Category Archives: Independent Revolution

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The problem with coworking (and an idea for how to solve it)

Coworking has served to unite millions of people around the world who share a common interest. Over seven years ago, when I was living with my parents, working from home and losing my mind, I was able to discover Jelly in NYC and a global movement with a simple Google search. Once I saw the word, I knew that whatever coworking was, it was what I needed.

Zoom way, way forward to present day, and coworking is now quickly seeping into the collective consciousness. As an ardent champion of coworking since I first discovered it, I see this as a tremendously good thing.

That growth was made possible by a simple fact: the guy who invented modern day coworking freely offered it to be taken and shared and copied and remixed by anyone anywhere. While that simple act ignited massive rallying by people all around the world, it came with one critical tradeoff: no one person or entity can control the direction or perception of the word now that it’s out in the world for anyone to use.

As a result, the meaning behind the notion of coworking has undergone an extremely long game of telephone, wherein a little bit of the original signal is lost every time it gets passed along from one to another.

Along its journey from obscurity to household name, coworking found a powerful delivery vehicle in a business model that relies on renting space and then charging people to share that space.

Over time, the deep, meaningful, purposeful power behind the word got overwhelmed by the business model. Coworking, to many people, has been reduced to simply another way of renting workspace.

Those of us who have experienced what is possible with coworking, however, know that it speaks to something far deeper and more important. Experiencing it illuminated to me the direction that work as we know it is going: away from traditional employment and even from independent models toward something that mixes the best of both.

Coworking gives us a peek way ahead, to a world in which people are empowered but not isolated. In some ways, it’s way ahead of its time.

But so long as coworking remains outside of anyone’s control, we can’t use it by itself without some additional help.

I’ve seen this in a number of stories I’ve heard and experienced myself when coworking spaces in the same city try to get together to support each other. They struggle to find ways to collaborate, because ultimately their businesses rely upon them renting space, and there’s little room for their ultimate interests to align.

If coworking spaces such as those could be united under a more specifically articulated, higher purpose, we may have an opportunity to go further.

Idea: Articulate a higher purpose people can rally around.

If the aspirations of a coworking space can extend beyond simply getting enough members to pay the rent, new opportunities for collaboration come into play. Neighboring coworking spaces have a better chance of working together, while each individual space also has an opportunity to re-cast its relationship with current and future members in the context of their shared efforts toward this common purpose.

It’s what most of us are already in the business of doing—we just need to call it out in a way that invites others to participate.

I didn’t dedicate myself to New Work City because I thought it was a fab way to make profits trading space for cash.  I’d venture a guess that most coworking space owners would agree.

We got into this business because we want to help people. We want to help ourselves, and future generations. We see a way of working that is made better when we gather and organize together.

What would it look like if we articulated, in a specific way, why we’re doing what we’re doing and started speaking and acting with that in mind?

Potential higher purposes, just off the top of my head:

  • Making your town a more welcoming place for independent creatives
  • Improving your city’s economy through increased commerce between citizens
  • Growing the number of people who are successfully working for themselves
  • Reducing economic inequality by providing low-cost access to education and resources
  • Making it just as easy to work for yourself as it used to be to work for someone else
  • Helping 1,000 people in the region make their first $100 working for themselves by the end of 2014
  • Building a support infrastructure for the emergent interdependent workforce

I’m keen on developing my own take on these higher ambitions. I want to see coworking spaces around the world working towards a shared mission in a way that’s more explicit and exciting.

How can we go about better fostering this greater sense of purpose?

 

Unearthing a hidden movement

Coworking’s big, and it’s getting bigger by the day. As it continues its evolution from nascent concept to established industry, the original spirit of what made it special inevitably becomes more and more distant from the people who encounter it.

If all coworking ever did was birth a new industry of on-demand low cost workspace, it would already have made a huge impact on how people work and live. But there’s something far deeper happening that merits continued attention. If you’ve ever spent time in a coworking space, you know: the people who are migrating to these communities, what they’re doing, and how they’re organizing and interacting is all… well, very interesting. Coworking, the industry, is a powerful and valuable thing. Coworking, the movement, is another story altogether.

While nobody controls “coworking” and its many interpretations, one of the things that was agreed upon by the early members of the movement was that, while everyone can have their own take on what this new thing is, there are some basic elements that make it what it is. Anyone could do anything with the word, but if certain elements were weak or missing, it wouldn’t be embodying what this thing really is about. Conversely, people who use the word “coworking” to embody something that fully represents these basic elements would be on the right track to embodying what makes this thing really special.

They’re not precise. They’re not perfect. They’re open to interpretation. But they are a really really handy construct.

They’re called the Coworking Values. Here they are:

  • Community
  • Openness
  • Collaboration
  • Accessibility
  • Sustainability

If you’re organizing something around the word “coworking,” odds are you’d benefit from seeking to address each of these values in your own way.

If you don’t like them, you can of course set your own values that are specific to what you want to do. But if you ignore the values driving the trend that you want your business to be a part of, you expose yourself to missing the mark and failing to engage the people who you want to help.

You might not mind one day finding yourself managing a big boring room of people sitting at desks with their headphones on all day, but you might want something better.

Let’s talk about what something better looks like to you and to the rest of us.

The industry, right now, is overshadowing the movement that’s driving it. But maybe it doesn’t have to. Maybe the two can fuel each other.

A new effort is forming to advance the core values of the coworking movement. Get a sneak preview here.

Work Sprint at Brooklyn Roasting Company

27 ideas for hosting a coworking gathering that’s more than just people sitting around on laptops

A few years ago, I participated in an experiment called the Breakout Festival, in which we organized coworking gatherings in public spaces. It was awesome. I wonder what it would be like to revisit efforts to gather in new ways? Some potential gatherings, off the top of my head:

  • … go to a museum, appreciate art, then do our own creative work in the museum cafe
  • … get up really early and get a bunch done before 9:00am
  • … go on a photo safari, then settle somewhere to edit and publish
  • … pomodoro work sprints
  • … late night coworking with a DJ
  • … coffee snob coworking. meet at a high-end coffee roaster. order coffee. discuss coffee. drink. work.
  • … wine snob coworking. meet at a high-end wine bar. order wine. discuss wine. drink. work.
  • … commit to doing something you dread. do a pomodoro. reconvene. recommit. repeat.
  • … cafe crawl of (insert neighborhood here)
  • … coworking space crawl of (insert neighborhood here)
  • … coworking + drinking (infinite possibilities)
  • … coworking + brunch (no explanation necessary)
  • … coworking + saturday morning cartoons
  • … coworking + watching football games on Sunday
  • … everybody bring your pet
  • … enjoy a podcast / TED talk / etc, talk about it, then work in a way related to that topic
  • … co-workout. coworking + yoga/cardio/soulcycle/etc
  • … coworking while you wait for your stupid laundry
  • … inbox zero sprint (using the Email Game?)
  • … coworking road trip – split the cost of a zipcar, ride out to somewhere obscure and fun, work, ride back. maybe use the car time for brainstorming.
  • … coworking at a cool company’s office. fun experiences crafted around the cool company.
  • … shared interest coworking. pick a category: a particular programming language, photography, design, marketing, anything. Each person is there to work on something relating to that interest. Before starting, each person states the thing that they’re working on and one challenge they’re hoping to solve. Everyone coworks and checks back in with each other periodically to help each other out.
  • … coached coworking: one expert offers up some advice or guidance to kick off the session, then everyone works on that while they go around helping out.
  • … coworking in an Apple store until someone kicks you out
  • … coworking on a BoltBus to Philly
  • … coworking field trip: meet in a neighborhood you might never have been to before. immerse in the local culture during a group lunch break.
  • … combinations of the above

What would you attend? What would you organize? Tony

Work Sprints: Let’s do better work in less time, and love it.

I’m running a high-energy, high awesomeness productivity sprint at Brooklyn Roasting Company on Thursday, October 3. Grab a spot here!

A funny thing happens when we start working for ourselves that I think too few of us recognize: we implicitly hire ourselves as our own bosses. We’re suddenly the CEO, the middle manager, and the worker bee all wrapped up in one little brain.

What happens next is even more curious: our inner bosses often find themselves imitating the very behaviors that we tend to despise in traditional industrial-era bosses.

We tend to, for instance, value face time as a measure of performance. If we sit in front of our keyboards for 10+ hours a day, we figure, we must be satisfying our inner bosses, right?

We know intuitively that it’s wrong, yet we struggle against it constantly. And we egg each other on, too. We can get into a competitive loop of who can lament about working more hours than whom. It’s honorable to bust your ass day and night. And that can be an awful way to live. (Many folks in the startup world struggle with this mightily.)

But we’re in charge. That means it’s up to us to define the rules. If we are intentional about the boss we’ve created for ourselves in our heads, then we can create a working relationship with ourselves that is nourishing and healthy. We can break the culture of treating work like a cross to bear.

But doing it alone is hard. It’s also no fun. So I propose we work on being better bosses for ourselves together.

There are a lot of ways to tackle this, but the most simple and obvious one to me centers around time management. (The guy who kicked off the modern coworking movement was hip to this, by the way.) If, by virtue of gathering and setting some intentions for ourselves and each other, we can get a better handle on our workdays, we can build on that.

To that end, I’m going to organize an Intentional Coworking gathering where the attendees commit to shifting their focus away from the number of hours worked and toward the quality of hours worked. Tony Schwartz, of the Energy Projectframes this mindset perfectly:

“For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions — beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest — and took a break after each one… Writing just four and half hours a day, I completed both books in less than six months and spent my afternoons on less demanding work.”

He continues:

“More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace. Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less.”

Let’s commit to helping each other do better work in less time. Let’s celebrate our successes and enjoy the freedoms we’ve afforded ourselves. Most importantly, let’s do great things together.


RSVP

The Rise of the In(ter)dependent Workforce

Over the course of history, our relationship with work has shifted, back and forth, between three basic levels:

  • An employee is dependent upon their employer. They have minimal freedom and maximum structure, with appropriate tradeoffs.
  • We tend to define the alternative as the independent workforce, whose members are entirely responsible for taking care of themselves, also with corresponding tradeoffs.
  • In between is an interdependent workforce, whose members are individually autonomous, but reliant upon and contributing toward a larger ecosystem.

When we built the supply chains of the 20th century, we leaned hard on a culture of a dependent workforce. We built big businesses and big skyscrapers and centralized management, growing and refining hierarchies that maximized our ability to produce products efficiently. In exchange, employers offered employees consistent salaries, the promise of regular pay raises, retirement plans, health care, and most importantly, job security to anyone who’d work hard and remain faithful.

Now, as the primacy of that model fades in favor of a more fluid, creative economy, people are increasingly breaking out into independent work relationships– freelancing, contracting, small business– where both the power and the responsibility rests entirely in the hands of the individual.

Neither model, however, is perfect. Both come with steep tradeoffs. Complete dependence upon one employer to do one job can lead to monotony, powerlessness, feelings of being held back, and vulnerability to the ever-present spectre of layoffs. Having everything handled for you makes life a lot easier to manage, but it also means you’ve got little say in the matter and little control over your destiny.

Shedding the shackles of employed life is liberating, but it’s not long before you realize just how many things an employer did for you that you must now handle for yourself. Beyond the obvious– taxes, insurance, a place to work, a consistent income– are deeper missing structures: accountability, tracking of progress, even a clear start and end time for your workday.

In short, both are extremes, and extremes are by definition never ideal. As more and more people move between these extremes, however, we find a growing middle. Employers are giving employees more flexibility to choose how and when and where they work. Independents are banding together and forming communities to share resources and support one another.

As a leftie, drawing this legibly took far more time than it looks.
As a leftie, drawing this legibly took far more time than it looks.

The growing middle ground is one of an interdependent workforce, one which balances autonomy with structure; freedom with support. This model gives people the ability to define how they work in a way that permits them to seek fulfillment of their human potential, while still leaning on support systems for those things which they would have difficulty managing on their own.

This model gives people the ability to find security in developing skills at a valuable craft without having to be too dependent upon one entity as the provider who might pull the rug out at any time. This model is predicated on one’s ability to produce real value, not just to show up and do the minimum necessary to keep the boss happy.

And it’s very far from complete.

We have a chance to build better ways to support each other as we each find our way to the middle. This is why I felt so passionate about helping to build a coworking space, and why I care so much about helping others not just do the same, but do better.

And we have a long way to go. I want to do more.

NYC is the biggest coworking city in the world. Here’s why that’s important.

Today, WNYC’s New Tech City published a piece that declared New York City the world’s biggest coworking city, tracking over 80 spaces on a map they’ve posted here.

Five years ago, I was working to bring one– just one– space dedicated to the coworking movement to fruition in Manhattan. Seeing what has happened between now and then, I couldn’t be more excited for the prospects.

I was so drawn to coworking not just because it gave me a way to get out of my home office to be around some incredible people, but because it represented a fundamentally new way of approaching our relationship with work.

While NYC is unique in many ways, it is also often a harbinger of what’s to come for the rest of the world. The speed and fervor with which it has taken to the coworking movement is no fluke: coworking is growing at an exponential rate everywhere. We just happen to have a lot of it in a relatively small space.

Why did NYC take so well to coworking? There are lots of reasons, but the most important one can be summed up in two words: self-sufficiency. In the concrete jungle where dreams are made of, people quickly learn how to take care of themselves.

Coworking spaces give those kinds of people a place to gather and help one another, so it’s natural to see New Yorkers are jumping on them so readily.

But this is bigger than just those enterprising early adopters who are already able to hack it on their own. As the job landscape continues to shift from full-time employment to contingent workers and small businesses, more and more people are finding themselves with this kind of responsibility. It’s not something most people are used to, but it’s where things are headed.

As technology continues to change everything in the workplace, previously taken-for-granted notions like full-time employment, the 9 to 5, commutes, and dedicated offices are all in question. As those structures continue to erode, so too does the consistency associated with them. Without a sole provider (employer) to dictate and manage these things, the responsibility increasingly shifts to the individual.

The result is a more independent, flexible lifestyle. There are downsides to this increase in responsibility, but ultimately the benefits outweigh the costs. We are, after all, big fans of our freedom, right?

Regardless, being self-sufficient is something that more people are going to have to get good at.

What better way to tackle that than by taking a trek down to your local coworking space? There are, after all, over 2,000 of them worldwide, depending on what you include in the count.

Coworking spaces are becoming a decentralized, highly local network of centers that support the needs of the new workforce. People looking to join the ranks of the independents need look no further than around their corner, where a coworking space– which, if it doesn’t exist yet, will likely be appearing soon– will be full of friendly folks to befriend, work with, and learn from.

They’re helping people make the transition, simply by existing. I wonder what they could accomplish if they were helping people make that transition on purpose.

We are only beginning to appreciate the implications of this. Here in NYC, we have an opportunity to get a head start in exploring that, using the many coworking communities within the reach of a subway ride as a starting point. The potential for job creation and economic development is enormous.

And last time I checked, we still need a lot more of that to be happening, and soon.

If coworking can help fix the economy and make the world a better place, NYC is the place for us to start finding out. I look forward to exploring the possibilities in earnest.

****

I’m cofounder and Mayor of a coworking space called New Work City here in NYC. I’m also teaching people how to build better communities. Learn about the Community Builders Masterclass here!

 

 

Achieving better focus, by way of Kevin Durant

I often find myself sucked into the typical distractions of our over-connected lives, surrendering my focus to email, social media, and open browser tabs. I’m always looking for new ways to combat this, and am experimenting with a new strategy.

Firstly, I try to set two or three high-priority things I need to work on in a given day. I know these are things that feed into larger narratives that are important in my life. I know that the day will attempt to distract me from these things as it plays out, so when I find myself drifting away from the important stuff, I wait for a break in the action, close my eyes, and shut the lid to my laptop.

I try to release everything that’s clouded my mind, and I ask myself one question: What Would Kevin Durant Do?

Kevin Durant, if you’re not familiar, is the star basketball player of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Aside from being a scoring machine and one of the best players in the NBA, he is notable for something that’s particularly rare for people of his stature: he carries a distinct lack of ego.

There is no chip on his shoulder. He is not out trying to show off. He shows up every night and kicks ass all day, and doesn’t bullshit. He just works.

So when I ask What Would Kevin Durant Do, the answer is always the same: he’d shut up and work. He’d head to the courts and practice 1,000 free throws. He’d work out in the gym. He’d do what he had to do and cut out all the crap.

He’d not belabor the tedium of practice and workouts.

He’d focus on being awesome.

And when the time came, he’d drop 40 points and dunk over everyone.

And he’d love it.

My idealistic vision of Kevin Durant helps me focus. Perhaps he can help you too.

 

Resolving the battle of work vs. life

From Christopher Alexander’s landmark book, A Pattern Language:

“If you spend eight hours of your day at work, and eight hours at home, there is no reason why your workplace should be any less of a community than your home.”

When someone tells you where he “lives,” he is always talking about his house or the neighborhood his house is in. It sounds harmelss enough. But think what it really means. Why should the people of our culture choose to use the word “live,” which, on the face of it, applies to every moment of our waking lives, and apply it to only a special portion of our lives– that part associated with our families and houses. The implication is straightforward. The people of our culture believe that they are less alive when they are working than when they are at home; and we make this distinction dubtly clear, by choosing to keep the word “live” only for those places in our lives where we are not working. Anyone who uses the phrase “where do you live” in its everyday sense, accepts as his own the widespread cultural awareness of the fact that no one really “lives” at his place of work– there is no song or music there, no love, no food– that he is not alive while working, not living, only toiling away, and being dead.

As soon as we understand this situation it leads at once to outrage. Why should we accept a world in which eight hours of the day are “dead”; why shall we not create a world in which our work is as much a part of life, as much alive, as anything we do at home with our family and with our friends?

… If a person spends eight hours a day working in a certain area, and the nature of his work, its social character, and its location, are all chosen to make sure that he is living, not merely earning money, then it is certainly essential that the area immediately around his place of work be a community, just like a neighborhood but oriented to the pace and rhythms of work, instead of the rhythms of the family.

I wonder what Christopher Alexander would think of coworking communities.

Did you grow up thinking this way? That living was something you did outside of work? Note the way Alexander casts this not as a reality but as a cultural perception. Work isn’t categorically an undesirable drudgery, it’s more about how we treat it.

But it’s changing. The notion of where you “live” and where you work is breaking down. As our cultures reevaluate our relationships with our work once again, we have an opportunity to alter this perception. If we find ways to think of work not as a something that takes us away from our “lives,” but an integral and healthy part of what makes us complete people, we’ll set up future generations to think of work differently.

Incidentally, you see this phenomenon in startup culture too. Hustle hard and make sacrifices to build a startup that gets successful enough to sell for big bucks. But where in that process does one develop a healthy relationship with their work? If you’re lucky enough to make it to the other side, and get rich, to what end and at what price has that status gotten you?

It’s a path that’s certainly appropriate for some, but I fear more people are chasing that than there should be. This balance, what Alexander describes, is more in line with what many people should be aspiring towards- one that emphasizes finding and doing work you believe in as an integral part of your healthy life.

As he suggests, that becomes possible when we build communities around our work like we do around the rest of our lives.

Do you want to build an Instagram, or a Photojojo?

So you want to start a business, and you dig photography. Sweet! What are your options?

You might notice this one company that does photo things called Instagram that’s made a big splash lately. They sold for a billion dollars, and Justin Timberlake once said that a billion dollars was cool. So maybe you should build something like that?

The trouble is, Instagram wasn’t built by people who cared about photography. It was built by very savvy businesspeople who knew how to navigate the treacherous world of tech startups and venture capital. The founders absolutely love spending all day thinking about how to acquire users, get listed in the top of the app store, work the right relationships with the insiders, and do loads of legal paperwork. Building an Instagram isn’t about photography, it’s about business.

So if you’re passionate about working deals, pitching investors, hiring and managing talent, and the like, by all means aim to build something like Instagram.

But if that kind of stuff makes you shiver, that’s okay– that makes you like the vast majority of the rest of the world.

What if instead you could spend most of your time focusing on reading and writing about photography, testing new gadgets and doing fun photo projects out in the wild for a living?

If that sounds like a path you’d rather take, perhaps you’d do well to look at a company like Photojojo. It’s a small business that employs a few people, it’s dead simple, and it permits the people who work there to spend as much time as possible working on what they care about. The site absolutely radiates love and happiness, and with good reason. These are people who are making a living doing what they love.

Most people would rather build a Photojojo, or they would if they were made aware of that as a viable direction. My good friend Amy Hoy points out on her excellent blog, Unicorn Free, that you need not aim to attain millions of users to build a great and profitable business. In fact, if all you did was get just 500 people to pay you $30 every month, you’d be making $180,000 a year. She teaches a class about it. Unfortunately, our culture is one that celebrates the big sexy wins, belying the opportunities that await folks who might otherwise aim for something far more satisfying and attainable.

But that’s slowly changing. Right now, today, you can make a living selling handmade goods on Etsy, designing 3D objects and putting them up for sale on Shapeways, and financing your new idea for a great thing on Kickstarter. All of those companies are absolutely on fire (and, by the way, they’re all based here in New York City, yeah!), and there’s no sign of this trend slowing down.

And if you happen to be someone who has a passion and talent for making real things, but also a passion and talent for building big successful businesses, who knows– you might just end up being the next big time startup founder! If you do, try not to be evil :-)

 

The Rise of Independents

I just posted the below update to attendees of tonight’s Rise of Independents event with Chris Guillebeau.

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