Just like coworking itself, my Women of Coworking Chronicles come in lots of flavors. Today’s post is my interview with Jennifer Vincent of Cowork Pentiction who thoughtfully sent me her answers in writing. Don’t despair, though. I fully intend to get that fireball known as Jennifer to sit down for a video interview, too.
Jennifer shares her coworking tale of how she started her space in Pentiction, a rural city outside of British Columbia. It’s chock full of great ideas like a tiered rent schedule to ease startup costs. Brilliant, right? Let her know how much you appreciate her pearls of wisdom in the comments, please.
Jennifer Vincent of Cowork Penticton
How did you fall in love with coworking?
I live in a smaller city of about 30K people I moved here 4 years ago from a large city of 5 million. It was a huge shift, a wonderful one, but I did miss the hive of activity from my old city. It was 2010, and I was in the early stages of building a web-based business. I had been client of a new business incubator for about a year and was frustrated that most of their efforts were being focussed on community-building and service provision in our neighbouring City rather than the space I was renting. In fact, for a good while, I shared an office with only my husband in an empty facility that belonged to the incubator. It was quite lonely in there, and as it turned out, not at all what I was seeking from this organization. As I began to realize that the lack of community and vibrancy was what I needed, I began to search around for commercial spaces that I could rent myself and run as a shared work space. I was sure that I could find somewhere to rent and just share the cost with a few others. It would be great.
At this point I hadn’t yet heard of Coworking. It was during this research that I must have come across a story online about coworking; maybe it was in DeskMag? I’m not sure. But I very clearly remember the lightbulb going on over my head as I read about the core values behind Coworking, that it was about the community and not the space and realizing that it was a niche not filled in our region. It was a defining point and I immediately began reading up on everything I could about the coworking movement.
More than a year after we launched our space, I fall in love with coworking over and over again. Each time I see members building friendships, referring clients to each other or planning adventures together, I get excited. Every time we’re able to help out a cash-strapped startup business with a mailing address, or a short term meeting room rental, I feel happy that our space exists. And when I realize that our space brings our small city into a global community of coworking spaces, I feel proud that Penticton is recognized as sitting alongside major urban centres as progressive.
When I follow the daily digests from the Google Group, I’m thrilled by the depth of knowledge and sharing that goes on. As a space funder, I feel supported by this digital community. I know that I can ask a question and there will be a person out there considering an answer, because they want to help.
When did you know you could make a go of your space?
I guess we’re still learning this, but from the very beginning we felt that if we could just spread the message far enough and reach those folks working from their basements that we would be sustainable as a business.
The google groups, wiki and the global coworking survey provided enormously valuable data for me to complete a full business plan and begin the process of securing financing. I found a space – or rather it found me – right away. And even though I understood that I’d be better off building the community first and finding the space second, we decided to go ahead with signing a lease for an old church in our downtown area. We had 5 months to get everything together before launch day. From the very get go, there was hands on community support. Friends, family, local businesses and even municipal support all came out to clean up, build, paint and help any way they could. We were blessed with great press coverage which helped to educate people about Coworking. We opened in May of 2012 with 4 members.
Within a few months we were breaking even, which was obviously a huge milestone. One year onwards, our membership has increased and our revenue is almost able to support a salary position. We continue to see new people through our doors each month. Some only for a hot desk or a meeting, but they are all having positive experiences. Our new members largely come via word of mouth, a sign that people are excited about the space and wish to see it succeed. Our work parties and social events continue to attract interest and best of all, we’re seeing collaboration amongst people who have connected through Cowork Penticton. That fact spells success to me.
Did you start with your community in place or build it laster and what was the advantage/disadvantage of that?
Our launch process dragged on longer than we had hoped. The benefit of this was that we could spend a bit more time educating people about coworking and working to build the community. That being said, in retrospect, I would certainly have wished to have spent more time strengthening the community. Interestingly, the people who were the strongest supporters of the development of a coworking space were not the people who became members. they have remained vocal supporters, but they don’t actually join the community very often.
In our city, launching a new concept like coworking has required a tangible product for people to see and experience. The best sales tool we have is to bring people into the space. Attending networking events and giving talks has not resulted in new business for us. Getting people into the building most certainly has. This leads me to wonder if I would have been able to build much of a community before the space was open. Without seeing it, people don’t seem to believe it. And as the first of its kind in our region, we had a big barrier to overcome in simply educating people.
Is your space specialized towards a particular audience or generally open, and has that worked for you?
We didn’t feel there was the population density here to specialize. We currently have a range of businesses in our space and of its own accord there seem to be some themes developing. We expected there to be a tech focus – and there is, but there is also a burgeoning sector of writers, academics and copy editors forming. They’re even creating a weekly meeting to create a collective; something which is totally fascinating to me.
How do the 5 values show up in your space?
Collaboration: Our members are introduced to each other when they join the community and from there they learn about each others’ skill sets. We have a membership profile board which also lists people’s skills and what they’re looking or help with. As a community, we are often approached by outside businesses and individuals looking for certain jobs to outsource and we can point them to relevant members. We talk often of our desire for things to grow from the relationships built in our space and I think that by putting this idea at the forefront, it manifests itself more naturally in everyones interactions.
Community: We believe in creating spaces and opportunities for community to develop organically. Our self-serve coffee bar enables this. Our communal kitchen enables it too. We drag tables and chairs outside for lunchtime. We hold mixers and work parties both onsite and off site.
We have a weekly social which we call Beer-o-Clock, every Friday form 4:30-6:30. There’s a donation cup in the fridge and people drop a few coins in and grab a cold drink. It’s open to anyone, advertised by word of mouth. Every week we see anywhere from 10-30 people come through. Some are members, but others are regular employees of other companies who want to relax at the end of the week with us. It’s a great way of casually integrating traditional workers with independent ones. In fact we’re seeing business develop out of these events.
I send out two versions of a monthly newsletter. One is for the public. the other is for members. the latter includes stories about members (who’s had a birthday, moved house or other significant occurrence). And I write really personally to them. These people are my friends and we celebrate that through communicating in a such a ways as to tighten that bond.
Openness: This dovetails with our community values. The community newsletter helps to open the door to being honest and clear. We are a community of trust (as are most coworking spaces) and we ask everyone to be responsible for the safety and security of the space. There aren’t security cameras to monitor access, only old-fashioned keys and doors. We always have someone responsible for greeting at the front door, to reassure our members that their belongings are being looked out for. We held an annual Town Hall meeting to open up the operation of the space to conversations and discussion. It was a great way to get members more involved in what we feel is ‘their’ space, not ours.
Accessibility: Our building is an old church and unfortunately it is not wheelchair accessible. It has several sets of stairs and the bathrooms could not easily be converted. It has been a problem and we know that we have diminished our community by not being accessible. Were we to search for a space over again, this would be a priority.
As for other kinds of accessibility, we are able to sponsor spaces for certain individuals who are temporarily experiencing financial hardship. Our members have 24hr keyed access to the building to enable them to work to their own schedules. We allow parents to bring in children for short periods of time (although not regularly and for full days).
How did you handle getting a space to lease and paying for it?
I approached a local landowner who shared similar views on the value of community-building. The joys of living in a smaller city are that the change-makers and champions in the area are much more visible and accessible. After discussing our goals with him, we decided on a rent with a tiered increase over three years which lessened the barrier to entry for me in securing financing. I put in some of my own capital as well as applied for a small business loan.
What terrified you but turned out to be nothing?
I was most worried about security. How would I monitor access to and from the space, would I need cameras? What about logging after hours access? What about theft? While these are still important things to think about, I realize now that time is best spent on making your community trust each other rather than spending money on technology which could breed a false sense of security as well as creating a culture of suspicion.
Where do you see your space, specifically and coworking in general in 3 years?
Our space has grown so much in the last year, it’s first year. I think in three years from now it will be hitting its full stride. I want it to be like an open campus for learning and business development with regular workshops and courses running regularly. I want it to be a hub for mentorship and innovation through partnerships with the City and other entrepreneurial support organizations.
I think that in a wider context Coworking will have grown up to be a necessary facility in every city – an independent institution which is recognized by local and greater governing bodies as a vital element in our working landscape.
Best bit of advice for someone considering opening a coworking space?
When times are hard, remember why you started on this road. Stay connected to other spaces and founders. Stay in touch your community – be honest about the challenges and successes you encounter. You aren’t alone! But without your community…. you are.
Catch the Chronicles of Felena Hanson of HeraHub right here!