By John Paul Vaselina
In 2015, my wife and I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Central Connecticut (West Hartford to be exact after a brief year in Westport). We both worked remotely for other companies and were thrilled to be back near family.
In California, I worked for a startup that had an office at a WEWORK location and liked the energy and people I met at the space. I loved the idea of co-working and the closest co-working space to me at the time was in Hartford. Although it was a good space, I wanted something closer to my house.
So, in 2016, I founded West Hartford Co-Working, which was the first co-working space in the town (and arguably still the best). That same year, we had our first child, I started a new job, and hired people to help run the space. In 2019, I sold the business to one of the people I’d hired to run the space.
Here are the top 10 great things I learned from this experience:
1. CUSTOMERS FIRST
I know, I know...this is a cliché saying. Who wouldn't put their customer first? What I mean is that it’s important to get customer interest first, start the business second. The last thing you want to do is sign a lease. This is a popular tactic taught in The Lean Startup and similar literature.
I did this by going out on our town Facebook group and letting everyone know that I was thinking about creating a co-working space and directed anyone who was interested in co-working in West Hartford to a very basic landing page with an “I’m Interested” button and Facebook business page. I followed up with almost every person who expressed interest to learn more about their needs, what they were looking for...etc. In the end, I had about 85 people “sign up “ on the interest form before starting the business. As a result, we started the business with customers and were profitable (albeit modestly) by week three of operations.
2. EARNED MEDIA IS PRICELESS
We were very fortunate to have gained the attention of local news outlets right away. This included online [see the IDH stories: WeHa Works—New Co-Working Space Coming Soon to West Hartford and WeHa Works Works], print, and TV. This helped get the word out about what we were hoping to accomplish.
In the end, I think it really made the endeavor possible. It helped us catch the attention of potential customers, helped our SEO, and even property owners/landlords. Ultimately, the news attention helped connect us with a business that was trying to sublet a portion of their office with terms and conditions that greatly de-risked the business. (Quick shout out to David Louden and Brent Robertson at Fathom, who sublet us space and supported us all the way.)
3. GIVE SOMETHING TO GET SOMETHING
I was insistent that we give every interested customer a free week of co-working before asking them if they'd like to join the space or not.
Over time, many of the managers I hired questioned the tactic. They thought I was being too generous. They'd say, “John, these people are ready to pay now after just one day. Why give a full week for free?”
The answer was simple: By giving a free week, the potential customer could fully try out the space, and I could try out the customer. In a smaller co-working operation, even just one customer who doesn’t fit the culture could be a problem. And, recommending someone doesn’t become a member before they join is far easier (and costs less) than terminating a membership agreement. With this tactic, we managed to create long-term relationships with our members.
I spoke with the new owner this morning and the average membership length is over 14 months. About half of the original members are still there. All things considered, one week of “free” co-working seems to have paid off for everyone.
When we could, we'd give away free desks and conference room time to people who needed it. I remember giving a tour to a guy who had just gotten laid off and needed to get out of his house each day while conducting a job search to keep a feeling of normalcy...we let him occupy an empty desk at no cost and gave him first rights of refusal on the desk should someone else want to occupy it. He showed up every day and eventually found a job he loved.
When a non-profit needed the conference room, I’d waive the normal fee and ask them to pay what they could, given their organization’s financial situation and help spread the word about us on social media (if we delivered a good experience). It helped get the word out to people who were in a position to pay and was well worth letting the non-profit use the room at a discounted price.
4. IT'S ALL ABOUT GETTING REALLY GREAT PEOPLE
With great people, you can do anything. Without them, even basic endeavors become difficult.
My background is in Human Resources, so it may be no surprise to see a “people focus” somewhere in this post. But my comment is not about getting just great people on the team. Getting great people on your team is important, but with this endeavor, I focused on getting great people as customers too.
This was game changer. I wanted customers who were willing to pay for what we offered and were great people who exhibited a regard for others, consideration, and awesomeness. I’m happy to say that we achieved this.
The members who worked in our space are people I loved being around. They were courteous to each other. They helped out with the little things when they could (picking up a piece of garbage on the ground, refilling the printer paper...etc.). When something didn’t go right on our end, they brought it to my attention and were accepting of our attempts to make it right. As a result, it was far easier (and more fun) to grow the business.
5. HAVE A SIMPLE NAME TO BOOST SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION (SEO)
I get calls from people looking to start a co-working business in their town from time to time. I always recommend going with the name that is “Town Name + Co-working.” I know it’s not sexy, but I’m convinced it helps with SEO (full disclaimer is that I know very little about SEO). When I’d ask new customers how they found us, they’d often reply that they searched “West Hartford Co-Working” in Google and we came up right away. Side note: I spent about $38 in marketing in the two years I owned the business and none of it was on Google AdWords or paid search results.
6. LEARN THE PROBLEM YOU’RE ACTUALLY SOLVING AND FOR WHOM
At first glance, many people believe that a co-working business solves the problem of workspace. I’ve concluded that to be incorrect (mostly). In my experience, co-working solved the problem of isolation for more people than it solved the problem of a place to work.
By 2016, people could literally work anywhere including a home office. The problem is that home offices are mostly quiet and you find yourself alone. If you like the buzz of other people, this can be torture. Coffee shops are cost effective, but overcrowded. Libraries are okay, but perhaps too quiet for some people. Neither would give you free treats, guest speakers, or a holiday card (we did all of those things).
Upon starting the business, I didn’t know who would actually end up being co-working members. A lot of people associate co-working with millennials and startups. This is probably true in some places, but I had the opposite experience. One of our first members was a recently retired financial advisor in his early 70s (he showed up in a suit every day and it was awesome). Many of our members turned out to be in their 30s, 40s, and 50s and worked remotely for large companies (not startups).
7. GIVE SOMETHING BACK
We made every effort to give back to the community formally and regularly the best we could, given the size of the venture. This including adopting a family that was recovering from homelessness at Christmas and helping stock the local food pantry. Doing so helped make us part of the community, and not just a business.
8. IT DOESN'T TAKE MUCH TO MAKE ADULTS HAPPY AT WORK
Halloween fell during the first month we were open. I didn’t have a lot of budget and money was even more of a concern since I just had my first child. So, to celebrate, I put candy in small paper bags that I decorated myself and wrote the members’ names on with a marker and put the bag on each member’s desk. Turns out, that’s all it took to make a bunch of adults smile that day. Seriously...the members were surprised to find this small bag of treats with their names on it at their desks. This was a signal to me that we could help create a delightful customer experience with little treats and surprises.
We gave small poinsettias at Christmas, valentines in February, green candy at Saint Patrick's Day...etc. In addition, each new member received a handwritten thank you card with a $5 Starbucks gift card. This formed my belief as an HR professional who wants to create exceptional employee experiences that it might take less than most companies think to make their people feel appreciated on a regular basis.
9. COMPETITION IS YOUR BEST FRIEND
It wasn’t long before our “only kid in town” advantage ended. In 2018, SPACES, a multinational co-working operation owned by Regus, announced they would open a space 30 times larger than ours around the corner. Surprisingly, this was the best thing that ever happened to my co-working business...SPACES had a much larger space to fill and much more overhead. They presumably had a much larger marketing budget than I did and had to work to get the word out about their new offer. In the process, they helped educate the community about co-working at a scale I couldn't. When potential members searched Google, they saw SPACES and us (West Hartford Co-Working).
Our business increased tremendously. So much so that I had to bring on expert people to meet the demand. SPACES opened and it turns out that our offer and price points are differentiated. I also determined that the market in West Hartford is large enough to support multiple operations. I’ve met the people who run SPACES in West Hartford. They are very nice, I wish them luck, and I thank them for accelerating the consumer education of co-working in our town.
10. LETTING GO AND FINDING A SUCCESSOR (BUYER)
The real valuable thing in life is focused time and energy, not money. When we had our second child, I took sober stock of the father and husband I aimed to be and the type of entrepreneur and proprietor I wanted to be.
I was working full-time at health services company and wanted West Hartford Co-Working to thrive by keeping up with customer demand. Thriving meant growth. Growing meant time and energy I didn't really have (or want) to spend on anywhere but with my wife and kids and risks I wasn’t willing to take right with two young kids.
When I really got honest with myself, I realized that I was just Clark Kent, not Superman. I couldn’t eat my cake and have it too. Something had to give. So, I decided to sell West Hartford Co-Working.
Lucky for me, I’d retained the services of Annisa Teich to manage the operation. She had the enthusiasm, skill, savvy, and hustle to really grow the business. I approached Annisa about purchasing the business and explained why I thought she was the right person to grow it. After a few conversations, she secured funding from Bromleigh Ventures to acquire the venture with Annisa at the helm.
The idea of letting go of something I created was initially difficult for me. But, the brief feeling of grief immediately disappeared a day later when Annisa hit the ground running and really upped the game of the business. She and I chat regularly. It’s amazing and fulfilling to see someone be successful toward a cause I care about.
While I had a profit motive in my co-working endeavor, the non-monetary payoffs were more valuable. I met awesome people who have made a difference in my life personally and professionally. I learned a ton about people, business, and myself. If I were CEO of a major corporation, I think I’d encourage all employees to run a side business as a development activity to help make them more business savvy employees in their day jobs.
I no longer have a stake in any coworking operation, but I’m a huge fan of it. If you live in Central Connecticut and want a great place to work, check out the many co-working spaces in the area. Ask for a free trial and see which one is for you. You might even want to start with Annisa at West Hartford Co-Working.
About the Author
John Paul Vaselina is a talent development leader with years of leadership and development, organizational development, entrepreneurship, and tech experience. He currently serves as Head of the Learning Experience Design & Development team within Cigna Learning Solutions at Cigna.