Are coworking spaces really all the same?

If you’ve ever shopped around for a coworking space, you’ve undoubtedly heard every shared workspace operator brag that its offices aren’t just a place to work – they’re all about community and culture. As Fast Company’s Ruth Reader put it, we’re just a “bunch of co-work startups saying the same things about how different [we] are.”  She’s not entirely wrong, but (with all due respect) I think she’s missed the point about coworking. There are fundamental reasons why the marketing language may seem similar, from market immaturity and high demand, to nuanced differentiation that’s difficult to qualify. I want to offer a marketer’s perspective on what’s going on in the space and why there’s no reason to be cynical. 

For starters, comparing coworking operators to each other is missing the big picture. For buyers, the real choice is between a shared workspace versus a traditional office lease. Indeed, at the moment, less than 5 percent of global office space is dedicated to coworking; the vast majority is still traditional lease or ownership. For that reason, operators across the board tend to focus their marketing on those features traditional leases don’t provide, such as flexible terms, sharing paradigms, and different office experiences. Promoting features common to everyone may seem counter-intuitive, but it has been a necessary step to first educate the market to appreciate and adopt the coworking option.

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And it has definitely been working. Demand has exploded, growing at an average annual rate of 23 percent since 2010. Given such market conditions, you might then expect that operators would want to emphasise stronger differentiators. Yet, until recently, that hasn’t been the case.