About Me

Hi, I’m Alex.

I build communities, started one of the longest running coworking communities in the world, write a crapload of words every day, tweet a little too much, coach people to be the best version of themselves possible, can't stop learning new things, and do my very best not to take myself too seriously.

I have one goal: to fill the world with truly excellent collaborators so we can all work together, better.

Because let's be honest...most of us aren't very good at it.

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Alex Hillman

21 Things I’ve done so far in 2016

  • I took an 8 week wine course with Patterson. Learned to do a blind tasting. 
  • Hired a personal trainer. 
  • Patterson and I moved into a new house. We live together now, along with longtime friend/housemate Kara and new housemate Will. It’s awesome. 
  • I went to Bali for The Coworking Unconference Asia2016. Met tons of awesome people. Taught a workshop. Gave a keynote about what coworking can learn from the wine industry. 
  • Signed a lease for Indy Hall. We move this summer. Very happy that we are staying in Old City. 
  • Announced a conference of our own, the People at Work Summit. Worked with Adam and Sam to create an online conference that, to our knowledge, breaks the mold for both online AND offline events. 
  • Relaunched the Coworking Weekly Show, added a producer to the team. 
  • Relaunched the Stacking the Bricks show with Amy. 
  • Brought a bunch of new students into 30×500 Academy
  • Helped a bunch of 30×500 Academy students kick ass. 
  • Renovated Patterson’s house to get it ready for renters. (Anyone looking for a huge, beautiful 3 bedroom in Roxborough? Hit me up.)
  • Helped start a secret experimental new kind of event once a month at the new house – back to our roots. 
  • Recorded a 13 chapter “reverse-audiobook” with my right hand man, Adam Teterus. 
  • Launched and sold out BaconBizConf with Amy and Thomas. 
  • Amy and I hired help for the 30×500/UnicornFree/Stackingthebricks/JFS/Stacking the Bricks universe. 
  • Mapped out our 2016 gameplan for brining everything under the Stacking the Bricks banner. This summer, we execute. 
  • Went on a road trip with Patterson and another friend: Bourbon Trail in Lousiville, wedding in Little Rock Arkansas, sweet tunes and hot chicken in Nashville. 
  • Wrote a bunch. Not as much as I want to though. 
  • Coached our People at Work Summit speakers to help them be even more awesome. 
  • Lost 30 lbs. 
  • And today, over 100 people from around the world are joining the People at Work Summit. 

Whew. 

The best interview I think I’ve ever done

Something happened back in January when I sat down in a chilly conference room at Indy Hall to record an episode of “The Beautiful Struggle” with it’s creator, Octavius A Newman.

I don’t know exactly what it was about this conversation, or where my head was, but Octavius got me into a zone that I don’t think I’d ever been in with a microphone in front of me.

I let my guard down. I got honest – really honest. I told some stories I haven’t ever told before.

Out of everything I’ve ever put out there, this interview has gotten a response unlike anything else I’ve ever shared (though this one I did with Jonathan Fields and Amy Hoy comes close).

Give it a listen. I’d love to know what you think.

Collaboration Scars

About 2 years ago I was invited to speak at a luncheon in front of a group of near-retirement executives. Before the talk I was standing in the lobby, speaking with one of these experienced execs.

He was curious of me – dressed down by comparison, him an a sharp plaid suit and me in a navy seersucker blazer over jeans. But he was genuine in his questions about Indy Hall.

As I described the kinds of people who are a part of our community, the way people chose to work alongside each other instead of alone, and the amazing things they produce together, his eyes softened and his smile widened. I could tell he was charmed, maybe even nostalgic for a work experience from earlier in his career.

As we neared the end of our conversation he asked me, “You’ve created something very special, and I can tell that you know and appreciate that. What’s the most surprising lesson you’ve learned from all of this experience?”

I’ll share the answer I gave the grey-haired exec in a moment…but first, I want to make sure we’re on the same page about something important.


Have you ever noticed how the mere mention of group work gives some people flashbacks to high school or college group projects?

She isn’t pulling her weight. He is being a diva for not getting his way. More time is being spent debating, than doing. Deadlines creep up. Everyone is scrambling. Work is sloppy. But it’s your ass is on the line, so you end up pulling a red-bull fueled all night nighter just to make sure that this sinking ship doesn’t get you an F.

The professional version of these scenarios are even worse, often with money or power on the line. The stakes are higher, and in a lot of cases the fallout is worse (like when “getting an F” means “getting Fired”).

But the elements of a failed collaboration at work isn’t that much different.

Everyone has scars from these tragic attempts at “collaboration”. I know I do. You probably do, too.

And like most things that leave scars…we spend most of our lives avoiding working with other people unless it’s either absolutely necessary or in rare situations “comes naturally.”

(More on why “comes naturally” is in scare quotes in just a second.)

So it’s not really surprising that as adults and professionals, collaborative work isn’t everyone’s strongest suit.

How are you supposed to get good at it if you’ve spent your whole life avoiding real collaboration, or simply having your traumatic experiences working in groups reinforced?

We need to understand what makes those natural collaborations work.

  • Do the stars just magically align? No, and as Anthony Bourdain says, “…luck is not a business model.
  • Do the collaborators just need to like each other? No, because plenty of seemingly great friendships have been destroyed by collaborations.
  • Can you “manage” a collaboration to success? Kind of…but be very very careful about being a dependency (or creating one in someone else). This is a band-aid and it’s not sustainable.

There’s something else at play.

And best of all, it’s something that comes more naturally than we think…we just forget to do it, especially at work.


I told the man in the suit:

“The people who need to talk to each other the most, talk to each other the least. Or worse, they only talk to each other when it’s absolutely necessary.”

He nodded. “Damn, you got that right” he said.

The biggest value in coworking isn’t even workspace

Honestly, I’ve never been really that excited coworking from a perspective of shared workspace. Worse, I think that the “workspace” part of coworking is a massive distraction from the real opportunity to impact the workplace.

It’s kinda like a carpenter getting more excited about a hammer than they are about building someone’s home. A coworking space is a hammer. The community is the home.

And here’s why community is such a crucial part of the coworking equation.

Think about this:

What do most group projects in school and most professional collaborations have in common?

The answer is that the work was the reason for the collaboration.

  • That group project in school was probably an assigned group. The only reason you were working together was to get the grade.
  • That professional collaboration was among coworkers with the necessary skills to complete the project to earn the company money to pay your salary

In short, if it weren’t for the work, the collaboration wouldn’t happen.

But in a coworking space, something very unique is allowed to happen, something that’s very difficult to replicate in other workplaces.

Relationships get to form before work changes hands.

People begin to get to know one another before they need to rely on one another.

Trust forms. Knowledge changes hands. Laughter and meals are shared. All without one lick of “work” between the members themselves.

In coworking spaces, collaboration can happen not because the work dictates it, but because people want to work together.

Collaborations that start in a coworking space can happen on a foundation of trust, rather than trying to build trust while racing against deadlines and conquering each others egos.

It still isn’t automatic. Old habits die hard.

But our role is simple. It’s not to connect, or network, or make introductions. It’s to create places where people can do that on their own.

“I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve seen so much money time energy and aspiration wasted by people trying to create a shared vision. And I say “let the people talk to each other.”

You’re here busy trying to build a shared vision, but you’re turning your back on the very thing that will lead to shared visions, which is to create an environment where people can be continually reflection on what matters matters to them and be in conversations where they can connect with each other. And you will start to discover elements of the shared vision.

There’s more to do, but it’s sort of like trying to build a house without building a foundation. This is the foundation.” – Peter Senge on creating shared visions

We need to understand the unique tool that coworking provides. It’s not a floorplan or a pricing model, it’s an opportunity for people to build trust before they need to work together.

Once we understand that we can see people truly collaborate – where the sum is greater than the individual parts added up – and those group-work scars can start to fade.

Ya dig?

Who’s speaking at the People at Work Summit?

Howdy, friends!

In case you missed it on my podcast and newsletter and tweets and Instagram…next week (April 21-22) my team and I (wave hi to Adam and Sam!) are hosting an online conference that we’ve dubbed the People at Work Summit.

With just over a week until showtime, I wanted to share a much-requested summary of our speakers and their topics! Read on to see who they are and what we have in store…

Who’s speaking?
What am I going to learn?

I find it fascinating how we almost instinctively turn to other owners & operators instead of our own members when we have questions. And don’t get me wrong – I loooooove learning from this community and I love sharing what I’ve learned.

But every time I’m stuck, I turn to our members. They have the best insights. Knowing what’s really going on in their heads informs our best decisions.

<soapbox>We’re only going to continue to succeed as long as we are the companies and communities who really understand how and why people work together, what challenges the modern workers face (and how they’re overcome), and what they are learning about how to succeed as members of our coworking spaces. </soapbox>

So in a coworking conference first, we’ve stacked our speaker list HIGH with coworking space members who have incredibly valuable lessons, including:

  • Vanessa Gennarelli – “How I got comfortable talking about money”
  • Kati Sipp – The impact the on-demand economy has on the way that workers fight for benefits.
  • Lydia Martin – Virtual Coworking is great (except when it’s not)
  • Max Minkoff – “About the dishes in the sink..”
  • Parker Whitney – “How my company culture was informed by working in a coworking space”
  • Bernie Mitchell – “I’m NOT an entrepreneur and that’s okay”
  • Pilar Orti – Change is hard (and how to help others embrace it)
  • Madeline Boyer – Coworkers in the Mist: How to be an ethnographer in your coworking space

Beyond members, the second most valuable resource I’ve found to learn from are people in similar, adjacent industries. Coworking might seem “new” and “different” but so many of our challenges are easiest understood and overcome by seeing how people outside of coworking deal.

So….you can look forward to speakers and topics including:

  • Rich Negrin, Former Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia – What can local government learn from a coworking space?
  • Greg Maughan, Philly Improv Theater – “How to stop worrying about your competition”
  • Mike Quackenbush, Chikara Pro Wrestling – The impact of rituals on being a professional
  • Chris Thompson, Former VP of Electronic Arts, Development Director Green School bali – The Power of Imperfection
  • Dr Timaree Schmit, Sex Researcher and Educator – How is polyamory like coworking? How to build open trust and communication into a relationship.

Plus, a few special guests from this group. Specifically, some of our research-oriented friends, including Steve King sharing some research related to Happiness and Coworking, and Julian Waters Lynch sharing some of his findings about the “lifecycles” that coworkers are likely to go through and how we can build our communities and businesses to better support more of the lifecycle (a.k.a. less members leaving!).

Our goal was to organize a collection of talks that are going to open your mind, stimulate your thinking and creativity, and spark LOTS of conversation.

We’ve been working closely with all of our speakers to keep their talks tight and actionable, too. Every talk we’ve previewed has been incredibly good – so we’re REALLY excited to share these lessons with all of you. 🙂

Wait…why an online conference?

First and foremost, accessibility. If people want to benefit from an event like this, we wanted to lower the boundaries for getting involved.

Jon Markwell (a semi-regular on this group, from The Skiff in UK) nailed this with his recent post about traveling for work:

“Alex realised that there are lots of people who can’t travel to the many coworking conferences around the world. And those same people are the ones who would benefit the most if they could attend.”

I also wanted to see what would happen if we started connecting more across borders, like happens in the Coworking Google Group.

So for 24 hours (and days before/after the Summit itself), we’re going to experiment with turning a little corner of the internet into a shared space for our communities.

With accessibility in mind, we are also making scholarships available for people in parts of the world where $99 is a financial challenge – every 10 people who register unlocks another scholarship and we’ve given out several already!

Sounds awesome, but how the heck does an online conference actually work? What about time zones, Alex?

Fair question. To my knowledge, an event like this (for any topic or industry) hasn’t ever been attempted. So we’re charting some new territory.

Here’s a step-by-step of what to expect, but here are the most important bits: 

  • You need a laptop computer (sorry, the streaming doesn’t work on phones!) with a strong internet connection for the streaming video talks.

  • You CAN just sit back and take notes on all of the talks. But like a real conference, there’s even more value in connecting with the other people in attendance. The Summit chat room is already a great place to meet people, riff on the talk topics, ask more questions, swap stories, etc. and it’s only getting better with every new person who joins

The most challenging part, of course, is answering “when does this start in my time zone?” 

Check out the page above and notice Step 2. The easiest way to think of this might be to imagine six overlapping “mini conferences” – with a new one kicking off every 4 hours across the 24 hour period.

Every Summit Block will have it’s own kick off, speakers, hallways time, and happy hour. And then we’ll roll right into the next block.

For a single $99 ticket, you can join for as many blocks as you want (and can stay awake for).

People at Work Summit – The people side of Coworking, Collaboration, and the Future of Work 2016-04-13 12-28-30

Group ticket discounts are available by request (just email us, groups@peopleatworksummit.com)!

And if you get your ticket before 12pm Eastern THIS Friday (April 15th) you can participate in our weekly pre-conference chat at 3pm on Friday. This week’s chat topic is how coworking spaces communicate the value of what we do and provide, so it’s gonna be a doozie!

Whew! That was a lot to cover but I hope it paints a clear picture of what we’re working to create. I really really want this to be a valuable addition to the community. I hope you’ll join us!

Have any questions? Hit me up!

And I hope to “see” you at the Summit next week 🙂

The first advice I give to almost everyone starting a new coworking space

Dozens of emails pour into my inbox every week from around the world, people eager to start a coworking space in their city. Some are simply introducing themselves, others have questions or seek advice for a specific problem.

Reading and replying to these emails is one of my favorite things to do, and gives me tons of fuel for writing and sharing.

Interestingly (but not really surprisingly), most questions are about getting started. The exact scenarios vary widely, but the problem space doesn’t change: you want to start a coworking space and the first steps aren’t as obvious as you thought they might be.

Earlier this week, I got an email from a guy named Eric who had just been awarded a scholarship for our upcoming event, the People at Work Summit.

I had almost forgotten that I had given Eric some tough love in the past. I challenged a bunch of his assumptions. I wasn’t really sure if my advice had stuck, but was very happy to read his excited reply:

Thanks Alex!

You were right, you were right, you were right.

I emailed you in reply to your first follow-up email after joining your list back in November. I was all ready to pull the trigger with starting a coworking space here just north of Boston – I secured the loan, picked out the furniture, made my logo, and just before pulling the trigger I found you online…

So, it was really hard, and a brutal exercise of being honest with myself but I listened, and put the brakes on the project a bit. Guess what? It’s proving tough to find remote workers like myself and convincing them to get off the couch and come hang-out, never mind getting them to join a coworking space.

I’m enjoying the process of building my little community, learning a lot about myself, and I’m meeting a bunch of cool people along the way. I already feel in debited to you for this advice, so your kind words and scholarship just made my week!!

My #1 advice for people starting a coworking space

Space seems like an asset, but it’s a liability if you don’t have a community involved from the start. My #1 advice is to start getting out into the community, and getting to know people you can bring together as LONG before you have a space as possible.

This is the most counter-intutive part of starting a coworking space. It seems like you’d want to go out and find people who would want a coworking space, or any space to work for that matter.

But even when those people exist, you’re likely to run up against the human version of Newton’s first law: as an object at rest will stay at rest, peoples work routines are difficult to change. Even if the cafe they work in is uncomfortable and the wifi is crappy, even if they can afford an upgraded workspace.

Just because people in your “target market” exist doesn’t mean a damn thing about your ability to get them to come together and share space successfully.

The best advice I have is to make it your job to go out and find people who want to be around each other. That’s what I really mean when I say build the community first.

Here’s how to find your community

1 – Start by finding a few places where people are already gathering.

Get out of the house, as they say.

Go to other peoples’ events. Get to know people – not to sell them coworking, but to learn who they are, what they’re about, and what they might have in common with other people you meet.

Small events. Big events. Just get out there.

This will help go from “I know people are out there” to “I know Don and Jane and Steve and Lauren and….”

2 – Look for patterns in what people have in common.

Shared interests, goals, values.

This is the key to building a community! It’s not enough to put butts in seats, or people in a room.

You need people who are likely want to be around each other, which also happens to be a much more powerful force for overcoming Newton’s first law than wanting a desk.

What do Don and Jane and Lauren and Steve have in common? The answer might surprise you.

3 – Look for ways to bring those people together.

Now that you know a bunch of people whom YOU know have things in common, it’s time to help them see that for themselves.

You can do this literally anywhere – but my #1 recommendation is that you DO NOT do this in your own coworking space (if you have one).

Cafe work-days together. Happy hours. Skill sharing. What kinds of things are they already doing, personally and professionally? What about things they WANT to be doing more of? Are those things that can be done together?

Whatever they’re interested in, your job is to be the facilitator. Do it WITH them, instead of FOR them.

Not sure what they’re interested in doing together? Go back to step 1 and try learning about the people you meet instead of collecting business cards like they’re Pokemon.

4 – Lead by example.

The best way to create a collaborative space is, well, collaboratively. Invite them to be a part of opening your space. Not just pre-sales, actually get them involved in planning, design, promotion, etc. Invite them to make it THEIR space, their work home, something they can care about.

Not just pre-sales of desks, but actual community support and buy in.

Start with people who would be upset if the space couldn’t open, instead of people who would quickly switch to another coworking space down the street if it were cheaper.

Start with people who are invested in the success of their peers has a far more enduring impact than people who need a desk with power and wifi.

This playbook is literally a game changer in every way.

On one hand only can you can save yourself from LOTS of wasted time and money if it turns out you can’t get people together.

At the same time, when you DO end up opening a space you’ll always have an edge over the people who don’t follow this process…even if they hurry to open their doors and you take 6-12 months to follow this process.

You might open later, but you’ll stay in business longer if your members actually want to be around each other.

The biggest mistake you could make right now is opening

It’s official. Indy Hall is staying in Old City

More details soon. 

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#indyhall

A photo posted by ADAM TETERUS (@adamteterus) on


We're so ready to rip up this carpet #indyhall

A photo posted by Sam (@samantelope) on


This post is part of the thread: Future of Indy Hall – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

online, offline, or both?

Email and texts and chat. Skype and Google Hangouts. Apple’s FaceTime works even if I’m not connected to wifi. Technology does seem to be everywhere, and helping us “be” in more places.

But when we announced the People at Work Summit as the first online conference about coworking and the future of work, I got this email among the first registrations:

Liz's Trice's Email

Liz’s email reminded me that the best use of online tools is to get people together offline.

We chose to host the Summit online so that more people could experience their first coworking conference without the cost and time of traveling…but also so we could spark people to bring those conversations to their local communities.

Liz’s suggestion to bake it directly into the event – to make it easy for people like Liz to bring their community together – is perfectly in the spirit of what this conference is all about.

And how cool would it be to have a map that shows all of the local communities that are coming together to participate in the Summit?

Let me show you how cool…

Are you on the map?

Yeah. That cool.

So here’s where you come in. The big event is less than a month away on (April 21st!), and now is a great time for you to get your community on the map and help turn this into a seriously globally connected event, online and offline. And being a Cohost is a great way to bring your local community together for for an series of inspiring and thought-provoking conversations.

Naturally, we’re cohosting a group of members and friends at Indy Hall. And over a dozen other communities have already signed on… and more are joining every day.

Maybe best of all, it’s an opportunity for us to get to know you, too, as we get closer to the day of the event!

Wanna get on the map? All you need to do is sign up to be a People at Work Summit Cohost. It’s free to be a Cohost, and if you get at least 5 people to register you’ll get your ticket to the Summit for free as well!

As a Cohost, you’ll get a special link that you can share with your local community to save on their ticket to the event, and for every 5 people who sign up using your link, you’ll get a free ticket for yourself, for your team, or even to give away as a thank you to your community.

And of course, you are on the map!

All of the details about what’s expected and how it works are on this page, so take a peek and sign yourself up.

Have questions about what it takes to be a Cohost, or the People at Work Summit itself? Drop a note in the comments or shoot me an email: alex@indyhall.org

How do coworking spaces differentiate?

From my inbox:

“I finished graduate school about a year ago and have been living a fairly isolated freelancing, self-employed life—a rough road after leaving such a fulfilling, tight-knit family experience. I feel deeply compelled to start something bigger than myself and a shared work space is my dream.

But I feel pressured by others opening coworking spaces in the area. How can one differentiate them? I think of New York, Chicago, etc., where there are so many. How do they all manage to essentially do the same thing but still stay in business?”

1 – Many of them don’t stay in business. I watch a lot of coworking spaces close, because they forget what business they’re in, and that being a commodity is a race to the bottom. Which brings me to…

2 – You already answered how they differentiate in your first paragraph. “A fulfilling, tight-knit family experience.”

Do families compete with each other? Or do neighborhoods thrive when they’re full a little tight knit interconnected but different families?

Do neighborhoods compete with each other? Or do cities thrive when they’re full of little tight knit interconnected but different neighborhoods?

“We almost sold out on our principles before we even started”

Ever wonder what it looks like when a coworking space is just getting started?

What are the first steps? How do you get your community involved in the process?

Trevor Twining is the guest in today’s episode as we get a behind the scenes look at the start of Cowork Niagara – a 2 year old coworking space in Ontario, Canada.

Trevor’s been sharing more and more about their successes and some of the unique decisions they’ve made along the way…including the one to incorporate as a co-op, and in this episode we were able to get even closer to the bare metal to really understand what he’s been doing.

But we also had an unexpected conversation about the future of work as it relates to coworking – specifically the resilience of the economy and the workforce. By having a community that is bought into the success of Cowork Niagara, their members are succeeding in ways that economic development experts only dream about.

This episode is one part origin story, one part tactics, and a dash of coworking philosophy. But it’s 100% fun and I’m 100% sure that you’re going to learn a lot and enjoy as you listen.

To find our more about what Trevor and his team are up to, check out http://coworkniagara.com and follow Trevor on Twitter: http://twitter.com/trevortwining

KEY QUOTES

[5:11] “I waited and I waited…nobody built it for me…eventually I realized if this was gonna happen at all, because I wanted it so much, I was going to have to be the one to do it.”

[12:10] “Before we started we almost sold-out on our principles.”

[30:43] “We’ve got the city economic development…we’ve also got the regional economic development and they’re members in the space. They’re excited about what we’re doing because you can’t lay off 3,000 freelancers.”

[32:50] “The people who are in our coworking space represent the ideal type of worker that our cities are trying to attract. From having them participate in our community, they get a better understanding of what it’s going to take to have conversations with them that bring those types of people here or help them train people that are already in our community to do that type of work.”

Support the show and get the next episode

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How to explain what Coworking is

It’s a real challenge to tell people what something is that they’ve never seen before. 

When you lead by talking about shared space, no matter how much you talk about community people are going to think about what they know related to offices. It’s like that thing where I tell you DONT THINK OF A PINK ELEPHANT and you can’t help think of a pink elephant 🙂

Even today, in 2016, most people in most places have never heard of Coworking.

Meanwhile, before you have a community, it’s hard to point to a community that’s GOING to exist…because it doesn’t exist yet. 

So the best starting point is to talk about the problem.

The question you need to ask is, when people can work from anywhere, why wouldn’t they just work from home in their underwear for free? 

The answer, of course, is loneliness. Feeling isolated and disconnected. 

Describing what a Coworking space is kind of like describing what a restaurant is to someone whose never seen one. Why would I pay for someone else to make me a meal when I have a kitchen at home?

So talk about what it’s like to be lonely and isolated. Tell your own story. Learn other peoples’ stories and tell theirs or encourage them to tell them on their own. In every interaction, find ways to highlight that loneliness, and then remind people that the easiest way to fix that is to come together. 

And then help make it easy for THOSE people to come together. Do that before you start looking for space. Go to events together. Host your own events together. Work together. Play together. 

Notice that you’re not describing a thing, you’re DOING a thing.

That’s really the key – coworking is abstract until someone is doing it. Your job is to create an interaction, an experience, and a story that people can write themselves into.

Before long, when people realize that being together is SO MUCH BETTER than being alone, it’s much more likely that they’d want a membership to a place where they can come together with those people anytime they want. The value is much clearer than “community” and “flexible workspace.”

So before you start, think about who these people are, and how they feel isolated. Remember that isolation takes a lot of forms – you can be surrounded by people and still feel disconnected. You can feel supported in one part of your work or life, but completely alone in others.

All you need to do is put in the effort to really learn where people feel disconnected, and then help fill that gap!

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