Over on the New Worker Magazine, Melissa Mesku has a great profile on history and culture of GCUC. The entirety of it is reproduced below. If you haven’t seen the New Worker, ch-ch-check it out!In most industries, the annual conference might warrant a raised eyebrow at best. But in the case of GCUC, the industry is coworking, and that makes all the difference.
The quirky name, Global Coworking Unconference Conference, is in homage to a Stephen Colbert skit, and its acronym, GCUC, is pronounced “juicy.” Why not? To extend the joke, there’s a juice bar; last year, the logo had a juice droplet on it, and the event’s décor was of oranges, lemons and limes. The fun overtone is befitting of the self-styled (un)conference and to some degree the coworking movement itself.
Now in its fourth year, GCUC is the leading coworking industry event. Recently it’s really earned the “G” for global—this year will see GCUC USA in Berkeley, CA on May 6-8, the first GCUC Australia on June 4-5, and first GCUC Canada on September 16-18, with more to be announced.
Since its inception in 2010, GCUC has been headed by Liz Elam. She started off as an avid attendee of coworking meetups and helped get sponsors for a short coworking unconference run by now-defunct Loosecubes. When they decided they weren’t going to continue with it, they asked if she’d take over. She went for it. To get her feet wet, a few months later she attended the Coworking Europe conference. Now, she said of the long-running European event, “We do a lot of sharing of ideas. We implement each other’s direction.”
A self-described extrovert, Elam worked from home for Dell and entered the world of coworking when she decided to build her own space. “I wanted to be around other people. I had plenty of time to contemplate what the perfect office would be. I was always forming the space in my head,” she said. Elam founded Link Coworking in Austin, TX, in 2010. It now operates two locations.
The “coworking community” often refers to all people who own, run, or are a member of a space, but GCUC is mainly geared for the subset of coworking space owners and managers.
The three-day event begins with a more traditional conference day wherein newcomers are given a solid introduction into the world of coworking. Each year an increasing percentage of GCUC attendees are completely new to the industry. In 2014, 70% of attendees were about to open a new space or wanted to open a new space.
The widely agreed-upon favorite, however, is the unconference on the second day. The “un” part of the conference refers to its bottom-up rather than top-down approach to discussion and learning. The premise is to create ad-hoc sessions based on what the attendees want to discuss. “The best thing attendees get from GCUC is a community of owners and operators to learn from and see how they do things,” said Elam. This process can make an impromptu expert out of anyone, and is an intoxicating experiment in collaborative knowledge formation and community learning.
It’s only natural that a conference full of coworking space owners would tend to resemble some familiar aspects of coworking. GCUC does this by demonstrating that it exists to bring everyone together and that its role is to be responsive to the needs of those they serve. “I’m not trying to replicate some traditional agenda of a typical conference. We just look at who the attendees are and try to meet what they need,” said Elam. Typical conferences in most industries are known for having a top-down approach with a fixed schedule of expert speakers. By contrast, many aspects of the event—especially the unconference—let value and expertise rise up from within the ranks. This gets people to talk with each other rather than at each other. It reflects the boss-less environment of coworking spaces where the real value is in getting to know your fellow coworkers.
Leading an organization according to these ideals is not merely a matter of stepping aside and letting the community create the culture. Quite often, a fair degree of stewardship and heavy doses of reciprocal communication are required. To this effect, every year GCUC conducts an in-depth survey 24 hours after the conference wraps up. “We get amazing results because it’s so timely,” said Elam. “We use that info to tell us what we need to change in order to continue to develop and grow.
The results of the survey steer the direction of future conferences. “One of the things we heard loud and clear is that everyone wants more unconference time. People are looking for things they can implement the day they get back, actionable things they can do to change their business immediately,” said Elam.
“Every year I host an unconference topic on how to change the conference. Last year I heard ‘we want to see a debate.’ I’m happy to give people the real deal. So next time there’ll be less of a panel and more of a debate.” Between the post-conference survey, and Elam’s own unconference agenda, GCUC makes an explicit effort to find out what attendees want.
It wouldn’t be coworking, though, if there weren’t some business partnerships, too. Some companies like Verizon were in attendance last year looking to connect with coworking space operators. “We have a lot of business partnerships that have formed because of GCUC. But the most powerful thing that coworking offers is human interaction,” said Elam.
Coworking is both an industry and a movement—one without a president or official spokesperson. In putting on a high profile event like GCUC, and running two coworking spaces, Elam has often found herself playing the role of coworking representative to the media. It’s well deserved; in the case of GCUC, no other coworking institution has enjoyed the same reach and brought together so many face-to-face.
Given their role in bringing together people, GCUC is looking to start holding smaller regional events. They’re also considering holding specific cross-industry events, say, to help educate the real estate industry. “Once a week someone walks into Link Coworking and their jaw drops. They want to implement coworking but they have no idea how to do it,” said Elam.
Delivering more content on their website is another plan for the future, which makes sense considering their finger is on the pulse of where coworking is headed. For example, one of the big topics at last year’s event was how to handle running multiple locations. Industry insights like this are coveted by the business press, and GCUC is ripe with them (juice pun intended).
“As coworking continues to grow, the conferences around it will continue to grow as well. It tells me that, to me, I bet on the right horse. I thought years ago that this is the future of the way people will work. I fully believe this is the majority of where workers are going to be in the future,” said Elam.
In most industries, professionals attend and speak at conferences in order to hobnob and advance their career. But attendees at GCUC comprise an actual community and look forward to seeing each other every year. In large part, they attend because they want to make themselves more effective leaders of coworking spaces. They also attend because they’re friends.
As a person who works from a couple different spaces, I am regularly struck by the lengths that space owners and operators go to. Like a customer, I never have to think about what went into creating the vibe or the physical space. But unlike a customer, I feel a sense of belonging and I often develop some sort of friendship with the people that run the space. When coworking space owners and operators spend a week in another city to unconference with their ilk, it’s remarkable to realize that in some way they’re doing it for us—for me and for the rest of their members. That makes all the difference.
Melissa Mesku is the founding editor of New Worker Magazine. She is a designer/developer and co-founder of nontoxic dental services company Pure Cure Dental Technology. Melissa coworks from multiple collaborative spaces in New York City.