In the last few years, coworking has grown from a grassroots movement into a global industry with over 15,000 spaces and one million-plus members around the world.
Since 2012, the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC) has helped shape, further, celebrate and bridge the coworking movement and the workspace industry.
Balancing the two aspects of our industry is not always easy, but GCUC executive producer Liz Elam and her team pull it off year after year. Now, in partnership with GCUC UK producer Justin Harley, they’re bringing GCUC to Europe.
An experienced business woman who is grounded in community and connection, Elam brings smart business chops, a global vision, fun and a collaborative spirit to the world’s largest coworking conference series.
And, as Elam likes to say, the GCUC team eats its own dog food. GCUC is run out of the open, community space of one of Elam’s Link Coworking locations in Austin, Texas, because she’d rather be surrounded by people than isolated in an office.
I chatted with Elam about what coworking space operators can learn from workspace industry veterans, her approach to creating fun, engaging GCUC events, and how the occasional curse words will be dropped at GCUC UK in London. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Cat Johnson: One of the things I love about GCUC is that there’s something for everyone. You strike a balance between the coworking movement and the workspace industry. What’s your approach to balancing those two aspects of our industry.
Liz Elam: As coworking has evolved and become a true industry, if you’re not paying attention to what other people are doing, you’re going to miss out on some opportunities. From the very beginning, we’ve always embraced the business center organization because there’s a lot we have to learn from them.
I think it would be naive of us to not pay attention to business. If you’re not treating coworking like a business, you’re not going to be in business in a few years—and I can tell you lots of examples of that.
What about the other side of that equation? What about bringing the playful, collaborative, community spirit of GCUC to some of the people who don’t normally spend a lot of time in that world?
I would say to them, ‘When was the last time you went to a conference that was fun, where you learned a lot of things, and met a bunch of cool people that you wanted to hang out with in real life?’
I’ve been to other conferences that are not fun. A conference should not be trudging. A conference should be fun, and invigorating, and different, and inspiring, and give you actionable things you can do the second you hit the ground back home.
If it’s not doing that, it’s failing. One of the reasons GCUC has succeeded is because we don’t look at how everybody else does the conference business, we listen to what our people want and need, and that’s what we deliver, year after year.
GCUC is an amazing opportunity to connect with peers, which is one of my favorite aspects of the conference. With GCUC UK, we have people coming from all over the world to connect around coworking. What do you think the biggest benefit of being in the same space with industry peers from around the world is?
The world has become so, so small because of our ability to connect globally. I have calls all over the world, every day. Last night I was chatting with China on WeChat, and this morning I was on Skype to Australia.
If you meet somebody and connect with them, it doesn’t matter where in the world they are, you can maintain a relationship. One of the best things about GCUC is the people you meet along the way.
GCUC always provides a glimpse into the future of the workspace industry. What’s your approach to programming when it comes to presenting different coworking models and industry trends?
We answer to the people who come to GCUC. We try to surface the trends and the things attendees should be thinking about for the future. That’s why we’re hyper-focused on wellness right now. We really believe that, if you’re not paying attention to wellness, in a few years you’ll be obsolete—and I’m not at all kidding about that.
We see GCUC as a place to learn about new trends and to see some of the new players. We put Adam Neumann on stage in 2012, when no one knew who he was. We put Work Well Win on stage in New York City this year because we think they’re doing something innovative in wellness. We had architects in the room who didn’t know what WELL Certified was. We are there to help bring you up a level so you can compete at whatever level you choose.
It may come as a surprise to some people in our industry that you work in open, community areas and prefer that to working in an office—even though you run three spaces in Austin with lots of offices.
For many years in corporate America, I worked in a muted, sage green cubicle. That was my view. I loved nothing more than any opportunity to get out of my cube. I was constantly standing on my chair, and arranging parties, because I didn’t want to be in my cube.
I felt so contained, and the cube sucked, so I started working from home. One customer I supported gave me a badge and I was so lonely working from home that I would just show up and work with them—even though they didn’t need anything.
Then I started working out of Starbucks. Back then Starbucks had shit-to-none internet, and the chairs were still rock hard, there was lots of noise, and kids screaming, and machines making noises. I dreamed of a place like a coworking space. Then, when I created one to my liking, that I liked working in and that invigorated me, why the hell would I go into four walls if I could work out in the open amongst people?
I need to see greenery and that’s one of the things I get at Link—I can see out into a green space and we have a long field of vision. For me, this space represents openness and it represents green, and it gives me energy to be around other people. I don’t want to be in an office by myself or with two other people—I want to be in a space where people are coming in and out, and it’s vibrant, and conversational, and I hear about people’s lives.
Let’s talk about GCUC UK and bringing GCUC to Europe. What do you hope comes from the event?
I really hope we have an ongoing event and conversation about coworking across the pond. I’m looking forward to meeting new people, and inspiring people, and having some fun.
I want to bring a different conversation to Europe. At GCUC, not all the sponsors come to us—some of them are meticulously stalked because we think they have value to add to our industry. It’s not just a tradeshow, it’s a curated group of people we think you should know.
We want to wow you, and we want you to have fun, and we want to be radically different from anything you’ve ever seen before. And you can expect some f-bombs, especially from me.
by Cat Johnson