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

Notes from the Future of Indy Hall Town Hall (Part 1)

In the last week, we hosted two community “Town Hall” discussions, attended by a total of over 50 members.

Lots of people personally told me that they wanted to attend but wouldn’t be able to. I really appreciate that people want to be a part of this process and I think that it’s SO important that we’re documenting and sharing things as they unfold, so I spent a few hours this morning turning a pretty poor quality audio recording into the notes you’ll find below.

Naturally, some of the nuance and detail is missing from this outline-quality “transcription”, but I believe that the most important talking points and questions have been shared here. In addition to any potentially helpful answers, my hope is that anything below can serve as inspiration for more ideas from the community as everything unfolds.

In most cases, anything that’s in quotes below was something said by a community member during the Town Hall.

I have a similar recording from the second Town Hall – the conversation had a lot of similar themes but was a different enough conversation that it merits a similar post of it’s own. I’ll get that out as soon as I can!


Why these group settings? In my experience, the best way to stick the landing when it comes to making the shift from conversation into action.

I want to hear a variety of perspectives – what’s exciting, what’s confusing, what questions do you have?

Big question: what is our north star?

Taking a step forward is relative – think about what happens if we’re not all pointed in the same relative direction first.

Make sure we know what direction we’re pointed before we take a step.

The thing we’ve done for the last 8 years, the underpinning of all of the tactical things, is cultivate a mindset – the core strengths that define what Indy Hall is.

  • Optimism
  • Excitement for Philadelphia
  • Willingness to try and do and encourage

Lets un-constrain ourselves from the address, and think about what we want to known for and the best at moving forward.

I’m here to listen, and I encourage you to listen closely to each other too.

How did the news hit you?

“Sorry you had to deal with this crap.”

“I like this neighborhood, but I’m open to looking everywhere.”

“Our current building has major downsides, especially in the winter.” Downstairs becomes uninhabitable AND expensive.

“It’s not about the space – but we could find another place that better suits our needs.”

“Community-wise, I’m not worried. We’re still going to be us, wherever we are. We’ll learn to love anywhere we are just as much.”

Story: Young coworking space has opportunity to move into a space for one year, but the catch is that in a year that building gets knocked down. The deal is good, should we do it knowing the space will go away? Answer: YES, what can you do when you’re not so attached to the space?

“The place is not the part that matters – this is a chance to show how much we mean that.”

“The city is full of empty buildings. Any of them could become our home.”

Attachment to Old City – we have a lot of friends in the neighborhood.

Sean’s answer to “Are we going to lose the art gallery?” We can make our art experiences happen anywhere.

During the reboot – “What are you doing here? You’re not a full timer.” “I’m a part of the community.”

“It’s just a building. I can’t imagine we’d go somewhere that’s going to have bare white walls and drop ceilings and carpet.” We’ll bring our flavor anywhere.

“The community is worth traveling for.” (from Margate NJ)

Parking could be better.

“Moving sucks – when you move your home, you don’t know who your friends in your new place will be. Good parts of moving – new places to hang out and explore. Moving as a community = all of the benefits of something different/fresh, but also keep the people you feel comfortable around.”

What are people in the neighborhood thinking? What do they think if we go away?

What’s the neighborhood going to look like if we go away? Would our neighbors want to help in some way?

What is the progress report? What’s stable? What’s next?

Old City District reached out. “How can we help you buy the building?” My response: hold the phone. Lets talk longer term strategy instead of trying to “save” the building.

OCD Board very upset when they found out we might move. Why? Just an emotional response, or something bigger?

OCD in the process of doing their own 10 year masterplan with professional help

Indy Hall’s footprint may account for ~2% of Old City’s full time equivalents. That’s big for this neighborhood. That’s why us leaving would be a big deal.

What is Indy Hall’s economic impact on Old City? OCD has commissioned a small scale economic impact report (1-2 pages). To include our entire membership, alumni companies, money being earned and spent in the neighborhood (e.g. lunch, dinner, drinks, supplies, etc). Focus on neighborhood scale.

  • Old City District wants to use this data to figure out how much they can and are able to help us stay in the neighborhood, but they’re also very aware that we can use the same data to shop around
  • I’m providing some basic information to the folks helping us do the report, but we’ll also need to survey the community for more information too. Shooting for 50% response rate.
  • NOT tech specific – more focused on small business, industry non-specific.
  • Expecting draft survey in the next 2 weeks

What is the value of us being in a place, doing what we do? Without any outside resources, we create a lot more than others often promise.

“What can we do with the information from this report?”

Old City District can better examine ways to help us stay, because they can quantify the cost of losing us.

Outside of Old City, being able to show other real estate developers the quantitative value of working with us, and doing what we do “The Indy Hall Way”

  • In working with a Real Estate developer, we don’t just need a deal, we need SUPPORT in having an impact beyond the square footage.
  • Showing our impact helps us show why the things that are important to us really matter (in addition to the feel good intangibles)
  • Helps us get on the same page
  • Helps us look for a relationship that’s less like a tenant/landlord situation. “What if we never signed a lease again?”
    • Some kind of situation where we help them accomplish their goals economically and strategically, while we get to accomplish ours. Mutual benefit, not simply a transaction.
  • We are not a commodity tenant
  • Demonstrate the short and long term value of “tenants” creating value for each other.
  • When “tenants” are more than just aware of each other, but actually work together, the game changes.
  • There’s a difference between tenants and members – similar to resident vs citizen.

City Hall

  • Coming Soon: I want to have a conversation with Luke Butler – Chief of Staff to the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development at City of Philadelphia (quite a title, eh?)
  • I don’t know how the city can help, but I’m fairly certain they want to and Luke can help us figure out where to start.

Extrapolation – we can create an estimated sum of economic impact over our entire history. We can also model potential growth over time.

  • A lot of small numbers add up fast. Easily tens of millions of dollars of impact annually or more.

Two specific timelines:

What we do after Sept 1st, 2015?

  • New cost with no benefit. How do we solve this in a way that benefits all of us, instead of just forking over more money to our landlords?
  • Looking to choose 2-3 of the “least difficult, highest value” options. Ideally want to choose sustainable, revenue streams that continue delivering value beyond the current outside pressure

What we do after Sept 1st, 2016?

  • I’m having conversations with lots of real estate people, all over the city.
  • My goal is to get to know who’s out there, what they’re doing and what they’re about…and help them know who we are and what we’re about. Looking for people who have similar or aligned goals.
  • Actively avoiding answering their question “how may square feet do you need”, instead trying to see who we’d want to work with and who wants to work with us regardless of commodity space.
  • I care a lot less about their space and more about their values
  • Lots of people put “coworking” as a line item on their bigger real estate projects, but they almost never have a strategy for how to make it happen.

It’d be amazing to collaborate with someone who has a focus and skillset on the facilities, so we could focus on what we’re great at: the social infrastructure of making a place awesome for getting things done, together.

“Could we get a short-term lease somewhere in old city/center city (close to train/subway stations) to hold us over if we don’t find a great long term solution in time?”

Location Priorities

  • Close to public transit (subway, train stations)
  • Bikeability
  • Places to eat/things to do.
  • Parking is a potential thing to improve
  • What else? We need to collect more info.

Question: What if we split up into more than one location?

I’ve gone through my own wrestling with this and can argue for and against it. How do members feel about this?

We have members coming from North, South, West, and the suburbs.

Important: I haven’t seen a coworking space that expanded to more than one space do it in a way that I’d want to model. There’s nobody who’s done it who makes me want to say “let’s do it like that” and then we can go learn from them.

  • Does that mean that it can’t be done? Or does it mean that we’re the ones to figure out the best way to do it?
  • A lot of places use it as a way to grow their space because the real estate options they have don’t allow them to add a floor like we did.

“Division across multiple locations means an inevitable split.” It’d be a mistake to try to force it to be one thing. We’d end up with more than one “subcommunity” and really step up our game on the bigger goal(s) that connect the people across multiple spaces.

“We do have an incredibly strong community (~60%) that uses the space very very rarely. For many people, the online community + knowing there’s a place where they can go to see those people offline is the value.

How does that change across multiple locations?”

I’m very cautious about that kind of fragmentation. Still need to talk through the pros/cons a lot more.

Also, our logistics and operations multiply

“Staying “walk-by-able” – the serendipity of interactions beyond the people in our space”

“Worry about collective/collaborative strength may diminish across more than one location.”

“Multiple locations increases the risk profile”

How does our economic impact change across multiple locations? Seems additive across multiple spaces, and multiplicative in a single location. Is this true? We can learn from our survey data.

Whatever we move into would likely be less sq ft than we currently have, with room to grow. Not all parts of the city have those kinds of options.

  • Remember to think beyond “how do we talk what we have and put it at a new address”
  • Remember to think beyond “do we stay or do we go”, and focus on “what’s our goal?”
  • Remember that we’re about making Philadelphia better.

The only options we know about are the ones we know about.

  • There are a lot of options that aren’t on lists, and wouldn’t be made available for “average” tenants.
  • We can bring extremely unique value and story to a place that someone REALLY cares about.

What are the other successful things that we do in addition to our work? Where do we spend our time, what do we spend our time doing?

  • Social/entertainment spaces like National Mechanics, Spruce St Harbor Park
  • Event spaces like our gallery

A different way to think about neighborhood amenities

Not many other neighborhoods have the proximity to the things that we use, love, and appreciate like places to eat and things to do.

It’s important to remember that even though Old City has that today, many of the things we’ve come to love weren’t here when we started.

While we’re not singlehandedly responsible for any one place’s success, we’ve gotten to support them as they’ve supported us.

We’ve done it before, we can do it again.

How can we build this into Indy Hall’s future?

If we can quantify our impact on supporting local businesses, we may be able to play a more active role in helping new businesses launch in an area surrounding us. Not just filling in the gaps, but helping create long-term viability for a neighborhood.

If we know the potential economic impact per member, we may be able to find a way to collaborate with the city, private real estate developers, and other small biz owners to help launch their businesses.

  • In this way, Indy Hall becomes a MUCH bigger engine than we usually think about, in addition to the things we already do.
  • Even if it’s not this particular execution, this is the kind of long term & lasting effect that I want to build our efforts around. It invites much broader participation from neighbors, other businesses, and organizations that may never need a desk to work from but can benefit from being a part of the Indy Hall community.

What other kinds of things do we want to help create in our surrounding area?

If you have an idea, even if it’s one you think will get shot down, let’s talk about it because every conversation helps me think through new things differently. Even if I’m not as excited about a specific neighborhood or building or opportunity, we can use them as ways to talk through ideas that may or may not work in general. This is extremely valuable!

What do our neighbors know/think?

“How would the businesses we frequent react to finding out that we might go away? Not to threaten them, but to invite their help in solving the problem.”

“The more people who care that are talking about the problem, the better our chance of coming up with a great solution.”

Actionable next step: in parallel to the Economic Impact report, we want to create a simple 1-pager that says clearly:

  • Who we are, what we’re about
  • This is how we feel about being a neighbor
  • This is how the neighboring businesses have played a role in our success, and hopefully we’ve played a bit of a role in theirs.
  • We think it’s important for you to know what’s going on, so here’s the facts. Not a threat, not an ultimatum, but also head off the rumors. We might have to leave.
  • Here’s how you can help
  • “Great real estate is always found on an inside tip”

Put this out for the neighborhood to know, and invite more conversations/sharing of what we collectively know to come up with great answers.

Thank You

The reason I can sleep at night, and the reason I’m optimistic that we’ll end up in a much better place on the other side of this, is because I’m not doing this alone. Your voices and ears matter more than anything else to me. Thanks for proving me right.

I need to know where my team and my community needs me the most. Don’t think I’ve got it all figured out – I’m always figuring it out.

My #1 most important job is to be communicating as clearly and effectively as possible. Every conversation is a mix of clarity and practice to help me understand what I need to be sharing more of, and how I can be communicating better.

Please keep talking with me and sharing, every conversation helps jostle my brain in a helpful way. Don’t be afraid of scaring, offending, or worrying me. I need your honesty more than anything else – and I promise to give the same in return.

6 conversations I’ve had about the future of Indy Hall

A little over 3 weeks ago, I published a lengthy but important post about the future of Indy Hall.

If you haven’t read it yet…it’s a pretty important prequel to reading THIS post, so please take a few minutes to click the link above and read that post carefully before you continue here. It’s cool, I’ll wait.

….

….

….

Done? Awesome.

From the moment I hit publish on that piece, I felt a huge sense of relief. For one, I HATED keeping this information private, and having it out in the open was where I’d wanted it to be all along.

But in the days and weeks following I was reminded of why I’m so thankful and proud to be a part of the this community, and that I’m not alone in creating the future of Indy Hall.

I personally feel good about what I’ve heard and digested as these conversations unfolded, and I want to share some of my own synthesis here.

In the coming weeks, my goal is to shift from conversations towards action. And at the end of this post, there are a few opportunities to continue the discussion together, offline.

It starts with gratitude.

Far and above, nearly everyone has expressed gratitude for my decision to be transparent in the face of something complicated and messy. Frankly, it wasn’t easy to lay out the full range of emotions I’d gone through prior to that post…from confusion to frustration to disbelief, before I found myself in a more peaceful place to process the facts.

I’m a firm believer that you get what you give, often in multiples. I feel this way especially about Philadelphia, a city that I joke “loves you back 10x if you show it you care, but if you show it the slightest glimmer of hate…prepare to get punched.”

This experience so far has shown me that by putting grounded positivity and optimism out into the world, that’s exactly what I’ve gotten back.

My original post was meant to share some specific information and make one thing clear

We will not “react” to an ultimatum. We’ve been handed a timeline to operate on, but that doesn’t mean we can stop thinking strategically about the long term.

As Indy Hall continues to evolve, our success depends looking forward and being intentional, while remembering everything we’ve learned about what has helped our community thrive.

What that in mind, here’s a few of the kinds of conversations I’ve had, along with some of my own initial thoughts.

  • Conversation #1 – “Let’s crowdfund the down payment and buy the building!”
  • Conversation #2 – “I’ve got a creative business idea to help Indy Hall make more money.”
  • Conversation #3 – “Are we going to move? Where would we move to?”
  • Conversation #4 – “I’ve got Philly’s next hot neighborhood – want in?”
  • Conversation #5 – “Let’s use this as an opportunity to fix some problems”
  • Conversation #6 – “Whatever you decide, I’m on board.”

Conversation #1 – “Let’s crowdfund the down payment and buy the building!”

Lots of people – and not just Indy Hall members – have come to me with a sketch for crowdfunding a down payment to purchase our building. And not just crowdfunding…I’ve heard some other very creative models for buying our current space, too! But crowdfunding has been far and above the most common variation, so I’m going to focus on that here.

I’d said in my previous post that I didn’t think that a purchase made sense, and then later edited to say it was still possible, but I didn’t really get a chance to expand more on those thoughts.

If we back up from the situation at hand, I think it’s useful to remember that we “crowdfunded” the opening Indy Hall’s first location on Strawberry Street in 2007. Through membership prepayments and our invention of our basic membership for coworking, we were able to raise nearly half of the budget we needed to open our doors. More importantly, it gave our community a tangible activity to rally around. The money was just a piece of the equation – it was peoples’ participation in the process that made our launch successful and established our community’s culture from the very start.

Instead of fitting out an office and then saying “come over, we’re ready for you now!” we approached the effort more like an old fashioned barn raising.

And then when we moved from our original office into the second floor of 20 N 3rd Street, we repeated the process. Without membership prepayments AND real people with skin in the game helping make it happen, we wouldn’t have expanded.

So, if I’m such a crowdfunding hipster, why haven’t we launched our Kickstarter campaign yet?

There’s a lot to unpack here, and it’s got a lot less to do with coming up with a $700k+ down payment for a commercial mortgage than most people think.

For the sake of argument, yes, it’s definitely possible for us to mortgage our current location’s $3.3MM asking price…for about the same monthly payment (and maybe even less than) we current pay in rent.

I’m extremly confident that we could creatively crowdfund a down payment, especially if we pursued some kind of equity component that’s compliant with the JOBS Act.

And while we’re talking about equity, I’ve thought a lot about how transformative it could be for Indy Hall AND our community members to collaboratively build equity in an asset like a building. For our entire history, we’ve invested heavily in the intangibles: social capital, human capital, knowledge capital, etc.

For the last few years that I’ve been having serious conversations with lenders about the possibility of buying our space, I’ve thought about what it could look like to create a community owned and operated fund, one that thoughtfully blends financial capital with our already thriving stockpile of other capital forms.

Imagine: With Indy Hall as a primary lease holder, our membership dues could potentially create INCREDIBLE amounts of long term value. I think about getting to a point where we’ve paid enough into our principal that we have an asset worth borrowing against, and the potential to use that to invest in yet another community-powered project.

It’s easy to get excited the further I let myself wander down that rabbit hole.

I know this is a great idea, and I believe in pursuing it.

I also know that if we continue to have the kind of economic impact we’ve been able to generate to date, the problem we’re in now has the potential to follow us.

But…

Preoccupied

Before we talk about HOW to buy our space, we need to answer if we should.

  • Buying a building is a long term investment, and means we need to be thinking DECADES of strategy. Which I’m okay with, but any purchase of this scale needs to be part of a plan, and NOT a reaction.
  • Given how much we’ve grown & evolved inside of the last 8 years, I have a hard time believing that Indy Hall will look exactly the same in another 10 years…let alone 30+.
  • Ownership comes with additional cost and management overhead beyond the mortgage. For example, taxes & condo fees in our building will easily add another 20-25% on top of a mortgage (with the potential to increase). And if something breaks, as happens in our old building, those costs and headaches are ours to bear.
  • Our current building is amazing in a lot of ways, but it also has major shortcomings. Most notably in climate control and basic construction quality. Winters cost us thousands of dollars a month to heat – high ceilings and terrible electric heat – while still being uncomfortably cold.
  • Even if we made ALL of the numbers work, the space we’re in is EXPENSIVE. If we spend that much money, we can get SO much more value per dollar if we expand our search beyond preserving our home at 22 N 3rd.

And this may be the most difficult thing to say out loud:

Every time I ask myself, “Do you want to be in the business of owning and operating a building?”, my honest answer is…no.

I’ll be the first to admit that the effort I put forth into the social infrastructure at Indy Hall FAR outpaces our physical infrastructure. You won’t find “workspace operations and management” on my list of aspirations. The fact that Indy Hall has as much infrastructure as it does is a means to an end.

I know that this challenge is surmountable by finding a trusted partner who would be on-call for building related issues. Not a service provider, but a true collaborator who actually cares about the people inside the building, too. And while I’m dreaming big, someone who’d want to be an active part of the Indy Hall community.

I haven’t met that person yet. Do you know that person? Is that person you? Drop me a line, I’d love to talk.

To wrap up this kind of conversation, I’ve been sharing a mental model that I’ve been using to parse out the pros and cons of each conversation. In the simplest terms, I’ve been organizing pros and cons into the 4 following scenarios:

  • Buy our current space
  • Rent our current space
  • Buy elsewhere
  • Rent elsewhere

If there were a clear leader, I’d have chosen it already. :) With that said – I want to make it clear that all options are still on the table, including ones we haven’t talked about yet.

Every scenario has both pros and cons, and I’d like to explore them further, in the open, taking into consideration everything I’ve outlined so far.

If you’re interested in this conversation you can either head to the comments below, email me, or come to one of the “Mini Town Hall” events linked at the bottom of this post.

Conversation #2 – “I’ve got a creative business idea to help Indy Hall make more money.”

First, I wanted to share a thought on money, since it’s inevitably a complicated topic that stirs lots of emotions.

Indy Hall’s core business is based on our monthly memberships, is sustainable, and has been for it’s entire lifespan. The business is healthy and predictable, and allows us to operate with very little debt and to have cash in the bank.

We’re proudly 100% bootstrapped, having never taken money from outside investors. This means that the only people we need to answer to are our members, and we’re able to make decisions in our community’s best interest instead of “maximizing shareholder value”.

The only debt we carry is in small (<$10k each) loans that have helped us have cash on hand during periods of growth. We’ve only ever borrowed money from community members who had personally benefitted from Indy Hall and were in a position to lend to us as a way of paying their success forward.

To me, the purpose of profits is to be able to say yes.

There are plenty of other reasons not to do something, but if something is going to be truly great for the community, Indy Hall’s profitability allows me to say “yes!” without having to ask anybody else’s “permission”.

My job is to make decisions in service of our community, because without our community, we have no value to offer.

Indy Hall’s profitability affords me the ability to offer our members the most valuable thing: the freedom to do the things they think are best for the community.

When our profits are down, or worse, when we’re eating into our savings, we have a lot less room to experiment and try things even if they’re not going to create an immediate return.

So when we’re talking about “more money”, my actual goal is to create more freedom, more sovereignty, more agency for our community. Money is just a tool to that end.

Kapish?

To review our near-term situation, on September 1st of 2015 (just over 2 months away), we face two options.

Option 1) our rent is going to go up by nearly 20% OR

Option 2) we’re going to have to cut our ground floor space in half, but paying a 47% increased cost per square foot.

In Option 1, we get to keep running as we currently are, but we need to come up with another $3000/month.

In Option 2, we’re forced to shrink our ground floor by 50%, but with the higher cost per square foot, our rent only goes down by 15%.

We also have to be honest about the fact that a reduction in our space will have some impact on our revenue. And if that impact is greater than the 15% cost reduction…we’re heading in the wrong direction.

In both cases, these options only carry us 12 months until September 1st 2016. At that point, our current lease agreements expire. If we haven’t made the decision to purchase our building, our landlord intends to raise rents as high as $50/square foot (nearly 2x what we currently pay).

And in the short term, both options might mean we need to get REALLY creative with the way we use and lay out our space…but the last thing we want to do is pack people in so tightly that it feels uncomfortable.

So frankly, both of these options suck. Ugh.

But hey, I’m surrounded by problem solvers.

In my last post, I wrote:

“We’ll have some new costs to bear starting in 3 months, and I’m sure many people’s first thought is ‘shit, membership prices are gonna go up’.

While that’s certainly one option, I want to brainstorm more ideas and options to help bridge that gap. What new things we can do to create more value with what we’ve already got? This includes new levels of membership that are focused on things other than renting desks: things like learning new skills, growing our businesses, etc.”

I’ve been pleased and impressed by everyone who rose to that particular challenge, and came up with some great ways to do more with what we already have.

Here are just a few of the ideas I heard.

…along with a few others that aren’t new but worth bringing up in this context.

– Scholarships for students and new independents.

In the last couple of years, students have shown a lot of interest in Indy Hall but we haven’t come up with a really great way to offer them access at a rate they can afford. Not just college students, but also Girl Develop It students who are taking their career transition seriously and investing in their skills…but don’t really have enough extra income to justify the expense of an Indy Hall membership.

I’m imagining an option where existing members have the ability to “sponsor” a vetted student member…either by signing up for a “sponsor” membership that’s paid monthly or we could provide some incentive to pre-pay for a sponsorship in 6 month increments.

There are still details to work out, but sponsors could have the option of choosing their preferred target sponsor recipient, and also choose if they want to have the student they sponsor know who they are so that they can connect one-on-one, with hopes of furthering their relationship beyond a transaction.

– “Bake sales” & pop-up shops.

Not necessarily baked goods (though heck, why not), but we do have a 300+ person community with a broad range of talents. We also have a combined reach that spans far and wide across the city. We could come up with a model where people could offer their skills and services, products and creations, and Indy Hall could earn a commission by hosting that channel.

This idea needs more work to keep it in line with our core values and to keep it from becoming a logistical nightmare, but I definitely see something cool hidden inside worth exploring.

– A better job board.

We get a fair bit of demand from the outside for people wanting to “hire talent”…but we’ve never put the time into creating a dedicated channel for it, especially from the outside.

Keeping things in line with our intention of prioritizing relationships ahead of transactions, we’ve always said, “If you want hire people in this community, come and spend time here.” This approach has done a good job of weeding out a lot of time-wasters, but it’s also possible that it’s also left a number of potentially great opportunities on the cutting room floor. I know we can do better.

I personally would like to see this be better than a job board, with some degree of vetting and quality control considering some of the awful the job postings I see. I’d even consider some kind of service where “premium” job listings are actually rewritten to better connect with potential candidates, instead of serving up buzzword bingo. I’ve been inspired by some pro services out there like Workshop* and the now defunked TinyProj*, and know there’s lessons to be learned from them.

* disclosure, Rob Williams of Workshop is a student of mine and TinyProj founder Kyle Bragger is a longtime friend.

Optional membership increases.

It makes me proud to know that there are people in our community who get more value than they currently pay for, and so they would happily pay more. In my mind, that’s how all business SHOULD be.

With that said, this option gets a little complicated because the last thing I want is for people to feel obligated – or worse, guilty. I’m still very open to ideas for how we could execute this in a way that’s thoughtful and fair.

– IndyHall.EDU

Okay, so we probably won’t focus on getting accredited right away. But we do know that our members have a LOT that they could teach – the answer to “How do I do __________” is almost never harder to answer than asking our email discussion list.

At the same time, we’ve never focused heavily on formal learning…so much learning happens at the one-on-one level and in small groups. But if we knew what people wanted to learn, it would be pretty easy to find people in our community to teach it. If structured as a revenue share, this could become secondary revenue for members who teach AND Indy Hall.

– Junto Membership.

This one merits a bit more explanation, mostly because it’s been rolling around in my head for so long.

In a similar vein to adding some structure to the ability to learn how to do nearly anything, Geoff and I have long been inspired by Ben Franklin’s Junto. The original Junto was a “club for mutual self-improvement”, a structured gathering of professionals and politicians to share what they knew in oh-so-Quaker pursuit of community betterment through personal betterment.

Before Indy Hall had our own clubhouse, one of the first events that brought our community together was a re-invented Junto gathering hosted at P’unk Ave in South Philly. And in the last 2 years, it’s evolved into a business retreat unlike anything else I’ve ever participated.

While our current Community Membership is just $20/month, it serves (mostly) as a social membership with the business benefits that are baked into our community. And with very limited promotion, that level has grown to nearly 10% of our total membership!

I’ve discussed the possibility of another membership, which like the Community membership would not be based on desk/workspace usage. But instead of the more casual business benefits, Junto membership would be more focused on helping members get better at their business in areas where they know they need to improve. With the natural diversity of industry and experience that we all have. While many independents & small business owners aren’t in a position to seek or afford business coaching, a Junto-style structure could help make that kind of experience accessible.

Personally, I have both paid for and have been paid for business coaching…and I’ve also done plenty of it for free. In nearly every case, it’s been worth it. Like anything else, there’s a lot of sheisters out there just trying to make a quick buck by “giving advice”. And there’s a lot of bad advice out there.

I think that the difference here is two-fold: First being the foundation of trust and relationships that we’ve ALWAYS made our top priority at Indy Hall, and second being the fact that our community already has so many shared values that you’ve got a MUCH better chance of getting advice/support that’s in line with the things you care about most.

This list is far from exhaustive and definitely not complete – so if you want to riff on any of them or a new idea, please share in the comments or email me directly!

What’s missing from this list, and why

You may also notice that I omitted “one time” ways of bringing in more money…like Kickstarter & pursuing grants. That doesn’t mean that we can’t consider them, but I’m cautious of getting caught in a trap of creating an unsustainable outcome, or one that isn’t easily repeatable.

In all cases, the BEST ideas are ones that create opportunities to bring our community closer together. I think it’s important to avoid things that are “extractive“, and instead look for models that are generative.

I don’t think any single option above is going to bridge the gap, but a few of them in combination could MORE than bridge the gap, and keep us in a situation where we can say “yes” without hesitation.

Which of the ideas I’ve listed are most interesting to you? If you’re interested in this conversation you can either head to the comments below, email me, or come to one of the “Mini Town Hall” events linked at the bottom of this post.

Conversation #3 – “Are we going to move? Where would we move to?”

Indy Hall undeniably has Old City DNA. And while I’ll always be humble about our contributions, lots of people tell me that the Old City of 2015 has a lot of Indy Hall DNA in it, as well.

Long before we nicknamed N3rd Street, even before we opened our first location on Strawberry Street in 2007, we spent countless hours bonding at National Mechanics. We literally signed our first lease while sitting in one of the church pew tables.

And if you’ll let me get romantic about it, LONG before there was anything to be known as a “tech community”, Old City is where Philadelphia and our country were founded in the name of freedom and liberty.

Most of us don’t live in Old City. But that’s also part of why we’re here.

Today, a number of our members literally walk down the street from their homes to spend the day at Indy Hall, MOST of our members don’t live in Old City. Many actually travel past other coworking spaces that are more “convenient”. Others cross state lines.

We even have members who travel upwards of an hour a few days a week to be at Indy Hall.

Not a lot of people know is how we chose to be in Old City in the first place. When we surveyed our original community for founding members, we learned that most of our members were in Northern Liberties, South Philly, and West Philly. I’m pretty sure an updated survey would show that’s still pretty accurate, expanding Northern Liberties into Fishtown & Kensington.

So naturally, we looked at potential spaces in all of those neighborhoods.

And some were pretty cool…but were a real pain to get to. That’s where we realized that if we picked any one of those neighborhoods to get started in, there’s a good chance that people from the other parts of the city would be less likely to make the trip.

So we started looking at Old City. Not because it was a hotspot for creative businesses, but specifically because it wasn’t one of the parts of Philadelphia where most of our members were. There were a couple of important creative business anchors – notably Weblinc and I-Site who predated us – but the odds of running into familiar faces the way you can in today’s Old City was completely foreign.

At the same time, we found that it felt easy to jump on a bus, subway, or bicycle from just about anywhere in the city and be there in 10-15 mins. Less convenient for our friends traveling in from the suburbs, but that’s never been our strength.

In a way, Old City won in our search because it was the un-neighborhood.

And I don’t mean that to be diminutively.

Because as Old City has changed, we’ve gotten to grow up along with it. We’ve gotten to become a part of a story that’s been in motion for decades or longer. We’ve been able to enjoy the explosion of amazing restaurant and bar scene. The “campus” feel of Old City has become a huge draw, making it easy to bump into friends almost anywhere in the neighborhood…and not just at National Mechanics.

For the last couple of years, Indy Hall Arts has gotten to play a role in the art community, attracting thousands of attendees and many first-time art buyers to our First Friday shows. Through the N3rd St Farmers Market, I’ve met more of our neighbors in the last 2.5 years than I did in the previous 6. And I don’t have to say how awesome it is to have places like Spruce Street Harbor Park and Independence Beer Garden within easy walking distance as a way to enjoy each others’ company outside.

And then there’s the graduates

When Indy Hall members’ grow their companies larger than 3-4 people, they almost universally begin looking for ways to stay in the neighborhood. Within a 2 block radius of Indy Hall, at least 100 people are employed by Indy Hall alum.

And we’ve gotten to play a role in dozens of businesses choosing to open their first and second offices in Old City, and many more expand into the neighborhood. We’ve even had a steady stream of companies occupy our former coworking space on Strawberry Street.

Today, Old City is a destination, and one that I’m really proud of.

But maybe most importantly to myself and for many of our members, Old City has a sense of “home” for us.

A lot of people have reached out directly to express how devastated they would be if Indy Hall left Old City. That’s their word, not mine. “Devastated”.

I hear this – and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hit me right in the heart. And as you can tell, I feel very strongly about Old City myself.

But I also know that emotions aren’t a good place to make long term strategic decisions.

I think the most honest answer to “are we moving?” and “where would we move to?” isn’t an answer I can give today, but for a good reason.

When I do the dirty work of separating my emotions from the long term goals of our community and our business, I think about each location-based decision we’ve made to date.

Even the most recent one, the decision to take over the ground floor of our building in 2012. In order to make that expansion WORTH it, I couldn’t just look at it as adding more space. More space came with more risk. A second floor came with more complicated operations. Street access came with potential security risks.

We balanced all of these things with one important goal that fit our strategic goal: to connect more with the world outside our front door.

And if you look at our work over the last 3+ years, and the way our community has grown and evolved, I can say with confidence that even though all of our concerns were valid they were worth addressing head-first because the benefits have been transformational.

So today, in the consideration of ANY kind of move (to another spot in Old City, to another part of the city, some combination of the two, or even hidden option D), I’m asking the question “How does this move help us achieve our next long-term goal?”

Which makes me ask, “What IS our next long term goal?”

The problems we set out to solve in 2006/2007 aren’t 100% solved, but we chose them in part because they’re not the kind of goals to solve to 100%. That way, there will always be room for more people to join us in solving them.

My goal wasn’t to bring shared workspace to Philadelphia. My goal was to make Philadelphia a better place to make a living doing what you love. My goal was to make it easier to build relationships with people, long before you needed them to complete a transaction.

Is Old City the only part of the city worthy of those goals? How can those goals be refined to better reflect Philadelphia of 2015? And can we look ahead to Philadelphia of 2025, and imagine what we want it to be like?

Today, that’s the most important thing to answer.

Because once we have that answer – the questions of “Are we going to move? Where would we move to?” become much easier to answer, as they’re in service to a much bigger goal than putting our stuff into boxes and changing our address.

If you’re interested in this conversation you can either head to the comments below, email me, or come to one of the “Mini Town Hall” events linked at the bottom of this post.

Conversation #4 – “I’ve got Philly’s next hot neighborhood.”

This 4th conversation is a little different – more of a conversation that I want to have. So let’s see how that goes.

Today, I created a new label in Gmail.

That label is called “Real Estate”, and I added over a dozen email threads to it.

And more are coming in just about every day.

The point of me sharing this here is two fold:

1 – It’s been very interesting to see the different approaches from the real estate world. It’s pretty easy to pick the best from the bunch based on the amount of thought they put into their first contact.

It’s amazing to me how many people don’t do even a LITTLE bit of research about Indy Hall before sending a cold contact. Many don’t even address me by name. Vultures.

2 – At the same time, everyone’s pitch is pretty much the same. With a few rare exceptions, of course (you know who you are).

Here’s just one example:

“I don’t want to prematurely divulge too much information at this point. The gist is that it’s going to be a pretty big deal, it’s located within walking distance of Center City, and the Building stock is all former industrial / turn of the century. The area already has a cool vibe to it. it’s just been overlooked for decades, has lacked some TLC, and it needs a cohesive vision to create a ‘place.'”

Or, it’s less wordy cousin…

“We’re looking for tenants 2000 sf & up for this cool office redevelopment. Please call/reply if you have interest.”

At this point, I’ve learned to keep my expectations low when working with the real estate world, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lowered the bar.

Whatever happens, rent or buy, I’m sticking to my principles of relationships before transactions.

If you work in real estate in Philadelphia and you want to work together, I want to know who you are.

Not your property and it’s features – that’s the same commodity shit that everyone else has.

Who are you? What do you care about? Why do you love Philadelphia?

Think of it like asking someone on a first date. “Nice shoes, wanna fuck?” might work with some people, but that’s not what I’m looking for.

If you’re interested in this kind of conversation, you can either head to the comments below, email me, or come to one of the “Mini Town Hall” events linked at the bottom of this post.

Conversation #5 – “Let’s use this as an opportunity to fix some problems”

Okay. Back to actual conversations I’ve had with actual Indy Hall members.

One of the things that I’m FOREVER thankful for is that our members are comfortable talking to me about Indy Hall’s imperfections.

I’m crazy proud of our team – Adam Teterus, Samantha Abrams, and Sean Martorana are without a doubt the BEST in the coworking business. Part of that is because most days of the week, my team and I are our own toughest critics.

What I think sets our team apart is that when they know they’re not doing their best work they’re not shy to admit it so they can recalibrate. They’ll even turn to their fellow community members – that’s right, our team members are members of the community first and foremost – and ask for help.

I’m saying all of this because I know that our willingness to acknowledge our imperfections instead of pretending “everything is awesome” has opened the door to members being willing to say “Hey, I noticed something is off. Can we work together to make it better?”

This came to the surface in a powerful way since that last blog post, when a few members have independently taken the opportunity to acknowledge Indy Hall’s fractures. And most interestingly…they each brought up the same core problem.

I want to save the details of that problem for a follow up blog post (how’s that for a cliffhanger?), but suffice it to say that it felt really great to be able to frame the problem against our potential future.

Even when we’re in the same location for 5+ years, Indy Hall is a work in progress. The difference is that our community has always played a role in that progress, and that’s certainly not going to change now.

If you’re interested in this conversation you can either head to the comments below, email me, or come to one of the “Mini Town Hall” events linked at the bottom of this post.

Conversation #6 – “Whatever you decide, I’m on board.”

This might seem like a throwaway, but I’m including it for a very important reason.

Among all of the creative ideas & thoughtful questions, a number of members approached me simply to say:

“I know you’ll do the right thing. I love how things are now, but I also know that I’ll love things however we end up.”

And here’s why I share this to close out this blog post: none of the people who came to me with this particular conversation did it in blind faith. In 100% of the cases where the conversation started here, there was still an opportunity for a conversation to unfold.

Let me be clear, I’m thankful that people trust my leadership. And I know it’s hard earned.

But more important to me is that even when people think they don’t have an opinion, they know they are heard, and considered, and valued. This includes today’s members, our faithful alumni, and our countless supporters.

We’ve scheduled three in-person events to host discussions about next steps

Town Hall

As I said in the opening of this post, the next few weeks are about shifting from conversation to action. That’s why it was so important for me to get these 6 conversations out into the open, so that we could invite the next steps.

And for members of Indy Hall, I’ll also be sharing updates more frequently via GroupBuzz and our weekly email announcements, so keep your eyes on your inbox.

If you can make it to any or all of these discussions, I assure you that your presence means a lot to me and even if you don’t have a specific goal or thought to share, I’d encourage you to join us.

I have the privilege of sometimes being the face, but Indy Hall isn’t what it is because of me. It’s what it is because of all of you.

Together, Indy Hall is our love letter to Philly, and we’ve been writing it for nearly a decade.

It’s time to work on our next chapter. What goals could we be working towards, together, for the next 10 years?

What does the future of Indy Hall look like?

That’s for us to decide.

This post has the potential to impact every member of Indy Hall – and possibly more people beyond our membership.

So if you’re reading this, it’s SO important to me that you read it carefully and completely. I don’t think I’ve ever meant that more than I do today.

For the last few years, we’ve been getting some (usually friendly) pressure from our landlord to consider purchasing the space that we’ve come to call home for Indy Hall. From the start, they’ve made it clear that their plan is to sell it either way – if not to us, to another property investor.

But in this email, the pressure took a different form.

In this email, I learned that our landlords had decided to respond to the “growing demand and rising market rates” in the neighborhood, and surprised us with a 60%+ increase to renew our lease for the ground floor. An increase that would’ve taken effect yesterday, June 1st.

For the last few weeks, I’ve had one mission: to make sure that on June 1st, we still had an active lease for the ground floor…and that it came with as FEW changes that would impact our community as possible.

And the good news is that I’ve succeeded in the effort of buying us some more time

I was able to negotiate a 3 month extension on our previous lease terms (with no other changes besides the end date) so that we could get our upstairs and downstairs leases synchronized, and figure out a plan moving forward.

The less good news…

…is that I was only able to buy SOME time.

  • On Sept 1st of this year (3 months from now), we’re expecting a rent increase of ~20% of our overall monthly rent (which is currently almost $17,000/month). I’ve negotiated this down a fair bit already…but it’s an increase we currently cannot afford.

  • Alternatively, we have the option to downsize the ground floor to just the north half, meaning we’d lose the classroom space, the Phone Hoods, and of course a good chunk of workspace. They’ll rent us the partial ground floor at a reduced rate per square foot, so they can rent out the other side with basement access.

Clearly, neither of these options are good for us.

And they really only buy us another 15 months because…

  • On Sept 1st of NEXT year (2016), if we don’t purchase the space, our landlord (or whomever they sell to) has the ability to hike our rent to whatever they’re deeming “market”…which right now they’re convinced is close to 2x what we currently pay.

It’s not lost on me that the “growing demand and rising market rates” are partly due to our community and successes to date. We’ve gotten to grow and evolve with Old City and some of our closest small business friends, including Weblinc, I-Site, and of course our original watering hole National Mechanics.

Many people whose businesses outgrew Indy Hall intentionally have chosen to stay in the neighborhood: MyClin, Arcweb, Vandegrift, Wildbit, Freckle, and Flyclops, just to name a few.

And many, many more businesses have chosen to move to our neighborhood in no small part because of our anchor in the community, which as of last year even got it’s own name and citywide recognition by making “N3rd St” an official designation from City Hall.

Now that I’ve effectively buried the lede so far: if we don’t purchase our space, Indy Hall will need to look for a new home.

I’ve been thinking a lot about changes

As a personal aside, if I’ve recently seemed distracted or distanced recently when you tried talking to me, or I’ve hesitated with an answer to a question…I’m sorry, and this post should help explain why.

It’s easy to take for granted how much Indy Hall has changed in the last 8 years. And how much has changed around us. Very few people who have been a part of Indy Hall are doing the exact same thing they did when they started. The Indy Hall community itself has changed in many ways – not just in size, but in how our community interacts and the kinds of ways we support each other. We’ve grown upward, we’ve grown outward, and we’ve grown inward too.

I often remark to people how I really don’t get to decide what Indy Hall is going to “grow up” to be, and it hasn’t been entirely my decision in a long while. The best job I can do is to listen, and to be a guide.

Throughout the year, we experience countless changes of varying scale – many are simple, subtle, and notable improvements. Many of these changes are made by hands of members just like you. They might have even been made by you.

This upcoming weekend’s REBOOT is a very tangible example of how valuable change can be – even when it comes with some short term pain. We’ve seen this time and again with the strong encouragement to find a new place to sit, and new people to sit with.

This is one of the very few times that we get close to enforcing a change, and we do it sparingly because we know how painful it can feel to have change imposed on you. And we only choose to do it when there’s clear and significant upsides to you, and to other people in the community.

If you think about how much Indy Hall has evolved over the last 8 years…it’s not hard to imagine how much we could evolve over the next 8 years to come.

What if we embraced the chaos?

It was actually strikingly poetic when I realized that August 2016 marks the 10 year anniversary of when I started the journey that would lead to Indy Hall’s inception. A milestone like that is worth celebrating – but it’s also one worth reflecting on.

The question I’ve been asking myself, and really the main thing that’s kept me sane for the last month, is “What could Indy Hall be in 2 years? 5 years? 8 years? What does this community look like in 2025?”

Even if I put the pressure from our landlord out of the picture momentarily, and I think purely about how far we’ve come, and the strengths we’ve demonstrated over and over as a community, it’s actually hard for me to imagine Indy Hall looking and running the exact same way 5 years from now.

So if we embrace the chaos and constraints we’re being dealt – what could we become? What do we WANT to become?

Can we turn this frustrating ultimatum into a better set of options for ourselves in the long term?

The more I sit with this question, the more confident I’ve become in our ability to turn this into a long term benefit. The only question is which direction we choose to head.

At this point, there are no foregone conclusions, only facts

It’s been painful, and out of character for me, to have kept this information as long as I have. And I’ve only done so because I didn’t want to show up with bad news AND no starting point for answering questions, or to make the negotiation process with our landlord any harder than it needed to be.

At this point, we have a good sense of our landlord’s negotiation priorities. We know a timeline we’re working within. And we have some concrete dollar figures to know what we’re trying to accomplish. This means we can start having informed conversations about different ways to solve the problem of where we call home for the future.

Here are a few more things we know:

  • A purchase of this space is most likely out of our reach. And if we wanted to buy, this space may not be the right one (in spite of our emotional connection to it). Edit: but this discussion is absolutely still open, especially to creative ideas & options.

  • We’ll have some new costs to bear starting in 3 months, and I’m sure many people’s first thought is “shit, membership prices are gonna go up”. While that’s certainly one option, I want to brainstorm more ideas and options to help bridge that gap. What new things we can do to create more value with what we’ve already got? This includes new levels of membership that are focused on things other than renting desks: things like learning new skills, growing our businesses, etc.

  • Negotiation isn’t over until somebody says “yes”. So I’m still on the lookout for alternative options that we could execute by the end of the summer…and beyond. We could use some experienced allies to help us determine fact from fiction when it comes to frothy market negotiation.

  • Longer term decisions still don’t need to be “forever” decisions. We should still continue to “think big and act small,” seeking experiments rather than accepting so-called inevitabilities.

  • Inevitably, ALL of these factors will have an impact on choices we have to make, large and small, in the coming months.

And most of all – we can get back to being open and transparent about this process, and figure this out together. I’m keeping the most open mind I possibly can, and I feel strongly that if ANY group of people can figure this out…it’s the Indy Hall community.

Priority #1 stays the same: the community

Indy Hall has gotten physically bigger by adding more square footage over the years. But sometimes, it’s hard to remember that our community created this place, not the other way around. This place – the walls and the pillars, the desks, chairs, power, and internet – are relative commodities.

What’s irreplaceable is the relationships that form between people in this community. The support and inspiration we give each other. The generosity and excitement that comes from doing something we never knew was possible. The trust we all place in each other to help make each day just a little bit better than the last one.

So long as we keep our priorities and our values in view, I’m 100% confident that we only stand to become the best version of Indy Hall we’ve seen yet.

Even during this weekend’s Reboot – where we put more emphasis on making improvements to the space than any other time of year – we need to remind ourselves and each other that the REASON we do it is because if it weren’t for each other, this particular space wouldn’t be worth sharing.

Let’s talk

The most important thing to me about sending this email is opening up the dialogue. I haven’t shared anything in this email that I consider private, and I much prefer it that way.

I’ve taken the time to collect my thoughts so I could write them here, and it wasn’t easy. I’ve gone through a lot of emotions – surprise, frustration, anger, dismay, and more before I felt the way I do now. Which, as I hope comes across in this post, is optimistic. I truly do feel optimistic.

So I’ll be the first to acknowledge that it might take some time for you to process this, but I’d also encourage you NOT to go through that alone.

  • Come talk to me. We can speak one on one or in groups, whichever you prefer.

  • Talk to the people in the community you trust, and care about the most. I encourage you to speak to each other, but also to share what you discuss with me.

  • This is also an opportunity to talk to the people in the community you don’t know very well yet – because now you have a common challenge. We all do.

My only request is that you keep your mind open and your thoughts honest.

My door is open (j/k I don’t have a door on my office cuz I work at Indy Hall) and I’m personally inviting each of you to walk through it.

But since I’m not always in the room at Indy Hall or I might appear busy, here’s all of the ways to reach me if and when you’re ready to talk:

  • Leave a message in the comments below
  • Email me: alex@indyhall.org

Thank you for reading, and for being a part of this community with me.

Let’s see what we can create by embracing the chaos,

-Alex

How coworking can work for more people than you ever thought

Allow me to expand your mind beyond tech, startups, & remote work

First, take a quick peek at this mini-story about a new member joining a coworking space:

“We just got a new member who is not in the type of business I expected would be interested in coworking…but definitely has the needs of a coworker:

He started a cleaning business 6 months ago and spends about half his time on admin and commercial work. He was so fed up of working on the kitchen table between his wife and kids or in noisy cafés that he looked for another solution.

He was so happy when he left today saying he’d been super productive! Made my day!”

Getting stories like this make me smile like a goofball, partly because coworking has another happy customer but also because it’s clear that she’d been so surprised by this unexpected new member’s instant desire to sign up for membership.

There are SO many preconceived notions about who would want to work in a coworking space. I’d be willing to bet that sometimes you still get stuck trying to convince someone to pay for a coworking space when they know they could just work at home, in their underwear, for free.

So today, I want to peel back the layers of just one of those preconceived notions…all the way back to the deeply rooted core from whence it came.

In the “old world” of corporate jobs, everyone went to the same place to do the same task handed to us by the same boss. Day after day. Our work days were relatively certain, for better AND for worse. One particular benefit of that certainty – real or an illusion – meant that we could focus only on the specific skills needed to get the job done.

Meanwhile in the modern world of work – the one that coworking spaces are most connected to – things couldn’t be more different in that regard. In order for you to be successful today, in addition to whatever skill or craft you practice, there’s countless “meta-skills” that you need to learn including time and task management, communication.

Does it really make sense that ALL of your work is done best in the same kind of environment?

What would change if we learned how to choose an environment that was best suited for the task we were trying to accomplish?

Most people have NEVER learned the meta-skill of breaking their “work” into smaller components, so they can think about their work-day as interconnected but separate chunks of work.

And I can’t exactly blame them…where would you learn that skill other than to see someone else do it, and try it yourself?

Which is why my team and I so often ask people about their administrative tasks – like invoicing, paying bills, research, paperwork, etc. Let’s be honest: it’s not the work that we like to think about. In fact, it’s the work that many people would happily avoid…and many do, to their own detriment.

Even if someone’s not a freelancer or an entrepreneur, EVERYONE has chunks of time that they need to dedicate to slogging through that admin work.

But here’s the fun part: once you’ve got someone thinking about their admin work – something really magical happens when you bring up coworking. 9 times out of 10, it clicks for them.

“Oh, I could be sooooo much more productive if I carved out time to do that admin work, and did it around other people instead of letting myself procrastinate. Sign me up!”

Which is just like our friend with the cleaning service, who I’m sure you can easily imagine was thrilled to turn a dull, boring day of admin tasks into a productive, inspiring day of GETTING SHIT DONE.

The big lesson here is that a coworking space is more successful when it’s suited for a certain style of work, than certain kinds of people and professions. And there’s a good chance that it’s YOUR job to help people learn how to use this to be more productive, and happier at work.

That lesson leads us back to the big question – “why do people join coworking spaces?” which is a cornerstone question of the new workshop series called “Smashing the Stereotypes about Coworking & Collaboration” that Adam and I are super pumped to start teaching. Next week, we’ll be teaching workshops in Boston, New York, and DC. And on June 15th, we’re heading to San Francisco, then to Chicago, and Miami!

Which of these cities is closest to you? Will we see you there? :)

You can get $20 off the ticket price for any of these workshops with the code ALEX when you get to the Eventbrite page for your city’s event.

Even if we won’t see you at these workshops, I’d like to hear back from you!

What’s the most unexpected kind of work or profession you’ve seen from a member of a coworking space? Do they do anything unique to get value from their coworking membership? Reply and let me know!

How to get the best insurance for your coworking space

Insurance. A service you pay for that you literally hope you never need to use.

And even worse, there’s no way to know how good your policy is until it’s too late. There’s not really a way to kick the tires.

I was talking with my biz partner (not Indy Hall – this other thing I do) Amy about this as she was simultaneously dealing with a leaky roof in her 270+ year old home and preparing to get insurance for her business’ new office buildout.

For coworking spaces, getting insurance is doubly difficult…at least.

If you’ve set out on the path of starting a coworking space, you’ve probably found yourself needing to get insurance in order to sign a lease. Most commercial landlords require your business to carry at least a couple million dollars in liability coverage, and some require the same or more in other categories.

But if you call most insurance agents and tell them about your new office, you’re going to start getting quotes that seem outrageous.

And that’s if you even get that far. A lot of agents are literally just plugging your information into a computer program, so they’re thoughtlessly asking you for EVERY piece of information instead of the most relevant details about your coworking space, how it operates, etc.

After dozens of agents who didn’t have a clue, I lucked out and found an AMAZING agent who has consistently helped us get the coverage we need. That includes:

  • Our general liability policy
  • Coverage that allows other special events, on-site and off
  • Coverage that allows us to have alcohol at our events, on site and off-site (naturally we need to be law-abiding and cannot SELL alcohol or serve minors)

And a whole lot more. Over 8 years I’ve periodically called Diane with questions about one-off events that needed a policy, and she was able to save us money by showing how our existing policy already covered it. She’s gotten used to my strange requests, and even knows what to push back on.

(No, Alex, no slides. No fireman’s pole. No bouncy castle).

It’s weird to say, but I really love my insurance agent. 

And best of all, she’s helped tonsssss of US based coworking spaces get very affordable policies when other agents were quoting insanely high premiums. At least once a month on the Coworking Google Group, someone posts asking questions about insurance. I usually refer them to Diane.

I recently asked her why she’s able to help coworking spaces when other insurance agents seem to struggle. She said:

The problem that other agents have with quoting coworking spaces is that most insurance companies do not have an actual “cookie cutter” insurance classification available that fits a coworking operation and most agents don’t have a grasp on the understanding of the coworking operation which in turn, results in underwriters not having a clear understanding of the operation.

When the underwriters are not forced to “think outside the box” to see that a coworking operation will qualify for a different class code than a lessor’s risk class code, they nor their quoting system will allow it, resulting in preposterous premiums that do not accurately reflect the risk.

Thanks to working with you I have an understanding of how the coworking spaces operate and what it entails. In turn, I have taught some of my specific underwriters to have the same understanding, and to see things my way.

See why Diane is awesome?

She knows that she’ll sell more insurance policies if she takes the time to really understand who her customers are and what they actually need. Instead of retrofitting what she knew (or thinks she knew) about shared offices, she actually got to know our business and learned how to communicate it to an underwriter.

Frankly, Diane has done more work to understand coworking than most people do…including the ones who put a bunch of desks and chairs in a room and call it coworking.

She could’ve just gotten me the cheapest policy. But would I have the coverage I actually need? Most definitely not. 

She could have gotten me the most comprehensive policy, covering all of my bases including the ones I hadn’t thought of before. But how much money would I be wasting on our coverage? A ton. 

All she had to do is go a step above checking the boxes in a piece of software and actually THINK about the questions she was asking me. And not only did she get one happy (and properly insured) client…but I’ve referred her to countless other people.

If you’re based in the US (but not in NYC – sorry New Yorkers, Diane’s writers aren’t available there), and need insurance for your coworking space, I’d love to introduce you to my agent. I don’t earn any commissions or kickbacks, and I don’t have any personal affiliation other than as a happy customer. Leave me a comment with a way to get in touch with you, or email me directly – alex@indyhall.org.

If for some reason Diane can’t work with you – now you know what to look for in an excellent insurance agent for your coworking space.

And if you run a coworking space – or are opening one soon – you can learn a thing or two from Diane

Rather than checking the boxes of what you think a shared workspace should be, ask your community questions. Practice Tummling. Don’t just seek out what they want, find out what they care about (and why). Get them involved.

When you do, you’ll start to see your members become as loyal as I am to my insurance agent Diane.

How Tummling created one of the biggest Kickstarter successes in history

Yesterday morning I got an email from my friend Charlie.

Usually, when Charlie Bowden takes some time out of his day to share something with me, it’s because he’s found something that connects the stuff I love with something I probably haven’t thought about yet.

Yesterday he emailed me about Exploding Kittens.

I should probably explain.

About a month ago, a few guys launched a Kickstarter for a card game called “Exploding Kittens”. A month later, they had the 3rd most funded Kickstarter campaign in history clocking in at just under $9 million bucks.

Truth be told, this Kickstarter opened with a bang thanks to it’s creators’ networks, not the least of which includes everyone’s favorite internet cartoonist Matthew Inman aka “The Oatmeal”. And when I say “bang”, I mean that they beat their funding goal of $10,000 and had over $1 million pledged in the first 7 hours.

But it’s not just the financial milestone that’s notable, nor why Charlie emailed me.

What’s amazing is that Exploding Kittens had the biggest backer-base in history by a factor of 200%+…and that’s ahead of a campaign to bring back Reading Rainbow…a massively mainstream piece of nostalgia for millions of people my age, led by a real deal celebrity, LeVar Burton.

By measure of participation, a few indie internet celebs just crushed Geordi La Forge

So, back to Charlie. He emailed me this screenshot of a backer update, with the text,

“Interesting insight from the most-backed kickstarter ever: it’s a community.”

So…hang on. What’s the difference between any collection of backers…and an actual community?

Charlie followed on with:

Yes. I admit it. I backed Exploding Kittens.

I learned a lot form just committing a few dollars though. This Kickstarter was different.

The “community” was made up of backers (who contributed $) and were involved in helping spread the word.

During the campaign the team challenged the community with “tasks” to unlock stretch goals (so it wasn’t just about money). Most of the tasks were just-for-fun: Tweet photos of 10 people wearing cat ears, 50 people, 100 people, etc.

We’ll come back to this unique approach to stretch goals in a moment. But first, a little crowdfunding psychology lesson.

Kickstarter Stretch Goals have become one of the “best practices” for Kickstarter Success. The idea is that once you’ve hit the financial goal you need to call the campaign a success and actually collect the backer money, you can set new financial milestones to encourage more contribution.

For example, look at my friend and one of my earliest mentors film projects, “Bokeh” on Kickstarter. When Andy and his team passed the original $35k goal, he offered every backer a digital copy of the musical score from the movie when they hit $45k. They closed their campaign north of $48k. Success!

“Give us more money, and we’ll sweeten the deal.”

It makes sense, and it works. But let’s look closer. What do stretch goals actually do?

Two things:

1. Stretch goals entice existing backers to toss in a few more bucks

It’s easier to convince someone who’s already backed to back a little more, than it is to convince an entirely new backer.

The psychology of this version looks something like, “Well, if everybody pitches in just a few more bucks, we all get something extra.” So long as the extra goodies are on point in terms of being desire-able, it’s pretty easy to shake a couple of extra bucks out of a good % of backers.

I’d be curious what % of backers increase their amount to fulfill stretch goals. My best guess is that it’s a minority percent…I’d ballpark 10% as a generous estimate but I definitely don’t have data to back that up. If anyone does (hi, Kickstarter) I’d love to know!

2. Stretch goals entice existing backers to hook their friends into being backers

The other element is that the best person to convince a new backer to join a campaign is someone who has already backed.

The psychology of this version looks something like, “I want this sweet bonus, and my friend might too. If they join as a backer, we both get it.”

Campaigns benefit from their backers’ networks and their willingness to share a bit of their trust.

This is a MUCH, much harder sell to existing backers.

You’re putting the social burden on your backers to talk to their friends about spending money, something that many people find incredibly awkward. And even when people ARE motivated to recruit for you, you’re putting the trust in your backers’ comfort and ability to sell your campaign for you.

And let’s be honest – most people loathe feeling “salesy”, and many more are simply terrible at it.

I know that a big part of Kickstarter’s advantage is the network effect that they’ve built into their model, and that’s a big part of what carries many campaigns further than they could if they ran an identical fundraiser on their own website or even another crowdfunding website.

But I’m curious how the network plays into the performance of stretch goals. Again, this is pure speculation on my part, but I’d be willing to bet that existing backers recruiting new backers is a TINY portion of campaign growth during stretch goals. Again, I’d love to see actual data on that.

Both approaches have one thing in common: they’re all about the campaign. They’re designed to draw attention to the product, the object, the creation.

And stretch goals work. But what if they could work better?

A new kind of stretch goal: one that’s about bringing the backers together

This is what caught my eye in the campaign up date from the Exploding Kittens crew.

“We decided that everything we did from that point on would be to celebrate you guys, and help you celebrate each other.”

That, my friends, is the very practice that lies at the heart of Tummling.

No, not this:

But this:

I normally show that diagram to help people understand why their approach to “community management” is broken, but today, it does a great job of showing the difference between most Kickstarter campaigns and our new champion Exploding Kittens.

Let’s go back to where we left off in Charlie’s email:

During the campaign the team challenged the community with “tasks” to unlock stretch goals (so it wasn’t just about money). Most of the tasks were just-for-fun: Tweet photos of 10 people wearing cat ears, 50 people, 100 people, etc.

Although most of the tasks were silly, they also started conversations and helped foster connections. Several people followed me on Twitter based on retweets and favorites.

With only 30 days to complete a Kickstarter and not having the benefits of being within the same space with your community the degree of difficulty in creating that magical sense of “belonging” is much higher.

As the campaign came to a close this week, the exploding kittens team gave back beyond the boundaries of the community by offering to deliver pizza to any pet shelter that a backer would recommend.

Instead of focusing on the one or two outcomes that most stretch hope to goals generate – more money from existing backers and new backers – Kittens focused on the nearly infinite possible things that their backers could do and create together. They were constrained only by the 30 day window and their online gathering place, the comments section.

Speaking of the comments section…

This is how The Oatmeal and friends smashed the previous backer record held by Reading Freaking Rainbow.

And this is Tummling at it’s finest.

Unlike most Kickstarter stretch goals which put the focus on drawing additional attention to the campaign, the Exploding Kittens crew made it their imperative to draw as much attention as possible to the people who’d already helped make the campaign successful.

They made the missions absurd, playing to the strengths and interests of their audience. How did they know what their audience would enjoy? The fact that they spent money on a card game called “Exploding Kittens” is a pretty good clue that their backers would enjoy creative and funny activities.

These missions created value for backers, not just value for the campaign.

For a second, imagine dividing the Exploding Kitten Backer Community into 4 populations:

  1. Lurkers
  2. Audience
  3. Participants
  4. Champions

1. Lurkers is easily the largest population because it includes the people who backed but ONLY watched the crazy missions take place…it also includes those of us who DIDN’T back the campaign, but lurked while the the missions unfolded in the updates, comments, and on Facebook.

That’s important and I’ll come back to that in a second.

2. The audience are the lurkers who “show up”. Their presence is visible and important, but they’re not actually doing the missions themselves. Im the case of Exploding Kittens, the backer audience showed up in likes and shares on Facebook. And there’s lots of them.

3. Participants are the backers who are actually stepping up to do the missions, helping unlock the stretch goals. Compared to the Lurker and Audience populations, the Backer Participants is a much smaller group.

But without the participants, the backer audience wouldn’t have anything to like and share, and the lurkers wouldn’t have anything to watch.

4. The champions help participants participate. Of course, the Exploding Kittens crew themselves are champions of this community, but so are the individuals who organized the group challenges…like getting 10 batmans into a hot tub.

The champions are the enablers. And I can’t think of a picture that says “enabling” better than the one above.

Every single mission gave each of these 4 groups of people a new way to connect with each other in the way that best suited them.

My point about Observers including people who haven’t backed yet is important to consider because every mission being performed by hundreds and thousands of people became the most incredible invitation to be a part of the fun. Which is a much more exciting and enticing offer than “become a backer and get a funny deck of cards”.

Every observer is loaded with potential contributions to your project…including multiple potential ways to help the campaign succeed before they ever contribute a dime.

What you can learn from Exploding Kittens

You’re probably thinking to yourself, “that’s all great, but I’d never be able to get $1 Million in my first 7 hours so this TOTALLY doesn’t apply to me.

And you’d be wrong.

The fact that Exploding Kittens was successful out of the gate wasn’t their greatest feat. It was that they CONTINUED to be successful for the entire duration of their 30 day campaign.

So even if your goals and your existing audience are much more modest, you can use this Tummling-style approach to reach your goals faster, and make far better use of stretch goals.

Here’s two big things you should learn from Exploding Kittens:

1. Make your campaign about your backers, NOT about you or your project.

It’s not enough to say “this campaign is all about you, backers. We can’t do it without you.”

You have to celebrate them, and help them celebrate each other.

2. Give people more ways to contribute than money and “sharing”.

Rethink stretch goals. And goals in general.

Goals tied to short term financial milestones only have two potential outcomes: you reach the goal or you don’t.

Alternatively, inviting your community into participate in activities and to celebrate each other means that even if someone doesn’t contribute a dime, their participation increases the value of being a backer AND invites new potential backers to the campaign.

Beware of (exploding) copycats, and know your community better than anybody else

It’s going to be interesting to watch campaigns in the future attempt to recreate the success of Exploding Kittens. You can be certain that we’ll see people attempt to copycat the “achievements” approach to stretch goals, and fail.

The difference between success and failure with this approach is how well you know your community. Exploding Kittens missions weren’t successful because they were silly, they were successful because the community was silly and the missions matched.

EP11 – Thriving, the psychology of belonging, and what makes a sense of community

The science behind the feeling that everybody wants but only successful coworking spaces truly understand

So we’ve all heard about the “sense of community” that people refer to about the best coworking spaces.

But…what exactly IS a sense of community?

What are the elements? How do you know if it’s there? Is it even something you can create, and if so, how?

I’ve been excited to share this interview since it was scheduled back in January!

I interviewed two research scientists – Peter Bacevice and Lyndon Garrett – from the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan.

Their work has been published by the university but also by Time magazine!

Pete and Lyndon are behind a series of studies to try to understand the source of a sense of community, and to find answers to some of the more counterintuitive results that coworking is able to deliver. In this interview, these two shared a TON of valuable insights about what really brings people together in our communities, and suggest some reliably consistent patterns that can help ANY coworking space create a more valuable sense of connection for their members.

Their research included did a mix of survey research and immersive ethnography, actually embedding in and observing a Coworking community in action…which is where the most valuable insights came from.

We talk about the difference between working and thriving at work, the importance of choice, the need for “flashes” of community and even how a sense of community emerges at different stages of desire for community. Seriously amazing stuff to help shape all of our work and our members’ experiences.

Listen to this episode

You can also subscribe to Coworking Weekly in iTunes, or add http://dangerouslyawesome.com to your favorite podcast app and it should auto-detect the feed!

I encourage you to dig into their work even further!

EP10 – What NOT to do while building your community, and more on how to keep your team from burning out.

Live via Google Hangouts from a snowy Philly, I did this Q&A first Coworking Asia Unconference.

I really wanted to go to this event in person. I was still considering it as recently as the beginning of January…but nursing with an injury in the beginning of January and a full dance card working on the new version of 30×500 made taking a couple of weeks to adventure to Bali start to seem like an unwise choice.

Thankfully, co-organizer Steve Munroe agreed with my suggestion to do a virtual session via Google Hangouts. Given the time zone shift, my Friday night outpost at Indy Hall transported me to a session titled “Breakfast with Alex” (a perfectly casual title) in one of the most BEAUTIFUL locations I’ve ever seen.

It took a couple of questions before the crowd warmed up – funny, considering the climate – but once they did I got some GREAT questions. I recorded the session and posted the audio below, along with some photos and tweets from the attendees of the session. Pay no attention to the giant head on the screen – look at all of those beautiful coworking people and the Green School venue. Just wow.

Thanks for inviting me to visit – next year I’ll be there in person!

Listen to the Q&A

Answers include:

  • My #1 trick to get the most out of ANY unconference.
  • How to avoid burnout in your team members. (Note: many coworking space community mangers seem to crash after about a year)
  • Why coworking space acquisitions are rare, and consistently fail
  • One of my favorite examples of using lessons learned in coworking to create new successful ventures
  • What NOT to do when building your community

You can also subscribe to Coworking Weekly in iTunes, or add http://dangerouslyawesome.com to your favorite podcast app and it should auto-detect the feed!

Relive the event vicariously with these tweets and photos

Seriously the coolest venue I’ve ever presented in, virtual or otherwise! Thanks to everyone who helped share the experience.

EP9 – I was so close to burning out, I needed help.

Coworking spaces are supposed to be a better way to work.

Freedom, flexibility, collaboration, and choice.

For everyone…except for the people who are hired to work there.

No matter what kind of business you’re in, adding someone new to your team is a tough thing to do well. But in a coworking space, it’s a special kind of challenge for a couple specific reasons:

1. New hires in a coworking space don’t know exactly what they’re getting themselves into.

I talk to a lot of people – including many of you on this list – about what they expected when they signed up for the job to be a community manager/community catalyst/community activator/whatever.

Nearly everyone admits that they didn’t really understand what they do well enough to explain it to someone else…even after weeks or months on the job.

And with job descriptions that read like this…

…I’m not exactly surprised. 😉

So how is someone supposed to feel good about doing a job when they don’t even know what SUCCESS is supposed to look like or feel like, for them?

2. The staff of a coworking space are often the only people in the room who HAVE to be there – because it’s their job.

Contrast that to a room full of entrepreneurs, freelancers, and even independently-minded employees…what’s expected of you as a staff member can get confusingly mixed in with the messages of entrepreneurship.

In order for team members to feel a sense of SUCCESS for themselves, they need to know that their job is more than simply to show up and punch down a list of to-do’s.

Adding someone to your team just by throwing tasks at them doesn’t really send the, “hey, welcome, we’re glad you’re here” vibe.

How do you give someone a job description, but still give them the agency they need to succeed for their own satisfaction?

Today I want to share how I learned to bring people onto the team at Indy Hall in a way that’s made a HUGE difference in both of those areas.

This approach has made it possible for the people who join the Indy Hall team to feel a sense of ownership over their work in a way that you couldn’t simply by going down a checklist of “things to do”.

In this episode of The Coworking Weekly Show – which takes a slightly different format than previous episodes and is a much quicker listen at just under 17 minutes – focuses on how we introduce new people to the job they’ll do to take care of Indy Hall…and the promise that we make in return. The technique you’ll learn in this episode can be used in all kinds of hiring and team building, including the examples that I open the show describing. And best of all, you’ll hear from someone who actually took my advice and applied it successfully in a business totally unrelated to coworking.

Listen to this short episode on how to grow your team and avoid burnout

Are you the person who has been hired to work in a coworking space? I’d especially like to hear from you!

  • What do you think about this episode?
  • How were you brought onto your team?
  • How would you have felt going through the process that I described in the show?

You can drop a note in the comments, or if you’d prefer to keep the discussion private, email me directly: alex@indyhall.org

Coming Soon: My tips for avoiding team member burnout, and what NOT to do when building your community, drops later this week!

This past Friday I went to the first Coworking Asia Unconference in Ubud, Bali. The bad news (for me) is that I only got to participate for about an hour via a Google Hangout, answering questions from the audience.

Answers include:

  • My #1 trick to get the most out of ANY unconference.
  • How to avoid burnout in your team members. (Note: many coworking space community mangers seem to crash after about a year)
  • Why coworking space acquisitions are rare, and consistently fail
  • One of my favorite examples of using lessons learned in coworking to create new successful ventures
  • What NOT to do when building your community

Got feedback? I wanna hear from you!

I’d love to hear what you think about this format – it was considerably more work to create an episode that’s much, much shorter. But if you like it, I’d like to do more like this in the future. So hit me up and let me know! @alexhillman on Twitter or alex@indyhall.org

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