Many of my coliving operator friends get challenged when wanting to unlock money into building out community.
The first question that an investor will ask them will be:
What are the returns of investing in community building?
That’s a tricky question.
As I haven’t yet seen anyone bringing up that topic, I decided to do a little thought experiment to give a first answer to that question.
In the first part of this series, I’ll first explain why community is important from a business perspective. Then, I will then differentiate different types of communities and how it affects the resident experience.
In the upcoming second part, we’ll have a look at what expenses are necessary to implement those approaches. Finally, I will establish a correlation between investment and returns.
We will also have a look at the opportunity cost and ask: what if your community is non-existent? How would that impact negatively your coliving business?
Please keep one thing in mind: this is me writing an article with myself. I wish that we could actually have a discussion. So ask yourself: “does this feel true to me?” and share what your thoughts are.
Enough said, let’s dig into this.
Why Community Is Needed
Before we explain the costs and returns on investment of community building, you need to understand (and potentially change) your main drive behind investing into it.
For coliving specifically, community is important for two reasons:
1. From a resident standpoint: it contributes to well-being, personal growth, discovery, and a feeling of belonging. But we won’t dig into this, as studies and common sense have made it obvious.
2. From a company standpoint: community is important because coliving spaces promise their residents to have a feeling of coliving. A good 99% of coliving operators have the term community in one of their headlines, core values, or key differentiator (like “find truly like-minded people you’ll connect with”).
Taking a sample of leading coliving spaces, community is a core promise of coliving operators.
Regardless whether community is created as a power of social good or for the sake of meeting one’s brand promise, it is needed.
So I asked myself: what types of community forms exist?
Which leads us to the biggest questions of all times...
What The Heck Is Community?
No one knows.
Just kidding. The problem is that everyone seems to know and yet can’t really define it.
At this stage, and in coliving specifically, the term community is being interpreted in totally different ways. The main distinction is defining community as “an amount of people” versus as “an amount of relationships between people”.
Let’s repeat: community in regards to coliving can be defined in two ways.
1. A bunch of people living in the same building.
2. A group of people that have an emotional connection towards each other, supported by a common culture, trust, and a shared identity.
It’s easy to say “we have community” just because people live together.
As Fabian Pfortmüller, founder of the Community Canvas, pointed out: “That’s what community used to be, historically. But for many of us, our village or neighborhood isn’t anymore our key definer of identity or fellowship.”
And hence, you can live with others without being part of a community.
Did you ever hear someone say something along the lines of: “We have a community of 150 people living here together, it’s amazing!”
Two minutes later, you enter the space, have no one greeting you or looking you in the eyes, see common spaces that are completely empty and you ask yourself: “where the heck is this community?”
It’s easy to say as an operator to have community. The question is rather: does the community have itself?
Let’s do another thought exercise.
Think about this: which communities do you have in your life?
You will start with your friend groups. Then mention your colleagues, or even better, the “work team squat” you’ve been teaming up with. Oh, and of course your one or two events you attend every year (whether Summit or AFest), to not forget your runners club.
Go on that list and you’ll realize that you never mentioned your “open workspace” as a community. You knew that you share the facilities with 100 other folks but chats are limited to the length it takes to make a coffee.
Note: if you’re a big extrovert and people lover like me, you will actually connect with fellow coworkers, but most people don’t - and even if they do, it won’t fall in their “community” categories.
So here’s the point:
The narrow definition is to define community as a bunch of people living in one space.
The wider definiton is to define community as the amount and depth of connections, interactions, and relationships between all those community members. In short, community exists when people start actually proactively caring about each other.
And if you want to stand out as a coliving space, you got to create the feeling of community in people.
Which leads to the next question: how do you create that in a coliving space?
Let us have a look at what the market currently does.
Different Types Of Community Approaches
When visiting 80+ coliving spaces this year, I realized that there were four main categories of community approaches. The further you go down the list, the higher the level of connection and feeling of community within members.
Let me explain how I call those four coliving categories:
1. “The Do-It-Yourself”
Those coliving spaces see community as an agglomeration of people living under one roof. Basically, the narrow definition we discussed above.
Concretely speaking, that means that once bed and cleaning is guaranteed, it’s up to the resident to figure out the rest.
The experience looks like this:
2. “The Top-Downers”
Those coliving spaces see themselves as a space that offers the opportunity to meet and be with people that have things in common.
Those operators will create events around topics (“Margarita Nights”), interests (“Jam Session”) or desires (“Startup Founders Matching Night”). This approach is better, yet lacks the notion of responsibilization and engaging residents.
This approach sounds kind of like:
3. “The Facilitators”
Those coliving spaces proactively encourage engagement from community members.
They do that by listening to their needs and empowering them to activate their desires.
Facilitators are giving away power to their residents - by letting them choose which events to host, how to spend the communal budget, or by letting them run their own community meetings.
4. “The Systems”
The last category are coliving operators that take care of the operational basics (renting the house, making sure everything works) and empower the community to be self-run.
That happens mostly through a strong onboarding phase, educating residents on how to behave with each other, and create the processes to make sure that the community is doing well.
Once those systems are established, communities are able to flourish by themselves.
A way to recap those four approaches is the relationship between operator and coliver.
Note that you can have a mix of those models - those are general trends.
For example: a Facilitator can also host his own events without asking the community.
Another example: a Systems approach can continue to actively engage through facilitation.
But the point is: coliving spaces tend to adopt to one model of community building, mostly because they are not aware of the existence and functioning of the others.
And even if they are, they don’t know what the return on investment will be if implementing another approach.
This is why in the next post, we are going to explore the costs and returns associated with those approaches and show the return on investment on implementing each of those.
Until then, leave your comment below on which approach worked best for you, and how this post is inspiring you (if at all).
See you next week 👋
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