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Coworking Stories: Eclau Founder, Stephanie Booth

eclau-logo-21Eclau (pronounced eck-lo) is a coworking space in Lausanne, Switzerland, founded by Stephanie Booth. Booth spoke with me about her motivation for starting Eclau, her experiences running it and her future plans, and offer up some tips for anyone thinking of starting a coworking space.

WWD: Tell us a little about the background for Eclau — what were the motivations for coworking in Lausanne?

Booth: I’d heard about coworking, and visited Citizen Space in San Francisco. I thought it would be lovely to have a coworking space in Lausanne, but at the time, I was quite happy working from home. A couple of other people in the area were interested, but I was in “follower” mode — not “leader” [mode].

In autumn 2007, a friend of mine approached me. He had some free space in one of his shops that he wanted to transform into a community office for freelancers and other local innovators, and wanted to know if I could take care of it. I told him about coworking and he said, “That’s it!”

Unfortunately the idea fell through (he finally needed the space for something else), but by then I had started imagining myself as the initiator of a coworking space in Lausanne, and had discovered that there were actually quite a few interested people who might join such a project. In spring 2008, I created a mailing list and a blog to talk about local coworking or coworking-like projects in the Lake Geneva area, and gather interested people in one space.

By then, I had burned out a little preparing the Going Solo conference and was motivated to find a solution to work elsewhere than home. There was an office space in my building, which had been empty during most of my years living there. Skipping a few adventures along the way, eclau opened there in November 2008.

A few more words maybe about the Lausanne context: Lausanne is the fifth most important town in Switzerland. However, I’d say that Swiss people are not that gregarious, and getting a local community of freelancers, small business owners and social media people to start bubbling somewhere is not an easy task. Not that there aren’t many around! But I feel the culture here is still quite traditional and old-school.

WWD: What’s the breakdown of residents in terms of permanent residents, drop-ins, part timers? What kind of work are they involved in?

Eclau members fall in two categories: “membres fixes” (“fixed” members, who have their own desk) and “membres volants” (“flying” members, who hotdesk). Some “flying” members are here very often, whereas some “fixed” members are seldom in the office — so it doesn’t really equate to “full-time” or “part-time”. Right now, I’d say we are running at about 50 percent capacity.

We don’t really have any drop-ins yet, but maybe the monthly eclau breakfasts will bring us some. There’s a variety of jobs represented here, and not all IT-related: an architect, a print designer, a web TV association, a web consultant, a medical translator, a game designer, a relationship coach, an investment adviser, a web startup CEO, another designer…am I forgetting anybody? Ah, yes, me; I still don’t know what to call myself. And the cat doesn’t do much work apart provide some coworkers with welcome exercise — getting up and opening windows.

WWD: Do you see much cross-fertilization between residents?

Booth: Quite a bit, actually! In addition to “real” work projects that residents have ended up working on together, I think everybody really appreciates having such a diverse set of skills in the office. We help each other out regularly — for example, I’m the resident spellchecker.

Comparing life at eclau with my years as an employee in a big company, where we also had an open office, I find that coworking brings out the advantages of sharing a space with “colleagues” like having people available to bounce ideas off, company for lunch or sometimes breakfast, without having the disadvantages like not being able to go to lunch without “talking work”, bosses, and people you need to get back to when you go for coffee break.

WWD: What were your greatest challenges and surprises in bootstrapping Eclau — and the largest operational challenges?

Booth: The biggest challenge was — and still is — to actually get people to commit. It was a big issue in the weeks before I actually signed for the space. It’s a five-year lease in my own name — the best solution, given the Swiss context — and I didn’t have any spare cash to inject in the project. So it needed to be financially autonomous from the beginning.

After many days spent writing ads for the local papers, emails to people I knew, blog posts and making people visit the space, I finally found enough people willing to sign up and pay in advance to make it possible. I also had a little unexpected help along the way, which solved the problem of the rather large deposit I had to put down for the lease.

I think my biggest surprise was how many people can come and visit, say they’re interested, sure, and back out without a word. Some even sign, and then disappear! This tends to validate my impression that today’s world is a world where true commitment is hard to come by.

WWD: What’re your plans for the future?

Booth: Now that we finally have a “real Internet connection,” rather than a long ethernet cable dangling from my balcony two floors above, the next step is to have the meeting room walled off from the rest of the space.

Thanks to our resident designer, we’re starting to have some promotional material, and a few local journalists have expressed an interest in covering our space, so this should help us in our efforts to bring in more residents.

We’ve started organizing what we here call an “apéro” every three months (the next one is in June). An “apéro” is basically a quiet party where people gather for drinks and some nibbles — sometimes before dinner, sometimes instead of dinner. As I mentioned before, this month we’re starting to hold an eclau breakfast (on the 10th of each month), where people can drop in between 8 and 10 to have coffee, croissants, and even an Indian breakfast I like to cook.

In the long term, I’d like to see more drop-ins, and events like small *camps or conferences taking place at eclau.

WWD: What’re the key pieces of advice you’d give to people thinking about coworking and people thinking about establishing a coworking space?

Keeping in mind that this advice is the result of one unique experience in a particular cultural setting, I’d say the following:

  • Get money up front: when people sign, make them pay too (at eclau, people pay three months’ membership at a time, in advance, and they get a one month discount if they pay six months in advance)
  • If cash is an issue, don’t invest in furniture. By asking around and taking a trip or two to the local dump, we got almost more furniture than what we needed, for free. Some residents also brought their own furniture with them.
  • It’s about people and relationships — that’s what determine the atmosphere. Take time to make things clear — what people can expect and what is expected from them — and time to get to know the people and chat with them. Some “house rules” are always a good idea.

Have you started a coworking space or do you plan to? Share your experiences in the comments.

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