"Build a community before you start" — Best Advice from Urbanfish Founder
Have you ever been to Switzerland? Next time when you go to Bern or Fribourg you will know where to find a comfy desk, excellent internet connection, bracing freshly-brewed coffee, and what's more important, a cheerful local community.
Let me introduce Xavier Bertschy, the owner of Urbanfish coworkings located in Bern and Fribourg towns (Switzerland). In his exclusive interview for andcards, Xavier tells us about his business, challenges and happy moments, shares his business ideas, tips, and plans.
This info is a valuable educational source for any coworking space owner, both startup and experienced.
Helga: Please tell us about your coworking space. How long ago did you start, how did you get an idea to work in this business niche? Where does the name Urbanfish come from?
Xavier: I didn't find Urbanfish myself. Urbanfish was created by a woman in 2013 in Bern. And I picked out this location in 2017 because I worked for the Swiss Tech Association which is located in the same building.
Swiss Tech Association is the community aiming to bring together game-changers, disrupters, rebels and technology professionals from all over Switzerland. In doing so, they want to stimulate innovation, networking and business creation in the field of new technologies.
Together with the Swiss Tech Association, we were seeking to set up a coworking business. At the same time, the founder of Urbanfish who used to do all the job alone got new goals connected to her private life, so I picked the whole space.
Why this niche? Just because all of us are active techs, so it was natural to choose a coworking niche.
As to the name "Urbanfish", maybe I should create some storytelling behind it... But honestly it was already there, so I just decided to keep it.
However, the name is symbolic as we associate ourselves with a fish in the ocean of opportunities.
Helga: What’s your unique sales proposition? What makes your space different?
Xavier: We don't have the one :-) Just kidding. USP is essential for marketing, something a business should have. We are a very small coworking space. Bern is only 120 sqm.
Coworking is dead, the community is alive. That's my strong belief.
And my goal is building a strong, vivid community. Not renting desks, but maintaining relationships, bringing people together. We are small, we are like a family, we know each other.
You can't just come to Urbanfish, take your desk, do the job and leave without saying "Hello" to everyone. I guess local scale, proximity, and family-size are the things that work for us in terms of marketing, they are very important for us.
Helga: What software solution do you use at your space and what processes does it help you with? (billing for room booking, members registration)
Xavier: I discussed this many times with Igor (Igor Dzhebyan, CEO and co-founder of andcards). For sure I am using andcards coworking space management software at the moment, it's our main application now.
Currently, we don't need access control, I use a simple key. For billing, I use accounting software but really waiting to shift to andcards. This will help us save some money on handling payments.
I use the software for member registration but this doesn't happen too often because we don't have heavy members flow at our space... I really want to use andcards for everything but seems like we are not 100% ready for that yet. I mostly use andcards for meeting room booking and planning to start using it for managing membership benefits.
I really like people behind andcards because we can exchange information up to 10 times a week and run the discussions. For this part, I like the app and want to continue using it.
Helga: What are the most important features of an awesome coworking software from your point of view? Should it offer everything at once or integrate with your favorite apps?
Xavier: UX (user/member experience) is definitely the thing that makes an app awesome.
I chose andcards because of proximity, the possibility of discussions (how we use the software, what are our needs), the possibility to work as tandem finding the best solution. If we need some specific stuff, we can think how to implement it together. I didn't have such kind of discussions with other app creators.
I believe that with such an attentive approach to customer's needs your app has good chances to transform into a companion rather than a tool for booking.
The question about integrations is very difficult. We live in the digital era and want to have all the tools at hand. I would like my professional needs to be covered by the app and all the rest by integrations.
I mean, it would be great to have andcards connected to slack, drive, dropbox, whatever. However, access to the entire business suite is not something crucial for a coworking space management app.
In plain English, members registration, booking, access control and other specific coworking space features must be included in the main software. Their availability makes the software all-in-one.
For instance, (I have already told this to the team) it's cool that I can send an email to the new member via MailChimp integration. But it's not an integration for me because it's not your job to send emails.
Managing the space correctly is something coworking software must take care about.
I need to know when someone is booking a meeting room for the 10th time. In other words, UX is of utmost importance. While people like the tool, it's ok for me. I need to think about multiple competitors that are breathing in my neck.
Helga: How do you market your coworking space? (run a website, advertise on socials, word-of-mouth)
Xavier: Word of mouth, for sure. This is something important. Google Maps is also very important for us. We're using a little bit of Facebook and a little bit of Instagram. We are working on creating some helpful content right now. And another tool is Events, which helps bring some curiosity to our coworking space by means of demonstration.
Helga: You have two coworking space locations at the moment. Are you planning to expand your business, open new locations? What things a coworking space owner should consider when they are going to scale business?
Xavier: Yes, we do want to expand Urbanfish because two small spaces are not enough to bring significant benefits. We want to add more value to the price of each space. Currently, we are looking at the Zurich area and around Geneva. The progress is slow because we are seeking for partnership, not for just renting a space.
And regarding things coworking space owners should consider — thinking about money is very important. A lot of owners run coworking spaces just as a side project, they follow their passion. If you want to scale up, you have to say to yourself:
"Okay, I'm doing this for the community but I need to make money too".
- Don't underestimate the price of opening a coworking space. A lot of coworking spaces are not profitable because people underestimate the price of opening and renting a space.
- Also, if you want to scale up, you need to have the software to do so because you can't manage multiple coworking spaces without help, it's impossible.
- Another point is not having a host for every coworking space, but having one host for two or three spaces. That helps save time during the week. You have to be ready to share the resources.
Helga: You are running a coworking for tech startups and talents in Bern and rural area Fribourg. What do you think about coworking space specialization? (workation, gender-oriented, coworkings for artists, developers, scientists) Is this a kind of trend, a secret of success, a ticket to the future?
Xavier: In general, I don't like specialization at all. It's more about marketing than real life. Our website states that Urbanfish is a space for tech startups because most of our members are technicians and entrepreneurs. We don't think so much about it.
But as far as gender orientation, coworking for artists, for people on workation, pet owners and entrepreneurs, etc., I think it's good because you have people that understand the same vocabulary. You can offer them some creativity tools, like drawing rooms, which they will be happy to use as they are thinking the same.
The best thing is that people share the same spirit as coworking is about communication and it's not very interesting for an artist to talk to a sport industry entrepreneur or technician. They have different mindset.
Helga: Do you believe that the utmost goal of a coworking space is building a collaborative community? What is your strategy? Special events, socializing, classes, social media groups?
Xavier: I think events are really important for building a community and sharing experience. Small events and activities make people stay loyal to space. That's what I am working on now. Our strategy is to be a friend and let people know that they can have a desk, an office to work at. I am ready to host events every week. I think the events are necessary to reward members, to let them feel those membership benefits.
Coworking owners that have no economical success say that they are in business because of passion :-) (Joking.)
The software can be helpful here. Members can open the app and see the events schedule. As to the events at the Urbanfish, we have a "Fish & Chips" tech event starting in January. People come for lunch, discuss tech news, share burnout concerns, life and entrepreneurship stories, etc.
Helga: How do you see your business in three years? The most optimistic plan.
Xavier: The most optimistic plan is having eight or ten additional locations in three years and giving members the possibility to visit any one of them with the same membership.
Helga: What would you advise coworking spaces that are just starting up? What is the most efficient way to monetize a space quickly?
Xavier: Build a community before you start. I didn't do that with Urbanfish. If we are to restart from scratch before opening a new space I would arrange some meet up with startups, talk to them, ask if they need an office, if they need a desk.
Gather 40 - 50 people in the area that say "OK, we need a desk." Create a community, some people that want to come to the coworking space, create some stuff, drink coffee, work together with other people.
This is the best advice for freelancers. You'll get a kind of guarantee that your space will monetize quickly. That's what I needed to do before launching my two spaces. I learn from my mistakes and this time if we go we know that there are 30 people inside.
In case you want me or Xavier to elaborate on some topics discussed in the interview, you are welcome to let us know about that in the comments.
Do you agree/disagree with some statements? Have your own opinion/experience/tips? Leave them for me below.
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