I’ve always wondered how Boeing sells an aircraft before it’s built. Is it enough to talk about specs, and delivery dates, and fancy new lightweight composite materials? Do airline officials need to see and touch the airplanes that they buy, or can they understand the value intellectually, and commit to a purchase sight-unseen?
I thought a lot about this when opening our coworking space in early 2014. How do I sell something that doesn’t exist? Not just convince people that it’s worth buying, but actually ask them to commit to purchasing? Even on a small scale, how can I find success in creating customers before I create my product?
Truth be told, coworking members were not our first customer. (Our first customers attended a class of ours 2 and 1/2 years before we opened a coworking space.) But landing customers for our coworking space — some of whom joined us before construction of the space had begun — was a challenge.
How did we do it? Perseverance, trial and error, and a few strategies that seem worth sharing.
We built a community.
There have been many things written about the importance of building a community when you’re building a business. (We’ve written a good bit about the topic, as it happens.)
Operating for 2 and 1/2 years before opening our coworking space (as an online marketplace for offline classes, and planning and hosting workshops and events) enabled us to build a community around The Skillery. That was key to helping us steady our early steps.
To us, the value of creating community first has three core components to it:
Your community is an opportunity to serve.
Most important is the ability to serve your community. Your community has needs, wants and pain points, and as a community leader, you have a tremendous opportunity to dig deeper to understand the people around you, and to serve them. It’s a business opportunity, sure, but also a social opportunity. A collective north star to guide you in your decision-making.
Your community is a network of support.
There is no way to open a business like a coworking space without a tremendous amount of support, and having a community to turn to can be extremely helpful. That support can take a lot of forms. Your community can help build furniture, market the space, spread the word, give tours. You’ll have a built-in army of support when you need it.
Your community is a customer base.
Of course, the most obvious advantage of having a community in place before you open a business like a coworking space is that your community may be full of potential customers. In fact, if you build your space to serve your community, you may have all the customers you need before you ever open the space, even if your community is small.
Indy Hall’s Alex Hillman frames the importance of community building this way, specifically regarding coworking: “Build the club, then build the clubhouse.” We agree.
We talked to potential customers.
Lots of them. We learned what people in our community wanted before we made any decisions about our space, specific or broad, from our furniture to the neighborhood we chose — even whether to open a coworking space at all. Ultimately, answering these questions is your responsibility, but doing so from an informed place, with a significant understanding of your community’s needs and wants, will help set you up for success.
We asked people questions like, “What would appeal to you in a collaborative workspace?” Asking this question helped our potential customers understand that we had their interests in mind — that we were concerned about what they wanted, and what they needed. It developed trust. It made potential customers feel like we might deliver what they wanted, and all they had to do was ask for it. That’s the power of talking to people.
The answers we received helped guide our hands when we went to make critical decisions about our business. We approached our customer conversations with no preconceived notions — not even an assumption that we were going to open a coworking space (only an idea that we might). Talking to people confirmed the need, and increased our desire to do it.
We built to suit our customers.
Armed with feedback about what people wanted, we were able to build our space to directly appeal to our target audience.
More than anything else, people told us they wanted “coffee” and “vibe.” We quickly developed a relationship with our friends at Steadfast Coffee, and invited them to open a pop-up shop within our space before opening their own shop in the back of our building. Coffee: check.
Vibe, though… how do you create “vibe”? What does that mean? Beware the nebulous requests with no real meat on the bones. Dig deeper and get to the root of what people are actually seeking. Rather than following up with, “What does vibe mean to you?” we’d follow up with, “Tell us about a place you’ve been that has a vibe you’ve really enjoyed.” This way, rather than asking folks to be creative in coming up with words and imagery to define “vibe” (don’t ask folks to get creative — that’s your job), we encouraged folks to recount a story, a positive experience, a memory they care to repeat in some way. That’s much easier, and usually leads to a deeper discussion of the emotional response behind the appeal of a vibey space. Emotion is what we want.
In the case of our customers, almost everyone referenced a coffee shop experience they really enjoyed. An experience where the food, drink and service were top notch, and they were able to get a lot of work done in relative peace. A place that felt like home, with smells and tastes and sounds that were familiar and inviting. We heard the phrase “feel of a coffee shop” several times. (We also heard the words “not sterile” a lot — there was an impression that office space could be very corporate, and lack character.) It became clear that our customers wanted something that had character, personality, and variety, and felt like a coffee shop without the throngs of people and wishy-washy Internet. That, we could build. And so we did.
Some things we didn’t hear in our conversations: fancy furniture, teleconferencing equipment, confidentiality, color printing… We saved a ton of money by intentionally omitting things that people didn’t want or need. When visitors take a tour, do they occasionally inquire about the ability to teleconference? Yes. And we politely tell them that our space doesn’t have dedicated teleconferencing equipment. Most of those people don’t become members, and that’s OK. We’re not a good fit for everyone, and we’re delighted that our space helps us find those folks who are a good fit. When our space isn’t a match for a potential member’s needs or wants, we’re glad to recommend other spaces in town with different approaches and amenities.
More often, however, visitors simply say, “This place has a great vibe,” and decide to join us for a weeklong trial. Those are more likely our people. And that’s how we know we’ve done our job serving them.
We gave customers a sneak preview, of sorts.
Before we opened our space, we created a handful of pop-up coworking events — opportunities to experience coworking, with none of the commitment. We held pop-up coworking sessions in a non-profit’s conference room, in the offices of a web development firm, in a shoe store. These events were free, open to the public, and helped people understand what coworking is. They built good will, helped us gain exposure, and introduced people to the core components of what we were going to be offering prior to our opening a space. It’s experiential marketing. And it works.
The online version of experiential marketing is a trick that works well on Kickstarter, where people often tease their product by creating a prototype or showing an early version in a video. The most successful Kickstarter campaigns are able to give potential backers (read: customers) a taste of what they’d be getting if they were to buy in. It’s not possible to send that prototype around to potential backers, so a video will have to do.
But not in our case. All we could highlight in a video would be the vision for the space itself, most likely. Yes, we had a website with a groundplan and a description of what was coming. But we don't believe we're selling space, and we don't want to sell space. We're not landlords. We're selling a better way of working. So how do we capture that idea in a website? We don’t. We can’t. We could only capture it in a somewhat similar experience. And pop-up coworking — which had nothing to do with our space — was the best way to give people a taste of our coworking experience before we had a space to house us.
We made a letter of intent (but didn’t call it that).
For the people who were interested in joining us as members, we created a simple document to let them express their intent. This was a non-binding agreement — we weren’t going to sue anyone who bailed on it, though no one did — but it enabled us to sign up “Early Adopter Members” at a discounted rate. It was a reservation. It was a promise. It was one page. It said the following things:
I’m going to become a member of The Skillery.
Here’s how much I’m going to pay every month.
When the time comes, I’ll sign the membership agreement.
When the time comes, I’ll put a credit card number on file.
That’s it. We collected several dozen of these documents, and that enabled us to build legitimacy in the idea, and estimate our income for the first several months.
Our Early Adopter agreement also enabled people to choose to prepay three-, six- or 12-months of their membership, at a discounted rate. When it came time to open our doors, we went back to our Early Adopters and put credit cards on file. We were able to secure almost $20,000 in payments on the day our doors opened.
But money wasn’t the only benefit of asking folks to sign up ahead of time. It meant that when the doors opened, we had friendly faces in our midst. We didn’t need to spend the first few months apologizing for being empty. We had people in the house. We had members. We had advocates for the space and the brand. We had momentum. We were off and running.
Securing a customer is tricky business. Securing a customer pre-launch is trickier still. I’m not the CEO of Boeing, with a hefty budget, sizeable team, and international reputation to call upon. So I approached our search for customers via coffee-shop meetings, one at a time. The initial sales were mine to secure or lose. And the only approach available was a highly personal one.
Listening, refining, and delivering something to serve our community: That’s the only thing that has ever worked for us — even before we opened our doors — and it’s the only thing that works for us now. We continue to explore ways to serve our community, and to allow them to serve us. We have found success because our members are able to do great work within our walls, and have a great time doing it. All we have to do is help them do it, and the revenue follows.
Since we opened our doors in July of 2014, we’ve tripled our membership. And we still have room to double our membership, which is our goal by mid-2017. We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, but we’re proud of the way we thoughtfully secured members before our doors were open.
What about you? What has worked (or not worked) for you as you’ve built your business? Whether you run a coworking space or not, we’re curious to hear your story! Share with us in the comments, or find us online: @theskillery.