- Cowork Waldo’s CEO, Melissa Saubers, discusses her regional workspace alliance and the power of “coopetition”
- Saubers talks through what it takes to create a successful alliance and how to maintain a position of leadership
- Just like the industry on which they’re built, coworking alliances thrive on collaboration and mutual support
Melissa Saubers is a longtime member of the global coworking community. She’s also a vocal advocate for regional coworking alliances. As Chief Connector and CEO of Cowork Waldo in Kansas City, Missouri, Saubers experienced first-hand the challenges of being a workspace owner/operator. She saw the potential power of collaboration between shared space operators in her town so she spearheaded formation of the Kansas City Coworking Alliance and is now its president.
Allwork.space chatted with Saubers about the importance of coworking alliances, the power of what she calls “coopetition,” and how people can start an alliance in their region.
Allwork.Space: Regional coworking alliances have been around for almost as long as coworking. From your perspective, why is it important for space operators to form these communities?
Melissa Saubers: I always go back to the quote that a rising tide lifts all boats. Even though the coworking industry is becoming more well-known and mature, when some of us started, back in 2010, 2013, 2015, it was still so new. In Kansas City, the concept of coworking was just not known. When I opened Cowork Waldo, people thought we were a job placement center. Coworking was so foreign in Kansas City that people just didn’t understand what it was.
For me, the first benefit of an alliance is to raise awareness about what coworking is and what the options are in our region. The second thing is that, as an operator, it can get pretty lonely and isolating trying to figure everything out on your own—or trying to grow your business when you’re not sure what to do next.
We don’t necessarily offer mentoring, or anything specific to our own operations. We get to know each other and there’s a group of people that, if you have something you want to run by somebody, you have options. Or they can give you resources outside of our market that can help. It’s just an additional support for the owners, operators and community managers.
Allwork.Space: There’s an ethos in many coworking alliances that space operators are collaborators, not competitors. Is that how you see it? How do you find that balance between collaborating and also running sustainable businesses?
We call it ‘coopetition’. When a new space wants to join the alliance, the first thing we say is that we believe in the spirit of ‘coopetition’, that we are all better together, and that the rising tide lifts all boats. If they’re open to that philosophy, they’ll fit in very well. They’ll get benefit and we’ll benefit from them being part of the alliance.
The way we embody ‘coopetition’ is that we do things to raise awareness about Kansas City coworking. We don’t focus on any specific space or company, we focus on Kansas City, and coworking, and how it benefits our overall region. We really focus on the big picture that there’s something for everyone. We all have uniqueness, whether that’s a location or specific amenities or a niche focus.
Allwork.Space: How and when did the Kansas City Coworking Alliance come about?
The idea for the alliance was spurred at GCUC 2014, which was held in Kansas City. That was the first time I heard of coworking alliances, during an unconference session led by Ashley Proctor [of 312 Main, GCUC Canada and Coworking Toronto]. After that, we got some of the local operators together, along with KCSourcelink, a nonprofit support organization for the entrepreneur system in Kansas City. They helped us get all the key players to the table.
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Based on how Coworking Toronto formed, we really wanted to have an active membership. So we break it down into time, talent and treasure. The treasure is $250 per year in dues; time is that we ask everyone to contribute to meetings and events; talent is that we ask people to participate in some way—maybe they’re good at social media or they know how to edit a website or can run an event. We ask everyone to participate. That’s the key to success: participation by all the members.
Allwork.Space: I see the group participation approach happening with varying degrees of success. In all kinds of organizations, you run into an issue that, if it’s everyone’s job to do something, then nobody does it. Have you bumped into that?
We have bumped into that. Number one, everyone is busy trying to run their own spaces and that’s their number one priority. It’s the whole WIIFM thing: what’s in it for me? If people can see a benefit, they’re going to contribute more.
When you start something like this, you really have to have a champion who will see it through until it gets on steady footing. You can’t start it then fizzle out as a leader. You have to have a champion who is willing to put in some time and effort to get it organized and to get things rolling—and stick with that for a while.
Then, you have to have a succession plan—you have to have some sort of giving up of leadership responsibilities. In 2015, we decided to form a 501(C)(6) which is a nonprofit organization. We wanted to put some parameters and some formality into running the organization. We can see that it could possibly have an executive director down the road. We’re trying to plan for the future because we want this thing to stick around for the long-haul.
We did the actual formation of the organization through the University of Missouri legal department. We put the structure of the president, vice president, secretary and treasurer in-place. We have an executive board and a marketing lead on the board. Every year we set goals at the beginning of the year then meet monthly, on-site at our respective spaces so we’re familiar with each other’s spaces and can refer people to each other.
Allwork.Space: How do you suggest space operators who would like to start a coworking alliance in their area begin? Any advice you can share to get things rolling?
First, you have to figure out who all the players are. Figure out who could potentially be a member then start meeting with those people. Commit to six months of in-depth organizing: getting the right players at the table, discussing what each person’s goals are, and who will do what. Get that commitment.
If you’re looking for examples of why this is beneficial, search coworking alliances and collectives and you’ll find many examples of how it’s helped elevate coworking in specific cities or regions.
It’s important to really understand that it takes work to make an alliance happen, but the benefits are huge.