Coliving: Don’t Be Puneeted! A Cautionary Tale

How to identify the worst community members in your coliving before they bring huge trouble.

(*) New verb – to puneet: the act of being the worst coliver possible.

I’ve said it many times, running a coliving can be demanding. On top of managing the physical property, you’re also cultivating a robust and healthy community.

From the very first moment your coliving opens, challenges will come out of the woodwork. While most issues will surface in the first one to three months (like managing the fridge, the kitchen, or the bathrooms), others come years afterward. You do have some good news, though. Most of these early situations can be solved easily, and I’ve already done the hard work for you here in Coliving From the Trenches. However, there are some major ones that require a bit of finesse. Today, we’re diving deep into one of those, and we’ll explore from several angles so you can make your own decision on what to do. My hope is to prevent your coliving from a threatening situation.

A Threat to Community Health

In my experience, the worst of these situations is a betrayal from within. After all your hard work building a stellar community, the dagger in the back cuts deepest when it’s from someone you trusted. It hurts even worse when you deny the warning signs. When you operate from a positive mindset, people can take advantage of your best intentions. So, my first piece of advice is to expect the best but prepare for the worst.

backstabbing sign

Preparing like this can save you months of distress. It took that much time to open my eyes to the cancer working its way through my community. Like the tumor, it disguised itself as multiple symptoms, taken separately, they did not raise any alarm. However, the damage was done far too late, and my location had to be closed down to save the rest.

Let’s call this situation “being puneeted.” Not because I want to use a pseudonym or a generic name to abstract the individual from the facts, but rather quite the opposite. He destroyed a community, so this is the backhanded slap of karma. I hope you can grant me the license to use his real name, given the fact that he did manage to close one of our businesses down. And I thought that puneet would make for a great verb in this new industry that is taking shape that is coliving, as it would be great to have a verb that would define in one word the worst of the human condition in a coliving community. Therefore, from now on, understand phrases like “He puneeted me” to be a translation of “he fucked my community as hard as it can be fucked, from the inside out, with a big smile, and it hurt majorly.

Along the years that I have operated Startup Embassy, I’ve had three “puneets.” That is out of two thousand members. I consider myself lucky; we could have had many more. 

When we had the last puneet and were concerned with finding a solution, I used to go for long walks with my dear friend and ex-partner Sergey to discuss possible solutions. He was hyper-focused on the actual problem ( the individual), which made perfect sense. But I remember telling him:

Sergey, it’s not Puneet that I’m worried about; we’ll find a way to take care of him. It’s the next puneet I’m worried about. How can we make sure that we’ll identify them before they damage our community? How can we find a common denominator to all of them? They seem to be so different from each other; what are the commonalities we can identify to stop them early on?”

How to Recognize a Puneet

As painful as it seems, and it was, I did learn a lot from these situations.

You see, there are many different types of colivers. Some are quiet. Some are noisy and fun. Some untidy, some polite, some are not. It’s OK. Whenever you identify a bad apple, it’s easy and quick— they’re out. 

I’ve had a woman so dirty that her mess preceded her. She lasted two days. One guy broke the stove. No big deal, shit happens. It was his attitude afterward when he threatened to call his lawyer because he “hadn’t signed anything regarding the use of the stove.” Pardon me? He was out the next day (we had him think he had taken the decision).

Antisocial personality disorder

The puneets, though, are an entirely different size of asshole. 

Trying to find a commonality between them, I came to the following conclusion: all the puneets were people that, from the beginning, were extroverted, loved the concept of our coliving, and got significantly involved in it. So much, in fact, that they consider Startup Embassy a part of their identity. They were the first to organize events and the first to party. They made sure everyone liked them. Oftentimes, this narcissistic tendency would stretch as far as usurping House Manager tasks and inserting themselves in professional areas. This disrupted new guest entries and siphoned community trust from the staff paid to fulfill these roles. While it is good to be trustworthy, a coliving rests on a community’s strength, not on the conditional need for one member’s attention. 

The big reveal for me was seeing that this puneet was not only involved in every event, meeting, and conversation—they also had a hand in each conflict disturbing the peace at Startup Embassy.

Conflicts that, by the way, were rare but are now surfacing weekly. A strong argument that almost ended in a fight? Puneet was there. An issue with alcohol? You bet he was part of it. A sexist or racist comment? Yup that was him.

Then you realize that your community has transitioned from a peaceful coexisting group into clique-like clusters bred from animosity. And the head of one of those clusters is, of course, Puneet. The other is probably someone in your community with a strong personality that is not willing to eat Puneet’s shit and is being manipulated to keep the drama going.

So, what happens next? It turns out, all puneets show their true personality after the third month. That is when they had time to become territorial. Territoriality is an interesting concept that takes place in communities, and I’ve written a post explaining the dangers and solutions here. All colivers experience it; to some, it’s just part of the process, but others react in the worst possible way.

Key Narcissistic Giveaways

This means that territoriality is not the only reason for their behavior, but it is a litmus test to determine a narcissistic problem. However, there’s something else to watch for.

In our case, I found out that it was the lack of execution on their projects. For those of you that might not know, at Startup Embassy, our coliving, we only accept tech entrepreneurs (founders of a tech startup), meaning all of our guests are supposed to be executing on their respective projects.

All puneets had these two things in common: no progress and a focus on drama. They were wannabe entrepreneurs. I believe this stemmed from a lack of self-love, and this manifested as a multi-prolonged issue. To feed their own fantasies of being a business success, they had to create this illusion of progress by crafting dramatic narratives in which they were victims or heroes. On top of this, to maintain the fantasies, they had to go one step further by undercutting everyone else. This results in a maelstrom of negativity, slowly eating away at the community of success you’re cultivating. 

Their solution was to take over the community, build a hierarchy, and be their dictator.

 

All this brings us to the logical question, how do you solve this? How do you identify them, moreover when you say that at the beginning, they are the perfect colivers?

Two Lines of Defense

In our case, we solved it by implementing two processes: the Code of Conduct and the Length of Stay protocol. Feel free to use Startup Embassy’s examples to prevent this from happening in your space.

1.- Code of Conduct

The first one, the CoC, defines a set of rules that makes the colivers accountable for their actions. It also sets the expectations your community members should have even before arriving at your space. I can’t stress how important this document is. The CoC defines which specific actions are not tolerated in your coliving and categorizes them in a way that can be accounted for.

For example, a sexist joke might not be enough to kick someone out (at least not at Startup Embassy), but repeated offenses are classified as harassment. While some people will play off the “it’s a joke” factor, make sure your space has strict guidelines in place that make it apparent you will not tolerate this type of behavior. The joke-teller does not decide if something is funny or not—the community does.

Another example of zero tolerance is racism. If a guest tells one of your Mexican colivers to “go and mow the lawn” (that actually happened), then this has to have a direct consequence. In that particular case, we were slow to react because we had not implemented the CoC yet, and when we tried to react, it was too late: he denied everything and twisted the facts, making him seem the aggravated. That made us realize we had to do something so next time, we would be ready. That’s how our CoC was born. 

In our case, we classified wrong actions into two types, minor and major violations. Minor was for a grey zone situation that deserved direct action but not immediate expulsion. These are critical because minor offenses that are not immediately taken care of end up being unimportant two days after. 

If you attempt to bring up something at any point, a puneet’s narcissistic excuse will always be denial, refusal, or victim-blaming. The longer it takes you to act, the fewer chances you will have to make your puneet accountable. To us, minor violations were (taken from our CoC):

o Not following requests of the House Manager to comply with the house rules

o Offensive comments (racist, sexists, religious, etc.)

o Other offensive or disruptive behaviors

You can see that we deliberately let “other offensive or disruptive behaviors” open to interpretation as it’s impossible to think about all the misconducts that can happen. In our case, three minor violations resulted in the expulsion of the member.

Major violations are those which result in immediate expulsion from the coliving:

o Fighting with a member

o Sexual harassment – verbal or physical

o Alcohol or drug-induced misconduct

2.- Length of Stay Protocol 

The Length of Stay protocol (LoS) takes care of territoriality. The CoC is easy to define and implement. But the LoS protocol is much more difficult as it depends on the type of coliving you have. 

In our case, it’s all about startups, so our LoS protocol defines how long you can stay at Startup Embassy based on how focused you are running your company. If you think about it, it’s measuring the growth of your coliver. It can be professional and personal growth, but in our case, we focus on the former. You can read our LoS protocol on our website here.

Basically, we classify our ambassadors in three levels: Inspiration, Prototype, and Growth, and based on that, we allow you to stay at Startup Embassy for three months. After that, you have to show us that you have moved to the next level. You can stay up to six months with us in total:

  1. Inspiration means that you still are working on the idea you will be working on. It’s OK to be looking for inspiration for a few months, but after three months, you better start executing!
  2. Prototype means that you are building your first minimum viable product. It’s the stage to build something and start validating your hypotheses. In our startup world, you must iterate and move fast. Six months to launch your first prototype should be more than enough; some say that it should be even less.
  3. Growth stage is when you have launched your prototype and are focusing on getting new users/customers. If you first arrive at Startup Embassy at this stage, you have up to six months to stay with us.

Why six months, you say? Well, it depends on which market you target. In our case, our raison d’être is to provide a soft landing for entrepreneurs to the Silicon Valley ecosystem. We’re your nest. We are here to help you, but there’s only so much we can do. We explain it like this on our LoS document on our web:

Our mission is to provide the most supportive and inspiring environment for early-stage startups in Silicon Valley.

To do that, we want to ensure that while you’re staying with us, you’re surrounded by founders who are serious about and dedicated to their startup and who can offer you help in your journey. This doesn’t mean working 24/7; we have fun together too and enjoy each other’s company. But there’s a sense of mission and urgency that all of us share.

To allow for that and to give everyone an equal chance, we set limits on how long we allow our guests to stay with us. Overall principle – the more progress your startup makes, the longer you may stay. The maximum stay is six months at a time.

In our experience, for founders who are dedicated and have the right skills, this provides them with enough time to get funding and to get established in Silicon Valley; or they will get lessons that will help them in the future.”

We have concluded that there’s not much more we can provide for the average entrepreneur after six months of stay. And as we say in our LoS document, we want “to give everyone an equal chance,” and our availability is not infinite. We are also bringing “a sense of mission and urgency,” which is part of our culture, and that implies in our guests’ consciousness that living with us is so much more than just living. We expect you to grow, and all of our community will support you in that mission.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. There are exceptional cases where some guests are so amazing that we are OK if they stay longer. But we make it clear that it’s an exception. You can always leave for a month and be back again, but doing it so, we always have the last word in reaccepting you, and if you did become territorial, leaving the house for a while will break that sense of territoriality and reset it for a bit. The critical part here is that we have the last word, and if we decided that you are not a good fit, we have the LoS protocol to support our decision.

 

This LoS protocol is specific to our niche. Depending on the type of community you manage, it will look different, but it should be based at its core on what it means for your community to grow as an individual. It must emerge from the value that you bring to your community beyond providing a roof, which in our case is “soft-landing for entrepreneurs.”

Guarding Your Community’s Health

One important thing I’d like to stress is that the way we have implemented these two processes is a work in progress. They are not perfect, especially the LoS protocol. Setting a specific length of stay has worked for us, but it can be significantly improved.

Startup Embassy Healthy Community

In the end, coliving should be a tool for the community members to experience (and measure!) personal growth in whichever niche they decide to focus on. The reason why we focus on a specific length of stay is to avoid as much of possible the territoriality effect on an under-achiever that can bring an unbalance to the community. But there should be better tools to achieve this, more open, more measurable, and fairer. 

This is a topic by itself, and I’ll further discuss it in following posts, but I’ll hint that it’s related to the potential gamification of the community. A set of pre-agreed KPIs that are clear and easily measured using technology. Depending on the niche you are positioned in, those KPIs will be different, as different verticals will need specific ways to define personal growth.

Mama Carlos Says

These two documents (CoC and LoS) have proven to be immensely valuable in safeguarding our community’s health. Remember that a community is alive, and it is constantly changing, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse

With this “living organism” example, you must have control mechanisms to react quickly as an “immune system” when a cancerous puneet rears its ugly head. The Code of Conduct identifies assholes immediately and removes their ability to slide around less formal rules. It also makes guests accountable for minor misbehaviors just in case the guest doesn’t adapt to your culture. 

The Length of Stay protocol sets up a system to measure the personal and/or professional growth of your coliver and serves as a baseline to hold on to before you get puneeted. It minimizes the chances for a puneet to become territorial and adds a sense of mission to your community.

You now have the necessary tools to make sure that you won’t get puneeted!

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6 months ago

[…] You’ll need to discern what your community’s adjustment looks like – always a natural factor considering each guest’s personality, from what is a slight, smelly shift or a putrid shitstorm. It’ll be too late when you realize that you’ve been puneeted. […]

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6 months ago

[…] first. While there are more complex issues like what I’ve called “territoriality” or being puneeted, there is one problem that I’m sure you’ll face early […]

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6 months ago

[…] This stage is essential to guarantee a good community fit. If you do it right, 80% of the work to run a healthy community is already done. Do it wrong, and you might have just injected a cancer into your coliving! […]

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5 months ago

[…] Code of Conduct, and a Length of Stay protocol. If you want to understand why, please read my “don’t be puneeted post.” This ensures a heavy filtering process for potential guests, and if a Puneet does slip by, you […]

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5 months ago

[…] you now fully understand what it means when I say that things will go wrong. It’s not only that you might be puneeted, but it’s also difficult to manage your community. Anything can happen, and everything will […]

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4 months ago

[…] The more hierarchy there is, the more egos come into place, and that is a breeding ground for potential puneets to show up and polarize your […]

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