Coworking is a form of work where people share a working environment without being employed by the same company. The idea originated in the USA, where the first coworking locations were opened in 2005. The most common coworking operation model is a paid membership model with personal desks for members and a limited number of drop-in seats available on an hourly rate for other people.
Seats2meet.com started in coworking in the Netherlands in 2007, and their model is somewhat different from the basic coworking model in ways that place a more significant emphasis on serendipity. The story of the company is detailed in Sebastian Olma’s book The Serendipity Machine, which is really content marketing for the company, but offers a number of great insights, so it is content marketing done right. In this post, I will examine the insights that can be extracted from the book from a Lean social business point of view.
Designed for serendipity when facing disruptive change
The founders of Seats2meet.com, Mariëlle Sijgers and Ronald van den Hoff, were already in the meeting room rental business long before they started in coworking. In the early 2000s, they noticed that their business environment was changing, and they needed to start innovating in order to stay in business.
They launched various initiatives during 2005-2007, including live and virtual networking events and offering excess space for self-employed professionals for free in order to liven up the atmosphere at their locations. The free workspaces proved to be much more popular than initially anticipated, and soon they significantly expanded the number of available workspaces and created an online booking system for them as they became impossible to manage otherwise.
The first step toward increasing serendipity beyond the basic coworking model was requiring all users to register their skills and interests in the booking system, and asking them to pay for their seats with social capital, helping others at the same premises with their skills and know-how and promoting the company on their social networks. Furthermore, the booking system shows other coworkers who are working at the location each day and what their skills and interests are. The final serendipitous touch is free coffee and the occasional free lunch to make people meet and interact with each other. Refreshments are served in a common area so that also people who book meeting rooms meet people outside their own group during the day.
Seats2meet.com makes money from renting meeting rooms, arranging events, and renting office space for companies next to the coworking area, which gives its customers the possibility to tap into the expertise of the coworkers. Thanks to its free coworking product, it does not need much marketing or a significant sales team, as it receives free promotion on social media and the people who use the free seats also rent meeting rooms when they need them.
From a Lean point of view, this quote from Ronald van den Hoff is particularly interesting: “I think the reason why the pilot ended up eventually defining a disruptively innovative business model was that we kept both prototypes in the market, resisting the urge to make a strategic decision, leaving it to the users instead.” This is reminiscent of Toyota’s set-based concurrent engineering practices in that multiple ideas were developed in parallel and the final decision was delayed to the latest possible moment, which in this case was after launch, as, unlike with cars, these pilots were operated at low cost and could be terminated at short notice. This lesson is useful to keep in mind when designing Lean social business solutions.
Key takeaways from Seats2meet.com case
There are several nice lessons to learn from this evolution of coworking. The first is that the business model was created by piloting multiple solutions and seeing them in action before deciding. This is typical for social business solutions, as they are built on human interaction and not so much on physical objects. The cost of piloting is low, so multiple options can be tested and improved over time.
The second lesson is how the physical world and the virtual world are seamlessly entwined. Office space is as physical a product as you can have, and the opportunities for serendipity are carefully designed into it with open layouts and common areas for refreshments, but it is also transformed by the use of social networking software that enables people to search for skills they need access to in the area.
The third lesson is that diversity creates serendipity. Consider this quote: “I’m a web developer. I’m about to start a project for someone who I met over lunch at Seats2meet.com. She’s a very successful entrepreneur in hair removal and cosmetics. In my wildest dreams I would not have thought of meeting people like that. Ever!” Even a full-fledged traditional Lean enterprise cannot master information flows in a way that all possible beneficial connections are utilized. It is through social networking that a Lean enterprise can improve the odds of achieving serendipity within the company, with suppliers and partners, and with customers.
Photo: Coworking at Hub Vilnius by Mindaugas Danys @ Flickr (CC)