Claire Carpenter On How To Build A Coworking Business & Communities That Enable Social Change
Claire founded The Melting Pot – Scotland’s Centre for Social innovation – one of the world’s’ first coworking spaces, back in 2005, by leading a grassroots group to create a innovative new type of resource base for a niche audience and establishing it as a social enterprise.
Claire leads the business’ development – creating initiatives to stimulate and support social innovation. This includes Good Ideas – a free incubation program which helps people turn their ideas into change; and innovative services that power-up globally the next generation of coworking businesses through the Coworking Accelerator.
In 2016 she received the inaugural ‘Social Enterprise Champion’ Award at the Social Enterprise Scotland Awards, and in 2017 was shortlisted for the UK Social Enterprise Awards ‘Women in Social Enterprise’ category.
Her expertise is in personal, organisational and community development.
Claire tours internationally providing a range of inputs on subjects including quality coworking, leadership, social enterprise development, and incubating social change.
Claire discusses how to develop and grow coworking spaces that nurture community and generate impact and provides deep insights for social entrepreneurs looking to develop their social enterprise whilst ensuring they keep their health in check.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Nikoline Arns] - Claire could you please share a bit about your background and the path you took to get to where you are today? [01:47]
[Claire Carpenter] - Working with young people and with adults, [in an] outdoor environmental education, lots of social entrepreneurs come from an outdoor education background. It seems at least here in Scotland, anyway. Risk taking people, perhaps ‘people’ people. So I came from a community development approach. I did an MSc in human ecology, which was kind of all of the things that are terribly wrong with the world and it was a bit overwhelming. I wanted to do something practical that would help people who wanted to make social change. People like me, and other people I knew who wanted to make social change, so I wanted to create a resource space where people could come together to work, to learn, to connect to get things done, to be inspired, to inspire and share resources, share time, be with others being motivated. And that type of model of getting a shared physical space and sharing it with other people on a flexible basis and to curate a community that's become this big thing called “coworking” that's carrying on around the world.
To think that in 2005 the whole term "coworking" did not even exist yet… [02:55]
Yeah it didn't exist. In fact, Cosmopolitan Magazine ran an article, I think in 2018 saying, ‘the next new thing’, it's not that new, it's been around… we've been doing it for more than a decade and there was a few people around the world doing that. All those disruptors: all pioneers and innovators are disruptors. So we were disrupting the rental market for workspace, because prior to that it was all fixed term. Leases are very expensive and you could work from home, you could work from coffee shops, work in the library and all that. Effectively, we have to take out an office and sign long leases and who's going to do that in this changing world of work? And now the service workspace industries are all talking about being the flexible workspace industry because they realise nobody wants that anymore.
Can you please tell us more about The Melting Pot and the Coworking Accelerator network? [03:53]
The Melting Pot is Scotland’s centre for social innovation. Our mission is to stimulate and support social innovation to make social change happen. It's not about creating a workspace. The shared workspace and what we run here in the coworking facility is what enables social change to happen. And we've had loads of people over the years ask us, ‘how do you do that? How do you create a coworking business?’ It's a business we are running that happens to be in a space. So the Coworking Accelerator, with investment that we've received from the Scottish Government, has enabled us to take our intellectual property of 15 years, of the setting up process which is a huge journey in its own right. Setting it up, opening and making it run. This coworking business, we've harnessed teams worth a decade of work and pulled it together into a resource, coworking in a box, enabling people to open their coworking businesses in their place, but rooted in their community. We each have a type of community who we want to serve in that place. We've worked with people in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, around Europe, even in Malaysia and Africa. So it's starting, it's only been the first few years, it's been the pilot stage, but we're confident that there's a market and an opportunity and a need, and we're looking at ways to take that out because being in business is hard work. Opening a coworking business to help other people open and or run their businesses is hard work. So how can we take the pain out of that and just get more of these great facilities going on all over the country. That's what we're doing.
And all over the world. It's expanding; that is exciting.
But it's not a franchise. It's about enabling people to stand on our shoulders. And stand on the shoulders of the other people we've talked to over the years.
Just don't do it all from scratch, what a waste of time that is.
To see different communities and how they tackle the same problem all over the world. Must be very exciting.
Absolutely. I quite would like to go to Bali and work in their coworking businesses!
That sounds good. Especially in the Scottish winter.
Oh, well, we're in full spring now it's marvellous!
Which brings us to the next question because I wanted to ask you what you think makes Scotland's social enterprise movement unique? [06:17]
Well, the Scottish social enterprise movement is pretty famous. Really.
The Scottish Government have invested a lot in the infrastructure and designing architecture, and the ecosystem is heavily invested in enabling social enterprises to flourish.
Don't get me wrong. It's not perfect, it's a challenging environment for everybody, but I think the government and other people recognise that if you want to create glue at a social level and create services that the mainstream private organisations aren't going to deliver, and the public services can no longer deliver.
Social enterprise is a great way we've being able to fill in some of those gaps and also to innovate. The Scottish ecosystem is great.
The Scottish culture of a conservative with a small ‘c’, traditional with a small ‘t’ and socialist with a small ‘s’, all combines to make quite a good social enterprise value base. It's a small country so people know each other and get help.
So the social enterprise network is really tight as well. Besides being a social entrepreneur yourself at The Melting Pot, you have seen many new social enterprises. What are the common challenges social enterprises face and how do you think they can navigate through them?
All small businesses going from an idea, into a physical reality, and a growing team, face similar challenges whether they are a social enterprise or non social enterprise.
So getting them turning the idea actually to reality, is a huge process to getting people around, get investors, the right investors, the timing of things, right? Learning by doing all sorts of stuff. There's only so much planning to do and then you have to respond and keep going. So these things are all common.
The specific things for social enterprise is the complexity of having two types of stakeholder who buy from you.
So you have the stakeholders who are the investors in the idea, who want to see the social change happen and then you have the stakeholders who are clients, who are the users of that service or product and maybe don't pay or pay with you straight to access that. So these are very different skill sets.
If you run a small business selling shirts for instance, or socks, then your customer is just one customer. But to make social change happen, when social enterprise works, you get a much wider variety of customers and they require very different handling mechanisms.
And I think that's quite a unique challenge as a small business. Also we operate in a fragile market, we operate where there's a gap and a need. It's not necessarily massively profitable or viable. So the margins of things also makes it challenging.
What would be a tip to navigate to these challenges? [09:18]
Understand what your value proposition is (to use the modern jargon). What's your value proposition to your customers, the different types of customers that you've got; the stakeholders who invested and your customer who use your facilities or services, and learn to communicate differently to each of them. Know what each of them need.
I think there's a lot to be said for looking after yourself and the team along the way. Many social entrepreneurs get exhausted and burn out, and that's not to say the small businesses aren't as well.
Running or setting up a company is a challenge. So being able to step back and take a distance from something that you passionately believe in, otherwise you wouldn't bother doing it. Otherwise you can get a job; it's a lot easier. So being able to look after yourself along the way and to those around you. Being able to afford to do so.
It's a challenge, take time out, go for a walk, make sure you get a good night's sleep and eat healthily; all the basic stuff that we can fail to do because everything else is so important. Get it in perspective. The reality is, most people know that but they don't actually act on it.
Thank you for that insight. What do you feel is the role of community building in social enterprises? [10:36]
Community building is central to many social enterprises because they fundamentally exist to fill the gaps, meet needs, create services or products that add value to society. Kind of packaged around that or within it runs through it, is the social community building. Community building has a wide variety of ways of being delivered, whether that's through a social enterprise, providing a resource or a social enterprise village or a community development trust, getting people in the local community together to deliver on a shared vision for the area. That’s inherited community building along the way. There's lots of types of community; by interest or geography. People come and go in a community, they have different levels of involvement and engagement in it at different times in their lives. One shop doesn't fit all. One size doesn't fit all.
What for you is a key element to making meaningful connections within and between communities? [11:48]
I think being genuine matters. Understanding your why, your mission, is fundamental amongst all social enterprises.
It's not just about selling widgets. It's why you sell widgets or services or what's going to happen as a result of this. Understanding the why is fundamental.
What other inspiring organisations or projects have you come across recently that are creating a positive social impact? [12:13]
I'll talk about one of the alumni from our Good Ideas program. Which is our incubation program that helps people refine, develop and prototype their good idea for social change. Celia set up something called Hey Girls which is going great. It's all about alleviating period poverty. And she was very early into that market in the UK. There's all sorts of copycat stuff going on, very big grants, but it takes an innovator to spot a need. Other people are always going to snap into that market, once something is successful. So she's done amazing work. Helping people contribute practically to other people's poverty, alleviating the discomfort or severe discomfort around issues to do with poverty and periods.
Are there any other projects you’d like to mention? [13:12]
Another project came through our incubation program, (there's loads, well over 70), called the Edinburgh Tool Library. It was the first tool library in the UK. Chris got the idea from someone in America; someone's got to do something first. So Chris is marvellous at helping other communities look at how could they create a tool library. It is what it says. It's a tool library, so you don't have to own all of this ridiculously expensive equipment that you might only use for three minutes; you can go and borrow one. And you have a network of people who are quite practical because particularly as the world changes, we're not in 1950's America anymore. People don't all have tools and skills and confidence to repair things, mend things or have access to that knowledge or know people who can do it. So a tool library is a great tool.
If I were in a developing country and I wanted to start a coworking space to develop the community, what would be your single piece of advice? [14:26]
Developing a coworking business takes time. Getting your ideas together, the exploration stage is only one part of the journey. People get fixated on having a building, and then you've got to populate it, and then you've got to service it. It's a really complicated thing to get off the ground. It’s surprisingly complicated and depending on your access to resources and buildings that may or may not be available. Some places have lots of buildings exist that are empty, but then is there actually a market? And other places where there's very little property available, there's too much competition, so how [can you] find a place? But fundamentally it takes quite a long time to set up and open a coworking business, don't underestimate that. Because people go, ‘oh, I'm going to work on a space for six months’ and they haven't got a business plan. They don't know what they're doing. They haven't got a team, they haven't got a building in mind. That's not going to happen. So how are you going to resource the exploration stage; that set up stage and then who's going to deliver the operational delivery of that coworking business? Because people who set things up are often not the type of people who like to keep things running because, the developmental business development people like to work on the next shiny new project. So, after a while running the shop, which you know, a coworking business is a facility; it's got to be open x hours a day and doing that becomes quite boring after a while. So think about the journey and think about your own personal journey. Where do you want to be in it? How big a team are you going to need to build to position yourself out of a position you don't want to be in? There is a whole load of advice in there..
But go and open a coworking business, really develop a community in it. It's not just about pot plants, wifi, coffee and sofas. It's about curating that community and bringing it to life.
There's no point building a beautiful car and not putting fuel in it and learning how to drive. So don't just work on the architecture, work on where you want to take the people that are getting on that bus.
That is great advice. What are some great books you’d recommend to our listeners? [16:50]
I'm going to recommend one book, which is "Start With Why", which is very valuable, particularly if you're an early pioneer in the industry and trying to do something new and get your early adopters. And then the second thing is not a book, but it's a five minute Youtube video and it's a process called Getting Things Done.
A colleague of mine referred me and my team to these two things. I read the book, Start With Why and it was valuable. And then the whole team did this getting stuff done methodology. And for somebody like me, who's got way too many ideas and way too much stuff to do, having a way to capture and process and eliminate some of the core and prioritise all of those ideas makes great because you can make progress.