“I can’t build a coliving space. You know, I might get some people in, but even if I do that, I need to find real estate, it’ll cost me a lot of money…”
Those were the words of a friend of mine a few days back.
I was listening to him until I stopped.
“Wrong,” I said. “Creating a space is not expensive. What’s expensive is the time you’re going to put into it to make it happen and to find YOUR sweet spot.”
And as I explained to him how I did it, this article was born.
Why should you read this?
Today I’ll share how I set up my first coliving space.
I hesitated so far because now, a few years and several coliving spaces after, I’m setting high expectations for coliving spaces, including spaces I’m working with.
But it’s a story worth telling. Not because we were able to create the most legendary coliving space ever— it’s not about that. It’s about two kids who had no idea of what they were doing and still managed to pull off an experience that for many remains one of the best moments of their lives.
In this post, I will dig deep into the entire journey: how we had the idea; how we found a house in less than a week; how we positioned our branding and attracted 16+ people to live with us; how we broke even in the first month; and finally, what key learnings we took from that experience, many of those lasting in my thought process until today.
This post is not an example of how to build long-lasting coliving brands, but it is a story that will teach you a way of thinking — namely, how to think opportunities, and how to think coliving.
That being said, let’s dig into it. Here is the true, naked story of the coliving tale of Gui Perdrix.
Day -14: With No Plan And No money
It’s May 2017. I just quit my job and decided to become a minimalist. I sold almost all of my belongings, got rid of my speakers, the majority of my clothes, endless items no one uses, and eventually, I got rid of my apartment.
At that time, I had booked tickets to attend Mindvalley University, a 1-month personal growth program that took place in Barcelona. The event started in exactly 14 days from now and my best mate Renat was going to join me.
So we looked at AirBnbs.
And here was the catch: booking a one-month stay two weeks in advance in one of the most touristy cities in Europe during the summer season meant that we would have to spend at least 1800€ to live under a shitty roof.
And my bank account was not looking happy 🤑
“Renat, I don’t know how we can make it,” I said. “Literally, if I book any of those places, I won’t even have money to buy you tapas upon arrival.”
At that time, I even checked out options to live on boats, caravans, and on a tent on a Barcelona rooftop.
Two days later, he calls me up.
Renat didn’t give a shit a about situation. A naturally born hustler and solution-finder, he turned the situation around.
“Look, we’re in a bad situation, but why should we be the only ones? Let’s post on the event attendee group and ask whether others are looking for housing. Oh — even better…”
This is when we came up with the idea: let’s test the demand for housing, then take a big house and sub rent it to live with other dope people.
And so we made that post:
Boom! I never had a post with more comments than likes. People didn’t even take the time to like it. A total of 35 people were interested within 24h.
And yes, those pics were not the apartment. But it was the style we wanted to offer, and so it made the deal.
We validated: there was demand.
And now, it was time to build.
Day -12: How Do We Find A Damn P(a)lace?
We knew that without a house, nothing will happen. It didn’t matter whether we built websites, promo videos, whatever — the house was the #1 priority.
It didn’t help that we had high standards: we wanted it to be in a central location, accommodate at least 10 people, have a swimming pool or outside area, have a kitchen and a coworking space, and of course, not be “too expensive” 😆
We first tried the search ourselves. We looked on AirBnb, hit up realtors on local or national housing sites, and called real estate agencies (studying Spanish for 10 years at school came in handy).
Two days later: no concrete results.
We knew we were running out of time so we had to change the strategy.
Renat had started running a remote agency (Prometheus) and brought up an alternative: we will make a post on UpWork, hire a local who speaks fluent Spanish and knows the scene (and who has time, as we were doing other stuff on the side).
One hour later, the post was made:
It worked: 8h after, we started working with our new teammate and welcomed Daniel on board.
Now that we were a bit smarter, we gave Daniel direct instructions. Among others to
- Only look at online postings that have a phone number
- Never write to an ad, only call up agencies (we don’t have time for emails, and Spanish realtors are too slow)
- And mention that we’re looking for long-term (so that we don’t fall in the “tourist category” and pay twice the price)
One week before the official start of the event, Daniel comes back to us:
“I’m surprised there are more that are doing last-minute short-term than I thought there’d be.”
And Boom! again — we had a list of 10 properties to choose from.
Now, we could start promoting.
Day -6: Time To Plan Out The Experience
In order to promote the place, we had to figure out what to promote in the first place.
See, we were lucky. Renat and I had the same logic around how to proceed on the task. Being familiar with the concept of “Why/How/What” and similar techniques, as well as having had great life education and mentors that taught us how to think practically, made us able to create things quickly and with depth.
When we first asked ourselves, “why do we want to create this?”, the answer was clear:
“We want to have the best time of our lives.“
If that was the goal, then we needed to know our guidelines. So we broke down our core values and realized what mattered to us truly:
- Authenticity: being vulnerable and yourself at all times, because being you is the only thing there is
- Awareness: life can only be understood if you’re aware of what happens to you, hence prioritizing awareness is one of the best investments you can make for yourself
- Growth: constantly overcoming yourself and outgrowing your past self
- Active Giving: being willing to give your time and effort for the only sake of making someone better, happier, or simply feel seen
- Doocracy: being proactive in group dynamics and taking ownership of initiatives (don’t know the term? 🤔 then check this out)
We took those core five values and applied them to our concept: our flatmates would have to be caring and pro-active, our activities would be around growth and awareness, and we would prioritize authenticity and open communication as our fundamental community principle.
The concept was ready. Now we needed to find a name.
Luckily, Renat founded a group called Lifestyle Engineering, which I’ve been part of since its start. In short, it’s a tight community of lifestyle designers that support and educate each other on how to approach life.
And because it just made so much sense, we called it the Lifestyle Engineering House.
Four hours later, our website was born:
Day -5: Getting The Right People
Now that we had a website, we could promote.
We made our second post:
- We used it to filter people and asked them questions such as why they want to join, how they would contribute to the community, and what their social media profile is.
- And, we used it to do market research on pricing and length of stay, to make sure that our numbers would work out.
A few hours and a few private messages after that post, we had more applications than we had beds.
Day -3: Time To Collect Dineros
Let’s be clear from the beginning: we never optimized for profit.
We wanted to create a life-enhancing experience and offer our residents affordable housing. We decided that we would be happy if we could at least live in the space for free.
That seemed to us a fair deal in exchange for the risk and time we took. And in retrospect, it was more than fair, and we even ended up making some money on top of that (around 500€ each).
Trust me, there was a big risk involved. A lot of people told us they were broke (same as us, and hence no surprise they still didn’t have a place) which put a lot of pressure to reduce the price point.
By doing that, we put ourselves at risk: losing one or two tenants would have meant us losing money on this project. But we decided to go with the minimum price point possible, thinking that it would create more opportunities to fill up the space.
And it worked: we were able to offer residents to stay for an entire month for 790€ on the most expensive street of Barcelona, just above the Gucci store, in a building that had golden ceilings and a private 80m2 terrace.
Lifestyle design, baby!
Let me also mention that the finances were one of the biggest struggles. In short, we accepted payment in cash, Venmo (for Americans), Transferwise (for Europeans), PayPal, and bank transfer.
Adding to this that people paid in different currencies and that we had to pay commission fees, it was a big mess to track who received exactly how much in the course of 48h.
We tried to track it in our financial spreadsheet (yup, our first balance sheet, messy and all over the place!) and even though a few bucks were lost on the process, it did the job.
Moreover, we had one big advantage: our landlord was willing to receive half of the payment in cash and half in bank transfer. We didn’t even have to pay a reservation fee for the apartment, which actually started to make it a bit fishy.
So two days before flying out, Renat and I emptied our bank accounts, received the help of a few friends who took out a big check too, and we flew over to Barcelona with the hope that nothing would go wrong.
And then, this happens…
The D Day
See, I grew up in Germany 🇩🇪
To give you an example of what that means: whenever my mother’s best friend hosts a dinner at 7pm, she calls us at 6.59pm to make sure we left home (we live a few blocks away from each other).
In other words: live by the rules, sign all your contracts, and especially be on time if you’re serious (or want to appear so).
I’ve also been fortunate to have French parents, lived in Latin America, studied between France and the US, worked in London, and had so far been very well “cultured”.
But to me, taking this apartment was the biggest deal (and commitment) I took so far and it brought back some German tendencies.
So when the realtor didn’t care about any upfront payment, I got suspicious.
When the realtor didn’t send me the contract back signed and wrote “don’t worry about it”, I indeed did start worrying.
And when the realtor told me that the landlord is his good friend and he doesn’t need to put us in touch, I got nervous.
On D-Day, I leave Paris and get to Barcelona. I was about to meet the landlord, pay him (at least some money) and get handed over the keys.
And at 11am, the guy doesn’t show up.
11.10am. Still nothing.
11.15am: I call the realtor who doesn’t pick up and just texts me: “Don’t worry, Miguel is on his way.”
Fuck, I was worried. Especially since I was standing in front of a closed door with four other residents that were just dying to get into this place.
I run through the worst-case scenario: there is no apartment, and those people will have no place as well. What would I do?
I didn’t know. But I had no choice.
11.20am. I wait.
11.25am. I text our realtor again, who this time doesn't respond at all.
11.30am. I’m about to freak out.
And then, at 11.34am, more than half an hour later, shows up Miguel, a small guy in an unwashed t-shirt walking half in hurry, half dragging his legs behind his body, who looks at me and says:
That was it. He opened the door, and we were in!
Miguel was amazing. He showed me around the house, signed the contract, gave me the keys and his WhatsApp number, and off he was.
“Pay me later, no problem” did he say in Spanish when walking out.
For us, it was the perfect situation: we had a trusting landlord that was okay with receiving his payment a few days later. While we gave him the cash the same day, it took us almost a week to transfer our receivables from our PayPal to bank account, and from our bank account to his (at that time, Revolut payments didn’t exist).
So now, it was time to live. And so we did.
And a few hours later, we were already drone capturing the place.
It was insane.
Renat managed to print out a few big motivational posters and flew them in from Russia. We quickly set up the spaces and linens, rearranged the furniture to create a dedicated living space and a coworking space, and we started to live.
We had 16 people in the house: the youngest was 6 years old (and was here with her dad — a serial entrepreneur who just opened his coffee chain), the oldest was 48 (and trust me, she had more energy than me). Professions ranged from startup founders to coaches, tech employees, “spiritual healers”, professional speakers, and investors. In short, a burning man crew of people that have not experienced burning man yet.
Over the weeks to come, we started learning the first best practices on how to run a coliving. And here is what we did:
How We Created Events
At first, we started hosting family dinners. They were intimate events and outsiders could only come by application.
Then we organized more events.
Renat held a half-day workshop around your inner purpose, I organized a movie night, and we put together an open-door day, where the entire community of Mindvalley University could come and drop by (in case you don’t remember, that’s the name of the big event that all house residents came to Barcelona for).
Now here is the biggest learning: the best events that happened were those organized by members of our house, not by ourselves.
From one of our residents who organized a coaching session, which brought 30 people to the house, to self-organized runs and jam sessions — all those events were popping up and making the space magical.
We even had a #6amclub of people waking up in the morning to do breathwork and one night we brought all our mattresses onto the terrace to cuddle under the stars 🤩
One day, someone organized an external speaker to give a talk. That day, we had more people come to our place than we could host inside. It turned into the biggest outside event I could have dreamed of.
In retrospect, here is one key learning: if you want others to feel empowered, you need to communicate with them that they fundamentally are empowered by you.
From the very beginning, we held “doocracy” up as one of our core values.
Our residents knew that they were encouraged to use the space, without any permission, as long as it was aligned with our values. And we let them judge for themselves.
So when someone had an idea, it got executed. And fast.
In other words, this is the key take away for any culture builder:
If you want to allow a community to exist, you need to allow it to build itself, and this starts with giving members trust and power
PS: Totally random, but I even played the harp in the streets for fun while others were pretending to be “strangers who actively listen”. It worked: with 25€ collected in under 1h, I knew that if coliving doesn’t work out next time, I’ll still be able to figure it out financially 😝
Note for the non-French: it's "champagne" ;-)
How We Collaborated
Over the weeks, we tested out several initiatives for decentralized collaboration.
Our main communication pillar was our Facebook Chat. We tried with a Facebook Group, but people were not actively engaged in it (most probably, we didn’t have a critical mass and it’s not the best platform).
The great thing about Messenger is that people are active and that it allows you to create polls. Hence, all of our collaborative decision-making was done in there.
It wasn’t until long that our Messenger chat starting getting the first “problems”.
This is nothing. The day someone posted a picture of an open trash bag lying around, I felt sorry for the residents (including myself). And I was sorry for the guy who wrote a message 5min prior to ask for support for his live webinar (because now, everyone was thinking about the trash).
Living in a community can not come without problems. What differentiates a successful community is how members make sense of each other’s differences
In our case, we made a quick decision to outsource the cleaning and to hold people accountable for cleanliness.
Then, we realized that we could all save time and money if we collaborated on more things than cleaning, such as small kitchen items, basic food, spices, or event utensils.
So we created a simple collaborative budget spreadsheet that did the job.
Note: it wasn’t perfect. The system allowed to track, but we didn’t take into account how long people stayed, how much of the collaborative items they used, and it was up to us to pay people their differences. If you want to dig more into this, there are more sophisticated tools out there (even money apps) that allow you to split and pay people directly.
Lastly, we also implemented a shared Google Calendar, but the majority of events were last-minute and it didn’t set through as a cultural tool (which it did in later houses).
Conclusion: living with 16 other people, who all have different needs and desires, can be pretty difficult.
The key is to create the right systems and processes that eliminate friction and enhance people’s ability to contribute to their own stay.
One Month Later: It’s Time To Move On
Before closing the house, we sat down and wrote down our key learnings from this experience.
Here were our best fuck-ups and solutions:
- Give people a deadline to pay (under the assumption they won’t get a spot): that sounds basic, but it was a hustle to remind people and run after them, hoping they will hold onto their word and move in.
- Communicate better beforehand: although we had a welcoming email (which even included a personal questionnaire), we learned a few things: first, to give more precise information beforehand (on bedsheets, on who takes care of cleaning costs, etc); to send out several emails instead of one (for house information, form fill-out, community email, and last info); and lastly, to send people a final teaser before they move in (so that you get them really excited).
- Have a welcome party and surprise people from the beginning: this is important especially since the first impression sets the done. At that time, I didn’t know the term “onboarding” but now came to the conclusion that if you invest into the tenant experience, it needs to be into the onboarding phase as the first moments will define the future interaction of your residents.
- Define house rules early on: whether it’s about how to communicate and behave towards each other (the community principles) or about some hard rules like “no dishes in the sink”, creating house rules in cooperation with the residents is crucial.
- Our main complaint was around cleanliness: we first solved it with externalizing cleaning, but now I know that there are many other ways to overcome the “tragedy of the commons” problem. More about that in my upcoming book.
- Only use one payment system and currency: this created the most mental hustle (and we lost up to 5% on transfers).
- And finally, our last point was to create better processes around communal expenses. As I explained above, we tested with different tools for collaborative decision-making, and processes need to go beyond: they can rule the finances, the door openings, the weekly meetings, the resident satisfaction surveys, and so on. Processes are endless, and thinking in terms of “how could I automate this” is crucial if you want to improve or grow your space.
And so, off we went.
Where to? Well, fun fact: we actually went off to Pamplona to run with the bulls, just another crazy experience after Barcelona — and it was just the beginning of my nomadic life.
Note to the reader: let's also be clear that I do nto tolerate any animal harm and only participated in the historic run - which is the part where humans get put on a horn ;-)
At that time, I could have never known that this coliving experience would lead me to create a second house in Mexico, a third in Tallinn, then coming back to Barcelona to re-open the house and eventually open a fifth one in Bali, before closing them all down and writing a book on coliving, publishing a magazine, and hosting the largest coliving summit in 2020.
Point is: at that time, I had no idea that coliving would become a major part of my life, not even close to what I’m doing today. But it had to start somewhere.
That somewhere was in Barcelona, in May 2017, in one of the most ecstatic months of my life.
If it taught me something, then to always take action. Passion and purpose can only be found in retrospect once you start doing.
So take action. And don’t limit yourself to thinking that you can’t —there is no such thing. If you’re stuck, then just because you don’t know how to achieve your goal.
As you’ve seen with coliving, I didn’t know either. But with the right companion on the journey, an agile approach and the right questions in mind, we were able to build the first step of what became a life-long path.
And with that, I’ll leave you with this little snapshot from our Facebook Chat.
Because yes, it truly was a blast 🔥
If you have any questions or are considering running a coliving space, hit me up (contact button above) and let's chat.
PS: If there would be one person enjoying this post, could you share it with him/her? I’d appreciate that a lot (and my 4am night would be even more fruitful)!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I founded Art of Co, a global resource platform and consultancy to create transformative coliving spaces, wrote the 📘 Art of Coliving book, and am the director of Co-Liv, the global association of coliving professionals. If you need help to create state-of-the-art coliving experiences, write me an email here or contact me on LinkedIn 💥