Insights And Tough Love From The “Old Hippie Of Coworking”: A Q&A With Jeannine Van Der Linden

WITH Jeannine Van Der Linden
Coworking pioneer, Jeannine van der Linden, shares why she thinks coworking veterans need to be more proactive about mentoring industry newcomers

Jeannine van der Linden refers to herself as an old hippie of coworking. A pioneer of the movement, van der Linden runs De Kamer, a network of 10 workspaces in the Netherlands, she’s Director of Accessibility and Sustainability at European Coworking Assembly, and she’s Managing Partner at Open Coworking.

A lawyer and “accidental entrepreneur” from Atlanta, Georgia, van der Linden stumbled into coworking when an office space attached to her home in the Netherlands became available. Rather than simply renting it out, she launched a coworking space and the first De Kamer was born. She now partners with others to launch spaces under the De Kamer brand.

Allwork.space spoke with van der Linden about scaling a values-led workspace brand,  the post-coworking world, and why she thinks coworking veterans need to be more proactive about mentoring newcomers. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Allwork.Space: Hi Jeannine. I know bits and pieces of your coworking story. Will you give me the quick overview?

Jeannine van der Linden: I was in the Netherlands taking care of my mother-in-law, who was ill with cancer, and my two kids. I had marginal language skills so I couldn’t get a job. We had an office space—what Americans call a carriage house—attached to our house. When the tenant left I decided to run a traditional independent coworking space. I thought, ‘Why not? If it doesn’t work out I can always rent it.’ After roughly a year we had to move to a bigger space.

Then we had problems because I didn’t really know what I was doing. A number of our coworkers had business needs we couldn’t meet because of the space, so we went and found another space that was specifically a warehouse space. I didn’t have the resources to rent it so I talked to the owner and we went into a joint venture—a simple profit sharing venture.

Most of my spaces have happened because one of my coworkers either outgrew the space or had to move for some other reason. They said they would take a bigger office space than they needed because they wanted to take coworking with them, so then we would have another profit sharing where and we set up the coworking space.

My original plan was to have a joint venture be about a year in duration and then sort of build it off, but none of them will let me go. When I approach my coworkers and tell them they’re doing great, they say, ‘So are you, so let’s keep going.’

Allwork.Space: What’s the timeline for all of this?

I started in the fall 2010. We moved to a larger space in 2012, we had the first partner space in 2013 and the second one in 2014. Then it went from three to six in six months, and last summer it went from six to 10.

I would really like for it to grow one space a year, nice and organically, but it really doesn’t. I made the jump from three to six and felt like it was under control. Then it became 10 and this year’s been a little bit hectic.

Allwork.Space: Do you have community managers in the spaces?

We have a community manager in every space. In most cases the owner of the building is the community manager. In my space I have a community manager because I don’t have the time anymore. We ask the coworkers who they want to be the community manager and one of them is chosen.

The different partners have a different trajectory. Most people running our spaces are not in coworking or real estate. For instance, one of them is a silk screen printer. He had nothing to do with coworking and thought it was kind of a nutty idea that might work out. He gave me the freedom to do whatever I felt like because he didn’t have thoughts about it one way or the other. About a year ago he just kept getting more and more interested, he became the community manager and, frankly, the space has never been better.

Allwork.Space: These days, you’re well known in the coworking world—a bit of an international authority. So at some point you went from turning your side office into a space to embracing coworking as a lot more than workspace, but as a human thing. How did you decide to go all-in, not just on coworking as a business, but on the coworking movement?

I was a beneficiary of the movement. It’s not like I decided. I didn’t really have any idea what the hell I was doing. What I found was the community of people who are running coworking spaces. I found them online and all of them helped me hugely in trying to figure out what to do with the business and what to do with the model. Mostly out of gratitude I ended up volunteering at what is now Open Coworking. I was the membership coordinator so when people asked for permission to join the Coworking Wiki and make an account, I was that person.

Everyone in coworking knows me because I emailed with them all. The Coworking Wiki is often the first thing people discover when they’re looking for coworking and the first thing they do is ask for permission to make an account. Most people just fill in the form but, to avoid spam, we always ask them to tell us something about their connection to coworking. You get a lot of very interesting answers so I’d get into conversations with those people. I was emailing with everyone as they entered coworking.

Allwork.Space: That was during the first wave of coworking, when the pioneering spaces and operators all knew each other and helped each other. Now we have this enormous shared workspace industry. I’d love to get your perspective on what you’ve seen over the years.

It’s been very hard for the original, core coworking group to scale. There was a period of time in which everyone in coworking either knew everyone in coworking or there were no more than two degrees of separation between me and someone coworking in China. There were no more than two degrees of separation between me and the people coworking in India and Africa and all over the world because there was just not anybody doing it. We had to find each other.

You can tell who was in the first wave of coworking because at some point they got in trouble with the government because the number of coworkers exceeded the legal capacity of space according to the fire marshal. I don’t know anyone who did not have that problem. When people see a company at an address they think that means they’re there all the time. They counted up all the coworkers and all the employees and told us that, legally, we’re only allowed to have a certain number of people in the building, so they’d do a raid to try to find all these thousands of people.

Allwork.Space: And then they’d find 12 people coworking there?

Exactly. I’d explain to them about the sharing economy and what that meant. I’m pretty sure people don’t have that issue anymore. Because it was all new we couldn’t get insurance and there were a lot of  legal issues at the time. We didn’t really have anyone to ask about these things. You could ask your lawyer about it but first you’d have to spend three days explaining what coworking is. Because of that you got a fairly close group.

Allwork.Space: What do you see these days?

One of the problems I’m seeing is that the pioneering group feels emotionally close and they feel open to the world of coworking people that are getting into coworking. But, to people in that next circle, it looks extremely cliquish. It really does. And they feel excluded and left out. That troubles me deeply all the time, because it really isn’t like that, but I understand why they feel it.

Allwork.Space: I’ve heard that sentiment, as well. A few months ago a space operator pointed out that we hear from the same people all the time, but there are a lot of operators we don’t hear from who are doing really cool things. It struck me because we do hear a lot from the people we all know in coworking, and they’re the people who brought coworking into existence and showed countless others how to do it. But it gave me pause and made me think about digging deeper and going further than just that first circle of space operators and influencers.

People who have had coworking spaces for more than five or six years are falling down on the job in terms of mentoring people who are coming. We’re really not reaching out to people doing other things and supporting them along the way. We supported each other, and we deeply know the value of that. It’s a lot of work so I think we have a tendency to sit back and assume they’ll come ask. I think we need to actively reach out to each other.

There are a number of really bright people starting coworking spaces in different  circumstances than we did. They have a different set of problems. We don’t need to offer them business consulting—there’s enough of that. It’s much more supportive mentoring. I would really like to see us in coworking do a lot more mentoring.

Allwork.Space: That’s interesting because, from what I see in the Facebook groups, like the Coworking Content Alliance, Women Who Cowork, the GCUC Group, and the Everything Coworking group, a lot of the veteran space operators are really generous in sharing their experience and giving advice to new operators. You’re saying to take that a step further and get more proactive. What would you like to see?

There are space operators who have a number of things they’d like to do. We need to reach out to those people and ask them how we can support them. There’s a black woman in London who is starting a kitchen coworking space. There’s no real leadership right now in kitchen coworking, and we have some leaders in coworking who are people of color, but not a lot. Coworking is very white.

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This operator is very early yet, she’s not a leader yet, but if I’ve noticed her, chances are pretty good there’s something there. I’m not waving my magic wand and saying you’re the future of coworking. That’s not my job. But, to the extent that we can reach out to people and say, ‘Hey, that’s a really interesting idea, have you talked to these other people?’ It doesn’t really take much more than that.

I have pounded the drum for mentoring in several sectors. Mentoring is extremely important. If I can get political, I think one of the reasons we in the United States are in some of the political issues we are in is because our parties are not mentoring the next generation of politicians. We are, as a culture, looking at people coming up as competition. To some extent they are, that’s healthy. But to a large extent, they’re making our future. We might as well do it with them.

Allwork.Space: What’s going on with the European Coworking Assembly? Will you give me an overview of the organization for readers who may not know about it?

The European Coworking Assembly is an organization which intends to represent coworking all over Europe. It was originally set up to lobby for legal regulations and business in Brussels. That’s why it was set up in Brussels. It petered out at some point and the organization was sort of left without a purpose.

Three years ago they asked me if I wanted to take over. I said sure but, being an American living in Europe, I really feel strongly that European coworking needs a European identity. The conditions are different. Just the language issue alone makes everything much different.

At this moment, we are touring Europe, talking to people, recruiting people for the board, setting up partnerships, and turning this ship around. I feel strongly that a non-profit needs to stick with its mission. It needs to have a mission, make it clear, and stick with that mission until the people you’re working with say they’d like you to add to the mission. Then we can add to the mission. I’m very much opposed to being a solution in search of a problem, because I have too much to do.

We’re in the listening phase. We’re entering into partnerships where they make sense. At this moment we’re working with OuiShare. They have, at various times over the years, explicitly had a branch for coworking and sometimes not, but it’s never been fully developed. They just started their own coworking space, which I understand is very cool.

There are a number of other groups, and publishers who have said they’re extremely interested in the independent coworking area, as opposed to corporate coworking—the type of coworking that’s talking about values and not valuation. They come to us and say they’d like to publish articles about that, so we need to get writers to write and organize that.

Allwork.Space: Sounds like there’s a focus to keep the core values of coworking front and center.

Here’s the thing: community-based coworking, values-led coworking, whatever you want to call it, is not part of the conversation except when we’re talking to each other. A large part of the world essentially considers coworking to be shared office space, or a place that is very crowded and filled with strangers where you can work for free with your laptop—where you can hook onto the wifi for free. There’s not anything wrong with that, but that’s not what I mean by coworking. That’s not what I’m creating.

I was talking to a guy from the tax authorities in the Netherlands a few weeks ago. He said, ‘Everybody knows what coworking is, it’s a bunch of long tables with a whole bunch of chairs. I don’t see that in your spaces, so I don’t think you’re coworking.’

This is a problem throughout the sharing economy. In many ways, the concept of the sharing economy has been used essentially to avoid government regulation. Companies feel they don’t have to comply with regulations because they are sharing. But an on-demand service is not a sharing service. Our offices are not on-demand offices, they are shared offices. The trouble is we don’t really have good terms for that.

There are a number of places in the world where people are still explaining what coworking is because people haven’t heard of it. There are also a number of places in the world that are not using the word coworking in their advertising because they don’t want people to think that it’s long tables and lots of chairs.

Allwork.Space: Is this the post-coworking world I’ve heard you refer to?

There are a lot of people who are saying that the word coworking doesn’t add anything. It adds an image that is not what some people want to do.

Allwork.Space: Is that what you think? For me, the word coworking encapsulates what it is I love most about this movement. The “co” part is important to me. Office rental people use that term to validate what they’re doing and stay relevant, but, as a bit of a coworking purist, the word coworking captures the essence of this movement for me.

I love the word coworking. But if we want to keep the word, we have to get that essence back into the conversation. The conversation right now is about valuation, it’s not about value. There’s nothing bad, wrong or unusual about that, the conversation is just what people say.

We have an unfortunate habit of talking to each other a lot in coworking, and not talking to other people. When we talk to other people, we assume that our unspoken truths are everyone’s unspoken truths. When you’re talking about the pioneers into coworking, you’re talking about people who started businesses not necessarily because they wanted to start a business. Some of them developed into businesses, and some of them are very good at business, and some of them are not. The new generation of people starting coworking spaces are people who want to start businesses.

The coworking movement has five values. All of them are important. The one I think is the most neglected is sustainability. I hear it a lot from people that it’s not possible to make a living in coworking. It is, but you have to value all five of the values. If you’re in a place where your emphasis on community has produced a situation where your coworkers are saying that, because you’re friends they don’t want to pay for the space, then the conversation has gone the wrong direction.

Money is a measure of value, it’s not anything else. If you want to know what somebody really values—and I learned this as a lawyer—get their checking account statements for the last six months and break it down into categories. You will see what they truly value. Money is a measure of value.

One of the things I think we in coworking need to do is support the people who are getting into coworking in developing their communities, in being accessible, in being open, in collaborating, and in running a business. It’s a business.

Allwork.Space: You have a community-focus, you keep the core values at the heart of what you’re doing, and you’ve also scaled to 10 spaces. What is the secret sauce there? How do you keep community at the heart and create a thriving space that could possibly scale?

I’m not sure I’m going to make the scale. I remember with great clarity when my mother’s business reached the point where she had to become a proper business. You can’t fly by the seat of your pants anymore. You can’t make it up as you go along, which is what I’ve been doing up until now. You have to have the dreaded policy, and you have to have a book that explains it, and the business has to run when you’re gone. If your business is dependent on you, it’s a hobby, not a business. This is something my mother hammered home all the time. If you can’t leave when your kid breaks their leg, it’s not a business. A business is a thing that goes on after you die.

A lot of people don’t want to scale. My business is at the place where I either have to scale or pull it back. Those are the choices I have. I’m not sure I’m going to make the jump, but I’m working on it.

Allwork.Space: It’s amusing to me that you have 10 spaces but you don’t think you’ve scaled.

That’s a funny comment. I hadn’t actually thought about that. It’s all happened since September of last year when we made the jump from six to 10 spaces. We haven’t really absorbed the shock. One of the things in this last growth curve that has been the most interesting was my decision to take on three spaces that are not De Kamer, they’re partners. We’re calling it Powered by De Kamer. Those are shared office spaces that are very corporate, because I believe coworking can work anywhere. If you’re going to do that, and move into a new area, you have to have partners you can talk to in a real way and not have to put on special clothes and get your car washed before you go meet with them. You have to be able to talk with them and have them be able to talk to you.

I need a real life human to work with. I don’t mind a run-up period. Not everybody is an extrovert and not everybody feels safe right away but, at the end of the day, if I can’t get a human connection with one of my coworkers I know they’re not going to last that long. And, if I can’t get a human connection with one of my partners, I know they’re not going to last that long. Life is too short to have bullshit conversations in which we all pretend we’re saying one thing, but we’re really saying another.