Build It – And They Won’t Come!

Why are so many ‘entrepreneurial’ workspaces so empty?

I have visited many recently. Those that pursue sustainability through membership fees and rentals are often the emptiest. Or full of people from out of town who can recognise a bargain when/if they see one. Those that recognise that local people often cannot afford to pay and therefore offer their services for free seem to have customers literally queuing up. However these are written off as ‘unsustainable’. Investing in the development of people – ‘Obviously unsustainable’!

The symptoms are obvious to the semi-expert eye. Tired signs saying ‘under offer’ for months without new tenants materialising? Acres of untouched hot desk space. Continual assurances that we were busy yesterday. Caterers that come and go – because the footfall that they anticipated has not materialised.

Promises lying broken.

When we build these places – WHY DON’T THEY COME?

This is an important question. And one that we CONSISTENTLY fail to address.

Why do those charged with developing a more enterprising culture believe that building catalyst centres, managed workspaces, incubators and other spaces will somehow change the psychology, the prevailing beliefs of a community?

Why is the “build it and they will come” mentality so prevalent? And so successful in unlocking the wallets of planners, politicians and commissioners alike?

Why in the face of refurbished or newly built, but largely empty, buildings do we insist on building yet more? Is it in the name of job creation?

We develop a more enterprising culture when we tell better, different stories. Stories of hope, aspiration, potential and achievement. Stories of progress, passion, skill and learning.

When we provide respect, encouragement and transformational relationships built on trust and wisdom. When we engage people as individuals and help them to clarify and achieve their own goals – not those pre-defined by some policy maker.

When we listen to them talk about their hopes and dreams – not tell them about the great deal we can do them if they take rent our workspace.

We don’t transform a culture by providing people with access to whitewashed vanilla workspaces and the chance to use a shared laptop with a keyboard dirtier than a toilet seat.

It is not just the waste of valuable resources that is so galling when we see buildings refurbished just because they can be. It is the ongoing waste of money as we try to cover up our mistakes in a futile effort to make them work. As commissioners cover their backs and hide behind and fall back on the recession as an excuse for their failed investments. Buildings don’t change cultures even in the good times. They don’t narrow the gap between the haves and the have nots even when the economy is on a roll. People do.

Now I hate to see a beautiful building falling into decay just as much as the next man. But I hate to see the talent and potential of people being wasted even more. Those buildings were a by-product of a vibrant, creative and enterprising community – not the cause of it.

To develop a more enterprising culture we first have to stimulate the demand side – get more people wanting to do stuff. Believing that THEY can do stuff. That they have a right to succeed or at least try – and that they will be supported with care, compassion, competence and creativity.

Only when this work on the demand side is underway and delivering tangible results should we invest in the infrastructure that they need – because then we have a chance of making an investment in something that people really want.

Something that might just fit.

Something to which they will come.

NB Of course if you build high quality entrepreneurial spaces in places that are already enterprising then they fill quickly.  Anyone else see a pattern emerging here?


  1. philkirby says:

    Spot on post, Mike. The day after I read it I got a direct mail shot from Sharing the Success inviting me to “Fill out the form below to see if you’re ready for a change!” The first question was “I’ve always wanted to start a . . . . . . . . . . business.” Underneath was the helpful nudge to “you fill in the blank.” Then it asked, “At the moment it’s probably true to say that many people are thinking about the different options available to them , including alternative sources of income and how they can earn a living and pay their way (rather than through a job) . . . .Is this You?” Unfortunately the only boxes to tick were “yes” or “no” and not “eh, what?” or “come again.”
    So, I’m not halfway down the first page of an obviously expensive full-colour, four page, A4 brochure and it’s patronised me, confused me, irritated and bored me . . . if I weren’t such a patient person it would be headed straight for the bin! And I’m not alone in that opinion. Over the weekend I asked about 20 of my neighbours (I live 2 minutes from Hillside in Beeston) what they thought of this piece of pricey marketing – not one had bothered to read it beyond the first few lines. When I asked them to persevere the kindest response was bewilderment; most common though was disdain and contempt. No one felt that the message was meant for them, and no one felt they could identify with either of the “success stories” paraded before them. Not only did the brochure fail to persuade, it actively put people off engaging with the LEGI offer.
    I don’t think this is because of a complete lack of enterprise around here. Quite a few of the people I spoke to were involved in some kind of economic activity – cleaning windows, mending cars, fixing a fence etc. But nobody identified with the kind of enterprise image being promoted by the brochure, and nobody could see the point of “conference and meeting rooms.” This is a huge shame. But, like you said, you can’t get people to use the buildings just because they’re there, no matter how glossy the marketing

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