A Personal Look at the Perfect Coliving Manager Mindset
This is the third and last intro post about coliving. Before we get our hands dirty about coliving management starting next week, I want to stop and take some time to talk to you about something personal. What I’m about to share will fill an important (if not the most important) piece of the puzzle for proper coliving management.
When you operate a coliving, you must be extremely empathetic with your guests, profoundly understanding their feelings, emotions, and motivations. It is the fundamental core of creating an authentic community. I’m lucky because I had already walked in my guests’ shoes.
When I started my own coliving, Startup Embassy, I promised myself I would never forget those feelings and that I would always make the best effort to be emotionally sensitive with my guests. When the time came to hire a team, I made sure that part of their training was to understand that when someone knocks on the door for the first time, there is a human on the other side who needs to feel welcome. In Startup Embassy, the team’s main job was to focus on each guest, emotionally connect, and instill in them a sense of belonging—because we care.
Let me share this story about how I first arrived in Silicon Valley, how I felt, and how joining a community helped me feel a sense of belonging.
So, my story starts like this…
I’m a born entrepreneur who took too long to finish his engineering studies. I’m not proud to admit that getting my degree took almost ten years! The main reasons are not essential for this story. Still, if you are curious, I’ll tell you that it goes around not liking what I was studying, willing to start my own business and therefore not focusing on my studies, family pressure, and a failed relationship that broke my heart.
After much struggle, I thought I’d be free. But then, I was expected to do the “right thing.” That is, of course, to get a job related to my field of studies: telecommunications.
If you’ll allow me a short tangent, I never applied for the job. I remember having a coffee with my fellow friends, and one of them asked, “Are you sending your CV to any company?”
And I remember replying, “Heck, no! Why—to get the damn job?”
At that time, telecom engineers were in great demand, and the thought of getting a real job made me sick. Some weeks later, I got an interview for a large company (the type of company you don’t say no to). It turned out my friend had applied for me! I didn’t want to be inconsiderate to his good intentions, so I went to the interview. And you guessed it; I got the job!
Oh, dear. And that’s how I started.
Working for Someone Else Is Not for Me
The first month was depressing. It was February and cold as hell in Madrid.
My new position was as an engineer for a NATO military project, working with the Eurofighter plane radar. The company, EADS-CASA (now Airbus Defense and Space), was a large factory with thousands of employees. It was so large that we had to park our cars far away and take a shuttle to “the factory.”
They had told us to bring a lunch box, and there I was at seven in the morning, waiting patiently at the shuttle stop, all dark, standing freezing cold, holding my laptop and my lunch box. And I remember thinking: “Ten years of hard studying for this. Fucking cold. I’m fucking Homer Simpson going to the nuclear facility!”
Was this going to be my life?
Moving to a different company didn’t help, and it took me four eternal years to stop the train and step down. By then, I was already 34 years old. Deciding to quit my job was paradoxically effortless.
One Monday morning, I sat down on my bed thinking, I hate my job, and suddenly an idea popped up. It was my intuition telling me: “You don’t need to go. YOU DON`T NEED TO GO TO WORK”. An immediate wave of peace flooded over me. I would’ve sworn I heard nymphs chanting.
That morning, I got dressed, went to the HR department, and handed in my resignation letter. Heck, I even paid half of my monthly salary because I didn’t give the required 15 days of notice.
You can imagine the reaction of my close social circle, especially family! “Are you nuts! Quitting a job like that! In the middle of the crisis!” Did I mention that my wife was pregnant with our first child?
But I felt like a fucking hero, at last, taking control of my own life, even if I wasn’t sure about what would be next. There were several startup ideas that I had thought about but never considered taking seriously. I decided to jump on the craziest one, mainly because if I was taking such a huge risk anyway, go big or go home.
My First Startup
That idea turned out to be my first startup: Yabo Inc. It was a platform that provided proximity services to mobile applications. Basically, if you crossed paths with someone that had something in common with you, your phones would vibrate and help you meet. This was 2010, and if you remember, it was all about social, local, and mobile.
I met my co-founder, who was based on the island of Majorca, and decided to move there just two months after my wife had given birth to our son, leaving them in Madrid. That partnership didn’t turn out well, but I owe Enrique one crucial thing. On the night he proposed partnership, he told me, “Come to Majorca, we’ll start developing in December, and in February, we’ll go to Silicon Valley!”
That single phrase changed my life forever because at that time, to me, Silicon Valley was like the moon: You know it exists, but you think you’ll never get there. But when Enrique said that phrase, he tore down a mental wall; it made going to Silicon Valley possible. It turned out that hearing that phrase was all I needed to believe I could take the leap.
Silicon Valley Calling
One year after we started Yabo, everything fell apart. It’s a long story, and I won’t bore you with the details.
The development team turned out to be a disaster, but I still believed in the idea, so I started all over again hiring a new team. But this time, I would be in Silicon Valley. Why? Because if I were to fail again, I’d rather fail in Silicon Valley and learn something I wouldn’t learn in Spain. It was as naive as that.
I hired a twenty-year-old mobile developer named Dany, who didn’t have much experience but had the balls to move 6 thousand miles from home and start from scratch.
Four days before Christmas, I moved to Palo Alto, CA. My friends back home wondered why I wouldn’t spend the holiday with them, but once I make my mind up, I go for it with everything in me–less of a chance for life to happen and screw up my careful planning.
The day I arrived at San Francisco airport, it was raining. The immigration officer who checked my visa was insulting, and the first feeling I had was, this country doesn’t want me.
It never occurred to me that I would become an immigrant. Not that it’s a bad thing, it’s just that I had no experience with this perspective shift and was suddenly labeled in a new place, with all the intense emotional distress it entails.
Luckily, I had a place to stay for the next three weeks. I had met this crazy guy, Xavi, who lent me his house until January 15th while he was away for vacations. I will never be able to thank him enough— who the heck gives his home keys to a stranger?
But I knew I had three weeks to find a permanent housing solution. Dany, the developer I had hired, was arriving on the 15th, so I urgently needed to find a long-term solution for our housing needs.
I arrived at Palo Alto Caltrain station carrying two large suitcases. Xavi’s home was just a 15-minute walk from the train station, but that first walk felt endless. I pulled my two bags along the street in a storm.
I will never forget that walk.
I was afraid, cold, soaked, and profoundly sad. I wanted to build the next Facebook but had no idea where to begin. I felt that my family, my friends, the world were all pointing their fingers at me, holding me accountable. I was afraid of being delusional and proving many right. I missed my wife and my son, who had just turned one. I left them at home for a dream, and it felt wrong. My self-confidence was the only thing carrying me forward, and if I lost that, what would it leave me with?
Fortunately, my wife wouldn’t allow me to spend Christmas alone, so she arrived with my son on the 24th and spent two weeks in Palo Alto with me. That was a lifesaver because it allowed me to adapt to the new place. When they left, I was much more comfortable in Palo Alto and had regained my confidence.
I had a countdown. I still needed to find a place to call home and had one week to do it. Dany was arriving soon, and I hadn’t found anything for us. I feared we would need to sleep in the street!
That’s when my dear friend Di-Ann introduced me to Fadi Bishara, the founder of BlackBox. Today, Blackbox is a well-known accelerator program for global entrepreneurs, but Fadi was running what at the time was called a “hacker house.”
Fadi interviewed me; you see, BlackBox was only for entrepreneurs, and I needed to prove I was one of them. I arrived late for the interview because, as it turned out, there was no train stopping at Atherton station on weekends!
I had already applied to stay at BlackBox from Spain but never received a response. I remember when I found their listing on Airbnb, I was beyond excited! A house full of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs? I’d die to live there! But was I good enough to be accepted?
I wrote a lengthy, passionate email describing my startup and how I would change the world. (That email is still in my Gmail account, and I haven’t read it since.) I’m sure it’s incredibly naive, and I don’t have the guts to re-open it. Who knows, I might do it and perhaps even share it with you one day.
I remember checking BlackBox’s listing pictures every single day, expecting an answer from them as if I had applied for an Ivy league scholarship! Oh, I wanted so badly to live in that house. But like I said, the answer never came.
…so you can imagine my excitement when Di-Ann introduced Fadi to me, and I met him in person. That was my one chance to get accepted, and when I saw that my train was not stopping in Atherton, my heart broke. Oh my Lord, in Silicon Valley, you don’t arrive late at a meeting, and this was my one shot!
Fortunately, Fadi was very forgiving and when I sat down at the kitchen table, I threw all my nuclear arsenal pitching skills at him. It was then or never.
I think I talked passionately for two hours. Poor Fadi. Knowing how naive I was, he probably thought I was some delusional dreamer. But he noticed something: the spark in my eyes, the same spark I’ve seen countless times in the eyes of my guests, desperately telling their story, their passion, and determination.
I’m sure that look was what got me accepted into BlackBox Mansion.
– “There’s one issue, though,” Fadi told me. “The house is packed; I can only offer the garage to you.”
– ”Are you kidding me?” I thought. “I could sleep on the fucking roof!”
I didn’t mind sleeping in the garage, quite the opposite–I felt starstruck, able to live the romantic Silicon Valley dream I’d been striving for through hell and high water. What I wasn’t sure about is how Dany was going to react when he arrived.
It turned out, like me, Dany believed the greater the struggle, the greater the reward. We went to the local Ikea, bought, and built a bunk bed to sleep in. Let me tell you, that garage was a real garage. I mean, it was not meant to live in!
Not only was the garage cold at night, but we also had no privacy. There was a fridge near our bed, and people would turn on the light and pick up food from it several times per hour.
The funny thing is that after some weeks, we developed a sense of ownership of that garage. It was our garage, and we loved it. This is something I’ve called territoriality in coliving, and it’s essential to understand this concept if you operate your own coliving. I’ll write about it in a future post as it’s the core of many issues that occur in a coliving community.
And nobody told me how cold northern California gets in the winter! You could feel the wind sneaking in from every tiny opening. The garage was so frigid that I would wake up every time I turned in bed, and my face touched the opposite side of the pillow. If I left my arms outside the blanket, I would feel like cold needles pricking them. Dany and I were able to survive three nights like this until I decided to buy electric blankets. I could’ve survived like that a little longer, but I was concerned about Dany; it wasn’t his dream we were living, he didn’t sign on to sleep in the North Pole.
Community Keeps You Going Through Anything
With freezing cold, little space, and no privacy, where was the romantic dream that I shared earlier?
I’m telling you–it was there the whole time.
It was magic, absolute magic, waking up every day to a feeling of belonging. At Blackbox, still in my pajamas, I’d open the door to the house, and BOOM!, everyone was there: my tribe.
Have you ever felt that happy before, without a doubt, knowing 100% that you found your family and spot in the universe?
Now, imagine feeling that joy. Every. Single. Day.
I wanted to spend every second of the day with them. Every single conversation was about building our companies: our business idea, go-to-market strategy, how to acquire customers, UX, product development, how to raise funding…even psychology!
In one way or the other, we were all suffering from a huge weight on our shoulders. Conversations went way past midnight every night and were intimate: realizing the hurdles we faced were not unique and that others carried the same burden (like having self-doubts and feeling the impostor syndrome). It allowed us to normalize the struggle. It gave us energy for the next day.
These people at Blackbox were the smartest I’d ever met. Their backgrounds were diverse, but we all shared the same passion. We all felt like underdogs that would make an impact in the world. Many of these entrepreneurs became life-long friends, and ten years later, we’re still in touch. Some became my mentors; others, I’ve invested in their companies.
Living in Blackbox felt like experiencing a modern version of Florence in the Renaissance, only that, in this case, it wasn’t about art; it was about technology and innovation.
After living for one year in BlackBox, we had to move. Because I increased my team size to four developers, living in Fadi’s place didn’t make economic sense anymore. Besides, Fadi was pivoting into an accelerator, and he ran programs that required everyone to move out for two weeks while the programs took place.
So it made sense for me to find a more permanent residence. Inspired by BlackBox, I rented a house and moved my development team there. To reduce my startup operational costs, I got a larger house than we needed and opened my own coliving for entrepreneurs; I named it Startup Embassy.
But that’s another story.
A Sense of Belonging
My second try at building my startup was also a failure. I had to fire my team after they blackmailed me. It wasn’t only their fault; I proved to be a terrible manager. Startup Embassy was everything I had left, and with only 200$ in the bank, I’d better make it work. And I did!
Honestly, when my startup failed, my only intention was to be able to pay the rent and leave back to Spain when the lease ended. But when that day came, ten months later, I was so hooked to the community, it was impossible to leave. I had a second family! And unbelievably, running Startup Embassy has been my passion ever since.
It’s now my turn to receive those long passionate emails from founders dying to stay at Startup Embassy and live with our entrepreneurs. Oh, do I know how they feel! When a new guest knocks on our door, I open it, and I look straight into their eyes. I know he’s family, but he doesn’t. My job, our job, is to instill that sense of belonging as soon as possible, to make them feel like family.
We implemented specific things in our on-boarding process that were designed to take this sense of belonging in mind. I’ll talk about it in a separate post soon. But here’s a hint: How long does it take for a new guest to fall asleep on your couch? We had people who fell asleep after checking in!
But you must understand that coliving is about community. And community is about people. If you follow my blog, you will see that I’m adamant about verticalizing coliving. That is, targeting a specific niche. There are many reasons for that, and I’ll write about them all, but one of the most important ones is that to have a real community, people must feel like they belong.
For you as an operator to make sure they feel this, you must understand them. It will be challenging to understand them if you don’t target a niche you relate to. The more targeted your community is, the easier it will be to serve their needs and create this magic.
Be cautious; developing a niche mindset doesn’t mean losing diversity! If you do, you might end up building a cult in your coliving. One of my posts will tell you about the Startup Castle’s untold story and how lack of diversity turned the space into a living hell.
Mama Carlos says: Instill the Magic of Family.
If there’s a single thing you should take from today’s post is this: Coliving is not about the space. It’s not about how beautiful, clean, or affordable it is. Hopefully, you have that, but what really matters is how excited your soon-to-be guests are about living with your community. You want to generate that desire and excitement before they even apply.
If you manage to instill that sense of belonging, and that comes by filtering the right people and understanding them, you will craft a community that will forgive your royal fuck-ups. Because you will have them! I once had rats in my coliving, and nobody complained! Can you believe that? Be patient, that story will come up as well.
But that’s what you want: a community that is so close and tight that no matter what, even sleeping with rats, they will love you. (And please, I’m not telling you that having rats is OK, hopefully, you get the point).
One last thing. When I first arrived in Silicon Valley, I had three people that changed my life. Xavi, Di-Ann, and Fadi helped me transition from total loneliness and almost desperation to an intense sense of belonging. People can have the greatest impact on your life, and some never realize what implications their small kindnesses mean to you. As a coliving operator, you will impact the lives of your guests. Always be aware of that, so they’ll remember you as the person that welcomed them in from the cold and gave them a reason to keep believing in themselves.