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

The OFFICIAL Indy Hall #newhome calendar!

Even though we’ve been working on this move for over a year, and even though construction has been going on for a couple of months, it didn’t really feel real until we put together this calendar to help us keep track of the next few weeks.

moving calendar Click to zoom in!

It’s up on the wall near the front door in the gallery, and we’ll be keeping it updated as well as online updates. But the big one for today is to save some dates!

Save these dates now!

→ First Town Hall in the new space Thursday August 4th

THIS IS NEXT WEEK

Thursday August 4th, 6-7:30pm at the new space. We’ll have food and drinks! (please RSVP), you can get a first peek at the new space, and we’ll open a conversation about the possibilities and goals ahead.

This Town Hall (like all Town Halls) is open to members and friends, just RSVP so we have a headcount to plan for!

This event WILL be livestreamed and recorded for people who can’t physically attend – including a virtual tour of the new space – but we’ll also be talking about things on the horizon that have nothing to do with the new space.

So RSVP to tune in or attend in person, and please spread the word 🙂


→ Moving Parade – Friday August 19

Yup, that’s right a parade. Imagine music, food, and festivities as we stroll down the street carrying boxes and desks. Anybody know a marching band that could lead us?

tumblr_mijde9nL2j1rw5tixo1_500.gif

More on this at Town Hall 🙂


→ First day working in the new space! – Monday, August 22nd.

Feeling “moved in” is going to take longer than a weekend, have the most important parts set up:

Desks, chairs, power, internet. Coffee. And most importantly, each other!

This is a Monday to look forward to.

Mondays.jpg


One more thing…

As we prep for next week’s Town Hall (please don’t forget to RSVP!) we’re also putting together the answers to two important questions that I’ve been asked and haven’t had perfect answers for.

1 – “How do I get mail delivered to the new space? Where/how am I supposed to change my address?”

2 – “How will I get into the building? Will we need keys and how will that work? What about visitors?”

Be on the look out for answers to BOTH of these questions in the coming days…

Silence is the silent killer

As always – my “door” is always open for conversations and problem solving. If anything is on your mind, please don’t hesitate to come talk to me or Adam or Sam or Sean or even each other.

Something you’re pumped about? Come tell us so we can make sure to include you as much as possible!

Something you’re worried about? Come share with us so we can think about how to make it better together.

Because that’s the thing that makes Indy Hall tick. This community has always been making things better and doing it together. I don’t have ANY illusions that we’re perfect, so the thing I’m 100% committed to is working together to improve.

Ya dig?

And thank you. For your precious attention, for your thoughtful and talented contributions, and for your spirit of optimism that whatever we do together would be better than doing it alone.

Thats’ what we’re all about. <3

-Alex

Standard Operating Procedures for Coworking

I don’t have a problem with rules, I have a problem with creating an environment that creates rule-following machines.

Don’t get me wrong, the world needs rule-followers too. There are companies that want and need cog-like employees.

The problem is that I see a LOT of coworking spaces where staff and members alike are more worried about following the rules than looking after each other. When the goal is creativity and collaboration – things that coworking spaces often promise – documenting the “rules” and standard operating procedures needs to work a little bit differently.

So about 5 years ago, I started this by trying to write down the fundamentals about how I make decisions, so that our community could better understand why things work. The result has been live on our public website for quite a while, broken down into a sort of “plinko board” of actions that we always strive for, and actions we try to avoid. It’s sort of like a hybrid of a SOP and a living breathing action-oriented version of our community values, documented:

We always:

…help unlikely groups of likeminded people form relationships. …focus on people and their interactions, and the formation of relationships. …help people tell the stories of the experiences they have in Philadelphia. …trust people to do the right thing. …guide people to being good citizens of Indy Hall and of Philadelphia. …support people in their goals of building businesses to last, in Philadelphia and for Philadelphia.

We never:

…do anything against our community’s interest. …focus on desks or square footage. …create something only because we think we’re supposed to. …accept the status quo. …accept a “no” at face value. …compromise our core values. …prioritize a transaction before a relationship.

Every day, we:

…keep people at the center of every action, interaction, and decision. …welcome new community members, and make it clear that Indy Hall is theirs, not just ours. …always look for a way to say yes. …teach others in our immediate and neighboring communities how we operate.

I literally use these guidelines for decision making 100x a day, and it’s awesome to watch my team and even members use and reference this when figuring out how to make things work.

…but it’s kind of a mouthful.

It’s not always easy to remember every bit or communicate it quickly, and for some people, it’s more overwhelming than helpful in the moment. So we came up with a simpler, shorthand version that we put on our welcome one-pagers, and include as a major part of our tour.

Success in our community comes most often by remembering to do three things:

  1. Look after yourself
  2. Look after each other
  3. Look after this place

In all cases, we’re SUPER careful in our language choice to make it clear, before providing SOP documentation, that anything documented is meant to help, but not constrain. Any “rule” is open to being adjusted, adapted, or rewritten to help us better achieve our goals working together.

What’s worked for you?

I’m curious if you’ve found ways to balance between SOP and handbook-style documentation, while still allowing/encouraging people to “color outside of the lines” and trusting people to do what’s right? Share your examples in the comments!

Indy Hall finally has an OFFICIAL move-in date

Friday
August
19th

It feels like I’ve been waiting a lonnnnnnnnng time to finally be able to say a specific move date.

August 19th is almost exactly 1 month from today. Yes, that’s soon…but it’s also ample time for us to accomplish a lot.

Another important date is Thursday, August 4th. That’s when we’re hosting the first Town Hall meeting in the new space (also to be livestreamed online). Please let us know that you’re coming and RSVP on Facebook!

Please MARK YOUR CALENDARS for BOTH of those dates right now!

  • Thursday August 4th – Town Hall at the #newhome! (RSVP)
  • Friday August 19th – Moving weekend begins!

Please take note that for the move, we’ll be closed for normal work on Friday, August 19th and when we re-open on Monday August 22nd, we’ll be in our new home at 399 Market Street.

We’ll still have work to do to make the space feel like home, of course, but the goal is to time everything so that the transition itself is functionally as seamless as possible.

Uh oh, date conflict?

If I could choose another time of year to do this, I would. I know that people have summer vacation travel plans, as well as work and personal commitments that might conflict with these dates.

If that’s you – don’t sweat it, but please do let us know ahead of time especially if you’re a full time member.

There will be plenty of opportunities to get involved in the move before and after, and if you want to be a part of making our new home awesome we can keep you posted on things that fit your schedule better.

Still haven’t seen the new spot?

You should come to Town Hall on August 4th since it’s the first time we’ll come together as a community in the new spot. But if you want to go over sooner, I’m over there every day often multiple times a day, so I’m happy to take you on a tour. Just say the word – DM me on Slack or email me directly (alex@indyhall.org)

So….what comes next?

Now that we have a date… the vague details that have been hanging out will be a lot easier to make concrete, and to put them on a timeline and in the right order.

As important as the date itself, there’s a lot we can (and should) do BEFORE the move-in date.

We’re in the process of organizing an big ass to-do, and will share that in the next day or so. More eyes on that list will help us ensure we don’t forget something important.

We’ll also be looking for input on creative projects to help the new space feel like home. There will be lots of fun to be had before, during, and after the move.

I’m even thinking about a few ways to make the Friday move itself into a fun event…more on that at Town Hall 🙂

So yes. things are going to start moving fast, but lots of decisions are still wide open and communication will be a lot more frequent! So please talk to me, Adam, Sam or Sean if you have ideas or questions.

Also, if anything seems off, weird, or wrong to you…please come talk to me ASAP. I’m definitely not perfect and I’m not ashamed to say I made a mistake, and I care more about doing right by the community than anything else.

Don’t forget to RSVP for Town Hall!

You’ll probably get sick of me mentioning it, but please please please RSVP for and spread the word about the August 4th Town Hall!

On a more personal note – I’d be a basketcase right now if I didn’t have this community amazing to back me up throughout this process. The support you’ve shown me and each other mean so, so much, and has me so excited to work together to make this new location our own.

<3 <3 and gratitude,

-Alex

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

6 weeks until go-time. Time for a town hall!

The biggest question of the summer around Indy Hall is…when exactly are we moving? To be perfectly honest, it’s been tough on me and the team to keep giving vague answers like “in August…”

Well, the end of August is just over 6 weeks away. And I know first hand how frustrating it feels to be this close, and have so much still seem like it’s up in the air.

The good news is that construction has been going really well, and we’re entering the home stretch. As we get ready for the move, we’re hosting our Summer Town Hall for Thursday August 4th from 6-7:30pm.

And since August 4th should be ​very​ close to the delivery date of our finished space, we can host the Town Hall in our new home itself! ​

We’re making this event open to everyone, just please RSVP on Facebook so we can plan for seating!

>> RSVP for Town Hall

Until then, two very important things:

ONE: I’m hyper aware that this move is going to be a big change for all of us. I’m as confident as ever that 399 Market is going to be an amazing upgrade to our current space in many many ways, and that this new chapter holds incredible potential to do things even better.

But if anything I’ve said (or haven’t said) is has you worried​, please talk to me.

Email me, DM me on Slack, or text me directly. I will make time. I’m here to listen!

TWO: If you haven’t been over to the new space yet, or if you haven’t since before construction began, I am MORE than happy to take you over to see it in person. Just hit me up and we’ll make it happen!

Photos coming later this week – and maybe another Facebook Live video tour if people are into it!

the keys to making a coworking space feel like home

(first in a series)

There’s this amazing video on Indy Hall’s website from our 5 year anniversary party. People are reveling and reflecting. Some of them may have had a few drinks before the camera turned on. But I love it because it’s so honest, and a beautiful snapshot of what a coworking community can mean to the people inside of it.

It’s worth a watch, but there’s one part in particular where AJ (pictured above) talks about mixing up his house keys with his Indy Hall keys, a symbolic “this place feels like a second home.”

A few weeks ago, Melissa Mesku posted a story on New Worker Magazine about her own personal story about keys to two contrasting coworking spaces.

A physical key is inferior to a swipe card in nearly every technical way, but as Melissa so aptly pointed out:

“The fact that the key was a metal one on my key ring and not a plastic one in my wallet seemed to signify a deeper difference: the things in your wallet are used for transactions while the things on your key ring are far more personal.”

Melissa’s story reminded me a lot of AJ’s sentiments.

I even think back to when we signed our first lease, and how symbolic it was to get the physical keys. I literally wore them on a chain around my neck for the first week because they represented such an important milestone in our community.

All of these stories have been on my mind even more than usual as we get ready to move Indy Hall into a new home next month.

In addition to being a blank canvas to invite our community to create that cozy feel we’ve come to love, our new space is a technical upgrade in nearly every way. But among the few concerns shared by myself and our members is making sure that for what we gain in technical improvements, we keep our human, personal touch.

Including the keys.

Similar to the space with the physical key in Melissa’s story, our community-powered approach to access control has made our archaic, metal, keyring-bound keys a token of trust, not just a tool of access.

The system isn’t perfect, but its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses and most importantly, it sends a message of “I trust you” instead of simply “access is granted.”

But what changes when we move to a new space where the building has a front desk security staff, and where we issue plastic swipe cards instead of metal keys?

It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for a few months. I’ve been talking with members and our team, and a few goals have emerged that we’re using as a “guidance system” to help us navigate the inevitable changes.

So over the next couple of emails, I want to talk a little bit about how we are approach these changes, the specific goals themselves, and how we’re going to try to accomplish them.

All of these goals are things that apply whether you’re looking at your first building, your fifth, or your fiftieth.

And as always, we’re going to start with the people.

Goal: Help the building staff feel like a part of the family

I did a recent podcast about the importance of the relationship you have with the people who operate your building.

But it’s not just landlords…including in the rare occasion that you yourself are the owner. Building aren’t self-maintaining – even in the simplest form, they take lots of people’s effort to operate smoothly.

One of the big wins that I recognized early in working with our new building’s staff is how they work together as a team.

How they work together became a clue about how we would work together.

They’re on site to do various jobs including security, maintenance, operations, and cleaning. But unlike contract services where people are in-and-out, the building staff is dedicated for our building. They have their own culture, one built around how they look after the building and the people in it.

It’s different from what we’re used to, but it also felt familiar.

Among my top priorities beyond the logistics of the move is getting to know the building staff in the same way that we’d prioritize getting to know new members.

Short term, this is as simple as stopping to say hello and chatting with them instead of simply breezing by their desk to go up to our space. The interactions are not overwrought or unnatural, I simply show up them the same curiosity that I would to any Indy Hall member. And the results have been amazing.

I’ve learned that the one staff member plays competitive pool. I’ve learned that another is a musician, a writer, a video producer and dabbles in 3d modeling.

It’s easy to skim past the past the service staff and assume you have nothing in common, but like each of us, there’s more to them than their job title.

You can’t force friendships. But you can earn trust, rather than simply be granted access.

So before a key ever changes hands – metal or plastic – we’re going out of our way to help the staff who runs our new building to know that we appreciate them looking after the home that we share.

They’re a part of our family now, and if we do a good job, we’ll be invited to be a part of theirs.


In the next post, I’m going to get back to talking about physical keys again.

I’m going to talk about why certain objects feel more important than others, and some of the things we forgot to do over the years, and some new goals that will make our new keyholder process even more useful for the entire community.

Drop your email in the box below and I’ll send you the next article when it’s live!

“I’ve been going to this coworking space but…” 😫

My buddy Sean Fioritto has been craving a community of likeminded people in Chicago for a while, and he’s been struggling to find it.

Around 2 months ago, he met Monica Guzman. Sean tells me that Monica specifically reached out to him because she was ALSO feeling isolated and wanted to meet more people like her.

Like Sean, Monica was looking for more ways to connect with likeminded people who she wouldn’t have to explain herself to, who might actually understand the challenges and aspirations of running a solo business.

They started talking. And talking more. And talking more.

Sean had recently hit a kind of breaking point, and drafted a blog post, a rallying cry of sorts.

Before hitting publish, I gave Sean just a little bit of coaching and sent him a preview release of my new audiobook “The First Ten“. He pressed the button.

In just a matter of days after making his post public, Sean and Monica went from isolated entrepreneurs to taking their first steps to building the community they’d been craving in Chicago.

But wait. I can practically hear you thinking to yourself…

“Chicago has coworking spaces, right? Why create all of this noise? Just go there! Problem solved.”

Well hold your horses.

Sean goes to one of those coworking spaces.

In fact, he’s tried several. Monica was on the hunt for a coworking space, too. But there was a problem.

As Sean has described it to me, the problem is that for most of the people inside the coworking spaces he’s tried and settled for, the offer is little more than a low-cost, low commitment office that lets him get out of the house. He didn’t want more services or facilities to be more productive. He didn’t need nicer furniture to be more comfortable or even free coffee to be productive.

Without any context or sense of community among the members, it’s just a bunch of people being lonely together. The loneliness problem doesn’t actually go away.

“I rent a coworking space, but we barely know each other. There’s no way that spontaneous collaboration will ever happen there. Nothing surprising could ever come out of that place, and it only makes me feel a little less lonely.”

As a quick sidenote, ugh, I hear stuff like this way, way, way too often. It makes me mad. Maybe worst of all, I hear it from frustrated members, but I hear it even more often from coworking space staff who can’t figure out why their members come in every day and sit in complete isolation from each other. They’re not sure what to do. They worry if they’re doing something wrong. If that sounds like you – check out my challenge below and email me. I want to help.


Back to our dynamic duo, Monica & Sean.

They both wanted people to have a friendly conversation with, to push each other to be better in the way that great coworkers and teammates do.

I know first hand how this feels, because I needed the exact same thing 10 years ago before I started the Indy Hall community.

And Sean learned, like I did 10 years ago, that he wasn’t alone.

Sean learned something that too many coworking space founders (and their teams) learn far too late, if they ever learn at all:

For a lot of professionally creative and independent people, “space” isn’t the most valuable problem you can help them solve.

As Monica told Sean: “Community is more important than the space, community is the point.”

Working alone sucks, but loneliness isn’t cured by a room. Too often, in fact, space becomes a distraction that allows the loneliness to perpetuate.

Loneliness is best cured by inviting people to do something together. It’s really that simple.

You might notice that Sean and Monica’s first events don’t look like the typical events that have become the default at so many coworking spaces. Nobody’s on stage. There aren’t any sponsors, or even a promise of free food and beer.

And that’s not an accident.

Sean has been listening to our playbook, and has been supporting Monica to put together a first event that I see as exceptional on three particular fronts:

  1. Keeping the event low impact and casual – it’s absurdly easy to plan and execute, which means Sean & Monica can focus their efforts on inviting people to join in instead of being distracted by speakers, sponsors, and lots of other unnecessary “event defaults”.

    Think about community building as more like “hanging out with a purpose.”

  2. This invitation is clearly written by a person. Take a look at the last event promotion you sent or received. I always tell my team to imagine if you used that same tone or voice to invite your best friend to your birthday party. Would they actually want to come, or would they tell you to loosen up?  

    Instead of a buzzword-laden agenda, Monica and Sean host this event with a tone that talks more about the people who would be there and what they care about instead of what they do. While crafting the invite, Monica chose to talk a _little_ bit about what kinds of jobs people might have, but she brilliantly chose to focuses MUCH more on common interests, values, and identities to invite diversity. At the same time, the invite makes it clear who this is for, and what you can expect (and subtly, what not to expect too).

    I might go so far to consider this style of invite an “advanced community building move” but she’s executed if beautifully.

  3. This last one is a little bit counterintuitive, so stay with me!

    Think about the difference between dinner party where you can get a chance to meet everyone, vs a giant house party where you probably wouldn’t break away from your existing friends. It’s absolutely brilliant to be keeping these initial gatherings small and intimate. Far too often, an event success is gauged by headcount.

    Instead, Monica guided them to make choices that will encourage and invite people to get to know each other.

    This choice makes a far more effective community building event (where the result is people actually forming relationships) and builds a stronger foundation for future growth of the community.

    Note that they could have increased the headcount when the first event filled up. In fact, Sean admits he would have gone that way if Monica hadn’t talked him in this direction. He told me:

    “When Monica scheduled a second meeting, at first I was like, ‘huh? why?’ and then it dawned on me that we could actually focus on making friends that way, which is the entire point. The reason my little slack community exists is because we started with a core group of friends. Monica is a smarty.”

    It’s worth noting that they also could have set that second session up a few days later or even the following week. And they can always adjust going forward. Minor tactical choices like this matter a lot less when you’re making smart strategic choices like the rest of them.

    But the point is that this intentional choice to keep it small will let them focus on priority #1, which is building the community core that’s missing elsewhere. Smarty indeed.

You can be a smarty, too.

You can put this into action too, whether you run a coworking space already, are working towards opening one, or are an enthusiast who wants to build a stronger community.

Here’s the first couple of steps to get you started:

  • Think about who you’d want to invite.

    Ask yourself: What kinds of things does this community already like to do? Might they like to do it together?

    Keep it simple and casual, but give people something to look forward to. Remember, more like a dinner party, less like a giant house party.

    e.g. sharing food and drinks are an easy choice (pot luck dinners rule), playing games like Sean, Monica and their crew, checking out something new in your neighborhood, going to a museum…almost any kind of group activity is fair game so long as it’s relatively easy for new people to join in.

    And avoid putting people on stage unless it’s for karaoke night.

  • Pick a date, pick a time, and pick a place to invite them to do that thing. Remember, the goal is a small event where people can actually get to know each other. It can be really helpful to choose a place where the size of the venue helps keep your headcount down.

    Quiet bars and cafes are great. Don’t pick somewhere that people will need to shout across the table the whole time.

    If you DO operate a coworking space, don’t use your own space as the venue. Remember this is for doing something together, not showing off your space. Besides, you’ll have an easier time getting to know people when you aren’t thinking about the operational details of your space.

  • Put it out there. Keep your invitation personal. Personal invites go a long way, and there’s a very good chance that you already know people who want the same thing as you (or at least know someone else who might).

    And if you’re nervous, remember that this is low stakes, especially compared to signing a lease. If only a few people show up, this event can still be a success because you’ve completely re-calibrated the goal towards maximizing conversations instead of maximizing headcount.

Got it? Good!

Alex’s Challenge: Do it in the next two weeks.

My challenge to you is to give this a shot in the next two weeks. Yes, two weeks.

If you take more time than that, you’re guaranteed to overthink it.

There are tons of things you THINK you need to do, but don’t. Focus on the fundamentals, like Sean did. And like I did.

If you decide to take me up on this challenge, and organize something like this in the next two weeks, reply to tell me what you’re going to do.

Yes, I’m serious!

I want to hear about it. Shoot me an email and tell me where you are (city/country), a little about your community, and what your community building event is going to be.

And afterwards, send me pictures! I love seeing pictures of communities coming together. They totally make my day 🙂


Want more step-by-step guidance? I’ve got your back!

IHW audiobook image

For the next 2 weeks, my new audiobook “The First Ten” is on sale for $10 off to celebrate it’s launch!

Check out the free sample chapters to get a taste, and pick up a copy now so you can listen to over the next two weeks while you’re getting ready to do your community building event. 

Chapter 3 and 6 in particular are PACKED with more stories and lessons about what makes a great community building event, with even more examples for you to draw from.

What it’s like to have an internet provider that actually cares

Philadelphia is home to one of the largest internet providers in the country. So it’s not without irony – or controversy – that we don’t get any hometown love from our hometown provider.

Speeds are inconsistent or slow, prices are high, and the only thing worse than the customer support is that there isn’t really a good alternative. Some parts of the city can get Verizon FiOS but that’s not without it’s own controversy and even where it is an option, I’d just be trading a hometown megacorp that doesn’t care for an out of town megacorp that doesn’t care.

“Lesser of two evils” choices sure don’t feel like real choices, but not having internet also wasn’t an option. So I did what everyone else does: I paid the bills, avoided calling customer support, and bitched about it over beers any chance I found.

Then, about a year ago, I was introduced to a Mark Steckel

At the time, Mark had a little idea. He wanted to launch a new internet provider in Philadelphia.

6 months later, he did his first installs in East Kensington. Then earlier this year, when I moved into my new house near Cecil B Moore and Front Street, I became a customer of Philly Wisper myself.

$200 install, which includes first month. The networking hardware is the best I’ve used, it’s the same stuff we use at Indy Hall for hundreds of devices. More than powerful enough for the heaviest home use.

$50/month flat pricing (no contract required) for speeds of 25mb up and down guaranteed, though every time I’ve ever run a speed test I’ve gotten much, much higher than that. And for the uber-nerds in the room, ping times to google of under 10ms…roughly half of what I’ve ever had before.

While I can rave about the quality of the connection, I’m most impressed with the quality of customer service

Mark is undoubtedly qualified to run the technical side of an ISP, but assuming that fast, reliable internet should really be the default (even if we’ve become numb to the dull pain of being Comcast customers) professionalism and communication is really where PhillyWisper shines.

Before I started Indy Hall, and before I did web development, I did network architecture and support. I’m acutely aware of how legitimately difficult it is to design and operate any kind of network, let alone one that’s rapidly growing. There will be unexpected bumps.

The difference is in how you handle them those bumps.

For example – every one of us has experienced an internet outage that customer support attributed to some kind of “equipment maintenance,” right?

Have you ever had your home internet provider proactively contact you to let you know about 5-10 minutes of expected downtime, 24 hours ahead of time?

I have.

Have you ever had your home internet provider provide a detailed incident report 24 hours after 40 minutes of unexpected downtime?

I have.

It might seem weird to highlight downtime in a wildly positive review about a service that I’ve quickly come to love, but my point isn’t the downtime. Shit happens.

It’s about how the problem was proactively addressed: quickly, professionally, and with a friendly (and authentic) apology.

Mark treats his customers like good neighbors treat each other, while providing a high quality service. That’s more than enough to win my dollars.

Note: I haven’t been paid to write any of this. I (happily) pay full rate for my PhillyWisper service. Ask any of my neighbors, I’ve been raving about Mark and PhillyWisper since it was installed.

Philly Wisper is so choice.

The only downside to PhillyWisper is that it’s not available everywhere in Philly just yet, but that’s only a matter of time.

If you’re in one of the available zip codes, I highly recommend making the switch. And if not…drop your name and zip-code on the site so Mark can let you know when he’s coming to your area.

Bonus awesome: Philly Wisper is providing free wifi for the Trenton Ave Arts Festival

If you’re in Philly this weekend you should be headed to the festival anyway. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s the home of the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby which is one of the most wonderfully Philadelphia-weird events of the year that you have to see with your own eyes to believe.

And if you find Mark Steckel, tell him I sent you.

Tough Love & Oxygen Mask Coworking

Let me save you from a hard-earned lesson in being helpful

Earlier this week, I got an email from a reader asking advice in a tough situation:

We partnered with our City to create a vibrant community for entrepreneurs in exchange for a rent- free space.  It hasn’t been easy, or perfect, but it is working and is valued by many.   

We are at a crossroads right now.  We just got notice that the City is taking over the facility at the end of our lease… which is in June.  That does not leave us much time to find a new home for our community! 

Our current building is definitely not ideal office space, but it is rent free.  Even so, we’re just barely breaking even.  My team and I are currently exploring all kinds of options for where should move, and what implications that will have on our finances. 

I am concerned that we will take on too much expense and not be able to bring in enough members to cover it.  I am also concerned that there will be so much pressure to bring in revenue that our culture will be damaged, and we will turn into a soul-less office park, not the vibrant, fun, bootstrapping group that we are.  

Have you encountered a problem like this before?  We really aren’t sure what our next move should be, and we have only a few weeks to lock down a new location that will serve our community, and allow us to grow our impact and revenue!

Ouch, right?

Situations like this hurt. You work your ass off, scraping by, because you believe you’re doing something important and helpful.

And in the moment, it’s easy to find yourself wondering…what the hell do I do now? Here’s how I answered.

First – is the space actually most valuable tool in your toolkit? 

If the answer is yes, then you need to do some serious re-evaluation of your model. In your current configuration, you’ve built your model that makes space a liability, not an asset. That needs fixing.

Have you thought about what your community would look like if it were “homeless” for a little while instead of scrambling for a space?

Who would stick around? What could you do together if sharing office space wasn’t the most visible aspect of your offering?

Even if you’re not in this situation YET, use it as a thought experiment. What would you do if the coworking space you run burned to the ground, or got knocked down? How would you deliver value then?

If the answer is “I’m not sure” – that’s a problem. And it’s going to be a lot easier to solve that problem NOW then when you have your back against the wall.

Second – have you talked to your community about the fact that you’re barely breaking even even though the space you use is provided for free?

If they don’t see that as a problem, again, you have a much deeper rooted issue.

If you’re actually an asset to the community, it’d be worse if you weren’t able to keep doing what you do.

But you know how the airplane security videos tell you to put on your oxygen mask before helping others put on theirs? That’s because if you put someone else’s oxygen mask on first, there’s a chance you’ll die in the process and that means you won’t be able to help anyone…and you’ll be dead.

Fact: Your model isn’t sustainable even with free space. That’s a problem you owe to your community to fix. 

Fact: Even if you found another free space, what’s going to prevent you from being in this situation again in the future? This is a problem you owe to your community to fix. 

Because if you ignore these problems in this transition, you’re only delaying the inevitable.

You need to put on your oxygen mask. 

My biz partner Amy Hoy coined the term “Oxygen Mask Entrepreneurship” – it’s often emotionally counterintuitive, but absolutely crucial for long-term success.

Fear and Scarcity make us do and say stupid things.

Did you notice this quote from the original email above?

“I am concerned that we will take on too much expense and not be able to bring in enough members to cover it.  I am also concerned that there will be so much pressure to bring in revenue that our culture will be damaged, and we will turn into a soul-less office park, not the vibrant, fun, bootstrapping group that we are.”

If this feels familiar, I’d bet you $100 right now that giving away free/cheap space isn’t what makes your community awesome.

And won’t it be worse for your culture to be damaged by you not being able to exist any longer if you don’t address your sustainability issues? You have to take a longer view than just replacing your space.

And I’m not just saying YOU should do this…I speak from experience

When I started Indy Hall, all of the models for coworking were dependent on free or subsidized space. On one hand, I didn’t have access to that. But I also saw it as a liability. Space that’s free is space that’s likely to go away.

Why would I want to put in all of this work to help my community…just to put them in a vulnerable position?

Our membership model is even designed specifically to make it less likely that a single entity or group could put our community at risk.

More recently, I’ve been following this advice myself for the last 12 months.

From the moment I shared the news with our community that our landlord had lost their mind and we would need to find a new home, I made it clear that of all of the things that were possibly going to change WHO WE WERE wasn’t going to change and that’s all that mattered.

I talked about this at length in this two part podcast. I highly recommend listening to that one closely.

And then taking a serious look at your model and take care of that oxygen mask, stat.

It’s hard work, but the people in our community are worth it. I bet the people in your community are, too.

21 Things I’ve done so far in 2016

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

Whew. 

The best interview I think I’ve ever done

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

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

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

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

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

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