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Save Co.Up

December 17th, 2019

Story Time: When I was new in Berlin in 2007, I had worked from home as a freelance consultant for many years and I was ready to think about getting an office. One of the reasons why I was moving to Berlin was to have more opportunities to meet likeminded people.

In the city I moved to Berlin from, that is otherwise lovely, everybody was very much doing their own thing. Open source and community was not a topic at the time, and I didn’t feel rooted enough to start something. From Berlin I knew there was a PHP user group that people I knew regularly attended. That sounded exciting to me, I wanted to be part of something like that. One day, I found myself in a U-Bahn towards RailsConf EU randomly meeting @langalex on our way to RailsConf EU and we started talking. His company with @freaklikeme had just moved moved into a new office space, but they had a few desks to spare. At the time coworking wasn’t really a thing, but we had heard of it, so the idea to move in with them made immediate sense. Some time in 2008 I became the first renter of what was later to become @co_up. Soon joined by…

Soon joined by now Berlin veteran luminaries like @kriesse, @klimpong and @roidrage we had a lot of fun working our respective jobs, share lunches in good company and exchange knowledge about the technologies we were interested at the time. @langalex positively spent weeks teaching me git on the side.

At the time, I had occasion to go to California where I met @dreid, who I knew from my open source work on Erlang and CouchDB. He introduced me to the concept of a Super Happy Dev House (SHDH). Basically a weekend of hacking on fun stuff at the office.

One of the most mindblowing (to me at the time) things about SHDH was that it came with instructions on how to run your own: I thought how hard can it be? We have a nice office space, we had many friends who might be up for it.

So we ran one. Introduction and recap links: It was a great success.

I met many fun people there over the weekend, many of which are still active in Berlin actively doing community work. In the recap, you can read about how the @SoundCloud founders popped by and hacked up a web-iTunes using jQuery UI on top of their API.

Just to highlight a single connection here, every single developer event I have done in Berlin that required sponsorship has since been supported financially by SoundCloud. And all attendees have countless of similar stories each.

Long story long: we caught a first glimpse of what benefits to the community it had to run open and accessible events, and we all would double down hard after this.

Our little office community quickly outgrew the original office space and we started looking for a larger place and settled eventually on what became the original @co_up: a larger coworking space, and success didn’t stop there.

On top of the coworking, we also kept organising events, like @berlinjs and @upfront_ug, which have since long been surpassed in number and frequency by multiple events every week (h/t’s @rmehner @sheley @carolstran. And most recently the inaugural @queerjs (h/t @nikkitaFTW.

A few years in, we again could make good use of a larger office space and a new floor had opened up in the same building and put up a little fundraiser to be able to cover renovations. In particular, we ordered custom-built folding tables that allowed us to transform the floor from coworking by day into a meetup space by night in the matter of five minutes. The @co_up third floor you all know and love today was born and we started to run events down there, and kept the coworking separate on the fifth floor.

One special one-off event, heavily inspired by the @RailsGirls project, we ran a JavaScript for Absolute Beginners workshop (JSFAB. h/t to @theophani and @marijnjh for the inaugural teaching materials

JSFAB brought willing learners and willing teachers together in a safe space to enjoy technological education. For free. Even while planning the event, it became clear that this model of well-educated people with well-paid jobs using their privilege giving back to the community wasn’t limited to JavaScript, and Open Tech School was born at the same time, as an umbrella organisation for community-teaching, but for any topic.— Open Tech School is worth its own thread, but they have run many hundrends of meetups for any and all topic imaginable. They’ve enhanced the initial teaching weekends with continuous learning groups that kept people growing, a proper, completely volunteer run school, for anyone, for free.

I frequently get asked about how to transplant, for example, @berlinjs into another city, and while donated office space is often available, there is usually a commercial quid-pro-quo, when a company opens their doors, which often is to the detriment to the event itself.

My first reaction usually is: well, for starters, you need a @co_up. A not-for-profit community space, centrally located, lots of tasty street food nearby (so you can avoid terrible pizza sponsorships), that is free to use for free community events. That’s then usually where the conversation stops, and I have to reflect that what @langalex and @freaklikeme have set up with @co_up and what the rest of the community has done to run with that is properly unique.

I am no longer able to remember and recount all the magical things that happened when one community or another came together. 10s of 1000s of people have been through @co_up events. 1000s have used events at @co_up as a first step into the community, like I did with PHP all those years back. Again 1000s have found new friends, new employers, new co-founders, even new partners and the collective benefit of bringing all these people together in the past 12 years is immeasurable.

Unfortunately, as you already know, capitalism. All this success has downsides. One of which is property speculation in the city going rampant. We finally have a rent break in place, but that’s after rent hikes of over 2x in 10 years just a few blocks away from @co_up.

Over the years, we have seen the building @co_up is located in transform from predominantly producing industry to IT. A lot less of which likely would have happened, if @co_up didn’t prove the viability of the location. None of that, however, counts today.

The @co_up third floor rent is getting jacked up significantly in January and @co_up is running a fundraiser to get the community to support paying the new rent. For me, this is an extreme no-brainer. Even after moving out of @co_up, @neighbourh00die kept supporting it.

From what I can tell, the fundraiser is mainly supported by individuals who experienced the benefit of a not-for-profit event space first hand and this warms my heart. However, the funding goal is mere peanuts for Berlin’s well-funded tech companies and startups.

The equation that supporting @co_up quickly amortises your recruiting costs, some of which are many times the monthly rent required to keep @co_up open, seems not to sink in.

Aside from a few trusted partners, Berlin’s startups are, unsurprisingly, happy to exploit the free support system, but I think it is a disgrace. If your company has any budgets left for 2019, or if you are ready to commit, even just a little monthly donation (say 100€), you can help make one of the pillars of Berlin’s community sustainable for the long term. Give generously, and #SaveCoUp. Take a minute to scroll through the hashtag and see how many people, how many user groups and meetups you could be supporting.

Bonus Story

One more bonus story. In 2015 during the West African Ebola crisis, a non-profit running vaccination programs in the region started setting up a development team in Berlin to be able to move faster. because @co_up was a natural fit for such a team, they settled quickly.

At the time, the Ebola-affected countries were dealing with many compounding crisis, including a lack of infrastructure. The non-profit set out to build tools to help first responders that turned pen-and-paper-based processes into mobile web apps.

That allowed first-responders to help more people faster, and make their work more organised and collaborative. When trying to contain an epidemic, time and speed are a factor.

Because of the lack of infrastructure, the team had already settled on @CouchDB and @pouchdb for their technological foundation, because no other technology was readily available and open source that would allow them to quickly build mobile web apps that worked offline.

One day over lunch, they asked around if the others at @co_up knew anyone who knew @CouchDB. As @CouchDB project management chair and longest standing contributor, I’ve had talked to each and every person at @co_up about it, if they didn’t stop me quickly enough and so we quickly got put together.

In the course of about 12 months, my team at @Neighbourh00die and I fully joined @eHealth_africa to build out the Berlin development team. We grew from ~6 to 29 in the course of six weeks and helped build tools that eventually ensured that the Ebola endemic could be stopped.

We also worked on the apps that ran the first clinical trial that later lead to the first Ebola vaccine in history.

A lot of things came together to make this happened, but if it weren’t for @co_up, it would likely have gone a lot slower.