Does being rural change coworking?
We opened Cohoots in 2014 in the small Australian town of Castlemaine, population 8000. It was breaking new ground as far as open, independent spaces in rural areas of our state. Despite enormous support and enthusiasm from our community, our first year was very slow. I imagine that many coworking spaces go through the similar experiences of the initial ‘wow, I love that idea’ to a lack of paid bums on seats – the real market research result.
Being stubborn, passionate and energetic, we hung in there, ran events for all those entrepreneurs in our local community who were lacking support, including most micro enterprises, tradies, young entrepreneurs, school leavers, women. The events didn’t cover costs however they really hit our community’s entrepreneurial nerve. The events are run on a peer learning approach where someone would suggest a topic, we would find the locals with relevant knowledge and put together informal themed networking sessions where conversation, rather than presentation, was the mode.
This approach worked across diverse events and had many positive outcomes like developing self-reliant interest groups, collaborations, and general enthusiasm across our entrepreneurial community. Most participants weren’t members of our coworking space; they were entrepreneurs in our region seeking connection, support and learning.
Blending our membership community with this broader community approach to local economic development, led to tweaking the coworking model into what we call Inside-Out Coworking, where the beautiful features that happen inside Cohoots with our coworking community are taken outside to the broader community of entrepreneurs. It is a reflection of rural enterprising communities, respectful of their character and their values, not an imposition.
There is however a limit to passion driven activities that aren’t financially viable. Despite approaches to various bodies, no-one was keen to support us as we didn’t fit into their guidelines or we were just too different to their institutional thinking or we don’t have large numbers of participants. We realised we needed to hold onto our mission and passion and not modify ourselves to be ‘like them’ in order to get funding.
All this time our membership grew slowly and organically, and has blossomed into a fantastic community itself with the magic of coworking. The slow growth is probably due to many factors not just small numbers in town. Generally speaking rural populations, in comparison to their urban cousins, have much lower incomes, are less consumer oriented, are more self-reliant, live in bigger houses (with office space), are older, and value lifestyle over work. We have also embraced the community approach to coworking, which is harder to market than the ‘we have the best space’ product.
So being independent enables us to follow our values and passion, to be community led (both inside our space and outside), to gather amazing community spirit, do some quite out there activities (like a merkin exhibition), and to be poorer. The memberships cover the expenses but not our salaries, which comes from other work. Rent alone makes up about 70% of the expenses.
Financial viability will always be an issue in small towns, which conversely leads to more creative solutions. These realities have led to some fairly diverse coworking spaces popping up in rural areas in the last couple of years. It also seems like many are struggling to get going, which I think is a good thing although harrowing. It’s much better than investing heavily in something that doesn’t get off the ground. Although, as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way!
Why the biscuit jar is a great coworking event
One of our members, writer Lindy Alexander, loves to bake. She has two pre-school kids and a partner that don’t eat much sweet stuff. So Lindy wanted to up her happiness stakes by baking for someone. She came into Cohoots one day and let her secret out. Other members threw around possibilities and Lindy agreed to bake some cookies on Mondays and bring them into Cohoots. Members pay whatever they feel for a biscuit, and the money raised will go to a local cause.
Sounds pretty simple. Would you call it an event though?
Why do we in the coworking sector run events? To help members learn skills, bring people together, get conversations happening, facilitate connections? All those plus marketing the space and making our memberships valuable.
So what does the biscuit-jar achieve?
It’s an idea generated from and by the members.
It makes people happier – Lindy with her baking, and members with their stomachs.
It’s outcome provides financial support for an outside cause (good for the broader community of which we are a part).
So what makes it a great idea?
Every time a member goes into the kitchen they see the beautiful jar – perhaps twice a day minimum. It immediately reminds them of the coworking notion – we are here to share, we are here to do good for ourselves and others, it is not about the space but about what the members do, and we are part of our broader community.
And what makes it an event?
As Alex Hillman from Indy Hall says people sitting around anywhere talking or working can be coworking. They are achieving the goals of an event, perhaps even more so. The greatness of this event is that it doesn’t just happen on an evening, or a day or a weekend. It is working as an event all the time in its small but highly effective way.
Thanks Lindy, you have started a great event that no formal planning could come up with.
Developing an Operations Manual for your coworking space?
My partner and I operate a small rural coworking place in Australia. After 2 and bit years we thought it may be a good idea to practice what we preach – life is not all work so we need to get out and smell the roses, or at least smell something other than coworking members! Maybe we could get someone in for a half or full day each week. Then we’d be able to do all those things we keep saying we ‘should’ do, like exercise, garden, fix this, clean up that, whatever.
So we sat down with a friend who was interested in our proposal to talk about each others expectations and logistics. After a little while she said “Do you an operations manual?” My partner and I looked at each other and burst out laughing! “Well that’s a novel idea” we thought.
It got us thinking about our coworking place. Sure there are doors to open, coffee machine to turn on and that sort of stuff, but we don’t want someone who only does that. That is only about 5% of the ‘tasks’ in our mental operations manual.
And the conversation flowed. We want you to be a member, to smile, to say hi, to listen, to join in serendipitous conversations and chats, to do your work, to enable the members to continually develop their coworking community. In other words to be a member who has a door key.
This all works well and our ‘Girl Friday’ has relaxed into her role. We do actually have a half A4 page of things to do to close the place (simply called ‘Shut Up’), which is the closest thing to an manual we have. A formal Ops Manual would be a bit like a joke without a punch line – sets the scene but doesn’t do the magic. The true manual is a guide to creating a vibe, or an understanding & awareness package. Something conversations can get to but printed words find it hard to capture. Coworking ‘operations’ is not about providing, more about being.
So what did I do with my new found freedom. Went for a long walk with the dog, rescued a friend who’s car had a flat battery, had a relaxed conversations with my partner, strolled into town (the beauty of small towns), got stopped twice by people to have a chat (shops are open & people are about & about), bought a couple of tickets to our upcoming arts festival, arrived at work in a relaxed buoyant mood at lunch time. I think our Girl Friday with our Ops Manual is a success.