Why Coworking Isn't Just a Rented Desk
By Jason Saltzman
The coworking industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world today. You may sit in a coworking space now or have heard of these places where you can work amidst other companies in a productive, supportive environment, but here is deep dive into what makes some coworking spaces more than a place to just work.
When I first started Alley in 2011, there were about four coworking spaces in NYC. I do not mean shared office spaces like Regus, I mean collaborative places where you can meet awesome people and share ideas. General Assembly, New Work City, The Grind and WeWork (who had one space at the time) were basically the only ones in NYC in 2011. Fast forward to 2017 and you can not walk down a city block without bumping into one. Latest statistics show us that there are over 70,000 coworking spaces globally and hundreds in NYC alone.
This is not a bad thing. This is actually great for many reasons. One of those reasons is the rise of self-employment. The barrier to starting your own business is much less difficult to cross than ever before. Furthermore, I LOVE competition. With competition, industries are forced to innovate. Competition introduces the idea that if a company does not make a better product, someone else will dominate them. We live in a consumer-first economy and to me, that drives everything that is special about the free market. You will never hear me complain about competition because I am all about building the best product I can build. Competition motivates me.
What you will hear me complain about is the generalization of industry. You know, lumping all brands and all operators into one bucket. As much as we push forward to create better products and better services, we are all lumped into one category. This makes people outside of the coworking world think they can simply rent space and sell it, and that is it. Coworking is not a term that simply means office rental. Although sometimes, it seems that this is the definition by which many spaces run, it is not like this for every space. If you are a real “coworking” space it is much more than just a place to work.
True story: I met with Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures in his office to talk about net neutrality. Fred is one of the first investors of Twitter, amongst other tech unicorns. The meeting was a small round table with the CEOs of some amazing organizations and the Attorney General of New York, Mr. Eric Schneiderman. Fred sat right next to me and asked what I did. I told him I was the CEO of Alley. His response was, "Oh, you are landlord. Alley is just real estate”. My response was, “Mr. Wilson, that is like calling Twitter just a website”. He smiled in what seemed to be recognition of a founder who was passionate about what he does.
Here is the thing, everyone is opening coworking spaces these days. Many of NYC’s real estate giants are building “hip” space. When you are a real estate owner and you tell me that you are renting space and subletting offices within it, it is like having a Mr.Coffee coffee maker and saying that you are opening a Starbucks with it.
So why do I feel so strongly about the “real estate” I sell? What makes Alley anything more than a place to work? I decided to break it down for those of you who are thinking about building a coworking space and for those of you who are simply just trying to build something meaningful.
Community: We have a saying at Alley. “Community over everything”. This basically means that we put the needs of our community before any of our needs as a company. Financial and strategic goals all take a back seat to community. Community is not putting just anyone in a room. Community is making sure you have the “right” people in a room. What I mean by “right” people is the type of people that want to help each other, the type of people that can learn and teach at the same time. We vet everyone who comes in our doors and it's not about who their investors are or how much money they make, it is about them and if they can benefit from the community and benefit others within the community. If you put a bunch of assholes in a room together, that would be a very crappy experience.
Platform: If you are not creating value for your customers, then stop what you are doing. We create value at Alley by offering massively discounted services for each and every one of our members. Most of our members are emerging startups and they need help, so we created a platform to help them grow. These services have been vetted, and all of the services we offer are from our members. You basically live with them, next door to your accountants or insurance providers. We also have direct links into investor relationships. We partner with firms such as ERA and Techstars to give the companies exposure. This is great deal flow for investment firms and this is wonderful for our members who need to raise money. I am proud to say that since our inception Alley companies have raised over 1 Billion in funding based on our last studies. This year, two of our companies have made it into the elite accelerator, Y Combinator.
Programming: Our space is a veritable playground for entrepreneurs. We have turned walls and rooms into an opportunity to connect some of the most interesting people in the world. We do this through thoughtful programming. For us, this means more than just events, it means cross-cultural engagement. Whether it be an amazing speaker, a workshop, a hackathon with a corporate partner, or a thoughtful progressive series like our HER event, our programming is meant to raise awareness, create thoughtful leadership and inspire people to live a bigger and more fulfilling life. Just to give you an idea of the magnitude of programming over the past few years, we have thrown over 1,000 events with over 150,000 RSVPs.
Diversity: In our opinion, diversity is a word that is thrown around the tech sector too easily. To some, this is checking the boxes. For us, it is the soul of our business. I have always believed that if you put the same people in the room from the same backgrounds working on the same shit, the room becomes a very boring place. In order to evolve, we MUST learn from others. We must step outside our comfort zones and learn from each other. One of the most exciting benefits of living on planet earth as humans is that we are all different. At Alley we embrace this wholeheartedly. This is not just about race or gender, it's about what industry you are working in. Our space is super special because we have variety, from nonprofits helping abused woman in the Congo through micro-finance to a happy hour subscription service. Variety is the ultimate spice of life at Alley.
Team: I can not stress this point enough. As CEO of Alley I am a messenger of the vision and what we have executed to deploy that vision. The team makes it happen, I just take all the credit. In order for you to succeed you need to work around people that share a vision and passion for what you are doing. My team is comprised of the most creative, thoughtful and caring people in the world. The individuals on the team are a representation of all that we wish to become as a company. As a service-oriented business you cannot 100% control your clientele, but if you want to attract the right clientele, especially when building a community, then the team should represent the best of who and what you are.
Brand: A brand is MORE than a logo. A brand motivates and inspires you. Case and point, Nike. When someone buys a pair of Nike shoes, they see themselves running a marathon in the desert. Even though they will more than likely sit in your closet for two years, the brand has motivated you to buy the shoes. Nike is not a shoe company, they are a health and wellness company. At Alley, we look at brand the same way. Our goal is to showcase our brand as a place where special connections happen, a brand that motivates you to give your all and to step outside your comfort zone to meet and embrace different people from different cultures and backgrounds. Brand has to come from your company values. Our brand is the reason why over two million people have visited our website from all over the world. It is not because we are a place to work; it is because we are so much more than that.
Love: I am always telling the team to “put love into it”. If you put love into what you are working on, the result will always be the best product you can create. If you love your users then you are going to care about them and you are going to provide for every need you can and create value every step of the way. With love, you can figure out solutions to every problem. In the words of John Lennon, “all you need is love”.
All of these elements are what I call the "The Seinfeld”. Thousands of TV shows have been aired but few are as special as Seinfeld -- few have touched our hearts on the most human of levels. I can hand you our playbook and list everything we do to market our brand and to motivate people to engage with Alley, but if you do not have it in your soul to want to help people and make their lives better, you will not succeed. The future of Alley is not completely certain, as we deal with markets and things that are not always in our control. One thing I can assure you, myself and my team are going to continue to put our hearts and souls into our space because Alley is not just a place to work, it is home.