College. Coffee. Convergence. Cover Charge?

By | February 13, 2012

Stephen’s recent essay on the coffeeshopification of everything — in which he explains how booksellers, other retail outlets, offices, and universities are all in the process of evolving into coffee shops — has been picked up by the Boston Globe. Re-reading the piece I got to thinking about something that hadn’t occurred to me before.

Stephen describes the university of the future:

Eventually, some of these campuses might become places where students who use MITx and other programs seek tutoring, network, and socialize — reclaiming some of the college experience they’d otherwise have lost. What used to be a college campus would now be essentially a giant coffee shop.

Here he describes the office of the future:

With the proliferation of laptops and smartphones, the remaining function of the office is to be that place where clients and colleagues know to find you ,  and where kids and other distractions of home can’t.

This separate space is the primary thing we’ll look for in the workplace of the future, along with a new kind of flexibility. Groups for one project will form and disband; then a new group will form for the next project. What will that workplace look like? Probably like a coffee shop, one that features conference space and cubicles for rent.

Here’s my thought: if a university is all but shutting down, they certainly wouldn’t need the whole existing campus to maintain the coffee shop version of the institution. What would they do with the rest of that space? Well, since they’ve already made the move towards the coffee shop business model, a sensible thing to do would be to reach out to the business community and provide a place where business people can connect, too.

This only makes sense when you think about it. Coffee shops as we know them today cater indiscriminately to students, business people, and folks who just want coffee. (Some will have more of one than the other, of course, driven largely by location.) They also currently cater to retail shoppers, as Stephen pointed out, by providing wi-fi that lets people shop while they sip.

As very different organizations converge towards a similar business model — providing a place where people can connect — the smart play might be to recognize the user base potential that exists in the other major organizations that are being coffeeshopped. So a university might start reaching out to business people, while a coffeeshopped office park might start reaching out to students, offering a competitive “university” where students can find work as well as  mentors and classmates.

Alternatively, some higher-end business types might want a more exclusive environment, without the retail shoppers, college students, or even the lower end of the business market. For them, boutique “executive” coffee shops might emerge — places that charge a premium just to get in, ensuring that top players will rub elbows only with other top players.

And, of course, many other “specialty” coffee shops are possible — appealing just to members of a particular industry, just students majoring in particular subjects, etc.

Today’s coffee shops are highly egalitarian and multi-purpose. When more and more organizations undergo coffeeshopification, it will be interesting to see whether this original model will win out, or whether there will be a huge variety of specialty coffee shops, catering to the specific needs of niche user bases and offering some level of exclusivity.  Then again, there may be room for both models.

When everything becomes a coffee shop, we will probably have a lot of different kinds of coffee shop.