Last week, we talked to Ian Sanders writing for The Financial Times about coworking, collaboration, and the sparks of creativity that come from working alongside others. Read the feature article, “The Lure of the Water Cooler” (22 August 2012), here (PDF Download).
Genevieve’s Q&A in all its glory (what didn’t get printed) is below:
You’ve said coworking spaces are challenging conventional notions of where innovation and creativity come from – how so?
I’ve always been torn between whether I’m more productive and creative when I’m working alone or when I’m working alongside others. The world wants to create a dramatic rift between those who root for collaboration and the virtues of work pow-wows and brainstorming, and those who prefer burning the midnight oil, alone, in self-inflicted solitary confinement. And yet, I’ve found that BOTH types of environments are important for innovation and creativity.
Collaboration can jumpstart your creativity, especially in cases where group work is organic, such as casual conversations leading to re-interpretations of existing ideas, those small epiphanies. But there’s also the case for working by yourself, away from distractions, where you can protect yourself from “groupthink,” and where your quirky ideas have time to evolve on their own and not get shot down too soon.
Innovation comes from being part of a larger group–of people, ideas–all shaping your worldview and thoughts. But then you can’t just be an open receptacle all of the time. There comes a time when you need to stop chatting and talking to others and actually sit down and get some work done. So, for me, creativity also comes being able to work quietly, to be mindful, and focus and think critically about a question or problem–away from the noise and buzz of other people’s opinions, thoughts.
Coworking, with its emphasis on working independently alongside others, gives you BOTH these modes of working. It’s perfect. That’s why I think it upends the convention that innovation and creativity are borne out of only one way of working.
How much of a factor is social interaction for attracting people to coworking spaces – does it give people a good sense of belonging?
Social interaction is important; some might consider it the backbone of coworking. But many people don’t realize that there are different kinds of social interaction at coworking spaces and depending on the space, some get more emphasis than others. Case in point: Some people find the schmoozing and emphasis on networking events disconcerting. We aren’t all social butterflies. I know a lot of people who find the coworking scene a tad too “trendy,” especially the coworking scenes in big cities, like NYC and San Francisco. They’ll go to one or two special events out of curiosity, but feel intimidated when they see/hear members bragging about getting VC funding and tripling revenues, and so on. (Though I’d argue that they’re going to the wrong space…). With everything from brownbag lunches and guest lectures, to mixers and group outings, there are a lot of ways to feel like you’re a part of your coworking community. A “sense of belonging” is much more than meeting people and exchanging business cards at after-hour events and mixers. For me, belonging–the point where you feel like your space is your community–takes time and also takes finding the space that fits your personality.
In a world where wifi is everywhere and people can work out of local coffee shops, why do you think coworking spaces are still popular?
True. The coffee shops and wifi hotspots will always be there for the independents who don’t want to work at home–but also don’t want to pay membership fees to be a part of a coworking space. What coworking spaces do is offer an alternative. It’s a more structured, orderly environment than your random stool at the Starbucks counter, but it’s less structured than, say, your typical business incubator (which coworking spaces are often contrasted against). If you’re looking for a community of fellow entrepreneurs to be around, it’s the best place to work. You can’t get that kind of camaraderie at your coffee joint or airport lounge.
And lastly, public wifi spots can be riddled with security holes. If you’re working on sensitive material or if you just don’t want the risks of being exposed to wifi sniffers, working at a coworking space with a secure network is a better option. You also don’t have to worry about random theft or losing your beloved spot just because you left for a bathroom break.
I’m interested in how ideas cross pollinate in coworking spaces. Have you encountered any examples you can share of how collaborations spawn ideas that pollinate in a random/ unplanned way?
Every business and organization we interviewed for our book, Working in the UnOffice (Night Owls Press), shared examples of where a chance encounter or conversation with another member at a coworking space led to something serendipitous. That’s what we found so fascinating in our research and interviews. People talked about this brownbag lunch, or that evening lecture, or those weekly after-hour socials; not to mention the conversations with people they bumped into in the kitchen or common areas. Some people get simple recommendations for tax accountants or baby-sitters for their kids; others find themselves getting a critical introduction to someone that leads to a job or project. And there are a handful who found such a rapport with people at their space that they joined forces with others on a new venture. Loosecubes.com (whose CEO wrote our Foreword) started in a coworking space in NYC, and now they’re coworking evangelists themselves, bringing the work movement beyond standalone coworking spaces and into office spaces across the world.
Is there an ideal mix of different roles, businesses and personality types that every co-working space needs to work?
People have their own definition of their ideal coworking space so it depends on the space’s mission. My ideal coworking space falls within the broad definition of coworking, which is a set-up where a diverse group of people, who are working on their own projects and organizations, come together in a shared space.
But diverse can mean many things: Is it having different industries and fields in a space? Or, just different niches? For example, you can have a space that’s made up of only tech-focused startups (which seems like a homogenous grouping)… but then you find out that the startups are in different niches: There’s a guy working on a car-sharing smartphone app, a woman running a digital marketing company, a group trying to come up with a web-based literary magazine.
What makes a space work is if the members don’t work in their own bubbles. Having pockets of creativity all in one building is great, but what you really want is spillover: startups sharing ideas, exchanging services, and so on. Like the marketing company working with the literary magazine to build up a reading audience; or the car-sharing app developer introducing the digital marketer to a group of freelance bloggers.
You also have a more intangible definition of diversity–the kind that comes from having people around who have different backgrounds or life experiences. These are the folks that will help you not only improve your business but prod the walls and fences of your thinking and worldview, making you a better entrepreneur.
And finally: Any do’s and dont’s for executives and workers to consider when they’re sharing coworking spaces?
Get out there and ditch the office. There’s a big debate about whether private offices and nooks in a coworking space defeat the purpose of achieving community and collaboration out of a motley group of people. You have cubicle-oriented shared office suites like those run by Regus that are trying to re-brand themselves as coworking spaces. I’m sure they’re doing just fine despite the scoffs from many in the ‘purist’ coworking ranks. While I understand the need for hermetic enclosures (I’m the type that can’t write with too much distraction and activity going around me), I also think if you settle and plant roots in a room with walls, it defeats the purpose of joining a coworking space. Coworking is about being surprised, about finding yourself saying, “Oh yeah, that’s a different way of looking at this problem” after a conversation at the coffee machine. I’d recommend sitting out there among the open desks instead of renting a private office. You’re rubbing elbows with others. Coworking is about getting away from the old model of working (the office).
Also, befriend the community manager at your space. These stewards know everyone in the space and are the unofficial gatekeepers to networking opportunities. They can be a great conduit to setting up meetings or introductions with others.
Finally, be helpful and talk to others, but don’t force it. “Don’t be a jerk”–that’s a given, but less obvious is “Don’t be a fake.” People respond to authenticity. You’ll be surprised at how many doors open up from just a friendly, no-agenda, casual conversation every morning with your neighbor before you settle down to work or at the water cooler. After what we learned researching coworking and its impact on businesses, I realize more than ever the importance of “weak ties.” The best leads come from acquaintances and colleagues, rather than close friends or people we know well. Coworking spaces are the best places to cultivate those so-called weak ties.
(Note: This post was originally written for WorkSnug.)
We all know the Renaissance master Leonardo Da Vinci for his accomplishments as a scientist, artist, and philosopher. His Vitruvian Man, Mona Lisa, and countless inventions make him a fascinating figure for scholars, as well as for entrepreneurs, inventors, and artists.
In a new book, author Toby Lester delves into the collaborative mind of Da Vinci, going beyond what we learned about the iconic figure in grade school. An obsessive and rambling notetaker, Da Vinci kept countless notebooks, where he jotted down dense scribbles on art, engineering, anatomy, and mathematics.
What’s less known is that in many of his notebooks Da Vinci kept to-do lists. One of these lists caught the imaginations of science reporter Robert Krulwich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, who together translated and illustrated one of Da Vinci’s interesting task lists. (Their annotations are in brackets.)
A quick glance at the to-do list prompts an astounding realization: the renaissance man was also a prototypical coworking member in the making.
Creativity flourishes less in the autonomy of working alone and more in the intellectual checks-and-balances that a room full of smart coworkers provides.
Last Friday, as we were walking through the fog-drenched streets of Inner Sunset in San Francisco, we saw a massive group of cyclists come barreling down the road. Along with other pedestrians, we watched them whip by like a migrating helmeted herd, oblivious to our gawking.
No, they weren’t a biker gang or anything. These folks were part of the movement founded in San Francisco known as Critical Mass, which invites cyclists from all over the city, usually on the last Friday of every month, to take a ride around town. Over 300 cities around the world participate and host a Critical Mass event. Some of them are organized as direct action events; others are planned purely for fun, letting people travel as a pack through city streets– and directly or inadvertently pissing off angry motorists by creating traffic jams.
There is an energy in the ‘group’. The group attracts your attention. It stops traffic (a.k.a. the old way of doing things). When it moves, you take notice.
Well, there’s also another type of group forming in cities, suburbs, and small towns across the country that’s becoming in many ways, a critical mass of its own, and a force to be reckoned with: People who cowork.
Experts are finding that where you work really does matter, and coworking spaces are challenging conventional notions of where innovation and creativity come from. Great ideas flourish in the moshpit of collaboration and are born out of the churn of working with others.
You don’t have to stand on the shoulders of giants– but being around others at a coworking space with different perspectives, expertise, backgrounds– can spark new thinking.
Teresa Amabile, who runs the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School and is the world’s foremost scholar on creativity in the workplace, found that, “…The most creative teams are those that have the confidence to share and debate ideas.”
Coworking hinges on the belief that innovation and inspiration comes from the cross-pollination of different people in different fields. Random opportunities and discoveries that arise from interactions with others— also called “accelerated serendipity”— play a large role in coworking.
“You look at these bigger cities, these condensed cities where people are frequently colliding, where people are frequently having to compete against each other. Whether it’s friendly competition or fierce business competition, people are constantly interacting. There is a lot more innovation and creativity in these areas,” Jeff says in an interview with us for Working in the UnOffice: A Guide to Coworking (Night Owls Press, August 2011).
Coworking enables the freelancer or the independent woker to reach a certain level of creativity more quickly because of collaboration. “You’re not just saving on rent, but you’re also able to make connections, to build a community around your ideas quickly— at a creative level that’s beyond what you would be able to do if you were just working by yourself in a single office space, if you were working out of a coffee shop, or working at home.”
Well, we think it’s time to join your own critical mass of independent workers by checking out a coworking space or collaborative workspace near you. If you’re interested in learning more about coworking, check out Working in the UnOffice: A Guide to Coworking.
Other great resources on coworking include:
Deskmag: An online publication that covers issues related to innovative workplaces and new ways of working. It focuses on coworking spaces and the new breed of independent workers and small companies that work there. Check out their “Tool and Tips” section for great coworking advice.
Shareable Magazine: An online magazine devoted to the amazing things that happen when people share and collaborate in all areas of life—art, urban design, food, science and technology, and workplaces. Get tips for community-building, how to be a socially-conscious collaborative consumer, and more in their “How To Share” series.
At the recent Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, a topic in vogue was the idea of ‘gamification’ or ‘game thinking’– which is essentially the practice of improving user engagement by adding gaming features to non-game applications. Experts at the conference touted that gamification created “a loyalty program on steroids” — getting prospective clients hooked onto a product, service, concept, or app.
We thought it would be interesting to try to refashion the gaming tenets proposed by Venture Beats‘ Dean Takahashi into a creative approach to writing stellar copy for everything from marketing campaigns to web content.
Here are three lessons we can learn from game designers:
1. “Know who’s playing” and “Embrace intrinsic motivators”. Write text with your audience in mind. Reader-centric copy means engaging your audience with your ideas, and sparking the innate desire to explore your ideas or concept further. In practice, this means researching your target audience and finding out what they do and enjoy. Try crowdsourcing campaigns to launch mass brainstorming sessions with your fans and potential clients. Dan Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us is required reading on the power of incentives.
2. “Build fun, pleasure, and satisfaction into your core activity loop”. Take Farmville, the online game where over 55 million average players per month got to milk cows, grow carrots, and partake in the joys of idyllic cyber animal husbandry. In fact, just enough players (1-2% reportedly) make actual money purchases to buy ‘special items’ to add to their virtual farms, including pink tractors and purple Breton horses. Why were people flocking to these games (and even paying for make-believe purchases)? Because their friends were playing them and because there was an immediate payoff– an experience: you planted something and later you could harvest the ‘fruits’ of your labor.
How can your writing inspire that kind of following? By offering an immediate payoff. Are you trying to sell your e-book? Offer an ethical bribe such as a giveaway excerpt, or maintain a blog where you can offer ‘variations on a theme’ of the ideas and concepts discussed in your book. Don’t be afraid to ‘lure’ your readers with a bold statement or an intriguing detail. You need to get your readers interested first– create a captive audience– before building your case with nuanced arguments.
3. “Change the user experience over time” or “As players progress, increase the challenge and complexity”. In gaming, there are three types of players– the novice, regular, and enthusiast. In marketing, segment your target audience and write your advertising copy accordingly. Novices, or those new to your business, need to be enticed with ‘hooks’. For your regulars and loyal customers, serve up new, quirky content, maybe in the form of premium information. Your enthusiasts are your groupies– cultivate solid alliances with them and treat them well with special rewards and ‘first-peek’ privileges.
For more wordsmithing advice, ask Night Owls Press for a free consultation. Check out other writing advice here.
When I think of outlines I often think back to fourth grade. Tuesdays were designated ‘composition’ days, in which students were given 30 minutes to write an essay. A collective shudder would ripple through class as the teacher announced the topic and told us to get our pencils out.
The playbook was simple: deconstruct writing, which paralyzes many people, into rote form. This meant having a formula, like in algebra or geometry, and it went like this: Start with an overall thesis statement (your position statement) and write 5 supporting paragraphs, including an introduction, 3 supporting points, and a conclusion. Each paragraph was also written to a pattern: start with a topic sentence, add supporting details, and end with a wrap-up sentence. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
These were essentially writing drills. As mechanical as these sessions were, it helped us otherwise distracted kids buckle down for 30 minutes and write something focused.
Verdict: Great for writing quickly and organizing thoughts into logical form.
Sketching: A Writer’s Moshpit
For those who don’t like this kind of prefabricated writing, there is another writing technique: sketching. The goal of a sketch is to record a brain dump of ideas, impressions, and words around your key concepts. There are no rules. Sketching invites loose exploration and forces you to think outside the box. It can help you push past the superficial and obvious ideas towards deeper ones, often leading to a ‘Eureka’ moment.
Compared to the outline, which looks at writing as construction projects (‘solid foundations first before the pretty windows’), the sketch is like a free fall from the top of a spire. It lets half-sprung ideas or even just fragments of sentences tumble out of your head. Sketching also serves as an early flaw detection device, so you can easily catch logic bombs in arguments before you invest too much time crafting sentences around them. Sketching is also great with collaborative writing when discussions are more apt to be conceptual and ideas can get slashed or promoted.
Verdict: Great for flexing creativity and inviting collaboration on projects.
Our advice? Throw the rabbit in the moshpit and do both!
Here are some tools to help you test run your outlines and sketches:
Notebook: Very mobile, analog, never runs out of juice, but also prone to getting left behind on the bus or disintegrating under spilled coffee. Try Moleskin or Field Notes, which are hardier brands. Or go even more basic and get a simple spiral notebook.
iPad: Use software like Draft and Sketchbook PRO , which offer some great features, though they are mostly useful for artists and graphic designers.
IdeaPaint: Sells paint that turns your wall into a whiteboard. Here are some great videos of outliners and sketchers in action.
Businesses use websites like digital calling cards. They serve as critical focal points in marketing strategies to attract traffic, raise awareness, and turn visitors into real leads.
Night Owls Press has been working with several clients on projects that involve web content writing or website rebranding– and we found ourselves asking– well, what are the key ingredients for putting together compelling website content that draws in prospects?
Here’s our list to turn web traffic into leads:
Offer clarity. A website needs to make an impression in the first few seconds it appears in front of a visitor. Many businesses make the mistake of muddling their message by packing in too much information about their services or products upfront. It makes sense, entrepreneurs are passionate about what they do and want to convey that enthusiasm to their audience. It’s the equivalent of talking too fast when you meet someone for the first time, or rushing through a presentation or speech. On the flip side, some businesses will do the opposite. Withholding information or being ambiguous can also backfire.
Smart businesses will walk the fine line by stoking the natural curiosity of people when they are on the web. People always want to find out more and they tend to click around to find that information. Your front-page should have compelling sound bites that are clear, never misleading, but will also creatively disarm the skeptical visitor in such a way that piques their interest and drives them to click through your site. The ultimate goal is to sell your product or service– but don’t turn off visitors by writing web content that is a hackneyed, shameless sales pitch.
Add a dash of whimsy and personal touch. Show your customers that they aren’t just buying a product or service– but are doing business with people they actually like. In your ‘ABOUT’ page, write an engaging profile of your company– and also yourself. Doing so, gets your prospective customers excited about your company and its offerings at a personal, visceral level. If they see common ground with you as a person, that’s just one more edge you gain over the competition.
And don’t underestimate the power of a profile photograph. You may be camera-shy but seeing a real person, smiling back at them makes your prospects more apt to contact you. Make sure your photo is professional-looking. Video can also be powerful customer magnets. Be creative. Try talking directly to the camera and cut to scenes of you working with other customers or providing your service.
Offer a tasting menu to capture leads. The ultimate goal of your website is to get prospects moving in the direction of becoming a potential lead for your business. At any point on your site, visitors should have access to a button or link that will take them to the final step of getting in touch with you or finding out how they can ‘buy’. This critical landing page could be an easy Sign Up or Contact Us form.
Many businesses offer freebies, such as coupons, newsletters, even e-books– to encourage visitors to enter their e-mails. Many businesses make the mistake of ignoring the advantages of the ‘ethical bribe’. Your visitors get something useful, and in return your business builds up an e-mail list. Why is an e-mail database important? Visitors may not ‘buy’ from you after their first visit, but you can always send them a friendly follow-up or ‘hello’ later on. Make sure the communication is sincere (no spam or aggressive sales pitches)– and it may just turn into a real lead.
Never overdose with ads. Ads in abundance can be unwelcome distractions for visitors. Banners and flashing animation are even worse. They are digital noise and cheapen a site.
If you decide to post ads, do it sparingly and strategically on your site. Make sure the ads are in some way of interest to your target clientele. If you have any affiliate connections with vendors, make sure you practice complete transparency and disclose that information. If your business sells other products and services, try pooling them together on a single page rather than dispersing them throughout to minimize clutter.
Contact us if you’d like more advice on improving your web content or site.