6 Lessons Learned (and to Unlearn) while Building HUBBA and the Thai ecosystem for the past 8 years
After 8 years at HUBBA Ekkamai, we bid farewell to the classic location in Ekkamai in May 2020, which is exactly 8 years since we opened our doors in June 2012. It took a while to find inspiration to write this post, but with bittersweet memories I would like to share my 6 learnings distilled from 8 years and how Covid-19 has challenged my beliefs completely.
1. Location, Location, Location vs Location Independence
When we started 8 years ago, one of the most often repeated mantra is that location is key. Not only did we look at a ton of properties before we found the original house, we consulted feng shui masters, observed traffic patterns from nearby convenience stores and cafes, and the number of steps and distance it takes to walk from the space to the Skytrain. We looked at things beyond just the neighborhood, and while we love the Ekkamai-Thonglor area because it was the hip neighborhood of Bangkok that everyone wants to be at during the time, we tried our best to triangulate and quantify what is the best location. At one point, we figured that men wouldn’t want to walk over 5 minutes in the sun to get to our offices, and women a bit less.
While we had our shares of successes in picking good locations, and a fair bit of failures, those paradigms have completed shifted this past 4 months. What used to be the best locations (located in / on Skytrain stations, inside malls so there’s food to eat and things to do), now these malls are places to avoid. More and more people are thinking of getting a home office or going remote completely. But more importantly, for both coworking space operators and for consumers, our relationship with a location and their lifestyle will change forever. Will we tolerate the same old notion that we need to pay crazy rent to be in Grade A buildings on the skytrain just to signal that we are a successful company? Or can we be at a more private, less dense and safe location where we can see green space to relax our eyes and sleep on a hammock, don’t need to rush to leave the office because of the parking fees and the 1 hour parking lot traffic jam, have a BBQ cookout in the evening whenever you want and stay up as late as we like, without having to pay for extra overtime air-conditioning? Or why not give up the office all together, save the cost and learn to work remotely well?
I think the day of reckoning for landlords has come and consumers are waking up to the reality that there is a better way to work. I feel that HUBBA’s original location represent this ideal and I believe there is no better way to work than to make work, life and play all integrated in a location that embraces our family, our relationships and our health and well-being.
2. Becoming the next WeWork vs Federated, Open source communities
In the past, we were always driven by envy by WeWork to scale and capture as much of the market share. Sometimes pressuring ourselves after all the hype and other times pressured by investors to be more ambitious, we were dead set to hit scale and accelerate growth using software. The result? We had close to 5 locations last year, and served at one point over 20,000 people annually through our events and programs but had very meaningful connections with fewer people. It felt that the faster we were asked to scale the real estate side, the less time and resources we had for the people side. The pressure on the business was paramount and there was just not enough time in a day to take care of everyone. As we delegate and train our team to recreate the magic of the high touch HUBBA experience of our original locations, the hub and spoke model of having the coworking space operators at the center of the community as the provider and giver vs the rest of the community as the receiver became increasing untenable and diluted the experience. It is a phenomena that happens in all coworking spaces and community whether we like it or not. I’ve seen it first hand in my own coworking spaces, as an early member of WeWork Commons, joining far flung coworking space communities in Norway, being an Estonia e-Resident and scouring the world for the best practices. These communities exist in silos, and serve their member well at a small scale but start to break down as things become too big, too impersonal, too transactional.
The panacea? I think my left-field view on this is that the big box Walmart-ization of coworking space and community experience has proven that in the drive to pursue profit, scale, and efficiency, the spirit and culture dies, and that’s ok. It is the natural way, because the small is intimate, is trusting, is personable. People will crave different communities at different stages in their lives, like I am craving to meet Product Managers, Mandarin speakers, and Impact entrepreneurs as my roles and interest evolves. There is no chance in hell that I can know and be an expert in everything and lead everyone. HUBBA cannot exist at a center of these universes but we can enable it or help nurture it to emerge, and be connected to it in some way. These folks will congregate in different places, require different tools and require spaces that activate them in different ways. (It’s the same reason why Thai people say that our beaches are the best in the world, but when they go to Bali, they experience a different type of chill and fall in love with the land.) I believe that the future of communities will look more like what Mastodon has done for social media and guess what, until today coworking space operators and community leaders cannot still agree on the best practices and tools to use to run their communities!
The million or billion dollar question for the next decade:
- How can we get different communities across the globe to connect and collaborate with one another and how can we accelerate the flow of people, ideas, energies and capital across the world amongst different communities?
- How can we make the small communities thrive, and not die like the SME apocalypse that we are experiencing today?
- How can we create a set of tools and best practices, and open source them to the community so we don’t waste time reinventing the wheel?
- How can we create flow of the value of community better that keeps some to continue to sustain the community rather than look at the traditional closed-wall, let’s “capture and monetize” our community with ads, selling your data, expensive subscription?
3. Owning the “Keyword” vs Creating a New Category
One of the things most coworking space operators dread is that when new players start to emerge and participate in the ecosystem, how will we deal with them? Should we be friendly and help them when they are gunning for the same membership or should we ignore them and compete heads on?Sometimes, we tried to be friendly and got burned, other times we felt a competitive pressure when in fact there should not have been. The insecurity is real in the industry because often times we are just selling square meters and desks and chairs. So we often think about owning a keyword like let’s be the best coworking space / accelerator / corporate innovation / media company etc. in Thailand. While it is great to aspire to be the best in something, the barriers to entry for this industry is very low. Anybody can learn the skills I have picked up over the past 8 years if they tried hard enough. I was just lucky to have tried it first, failed a lot and learned a little with some really good teachers. But at the end of the day, you can never really own a keyword or be a center of the universe for a topic that long. Even if HUBBA is unique and gifted in building the Thai startup community it is today, at the end of the day, it was a joint effort of every mentor, judge, speaker, sponsor and attendee who help us get to where we are today. We are not the Startup Godfathers or Mafia, or take any credit to the success of our community, we were just really good cheerleaders.
The Space-as-a-service or Office-in-a-box age is over. Selling serendipitious and collisions as you walk down the hallways no longer has the allure in the age of Tinder Plus. It works, but it feels stale like going to a traditional Chamber of Commerce event (I have nothing against Chambers of Commerces by the way). Coworking space should not be cheaper than traditional offices, in fact it should be more expensive given the value and business opportunities it can bring. If you don’t believe it, ask anyone who has hung out in a coworking space long enough to raise their Series A fund, to sign million dollar contracts, and find their cofounder. The fundamental problem of this industry is that magic is always there, but it’s “priceless” and impossibly hard to communicate in value because so few people know the worth. When these serendipitous magic only happen to some folks who then become true believers, its hard to put a price tag on it. We then run to try to monetize content like webboards, mentorship, and newsletter which were once exclusive to a few folks in certain programs and accelerators are now democratized online, just go to Y Combinator’s Startup School and Techstars Entrepreneur’s Toolkit and get the best education the world can give you for free.
Look, I don’t have the answer for coworking spaces and community leaders, but I believe now it is time to challenge ourselves. The playbook we used to get here and copy notes from one anther no longer works. Anybody can be part of any community anywhere in the world. The barriers to starting a webinar is almost zero with Medium, Substack, StreamYard, Youtube, hell even a chat group and a mailing list. Value is being digitized, democratized and demonetized. Accelerator programs that used to be the defacto top program in town are now competing for the best talent from all over the world with other programs because all are going hybrid. Yet we never sit around to really look at our products and services. Do people need another 3 month accelerator when some of our ventures doing really hard stuff like solving the climate crisis, democraticizing access to space and helping to achieve the SDGs require a multi-year, sustained effort? This is what I learned after having joined amazing programs like the Obama Foundation: Asia Pacific Leaders inaugural cohort and the Edmund Hillary Fellowship. We need to redesign our offerings beyond space, keep doing harder things that nobody else can do or want to do, catch the next wave Post-Covid 19 and create the “Blue Ocean” category that will future proof our business. We teach this crap so much to corporations that come to hang out in our spaces, now it is time to eat our own dog food!
4. “Our” Unique Culture vs Co-created, Cooperative, Stewardship Culture
There is often a myth that is perpetuated by coworking spaces and community operators that our culture and community is stronger than this other place. But so often I see that culture breaks down in the best coworking spaces across the region when a few key people leave that community. It is because culture is the heart and soul of this business and it can only manifest itself when people come together and work with one another towards a shared vision, mission and values. But often times it was only a few “owners” or “cofounders” that get to play god with this process. Members feedback may be asked for in surveys or 1-on-1s, some staff may give us some feedback and we might read some posts online. But at the end of the day, a few people make a decision for the whole community and sometimes to disastrous effect. Just look at what is going on in the United States today. While the Constitution is saying on thing about peace, liberty, justice and freedom, the President is saying another. This is a keyman risk that makes any form of governance with one person a big risk and a threat to the vitality and health of the community when voices of the unheard go unheaded. There are so many great ideas in our community that we have not enough time, resources and focus to implement.
5. Creating artificial gurus and coaches vs Creating the Next Generation stewards and Passing the torch
Everyday, we are inundated with webinars, talks, blogs and books to read. People are teaching other people how to do startups when they haven’t done one. Folks putting on suits and preaching about how to be successful. In the coworking space and community industry, we sometime seek to glorify or even create idols in our community to differentiate ourselves. However, as we all know, idols are false gods and prophets. Many of us did not forsee Covid-19 happening or even the race riots. Nobody could have predicted the catastrophic damage that it has caused. Many of us will not survive this downturn and even if we do, things won’t be the same. So our coworking spaces and community will not survive and thrive with more talks on how we are all in it together, and that the world will be a New Normal, New Abnormal, The Normal Abnormality or some combination of these words. While there is a space and time for this, we need to stop jumping to conclusions and dishing out advices. We need community leaders who care about their members and the struggles everyone is going through, and listening to the stories, the drama, the hurt and pain every entrepreneur is going through. We need to groom the next generation leaders that understand how to deal with depression, to heal and resolve conflict, to support members better and to harness tools and technologies to keep people engaged and connected while physically distant. We also need folks that are business savvy, cultural additive and highly adaptable. And as community leaders get older and more exhausted, we need to create the environment where the best of these leaders stay and grow to take the reins from us as we move on and have new missions to pursue. Passing the torch is a natural order of the world, and if done right, the community will evolve and grow. Done badly, and that could very well spell the end of the community.
6. Imposter Syndrome vs Authentic Community Leadership
I think on this topic, I am often humbled by those that have come to ask me for advice and I always tell them to take it with a grain of salt. That is because most people don’t know that my biggest fear is being an Imposter. Just because somehow because I cofounded HUBBA and Techsauce a decade ago, talk on stages a lot that gives me the authority and license to mentor people, to judge other startups and to give advice? This imposter syndrome has always haunted me for the past 8 years but during Covid-19. But now, rather than become drowned in this negative emotion or believe what other say about how great I am and become a total jerk, I have made peace and can say that I am now a non-imposter. Yes we are all scared out of our living daylights of what Covid-19 means for our business, that we don’t have all the answers, and that we will fall flat on our face, make mistakes and not know how to do things. But to be an Authentic community leader, we have to get over it. Like the members in our community that we serve, we must use the same tools as though we are nobody: To be shameless to ask for help, to learn from our mistakes, to figure it out as you are on a new learning curve, to feel that you deserve the success because taking your community this far over the past 8 years and survive to tell about it is in itself beating all odds.
So for community leaders out there who feel like they have an imposter syndrome, you got to stop thinking like one. Start believing in your unique ability to convening people, to turn stranger into friends, to find pain points of customers and corporations without sounding like a paid-consultant or salesy, to facilitate deep and meaningful discussion. That is your gift and why people love your spaces, your community and webinars. Now to get over the imposter syndrome completely, it is now time to spend more time with yourself and unlearn the bad patterns of behavior that permeates our community like working 7 days a week and upgrading your ability to understand and serve your community. It’s been 8 years that I have complained that I have no time to learn coding, to write my own blog (even though I cofounded one), to understand how blockchain and the cloud, to learn Chinese, and build my own website and products and learn to be a VC and invest in startups. Rather than always feel inadequate, I have jumped on to build my first website, practiced on Duolingo every day, and took my first courses in Blockchain, and joined as an Amazon Web Services Scout and ASEAN Director of Impact Collective, a new impact investment fund looking to uncover the next Asia’s impact startups. It’s time to not just go wide, but go deep. The world has slowed down and we have no more excuses to just being an operator, a cheerleader and facilities and events manager.
We’re just 8 years in on a 20+ year projects
I believe that through blood, sweat and tears, the founding team at HUBBA has taken coworking to a place far beyond everyone’s imagination. As judged by the outpouring of love on Facebook posts on my wall, people have so many fond memories of their time working, building, hacking, sharing and hanging out late into the night or the early morning. But what I also know was that we have barely scratched the surface of what we could achieve, and I reckon we only did about 10% of what we set out to do. Like Brad Feld, the Cofounder at Techstars once told me, it took him 20 years to turn Boulder, Colorado from a sleepy town into a tech hub. That’s the view I bring into this work and if it was for the money, I would have gone to do something else like join a corporate venture capital arm of some bank. The work isn’t finished, and the dream lives on, not just in founders like me, but in all of us. Let’s continue the work we all started, and let’s co-create a new Post Covid-19 community we all want to be in and that we want our children to live, love, learn and laugh in.