Is it a good idea to have multiple coworking spaces in one city?

I've had to ask myself this question many times since starting The Skiff. The growth of coworking is leading to it being asked increasingly by first time coworking space founders and long term owners alike.

My short answer is "yes" but be careful (I've included a checklist at the bottom of this post to help with that).

It's taken me a few years to get to this answer. While I'm confident that it's the right one for Brighton today and probably your city too, let me share with you why I felt "no" and "maybe" were better answers a couple of years ago. It will help you understand and work with the people in your city who might resist your efforts.

We didn't worry about there being multiple coworking spaces in one city when we started The Skiff. Through its accidental beginnings we didn't realise what we were doing was coworking (but that's a story for another time). Once we were up and running it became a regular concern.

It takes time to make a coworking space financially sustainable. When you hear about other spaces opening and you're feeling cash poor it's easy to jump to the conclusion that competition will make growing your community even harder. There have been plenty of times that I've had sleepless nights over this and it might be that your 'competitors' feel the same. Being sensitive to that and talking openly with them at the earliest opportunity will help.

It's critical that you do not consider other coworking communities in your city to be competition. You have a shared ambition to make coworking the future of work and your true competition is traditional ways of working. To a lesser degree serviced offices, caf├ęs, spare desks at agencies, and people's home offices and kitchen tables are also competition. The more people there are collaborating on the promotion of coworking in your city, the faster people still doing things the old way will switch.

The thing that helped me come around to this way of thinking was seeing what happened as a result of the other spaces being created in Brighton. It helped our members better understand why they chose The Skiff. It was rarely because of the location, the building or some other physical feature. They chose The Skiff because it was the community of people they felt most comfortable working with. This made our community much stronger and when one or two people left for the other communities, others joined to replace them.

Here's a checklist I recommend you work through when considering adding coworking spaces to cities that already have them:

  1. Experience the existing communities as a member yourself, participate and connect with the members to make sure you know exactly how the community you start will be different. You might even find that you don't need to create one yourself.
  2. Build the community first, don't make the often fatal mistake of getting a space first. Alex Hillman says it best here in How to fund your coworking space.
  3. Don't make price the differentiator between your space and the others. When you start it looks easy to do 'cheaper' but you'll be surprised by how many unexpected expenses pop up. We learned the hard way that we under priced by over 30% for the first few years. The cheapest desks in a city will always be spare places at companies that pay their bills with other products and services.
  4. Talk to the founders of existing coworking spaces and explain how yours will be different. Rather than worrying, they'll probably be able to help you understand some of the specific economics of operating in the city and recommend people who could be a better fit for your community than their's.
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