Culture and Community: How Independent Coworking Can Beat Corporate Competition | By Neil F. Carlson

Drawn by the siren song of WeWork’s $20 billion valuation, investors have poured billions of dollars into the rapidly-growing coworking industry over the past decade. Since 2010, the industry has grown at an annualized rate of 23%. Corporate coworking companies are now locked in a tooth-and-nail fight for customers, a battle that is largely waged with two sources of ammunition: amenities and pricing.

Corporate coworking spaces use investor money to offer free space to prospective members. About a year ago, for instance, an investor-backed coworking space opened up here in Gowanus, and offered six months of free space to new members. Such freebies aren’t sustainable, but they’re a common strategy for corporate coworking spaces with deep pockets: lure customers with free space in the short term, starve your competitors of revenue, and then jack up the price when the intro pricing period expires.

It’s a gold-rush mentality, with newly minted coworking brands trying to seize as much market share as they can. But what about smaller, independent coworking brands? How do we take on competitors who have huge marketing budgets and gobs of money to spend on design, construction, and amenities. And how do you compete with free?

How We Built This: Finding Our Niche

Brooklyn CoworkingAround the time my partner, Erin Carney, and I, started Brooklyn Creative League, I read an article by Peter Drucker, in which the management guru outlined two avenues to success: go big and dominate a market based on efficiency, pricing, and economies of scale; or go small and dominate a niche based on doing something unique and valuable. Since we never aspired to run a global business empire, we decided to focus on building a niche coworking space.

We realized pretty quickly that it would be tough for us to compete on the basis of price and luxury amenities. Corporate coworking spaces would always be able to outspend us in the short term, but we were confident that we offered a better overall experience AND were a better value over the long term. What’s more, as we talked to current and prospective members, we found that amenities were not a make-or-break choice for most customers. A leather couch is nice to have, and a foosball table looks great on a tour (think of the Friday afternoon tournaments, bro!), but they weren’t going to make or break a customer’s decision.

Instead, when we surveyed our members about why they chose BCL over the competition, they pointed to two things: customer service and community. Here at BCL, we take service very seriously. We train for it. We talk about it. We measure it. We staff for it. Which means that it’s easier for us to set the tone, nurture and sustain great customer service. So it was great to hear that our members noticed the difference. As an owner, it also reinforced our idea that great service IS an amenity, one that a smaller operator like us could get an advantage.

Creating a Vibrant Culture: You Do You

The real foundation of the BCL experience is our culture. Like local cuisine, culture has many different ingredients, flavors, and recipes. Culture reflects and embodies the personalities, peccadillos, and preferences of a community’s shared experience. It’s hard to manufacture and it’s impossible to manufacture at an industrial scale, which is why McDonald’s feels so different than your neighborhood gastropub. Authentic culture is idiosyncratic, unique, special — imbued with the people and personalities that create and shape that culture.

For us, a vibrant culture begins with understanding the underlying values that guide how we do business. At BCL, we constantly communicate that a huge part of our mission is to create authentic professional communities that are rooted in trust, goodwill, and mutual benefit. Internally, we’re able to see how vision, culture, systems, principles, and people work together to create the results we want to achieve: great space, great community, great finance.

A few years ago, Erin and I realized that we needed to imbue our employees with our unique culture and community, so we created the BCL Business Perspective, a simple one-page distillation of how we do business. Our vision determines our overall direction, but the business perspective shapes how we approach the day to day work — balancing principles, people, systems, and culture to achieve great results.

While our Business Perspective guides how BCL approaches our work as a company, we also provide our members with clear expectations about what it means to be a member of the BCL workspace. Even though customer service is a core tenant of our business, we are very clear that belonging to the BCL community is a two-way street, with rights and responsibilities on both sides.

As we analyzed our culture, we realized that there was a lot to be gained by explicitly clarifying norms and values. Drawing on BCL’s internal business principles, we settled on three values that were non-negotiable for our members: trust, goodwill, and mutual benefit. A few months ago, we rolled out our Membership Compact — a simple one-page document that outlines what members can expect from BCL, and what we expect of them.

Give People the Tools to Be Good Neighbors

We also give members the tools they need in order to be good neighbors. Earlier this year, for instance, we rolled out our “conflict guidelines,” a document that outlined how we expect members to deal with the disagreements and conflicts that inevitably arise in any community. And since phone calls are the primary source of conflict in our space, we also promulgated ground rules for phone use — what is allowed, what is not allowed, and how do deal with friction when it arises.

Clarifying expectations and setting guidelines has gone a tremendous way towards strengthening our culture. We’re not obnoxious about broadcasting these things, but it’s important that everyone — members, staff, and owners, agree to norms and expectations outlined in the membership compact and guidelines. That may seem like an odd stance for a hospitality business like ours, but we’ve found that members want to give back. Members want to be good neighbors. They want to be part of a community. By putting it in writing, the values and norms articulated in the documents have a much better chance of becoming the stem cells of a strong coworking culture.

At our best, BCL and its members comprise a web of relationships that are rooted in respect, shared values, trust, humor, familiarity, and mutual benefit. In short, we are a community with a unique and special culture. In our view, community and culture are best cultivated through goodwill, courtesy, and mutual respect. And those qualities constitute a durable and unique competitive advantage.

We’re always looking to learn from our community! Please feel free to reach out and let us know if you have any questions or thoughts about your BCL membership.