I seem to have a lot of trouble with terminological shifts.
When I was a young complexologist, “chaos theory” meant something about deterministic dynamical systems. But gradually the specific field of mathematical research got popular, and stupid management consultants (I say this with love) decided they would use the phrase to mean something about touchy-feely intuitiveness and dinosaurs and more like what they and the Ancient Greeks assumed it meant all along, about disruption and meaninglessness.
When I was a young theoretical biologist, “computational biology” meant something about agent-based models of evolutionary and molecular dynamics, and exploring emergence. But cheap computing resources became available to everybody and their brother, and suddenly the People With Too Many Base Pairs On Hand (I name them with respect) decided they would use the phrase to mean something more about sequence alignment, and not multiscale structural biology.
When I was a slightly older complexologist, “complex systems” went through the same exact bullshitization process as “chaos theory” did before it. Now, to be frank, it’s just mostly powerlaw-bullshit-on-networks (I say that with no little bitterness).
Luckily, “astrobiology” doesn’t really have an easy mapping to business consulting, so that one was kind of safe. But—amusingly enough—I didn’t get to do it for very long before the good old Ivy League Cell & Molecular Biology Department I was working in decided that astrobiology itself was bullshit, or at least not Cell & Molecular Biology the way they did it, and they kicked me out. What the heck; turnabout is fair play.
Then there’s “social network”, which used to be a bunch of circles and arrows, not a street term for “privacy invasion”. There’s “genetic programming”, which became just-plain-symbolic-regression. And “agile software development”, which used to be about bringing value and reducing the risk to developers working on software projects, not speeding up product delivery for their goddamned (and I say that with no love whatsoever) corporate managers. And “anarchism”, which only a few people in the whole damned world still remember means something about being nice to one another because it’s the right thing to do, not throwing rocks at coffee shops. And “conservatism”, which you may be surprised to learn used to mean something a lot more like “being reasonable and taking into account people’s differences”, not being an asshole about rich people getting richer. And “Pragmatism”, which isn’t about compromising your principles for the sake of The Law.
And so on. I’m used to it; I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch. “Skepticism” for example.
And maybe now “coworking.”
You may not have noticed that I’ve been deeply involved with Workantile Exchange in Ann Arbor since before it began. It hasn’t come up much. Mike Kessler is the founder of that business, but it was a matter of coincidence that Barbara and Laura Fisher and I ran into him after we’d spent more than six months looking for an affordable space for our community of informal colleagues, and he had spent months building out a wonderful commercial space in downtown Ann Arbor on spec, hoping for a community to crop up.
The detailed story’s for another day, but the short version is salient: From the get-go, we understood the contingent realities of the coworking business.
- You can’t sell jack shit to unemployed people, so don’t expect to make money by “supporting those transitioning to an independent lifestyle” (aka, “layoff victims”). Leave that to the government, and pure nonprofit people.
- People who think they want a desk and a phone and a mailbox really just want to project an illusion of corporate-style success, and thus they don’t want to cowork, they want a bargain-basement price on an office lease, and a fucking butler (I say this with a whole heap of wry bonhomie). So send those people to a landlord so they can learn the prices and hidden costs of actual real estate, and not merely leech off your coworking space’s lease and limited staff and service budget.
- Diversity of membership reduces the risk to every member, so don’t try to specialize in “makers” or “creatives” or “startups” and ferchrissakes not Realtors.
- 30% of the workforce is an independent. That compares to something like 10% that’s a dopey seat-of-the-pants looking-for-venture-capital startup-style big-E Entrepreneur (I say this with love, and the knowledge that “entrepreneurship” is a cognitive disorder; I myself am a high-functioning entrepreneur), and besides they don’t want to spend one thin dime, so don’t even bother dealing with college kids or the local incubator’s castoffs.
- Most landlords (but apparently not ours, thank goodness), the Useless Chamber of Commerce, the local Economic Development grant-givers, the State Government, the candidates who want to demonstrate their “effectiveness”, the Newspaper Business Columnist, anybody who thinks of themselves as an “angel investor”, and for that matter any person who has ever watched an unironic hour of Bloomberg Television? Those people do not get it. In their world, the only way to make money is to raise prices and offer improved services until demand tapers off. Coworking is not about quid pro quo, it’s not a zero-sum game, it’s not about being a landlord or finding arbitrary tenants or even—this is important—making money. You cannot make a profit by running a coworking space.
That last one’s important. We’re not communists, we’re not anti-capitalists and we’re not running some kind of pep club. It’s just that we’ve thought about it. You cannot make a profit selling community.
So the question is: what the hell is “coworking” then? I mean, I’ve disqualified renting desks to people, and setting up offices for independents, and all that other normal stuff. What is it?
It’s community. Not the kind you join because it “offers good opportunities for networking and professional development”, but the kind you join because it would be neat.
It’s church. Not the kind where you worship, but the kind you go to for fellowship with people from diverse backgrounds, but who are in the same essential and existential position you are: Independent in a world that assumes you have a “job title” and a “boss” and “employer healthcare” or you can “send a purchase order”.
It’s a club. Not the kind you go for help, but—and I’m sorry if this makes me sound like a supercilious asshole—the kind of club you join in order to build a strong barrier between you and the Pinks, the Normals, the hoi polloi. Though in our case, those hoi polloi are often the bosses, the politicos, the nominal movers and shakers of the “working world”.
We’re not them. We’re the 30% of the people who are independent of all that.
That 30% is all over the place. But whoever it is we actually are, we’re also proud. Of who we are, and of what we’re helping to create.
I’m not as full of hot air as normal, here. During the first two years of Workantile Exchange’s existence, Mike Kessler tried selling desks, and selling mailboxes, and subleases, and startup incubation, and nonprofit meetings, and maker spaces, and all the rest of that stuff. You know what broke every one of those business models? Those people don’t want to belong to a community. They want services, and they want discounts.
All this boils down to: sustainable coworking isn’t anything to do with office space at all. Any moron can buy a cubicle and set it up in her garage or her spare bedroom, and sit there and play My Special Office whenever she wants.
It’s not about “work” at all. Real coworking is about the “co-” part, about being together. Pride. Like-mindedness. About avoiding the risks and vicissitudes of sitting at work by yourself, not being exposed to the externalities of real life by yourself, about not reinventing the wheel by yourself every time a computer acts weird or a contract gets confusing or a lawsuit pops up or your dog needs a play date or you have too much work.
And (because this comes up) it’s not about being some kind of consensus-driven co-op, either. We remain independent, or we lose our self-definition completely and fall back to being mere amateurs with “lifestyle businesses”.
Nope. Coworking is a way of eating entropy. Redirecting risk using community dynamics. If you want to think about it in a confrontational way, it’s about co-opting the same social design patterns—colocation, team formation, complementary skillsets, tacit knowledge banking, and collaborative risk balancing—that corporations bring to bear against us.
It saddens me that I never got a chance to visit Carrboro Creative Coworking, and it saddens me more to see them join the ranks of those who have fallen. But it doesn’t surprise me.
We’re weird. We’re probably weird enough that we’re wrong in a lot of ways. It’s deathly tiring to constantly have to explain all this to guests and visitors and people looking for things we’ve decided not to offer, and just have it bounce off their foreheads’ Cognitive Dissonance fields. And as Workantile Exchange transitions from a failing for-profit to a stable what-the-hell-who-cares-about-money low-profit, maybe we’ll fall by the wayside ourselves.
I don’t think so, though.
We have more than 60 members right now who are diverse, powerful, enthusiastic experts in their fields. We have architects, filmmakers, authors, editors, business development people, lawyers, activists, traders, programmers, graphic designers, students, consultants, remote employees, marketers, and even a dilettante or two (like me). We have tequila tastings and book fairs, art gallery openings and WordPress Users meetings. We have the amazing volunteer contributions of Trek Glowacki, the honored and respected Member who’s been working for more than two years as our de facto “community manager”, and of Tom Brandt and David Erik Nelson who (with me) are trying to “manage” us into a new, more reasonable business model. And all the many volunteers among the Contributing membership, who have given time to mop and tidy and run events and introduce people to one another, share lunch and talk and offer advice, fill the air with music and chatter.
And tolerate one another. And see value in one another.
Anybody can be wrong. But see: the more different you all are from one another, the less likely that becomes.
Maybe to succeed in the long term we really do need to specialize, and exclusively rent desks to dudes who wear identical khakis as they work on the Next Google, or market more to women entrepreneurs whose businesses have been singled out by local economic development experts as leading the way into the 20th Century, or give discounts to poor out-of-work corporate layoff victims who need a hand during their transition to this unfamiliar world that has no “work life balance”, which only includes life, with work as a part of that.
Maybe we’re wrong.
Who cares? If this is wrong, it’ll do for now.