#4 Mastermind: Technology and Coliving

In a recent session of the Community Manager Mastermind Series organized by Co-Liv and powered by Sowebuild, 35 coliving professionals from all over the globe came together in order to connect and discuss the usage of technology in coliving. This 4th session featured Mayank Pokharna, Cofounder of SimplyGuest & Jumbo Tiger and Head of Marketing at Co-Liv in the Hot Seat, providing his year-long experience as a coliving operator as well as from a software point of view.

Laura Henke
Coliving Events Insights

As the coliving and coworking industry has been growing rapidly in the last couple of years, operators and facilitators eventually find themselves facing the question whether to implement or not implement technology in order to streamline processes, bookings, events etc. in their coliving spaces. Especially coliving places that strive to scale up might be confronted with the need of certain tools and software in order to provide or maintain a great seamless tenant experience.

While countless tech companies are spread all over the world and provide an infinite amount of tools and software that are ready to be used, the coliving arm of the tech industry has been – like coliving itself – only starting to evolve a few years ago and has been developing ever since. For this reason the number of tech solutions for coliving increases almost daily. At the same time - since it is a very young market - there is just not enough awareness yet of what the industry might really need in order to use technology for monetization and to provide great experiences for residents as well as operators and facilitators all over the world.

“One of the things I’ve noticed in terms of hesitation towards the usage of technology in coliving might be that there are two schools of technologies in the property world: more traditional ones who haven’t yet adapted. And then the younger hipper ones like the JumboTigers and Sowebuilds who offer more customized solutions. There is also still immaturity in the tech market for coliving that leads to a lot of hesitation from operators in terms of adoption of these platforms.” - Matt Lesniak, Co-Founder / Head of Impact & Innovation at Conscious Coliving

Since this part of the industry is still very young, there's not as much track records and data available to measure success. Some might indeed only have a few hundred units under their belt, which makes a lot of operators question whether to use or not use a certain software or choose for a specific collaboration, Matt continued to explain his experience. 95% of the news articles written on coliving and technology have been published in 2019. So in the last 5 years there have been plenty of plans in the market trying to envision that experience, which caused a lot of learning and hot discussions around the necessity, usage and purpose of technology in coliving, Mayank states. In order to answer a few of those questions, the experts of the Mastermind Series tackled the following topics:

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  • Our Mastermind experts answered the following questions:
  • Why should technology be implemented for your coliving brand?
  • When is the right time to start implementing technology?
  • What are different technologies that can be used in a coliving space?

Why should technology be implemented for your coliving brand?

“Coliving has started off as homeowners hosting groups of people, maybe 5-15 in their houses, creating smaller communities. So most of the initial coliving spaces had more of an individual nature, trying to create a different kind of experience for these sets of people and then grew from that.” - Mayank Pokharna

However, in the last 5 years the coliving concept has been taken to scale, so to a larger number of units while still maintaining the idea of community. At some point the growth had to become sustainable and coliving had to make sense as a business. Nowadays we don’t only look at coliving as an experience but also from a business perspective, wanting to take it to a larger audience.

“Whenever this happens with a coliving space, the only thing that can help a business scale up is technology.” - Mayank Pokharna

Mayank also explains that in all the time they have been growing as a domain (Jumbo Tiger) under Real Estate, they have seen this across all their domains so far: These kinds of businesses find themselves at a turning point from where they will grow very fast and from there it's important to grow sustainably and make a mark. Usually operators would end up spending 2% of the overall revenue on technology. So eventually technology becomes a backbone. “For us as a coliving domain, technology is one of the most important things” Mayank shares his experience.

As soon as your client groups get bigger and more and more properties are added to your coliving spaces, you need tooling to at least have some control over all these kinds of people. Because you know one thing for sure: most of the people are not settling for a long time, maximum 5+ years. Most people will enter and also leave a specific space after roundabout 6-12 months, maybe a bit longer. And all of the information that comes with this continuous flow of new tenants, needs to be handled in an efficient and sustainable way, Sander Willems, Co-Founder of Sowebuild states. Juan Ortiz, a former software engineer who later on went into marketing and communications and is now a proud Co-Founder of Conscious Coliving, also shared his interesting perspective on the debate on why technology should be used in coliving:

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“I’ve seen different industries and the last six years were great. A lot of consolidation time. Even now during corona times, I keep on seeing more and more potential. Even though it was a very scary time for all of us in the coliving industry, technology has proven that things are still possible. No doubt there is importance.”

photo: dezeen.com

Moreover he is amazed about how he was and still is able to observe the levels of effort that operators, residents as well as community managers are making, saying ‘let’s figure this out’, let’s find a way to integrate, create and use technology to monetize and facilitate our coliving spaces.  

Is there a reason to not use technology?

The lifecycle of an operator is incredibly important in order to decide on whether to use or not use technology. Before integrating software blindly, operators should be aware of their business objectives:

“I've seen a lot of operators who are happy being small operators, maybe 20-30 people. Not everyone wants to grow / scale. What kind of experience do you want to offer to your user and what's your growth objective? You can perfectly run a small community on Slack and Google Sheets, no need for bigger tooling and integrations here. Using too much technology in small spaces is actually counterproductive because it makes it too technical” Mayank Pokharna states.

Besides running your business on Slack or Google Sheets, because it’s practical and cheap, there is also a lack of awareness in a lot of cases. Some operators just don’t know what’s out there, so they end up not using technology or any kind of software in their coliving spaces, Gui Perdrix added to the conversation.

When is the right time to start implementing technology?

Implementing technology at a certain point is not only necessary, but very much needed to be able to scale up and grow a coliving business. But what is the right time to do so? The questions that should be answered first, are the following:

  • What is the approach?
  • How big should the project become?
  • Is a lot of technology even needed?
  • How much involvement do you want or need?
  • Do you need Socials?
  • What is the right balance between human element and technology?

Usually the right time comes once realising that without technology you can not run a space (slack, payment systems) anymore. Especially once technology is needed to simplify, coordinate and streamline processes like bookings, cancellations, payments, billing, invoicing and so on. Even though you always need at least a small amount of technology, as you move up to a certain number of beds, your requirements rise naturally with it, which makes the introduction of technology to your coliving space inevitable.  

“When you start you want to do everything yourself in order to make sure the experience is great. At some point you add technology because you don’t want to and can't do it yourself anymore.” Mayank Pokharna states.

Technically speaking there are at least two types of implementation:

  • Coliving spaces who know they will outgrow one location usually lead a discussion and integrate the technology part even before starting up other corporations.
  • Coliving spaces that are unsure about whether they will outgrow one location or want to prove their market fit first, usually start out slow and reach a certain scale in mind. Then as soon as they reach that scale, which normally lies around 10 or 20 beds, they start implementing technology.

Either you fall and have a bad experience and then optimize with technology or you use technology right from the start. It is still very important to not make it too technology driven in order to make sure Coliving doesn’t lose its essence, which is to create a sense of community and foster enriching, real relationships.  

And the other way around? Looking at customers and asking them at what point they need technology to connect and service each other? A valid question, Sander Willems brought up during the session to which Mayank responded with a very encouraging statement: “As an operator we were more interested in costs rather than the experience perspective of coliving since we had to grow at a certain scale. But you have every right to approach it like this as well. We just didn't”.

When to implement technology from a service provider point of view?

In comparison with the needs of a coliving operator, the perfect timing of introducing technology to a space might differ immensely from a service technology provider’s point of view. In e.g. Sowebuild’s case, a tenant engagement application provided for large office and coliving spaces, the scale on which it becomes interesting to deliver technology to clients, is much higher than the operator’s:

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“As a technology / service provider, we currently have a barrier set up from around 100 people plus. But not underneath that. Our tool is focused on tenant engagement. For proper tenant engagement via an app, we definitely need more people than previously described.” Sander Willems, Co-Founder Sowebuild

photo: commercialdesignindia.com

This definitely falls in line with what Mayank and his team, but also other community experts experienced: If you want to create an engaging community, you need a certain critical mass. But from an operator’s side, from an operations point of view, you already start feeling the need for some kind of technology at a much smaller group of people / beds, because it involves more physical operations etc. And community building and tenant engagement does not need physical operations but more interactions.

What are different technologies that can be used in a coliving space?

“The most talked about thing in the industry right now: how much is too much technology and how many different technologies are there? What's the right experience? There is no standard answer to how and what should be done.” - Mayank Pokharna

As a coliving operator Mayank and his team started adding a lot more buildings to their business in 2016. Everything started breathing at a certain point, so spreadsheets and smaller tools were used in the beginning. However, at some point they had to implement technology in order to forecome miscommunication and organize well. There are different approaches on technology based systems, depending on the coliving spaces business goal and capacity:

  • no technology at all, because coliving is about human interaction and community
  • Spreadsheet and free tools driven will we break and figure it out
  • Full stack Saas PMS along with loT’s and other integration
  • Building a fully customized solution with some integrations
  • Outsource the tech to a company to be built on requirements

Besides your growth perspective, the right choice of tools and integrations is also highly related to the capacity of your team and the operators. Some might lack experience and don't know what to do, so they set up coliving spaces without any technology, Sander Willems describes his experience in the field. Also from a technology point of view geography plays a role since there might be different providers and services available in each country. However there are plenty of coliving spaces around the globe who just don’t want to grow beyond a certain point so the whole community remains manageable without further complications or the usage of tools. However there are of course loads of coliving spaces that are somewhat in the middle, running their communities mainly on spreadsheets, slack and simple payment systems:

Juan Ortiz from Conscious Coliving describes an example in which the community doesn't want to become a business with 300 beds, but still wants to grow and encourage local businesses to interact with the coliving space, so there's opportunities to order food or make a booking at the hair dresser’s. Erwin Groenendijk, CEO of Enter Coliving is already one step further with his coliving community: “We currently use mainly booking tools for rooms, payment tools and we are growing towards a whole PMS (property management software)”.

“In general, scale is important and your growth perspective (aims). If you have a small scale and no target to grow, maybe it's also about privacy and about the human aspect of technology. So let's say you are this small company with the aim to grow, where to start looking for technology?” - Rick Schols, Co-Founder Sowebuild

An especially difficult question considering that there’s so much ‘material’ out there ready to be worked with. All the tooling and social media are out there, but how do you wanna build community? What's the right balance between technology and how much personal interaction processes? It's a very subjective question that needs to be thoroughly discussed per coliving space.

“As you start scaling you start using different products / tools. And every product outlives its use and then you move onto the next product which helps you scale from there. So that has been my experience so far.” - Mayank Pokharna

Which could mean starting out on google spreadsheets or a simple whatsapp group chat to connect the tenants with each other. As the community grows additional booking, scheduling and organizational tools might be needed in order to be still able to manage a place. Coliving as one of the most personal services can be enriched by some automatizations that help personalization, but there also some that make the product more impersonal. Finding the right balance here is key, no matter how big or small a place, Jon Hormaetxe states.

“It takes a village of different dedicated softwares to build a coliving operation, and I strongly suggest to any operator to stick to web-based when they start customising their solutions. We ended up building up on our own around a core-satellite approach and that’s worked for us. - Don't get into apps too soon for instance, not before you're serious about size and want to brand for scale, they require a lot more budget to build and maintain. You want something very streamlined, very simple to use at the start.” Gaetan de Dietrich describes his own journey. Building inhouse like Gaetan at Hmlet, involves substantial costs and is a big challenge. It only makes sense to build a fully customised solution for operators at big scale and if they can afford a whole team to manage building technology in house, Juan Ortiz adds.

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Matt Lesniak from Conscious Coliving and Coliving Ventures shared a quote from Coliving Insights No. 5, Co-Tech: Innovating Coliving with Technology from an article with The Collective:

“Our intent of building in-house - to understand and be better for our members and customers - was correct, although we ended up building out a billing and management system, as opposed to any unique IP. We’ve pivoted a bit to be thinking much more about data and how that works. So, we’re trying to piece together the data journey for our members and really lead the way in this space on how you understand that. As we design and build going forward, it’s really about how we can apply leading data practices, machine learning, and AI in a way that allows us to truly be differentiated in how we look at our members. We Know enough about them and we should do it because they live with us. But how can I start to second guess what they really need? How can I be relevant? How can I detect when they’re thinking about leaving? What can I do to make the spaces and their experience more engaging?”

So what about involving third parties? There will be some reason to not outsource the full tech site of your company to a third party and there will be reasons to do it. The starting point of a company will highly involve which road you'll take to the future. In some places it is a good idea to do both. Develop partly inhouse and outsource the rest to companys or service providers that deliver expertise beyond a certain point. From Matt Lesniak's point of view and experience, consulting with coliving operators, data capturing methods and strategies should be built in-house, and then operators can choose which tech platforms to partner with.

From Matt Lesniak's point of view and consulting experience with coliving operators, data capturing methods and strategies should be built in-house, and then operators can choose which tech platforms to partner with. He refers to Andy Carry here again:

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“Regarding PMS and other solutions around how we operate a building, we are going to get best-of-breed products in, and we’ll use those because I think that’s not a problem we need to solve - there are other people that can solve those problems better than we can. How we tie them together, pull the data and give a seamless experience - that’s where we need to spend our time. From their access control to how staff interact with them, how they report faults, to the events they attend - that should all just be one experience for members. Preferably through the app in a way that they see a consistent communication, tone of voice and brand experience.” - Andy Carry in Coliving Insights No. 5: The Collective: How to satisfy unmet needs with Technology.

photo: getsethome.com

However this often comes with major challenges for software deliverers, such as Sowebuild, that highly focus on tenant engagement with their BuildrApp. Mainly there are operators or landlords that want / ask or demand different features from the software company. And sometimes these two needs clash, coming from a highly subjective point of view, so there needs to be a lot of flexibility on all sides in order to adapt to that.

“We have been collecting and codefining research for an ideal app and tech solution, so for residents there's only one single interface mobile app, and there is a backend for admins that also can be used by residents. We are discussing the ideal in our upcoming Coliving Apps and Tech Guide. This is an ongoing research for our industry at the moment.” - Naima von Ritter Figueres, Head of Community & Wellbeing at Conscious Coliving

Gaetan de Dietrich also suggests that there's a fair chance that at the end of the journey there will be some kind of big collaboration that delivers exactly what the coliving industry needs in terms of technology. This could happen for at least the basic core features that are required by almost all coliving communities. “Like Linux for coliving”, he states. Even though all experts agreed on that, they also aligned with Mayank’s experience in tech from the last couple of years, stating that the coliving industry is at least 5-10 years away from an open source software like that: “Coliving grows and new coliving software is coming up every week. What happened to coliving in the last 3 years, will happen to coliving technology in the next 3 years. So there is definitely consolidation going to happen. Right now we are in a very early state and consolidation will come in the next two years, when a lot of bigger places start to scale up and the immaturity in the market will slowly fade while creating a better solution altogether”.

In the end it's not about technology, it's about serving people, right? So if you can create collaborations that focus on the service and with companies that focus on technology. Then you can make very strong connections and earn money from that service. Agility and flexibility both from operators and tech companies as well are very needed for the future in order to see what we can build together, the two Co-Founders of Sowebuild stated, concluding the technical debate on technology in Coliving.


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