The New Independents
An interview with Kyle Coolbroth, CEO of Fueled Collective on coworking, identity, and community
MARCH 16, 2018
Grady: After the recession in 2008 many people had to reimagine the meaning of their work. How did that reality shape the founding of CoCo?

Kyle: When we founded CoCo in Minneapolis in 2009 right at the beginning of the recession, we saw some of the obvious trends — the rise of global technology, social media, un-conferences, open systems — all ideas that were changing the way we gather to work.

The other observation we made is that in the United States, our primary identity is based upon our job title, our income, where we live, our status, and ultimately the network that we belong to. But that entire identity disappeared for people. In the middle of the recession thousands of "independents" were being minted. Some of them by choice, but the vast majority not by choice. So what does that mean?

What we realized is what people really were missing was a sense of belonging, a place to be known. And without that you never reach any kind of self-fulfillment. The very fabric of what we considered self was torn away from people and it wasn't coming back. This wasn't temporary. This was the new normal.

G: What do you mean by "newly minted independents"?

K: In the truest sense of the word, individuals who can no longer depend on someone else for their income, for their livelihood, and for their identity. These "independents" weren't in the position to go create a company and hire someone, so they simply had to find out the merit that they could bring to a ecosystem that was severely depressed. This phenomena is what gave rise what we call the gig economy. At the same time many people realized, "I actually can do better, I can have control of my destiny. I don't need another company. I can create it."

G: How did the insight, that people were looking for a new sense of belonging, shape your early work?

K: Because this was so new and so raw, from day one we had to consider ourselves an experiment. Back then, coworking wasn't an industry, it was a set of concepts and ideas, and so we gave ourselves permission to think of it as an experiment. We still do, because it's evolving so fast.

G: What happened when Fortune 500 companies caught wind of your work? Why did they want you to help develop workspace for them?

K: Most large companies had gone through the trajectory of private offices then cubicles, then the new concept of open floor plans, but it just didn't work. Also, depending upon the size of the company they were experimenting with innovation and so they created, in their very corporate sterile way, innovation labs with the unfortunate expectation that things would remain the same. That productivity would look the same, feel the same. Managerial roles would remain the same.

But our work was about a more fundamental change in the human contract we have with one another when you get into a more collaborative environment. So virtually every company we worked with eventually realized they needed a more collaborative culture, not just an open workspace.

G: You said the "human contract at work has changed" So in this new work environment, what are the expectations people are coming with? What are the implicit agreements?

K: I grew up in an age where there was a lot of hierarchy. There were the entry level teams, supervisors, managers, directors, and then they were the executives. Those were the layers, and they often didn't blur together. So things were told to us from the top and that was the contract. Even though companies would say, "We're open! Open door policy! Come in!" That wasn't actually the contract. But when you sit next to someone and there's no obligation of role, they simply are people sitting next to one another, conversations begin, ideas actually start to spread. Instead of going vertical through company hierarchies, ideas go spatial. They move in a different way.

G: In co-working spaces it seems everyone's doing their own thing. It almost seems like an environment that could further isolate instead of actually make everyone feel like their part of something bigger.

K: That's what separates office space rental from true collaborative spaces. True community-centric spaces. First of all you have to allocate space for real collaboration. You have to commit. Let me give you a very real example. If you look at a group like a WeWork or Regus, 90–95% of their allocated square footage is to private individual offices. At Fueled Collective we're at about 40%.

We encourage those with private offices, and we encourage all the members to start to think of the space in a very different way. Not "where do I go do my work?", but "what am I doing right now?" A more functional mindset. There are moments in the game where I need to be around people, get out and go in the common space. Yes, you got a membership for a private space but use the public space, the shared space, because that's what you crave. That's why you're here. You could go get a private office anywhere. Come out of your office and work here.

G: But it takes some direction, people aren't going to naturally do that.

K: No. We are byproducts of a generations that define work in a certain way. That whole construct, that whole contract we have with one another, of what our parents and our grandparents told us was normal, is not normal now.
The intersections between what's happening culturally, economically, and socially are blurring together in a single set of activities. The problem is there's nowhere, no space, for that blur to occur.
G: You've spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley. How does your vision of community contrast with the larger startup community?

K: In Silicon Valley, many of the companies I get to spend time with realize that in order for them to grow and thrive it's not a competition of ideas, it's just execution. That meritocratic idea opens up dialogue and creates a little more sense of community across disciplines than I've seen in other professional work environments.

G: It seems counter intuitive to say Silicon Valley is not a place of competing ideas, but it's actually a place of execution. What do you mean by that?

K: Everybody's got the same ideas. You can ask any VC — it might be a great idea, but what's your plan and how are you going to execute it? And at the end of the day you can have two identical ideas hitting the marketplace at the same time — consider Uber and Lyft. Uber blew past Lyft with a lot of early investment while Lyft kept grinding it out. Now who is surging? Why? Because Lyft executed in a more authentic way than Uber did.

G: Talk to me about the future of coworking and your new effort with Fueled Collective.

K: Like any business model, over time you need to change. The needs of our members have changed. When we started CoCo it was more of a cause. We had to convince people to pay to work in an environment when there was abundant free space to do so. We were borrowing from coffee shops. Over time cowork has become a commodity. So the question becomes, what is unique and distinct about cowork in the future?

What we've observed is that some of the greatest connections, relationships, and community happen when we gather socially. The intersections between what's happening culturally, economically, and socially are blurring together in a single set of activities. The problem is there's nowhere, no space, for that blur to occur.

The intersections between what's happening culturally, economically, and socially are blurring together in a single set of activities. The problem is there's nowhere, no space, for that blur to occur.

What we see is that they're people who have accepted co-working as place for them to work and then there are people who don't have a physical working space need. And so there's a large group of people who are excluded from the conversation and the power of community.

So we're asking "Why is an office space dictating who can belong or not?" So we thought, let's put a social club on top of a co-working and invite more people to participate in the community. That's one thing that will make Fueled Collective distinct in the future.

For more, check out:
+ CoCo shared-workspace founders got 'fueled' for the future of 'Fueled Collective'
+ Watch Kyle's TEDxFargo talk: Our Cultural Identity Crisis
+ Follow Kyle @kcoolbroth