Monday, March 28, 2011

Coworking in Austin: Cospace 2.0

Cospace is one of Austin's coworking success stories. When I first talked to founders Kirtus and Andrew in November 2009, they had just put out some feelers about opening a space. But they had already started to articulate the principles of their space: mutual mentorship, collaboration, face-to-face relationships, flexibility, freedom. By January 2010, they had added a third founder, Pat Ramsey, and were about to close on a lease. They opened the doors on February 17, 2010. It was fantastic to see a coworking space develop from an initial dream to a successful implementation.

Of course, the story doesn't stop there. In the last year, Cospace has expanded its membership roles considerably (now around 43 members); upgraded its furniture (from Craigslist purchases to Turnstone); and developed its vision further. So when Kirtus suggested we get together to talk about the changes in the space last week, I was happy to do so. So on Friday, I sat down in Cospace's glass lounge with Kirtus and Pat to discuss what they call "Cospace 2.0."

Cospace 2.0

What's Cospace 2.0? Really, it's an extension and refinement of the original vision that was already evident in those early days, sharpened and customized through continual feedback. As Kirtus explains it, through 2010, Cospace just focused on serving people in the coworking space. That meant always listening, always engaging, and always being willing to try out new things. Serving meant learning: about users, about their needs, and about the niches Cospace could best serve. And by October 2010, they had realized that Cospace filled three niches, three use cases (reflected on Cospace's website):
  • Meet. One segment was interested in Cospace for its potential as a professional meeting space or a group space. In response, Cospace began renting out its two conference rooms and making its open space available for after-hours meetups.
  • Work. Another segment simply wanted to cowork - to grab a desk space and work alongside unaffiliated members during business hours. After trying out different configurations, Cospace developed a simplified $100/$200/$300 rating system, with the $300 rate available to teams.
  • Build. The teams aspect points to the third segment. Member pricing was too rigid for certain teams, particularly teams assembled by entrepreneurs who were trying to build products. How could Cospace set the right conditions for those teams to develop and evolve? Here, Cospace focused on flexibility, customization, fit - and productivity.
Cospace's 43 members are almost evenly divided between teams and individuals. But, Kirtus says, all of these members are focused on being productive: "getting [things] done." They're not just looking for socializing and networking opportunities; they want to build products and grow companies. And this is what distinguishes Cospace from many other coworking spaces, Pat adds.

Manufacturing, Leading, Learning

Coworking space proprietors tend to take one of three roles, Pat and Kirtus told me:
  • Manufacture: In this role, proprietors "make" the space: they set meetings, recruit people, and otherwise define the coworking space.
  • Lead: In this role, proprietors function as community managers, shepherding the flock, attempting to make connections and pointing the way for the coworkers.
  • Learn: In this role, proprietors seek to serve, to gather continual feedback, and to effect continuous iteration. This is Cospace's model, and according to Kirtus, "it's the only reason we survived."
It's partly for this reason that Cospace, which was originally envisioned as a coworking space for general small business organizations, has become increasingly more tech-centric. "That's Austin," Pat says. Although many traditional businesses could easily work out of and benefit from coworking spaces, people in the tech community seem to adapt most easily: they tend to be more mobile and have already adapted to working anywhere. So although Cospace continues to pull people from other sectors, the tech sector is heavily represented here - both in individual members and in teams.

Keep it Pushin'

In its teams focus, Cospace has concentrated on attracting teams that want to grow. As Kirtus says, they "keep it pushin'": they try to juxtapose teams that are productive, that have a good-to-great mentality, and that will continue to challenge and inspire each other. They focus on inspiring cross-learning in which elite team members can share information with each other, from tech concerns to business tips.

Does this make Cospace look more like an incubator? I ask. Kirtus responds that Cospace is "incubator-agnostic." They're not picking winners and losers, and they're not investing money (although they're personally invested in the success of teams at Cospace). Rather, they simply want to make sure that these teams can make the connections they need in order to grow.

Managing the Community

This brings us to the question of community management. How does Cospace 2.0 ensure that teams can make connections, that members can build trust, and that its operations can proceed regularly. Cospace's new answer - as of this month - is its new operations manager, Sarah Cox.

Many coworking spaces think about hiring a community manager "someday." But in Sarah, Cospace gains someone with expertise in project management, account management, and office management. Sarah has taken on aspects of all these roles at Cospace: giving space tours for potential members, interviewing potential members, taking over the events calendar, revamping the membership agreement, developing a packet for new members, and developing internal process documents to make sure that the Cospace model is consistent (and reproducible). She's the go-to person for members, and she's also building on Kirtus' and Pat's structure, gathering continuous feedback by dropping by and chatting with coworkers.

Beyond those duties, Sarah is also taking over Cospace's social media presence. She'll be promoting Cospace on blogs and Twitter, reaching out to meetup groups, and planning educational and social events. Over the next six months, Sarah will continue bringing in new events and increasing awareness (especially among freelancers). She'll also be thinking through the spatial organization at Cospace, looking for little tweaks that can make a big difference.

As Sarah points out, a flexible workforce implies flexible space. So Cospace will also look for opportunities to serve the Meet and Work niches for flexible work. For instance, one group worked at Cospace for a month while their own office was renovated. Another company, which typically works as a distributed virtual team, officed together here during South by Southwest. Cospace's month-to-month contracts allow that flexibility, and Sarah plans to continue supplying those opportunities.

The Next Phase

So what's next for Cospace?

The headline news is the change in roles.
  • Kirtus is still an active cofounder, but is pulling away from day-to-day operations to concentrate on his CEO position at startup GroupCharger. He'll still perform outreach and visioning for Cospace.
  • Pat is now performing oversight for Cospace. He'll be in the space, gathering feedback, making connections, and performing outreach (sometimes of a quite unconventional sort). He'll be the public face of Cospace.
  • Sarah, as operations manager, will continue building the Cospace community and building Cospace's structure through continual feedback.
In addition, Cospace is thinking about branching out to other cities, specifically Cedar Park and Round Rock. As Sarah develops Cospace's operational documents, the Cospace model should be easier to package and export to new locations.

Let me end on a personal note. I have nothing but admiration for entrepreneurs who take a chance on opening a new coworking space. For me, it's been extraordinary to see how Cospace started. In a little more than a year, I saw a couple of enthusiastic guys turn their dream into a flourishing, sustainable coworking space. May Cospace's second year be even more successful and inspiring than its first.