Though the demise of Portland, Ore.’s Cubespace coworking community represents a sad development in the nascent history of coworking, the region’s vibrant Silicon Forest will give rise to other coworking options in due course.
In the meantime, there are ongoing successes elsewhere, notably in Italy, with Rome, Milan and Genoa playing host to no less than eight coworking communities.
Last week, I got the chance to speak with Massimo Carraro, one of the leading Italian evangelists for coworking and a phenomenal source of experience and expertise in bootstrapping multiple coworking communities.
Imran: Massimo, please introduce yourself to our readers and your role in developing coworking spaces in Italy.
Massimo: I’m a copywriter and run my own communications agency in Milano, Italy. I first became involved in coworking a year ago, when my partner and I decided to share part of our office space. That’s how it all began, with a blog called Coworking Milano and some word-of-mouth marketing.
We soon started getting requests from other space owners, who asked us, “How can it be done, this coworking thing?” We realized that there was a lot of interest in the coworking issue, particularly from the media. (We enjoyed a full-page article in national newspaper La Repubblica a few weeks after opening.)
About a year later, we launched Coworking Project by Cowo®, a ”coworking starting kit” and network for anyone interested in sharing their own space. It’s a low-cost proposal, aimed at network-building rather than profit: affiliation costs just €100 ($140) for the first year. We have kept things very simple, addressing our proposal to people who own a small office, putting them in a position to gain moderate revenues from renting out a desk or two, while trying at the same time to convey a notion of community. By doing so, we believe we give a service to nomadic workers, helping to make Italy a coworking-friendly country. Our network is growing very rapidly.
Imran: What do you think have been the driving forces for the adoption of coworking in Italy?
Massimo: Loosely defined, “coworking” is already an Italian habit. Many people have told me, “Yeah, I’ve done that with my brother, to help him with his startup.” Besides this, I firmly believe that sharing a workspace with a collaborative attitude is simply an excellent idea, and Italians are catching on.
Imran: What’s the general breakdown of residents in your space — permanent residents, drop-ins, part timers?
Massimo: Most of the people coworking with us are permanent residents, with some part-timers. We also have occasional drop-ins from out of town, but not very often.
Imran: What kind of work are they involved in? Do you see much collaboration between residents?
Massimo: We were expecting mostly developers, but in the end we see there are many different professional profiles involved in coworking. Currently,we host an engineer who owns a boat design company, an audio producer, a freelance journalist and a PR professional. Previously, we’ve hosted developers, TV writers and consultants. As far as collaboration between coworkers go, I haven’t seen many joint projects starting up, but residents do exchange views and opinions. I’ve often provided a marketing perspective on our coworkers’ activities.
Imran: What have been the greatest challenges and surprises in bootstrapping and operating Italian coworking communities?
Massimo: Our greatest surprise has been the excellent response through word of mouth marketing alone, followed by incredible media exposure.
Our greatest challenge — yet to be achieved — is to involve institutional partners such as city administrations, or tech companies, to give our project a stronger, long-term vision, like the Amsterdam Smart Work Center.
It’s very clear that coworking may operate in society as a sustainable catalyst of new entrepreneurial talents, both in terms of costs and flexibility. My view is that there many advantages for a wide range of people — students, startups, young entrepreneurs, freelancers — in having an active and prosperous set of coworking spaces; indeed, it should be a public concern to provide coworking. We have tried to involve Telecom Italia, Cisco and Italian mayors in our future plans, with varying degrees of success.
If done properly, coworking can be almost costless, in the sense that it can be activated in existing spaces, something that should be very appealing in a troubled economy. Also, the enormous potential of having a network of qualified places when traveling for work can’t be underestimated.
Another challenge is that it’s impossible to avoid thinking of sustainable profits. Though we’re not profit-seeking for its own sake, with the rate at which we’re adding spaces — almost one per week — I foresee a time when managing this will be a full-time role.
To raise revenue, we’re focusing on selling web services to coworking spaces and taking a percentage on transactions at affiliated spaces. We’re also considering how nomadic workers and travel services might yield some revenues.
Imran: What are the key pieces of advice you’d give to people thinking about coworking and those thinking about establishing a coworking space?
Massimo: To coworkers: Share your experience, don’t just sit there doing your thing. Coworking is about people, so take advantage of it.
To space owners: Try to share, not just rent a desk. The coworking option for a small business is an interesting one because it breaks the solitude of both coworkers and space owners, so it’s a creative solution. Don’t just think about the money, try to keep a balance between revenue and personal reward, in terms of human exchange.
Do post your thoughts and reactions to Massimo’s observations in the comments below.