A year ago this month, I landed at Ghangis Khan International Airport to help open one of Mongolia’s first coworking spaces.
Traveling to Ulaanbaatar was the culmination of a four-month long consulting project between myself, my fellow cowork consultant Angel and a team of three native Mongolians. Bagi, the native leader, was the visionary behind the project. After witnessing the coworking movement grow while living in Germany and China for the past decade, she wanted to bring coworking to her home country. It would be a difficult task given the lack of awareness, but knew the concept would challenge the way Mongolians think about work.
Bagi asked Angel and I to join the project given our experience opening one of the first coworking spaces in the U.S. nearly seven years ago. We had encountered similar challenges when the movement was just taking hold in the world at the time and wanted to share our expertise.
Opening a coworking space in a new country, let alone a formerly communist country that relies heavily on the commodity sector, was an eye-opening experience that taught us many lessons. Here are a few of them:
Large, but tight communities need leadership and a coworking vision
Mongolia is a small ancient country that has developed close communities over the centuries: People run into friends or family when walking around, random greetings happen in parks, stores and even on our free coworking days during opening week.
These close communities create a ripe opportunity for coworking to catch on through the network effect. Bagi just simply needed to introduce the idea and take bold leadership to start a space for people to gather.
Our job was to empower and guide Bagi in becoming a coworking leader. For months leading up to the opening, we taught Bagi the founding principles of coworking, how to organize effective networking events, the ins-and-outs of free gatherings at cafes and key online marketing strategies. Since the culture is connection-based, we developed a referral program that would encourage people to spread the word through their own networks.
Coworking enthusiats existed even though coworking didn’t
Ulaanbaatar’s educated and professional community is a well-traveled group. Many work for international companies and attend school abroad in the U.S., Europe, China or Japan. The Mongolian professional community often refer to themselves as “re-patriots” when they come back to their home country after being away for a decade and start a new career.
This well-traveled cohort gave coworking an unexpected awareness among prospects since many encountered the concept in the media or went to a start-up event at a space abroad. This increased global awareness gave CLUB coworking an unexpected bump within the target market.
Community leaders and a solid team will amplify your message
A general rule we tend to follow is to start with a community of ten—and it was no different for CLUB. Once CLUB started to host events and spread the news about the opening, they found their first members. This team was lead by re-patriots from Massachusetts that previously experienced coworking and wanted to move the concept forward in Mongolia. They instantly became coworking advocates that helped define CLUB’s culture of openness and collaboration. They gave tours, organized workshops and went out of their way to meet new people.
But Bagi would have only been able to do so much as a single leader. Kicking things off with a team of advocates pushing her vision forward enabled CLUB to establish a deeper coworking culture and build momentum.
Marketing is the same—and different
There are a variety of ways to promote a coworking space in the States. In Mongolia, however, the digital small business and startup culture was underdeveloped compared to the U.S., which made our typical marketing avenues limiting. Methods like posters in cafes, being featured in e-mail blasts, guest blog posts, press releases in newspapers, speaking at Meetups and doing digital ads on Facebook and Google weren’t immediate options.
What’s more is that small business gatherings at the local Chamber of Commerce or startup events don’t exist. To put it generally, Facebook is the Internet is Mongolia so it made sense that our strategy leaned heavily on digital ads. Bagi didn’t have much marketing experience, but producing a Facebook ad doesn’t require more than a few hours of training in strategy, design and implementation. The good news is that they work incredibly well considering the detailed demographic information and low cost. (It ended up being less than $.05 per click compared to $1.20 in Denver.)
This provided an opportunity to fill the small business event gap in Mongolia and promote it heavily without costing us much money. While there, we averaged an event a day covering topics on marketing, digital ads, blogging strategy and idea pitching. It brought nearly 100 people through CLUB’s doors and we spent less than $50 on advertising. Each event started to gain traction as the network effect took hold and we began to build the new startup event ecosystem around our budding community for very little money.
Your target audience might not be who you expect
The target audience is fairly similar for every coworking space in the U.S.—unless the space positions themselves for a particular audience. Although one space may lean heavier on one or the other, the immediate first targets include small businesses, remote workers, freelancers and startups.
We realized that there aren’t many small businesses in Mongolia that simply use a computer and nothing else. Plus, it’s a radical change to go from the prestige around having your own office to joining and sharing a coworking space with other businesses. There is a cultural and economic disconnect that CLUB will fight over the next few years, but that didn’t prevent the space from driving revenue in the first few months.
After hosting a few free days and talking to people within the first week, we realized NGO non-profits and their worker’s (often Westerners with spouses) needed coworking. They were aware of coworking from their home countries and longed for the community aspect that coworking provided. They were an immediate audience that we didn’t consider and after re-targeting our marketing efforts, a few of them ended up becoming founding members of CLUB.
You need an amazing team and need to be a dedicated teammate
Bagi was the visionary, but she could not have done this on her own. She had a local team made up of a graphic designer who believed in coworking and a community manager that had coworking experience in the UK. Plus us to share our experiences from the States. The entire team had a passion for coworking and everyone was willing to listen, provide feedback and be involved with the community.
In the months leading up to our arrival and opening day, the Mongolian team members read all of the books and blogs we recommended, joined us on conference calls at obscure hours and willingly jumped outside their comfort zone.
They bought into the coworking movement. They loved their home and were excited to come together to do something innovative that pushed toward a common goal. It wasn’t just about making a profit, but creating a movement that will change their city.