot, and whenever time allows I contribute to the frontend code and design. Having always worked at the intersection of design and development, I enjoy bringing these disciplines together in my spare time as well; I organize community events like CSSconf EU, JSconf EU, and of course up.front, a monthly meetup that I’ve been running here at co.up, our own community space.
Thilo and Alex, you started Cobot in 2010 — why did you decide to build coworking management software? What was available on the market at the time for managing a coworking space?
Thilo: Alex and I have been working together since 2006. We opened our own coworking space in Berlin, co.up, in 2008. With the success of co.up, the managerial tasks became more and more time-consuming. We kept thinking about ways to improve and automate operations so that we would no longer have to deal with spreadsheets and paperwork. In our search for the right tools we couldn’t find anything close to what we needed. Being engineers, we decided to build our own solution. This led directly to the creation of Cobot in early 2010. Having built various online services working as a development consultancy, we saw the potential of Cobot to help other spaces as well. At the same time, it was a way for us to follow our coworking passion more independently.
Today, Cobot helps hundreds of coworking spaces and networks all over the world to streamline their operations and is one of the most widely used coworking solutions. We strive to continuously build the best possible system for coworking management, so that space owners can focus on what really matters — time spent with their coworkers.
A chat with Thilo
As the CEO of Cobot, what is your main goal?
The answer is twofold.
As far as the company is concerned, I want to empower every team member’s autonomy and enable them to express themselves through their work.
The coworking movement completely changed my perspective on work, and opened my eyes to how damaging work environments can be if they ignore individual needs and community. Coworking showed me how we can advance beyond the old model, and I strive to apply these lessons to our team at Cobot as well.
As far as Cobot, the product, is concerned, I aim to help spaces better serve their members by reducing the amount of manual, repetitive administrative work needed to run a space. Which means I always keep an eye on how the coworking world is developing new solutions to support coworking space managers in the best possible way.
You’ve been involved in the coworking community for about a decade. How did you see it evolve over time, and what do you think is the biggest change that happened since the early days?
Coworking began with a vision of a more human-centered workplace. The coworking pioneers explored work environments that put collaboration and the needs of the individual coworker first. They had to make their offers easily accessible by commoditizing their workplace.
Soon, the first coworking spaces succeeded in becoming profitable, and not long after that the business model was adopted by major players in the real estate market. The amount of money flowing into this new model definitely helped to normalize the concept of coworking, but it also blurred the initial idea, which was born out of a movement fighting against corporate work culture.
Today, in order to survive in the competitive environment of serviced offices, coworking spaces need to differentiate themselves, to create a distinct character and provide a unique emotional value to their community. We’re seeing more spaces focusing on niche markets. Independent coworking spaces have found they need to focus on collaboration, not only within their member community, but also with other spaces.
Growing regional and international networks allow independent spaces to develop and market their offerings, and take advantage of the deep knowledge about creating attractive work environments held within these networks.
This is also very attractive for large corporations that can struggle with hiring and keeping talents. We are currently seeing an increase in synergies between the corporate and coworking worlds. But both sides are still learning to speak each other’s languages. Simply moving your corporate teams to a nicer office with a speciality coffee bar is definitely not a panacea. The base ideals of coworking require a fundamental change in how we approach work.
What is the vision for Cobot in the coming years?
We are the tool of choice for coworking spaces (and other businesses within the industry) to help them operate and grow their coworking facilities. This means we are growing with the industry and adapting to its changing needs. We are expanding our features for managing multiple locations, as many of our customers want to broaden their successful communities to include new destinations. We also see that coworking is constantly becoming more flexible and accessible. While the monthly membership model is still popular, flexible drop-ins for a day (or even hours or minutes) are catching up. So we’re ramping up our abilities to accommodate that.
You’ve built a great product and development team, mainly women, which is pretty unusual! How did you achieve this?
That’s been a hard and continuous process, but it starts with a simple step: I listened and learned from our coworking community.
In our own space co.up, many women and people from marginalized groups are involved in running and organizing events; they taught us how to create the safe space that co.up has become.
Events are run under a Code of Conduct designed to facilitate positive interaction, and we strive to encourage a welcoming and inclusive culture throughout. While running this community I picked up lots of advice and hints on how to listen more closely and communicate better. When we started hiring for Cobot, the things I learned carried into the process and led us to include more people.
To give due credit: Aleks, our community manager and long time team member, was a patient teacher of inclusive communication and building safe environments. Kristina, our CPO and first generation coworker, is a connector among women in tech in Berlin. She organizes community events, conferences, and participates as a mentor across various community workshops for women. At this point, so do many of our other team members. This helps immensely to make sure our job openings reach across lines of identity, and we find that our reputation for providing a supportive work environment encourages diverse applicants.
And another facet was simply our own desire to strengthen our company. As software engineers we have worked on countless projects over the years, collaborating with so many different people, each with different life experiences. This technical experience allows us to look past the latest buzzwords when we’re interviewing candidates, we seek to discover a person’s abilities beyond simply testing their technical skills, asking questions that help us to understand what motivates and drives them to succeed. We try and determine an individual’s potential to become productive and grow, because that’s what we want to provide in our company.
A chat with Alex:
What is your priority at Cobot?
As CTO my main priority is to make sure the product is stable, allowing us to keep adding features and improving what’s already there. On top of that, I manage the development team, which includes hiring new people and improving our development practices and processes. I also look at new technologies that can help us to build a better product, in addition to our server infrastructure.
What is the thing you like the most about Coworking?
The fact that anyone in the world can open a coworking space, whoever and wherever they are and be part of it. There’s no single gatekeeper, no corporation controlling it.
What is your biggest challenge?
Drinking less Club Mate.
Your favorite feature in Cobot?
Automated billing. It takes care of so much manual work and allows the coworking space managers to spend that extra time on more meaningful things. Before starting Cobot, I never could have imagined that working on something as ‘dull’ as billing could be so exciting, but solving these complicated problems gives me a lot of satisfaction.
A chat with Kriesse:
You recently joined the Cobot team as CPO. What is your background?
Originally, I have a background in communication, but I’ve been working in product design and development for about ten years. I started that part of my career in Berlin as a freelancer, and I’d often collaborate with Alex and Thilo on client projects. Around the time they came up with Cobot, I actually contributed to the very first iteration of the app! However, I took a break from both Berlin and Cobot and went to live in San Francisco for a few years; I worked as designer on a personal finance app and got to experience the ups and downs of startup life. About 3 years ago, I returned to Berlin to work with Cobot again. I was very lucky to join just as the product and team had reached the level at which they were growing rapidly, and could incorporate my experience in product and team development that I had gained abroad.
As a Chief of Product at Cobot, what is the most important thing for you?
Our product was built with the intention to automate running a coworking space: to keep space operators and community managers free from boring, repetitive tasks, so that they can take care of the people in their spaces.
I want Cobot to be as invisible as possible. It should, ideally, stay out of your way. A great management app should not make you think more, or ask you to fiddle endlessly with set up. It should keep you free from rote tasks and let you focus on your community.
How do you decide on the features you want to develop for the product?
We’re in constant conversation with our customers. We listen to them, we ask them what they need, we continuously analyze the data to see how they use our product. That information guides our feature development. Beyond that, we attend coworking events and follow coworking media to stay ahead of trends and predict the needs of coworking spaces and shared offices in the future.
How would you define coworking?
Coworking has had a very personal impact on me — many of my good friends are people that I originally met in my coworking community almost ten years ago when I moved to Berlin.
I started my work life in an extremely bureaucratic, corporate environment. Joining the early Berlin coworking scene showed me how satisfying work can be if you are in an inspiring environment with like-minded people around you.
So to me, coworking means community; a community of people who connect through their passion for building something together and putting collaboration and mutual support first.
If you’re interested in working at Cobot, they are currently hiring! If you’re interested in working on their German-speaking support team, check out their listing on Coworkies here: https://www.coworkies.com/jobs/unterstuetzung-im-bereich-sales-und-support-1408/details