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Brain Dump (July 2007)

11 minute read
by Alex Hillman

I apologize for any confusing direction of a message, or the language used. This is direct from my brain to your screen.

Brain Dump
Originally Uploaded by ducttapeavenger

I’m happy with the fact that I can be glad that I DIDN’T end up moving to San Fran 6 months ago. Staying in Philadelphia and resolving to uncover this culture…not dormant, simply hidden…has proven to be inspiring, to myself and hopefully to other cities going through a same self-discovery.

Colin talked about this city’s history. It’s a history of innovation. Of revolution. Of energy and inquiry. For some reason…the visibility of this kind of activity has decreased. But I don’t think it ever went away.

I’ve got a lot going on in my head right now about the value of being anywhere BUT the west coast. Not to diss the west coast, of course.

They set the bar. They run the show. If it weren’t for their inspiration and support where would I/we be right now?

And heck, I’ve never even been to San Francisco (yet) but some of my best friends are there. And they support everything we’re doing.

I realize that the biggest reason I wanted to leave this city was because I thought that the grass was greener. “San Fran has the community I’m looking for…so I’ll just go there”.

That would have been the easy way out. Instead, I scratched. I searched. I talked.

I talked a lot.

Some people might say I’ve been a broken record for the last several months. I’m always yammering on about community. Sometimes to people who might not give a shit. But you know what? Most of them did. Or at least they put up with me.

In 9 months, a completely organic community has formed from the people that put up with me. They come from all walks of Philly life. All different jobs. Talents. Aspirations.

But we share one important thing, a passion for what we do, and an interest in sharing that passion. But that’s not unique to our community…everyone wants to love what they do and to be around people who also love what they do. That’s why people in my industry move to San Francisco. They set the bar with culture…most importantly the community side of things.

I think I used to scan event calendars and get jealous that I couldn’t go to all of the meetups and events in Silicon Valley. Then I realized…why be jealous? I’ve got some kind of social prowess (or maybe, like i said before, I’ll really just talk to ANYONE about something that I think is important). Either way. What’s stopping me from pushing people here.

So that’s what I did. I started by coming in to an existing community, PANMA. I’d been lurking on their listserv for some time, contributed when it was appropriate. But this was definitively the largest gathering of industry folk we had, so it was the obvious place to start.

I’m going to go on the record to say that I quickly learned that it was going to be a difficult place to achieve my goals. I’ve heard some WONDERFUL things about PANMA in it’s heyday. Like any community though, it grew up. Its members got into a groove. They started companies. Families. It’s not unreasonable to think that those people didn’t have the same amount of time for the community that they started when they started it.

Not to say PANMA isn’t an incredible community in itself. Lots of people helping each other all the time with anything from technical problems to job postings to business best practices. It suffered from apathy, though, and a seeming lack of desire to evolve. It got into a groove, and was going to be tough to jostle out.

That didn’t stop me from trying, though. I came in and stirred the pot. Good thing I did, too, because I found some of our most dedicated members to date in that pot. And it’s never been my goal to pull people away from PANMA. We serve a different purpose than PANMA, and it serves a different purpose than our group. Like a Venn Diagram, there’s overlap, and I’m so glad that there is because I don’t think one group stands to last without the other.

Along the time I started stirring, Johnny Bilotta came along and started doing the same. At some point, it became clear that Johnny and I needed to go out for drinks. His talent as a designer was astounding, and his interest in my vision was an easy thing to detect. I don’t remember what I said to him, but it was the right thing, because since that first day he’s been all in. I’d venture to say that Johnny was our first member.

Also, getting involved with Geoff DiMasi was a pivotal moment. Geoff contacted me when Johnny and I started making noise on the PANMA list. Geoff was a Multimedia professor at UArts, a business owner in my industry, and had experience establishing a civic association in his community. He had a knack for interactive, business, and community. My hero.

Geoff got involved with Independents Hall as a partner and an adviser. He’s kept me grounded and inspired me at the same time. We clicked on ideas and execution. It was a lot of “hey i was thinking….” followed by “that’s a good/bad idea…” followed by “hey, i did that thing we talked about…”. It was natural, easy, and worked. We set goals. We made them happen. It was almost too easy.

Independents Hall evolved into a larger community, both functional and social. As an extension of business, partnerships of talent formed. Projects seemingly materialized. More and more people just “clicked”. Socializing continued, the mixing continued, and the group grew.

We started thinking about sharing space, coworking style, but we were still finding stability and purpose. The next progression was a series of events where we worked together…instead of from our homes or cafes by ourselves, we regularly started working together. Inspired by Amit Gupta’s Jelly in NYC, we moved our group around the city on a bi-weekly basis. This was another opportunity for us to find out if we could spend entire days together without killing each other, among many other positive outcomes.

We’ve been doing these sessions, dubbed the “Cream Cheese Sessions”, for about 3 months and the attendance grows each time. Until we get our own space (and likely afterwards), these events will continue, and hopefully so will their growth.

Oh, and that PANMA group? 4 of their board members frequent our circle of events, and I hope to have a good showing of IndyHall members at their summer social this week. Remember, we need to support each other.

In the beginning of May, I got an email from Brian Oberkirch tipping me off to the impending unconference that we recently experienced in the form of BlogPhiladelphia. It seems like this event, and its planner Annie Heckenberger, were a gift from some greater being that had been watching our activity. One of the goals that Geoff and I had set early on was some sort of conference, and right around the time that we were gaining momentum with our own initiatives, Annie and BlogPhiladelphia came along.

And it rocketed to the forefront of mainstream media exactly what we’d been saying for months: amazing stuff is happening in Philadelphia every day, but there’s no visibility for it, inside of the city or out.

The number one comment to me during and after BlogPhiladelphia was: “Wow, I had no idea that my neighbor was building this, or working on that”.

Whitney Hoffman, a planner for PodCamp Philly, said to me early in our conversations, “we shouldn’t need to leave the city/state/country to find out who our neighbors are and what they are doing”. And the same goes for the fact that we shouldn’t need to throw a gigantic conference to find out the same information.

I don’t have a single source of information. I search and scrape and somehow bring as much as I can together.

We need a mechanism to get out the “What’s going on” buzz, out. In my head, it’s no good. Distributed across,, various blogs and forums, it’s worthless. I’m currently brainstorming a convergence of this information. To be involved, drop me a comment/email.

Ultimately the goal is to create a go-to place for all information within the industry, and an opportunity for conversations and groups to converge. More on that in another post to come.

Fingers are cramping, brain is slowing down.

What’s the point of all of this, you may be asking, if you even got this far in my rambling.

Well the lessons I’ve learned are large, but consistent. The biggest one has to do with consistency, as it were.

1) Ritual events are critical. Having events “when it’s convenient” is good, having them regularly is better. They’re easier to plan (set a repeating event in your calendar). There is less guilt when you miss one (there will always be next time). There is more opportunity to take advantage of the event. Ritual events make it easy to go, “oh, look, it’s friday, time to go cowork!”. It’s easy, it’s fun, and its advantageous.

2) You can’t do it alone. And even if you can, you can do it BETTER with support. Support networks are critical to the sustainability of ANY initiative, too, so doing it yourself is just silly if you have a long term vision. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just be clear of what you need, and what the return will be. ROI isn’t just a business term.

3) If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you aren’t looking hard enough. It’s ok to talk to everyone. It’s ok to be a broken record. If what you’re looking for is really, really important, you will likely have to work for it. But that goes back to #2…just because you have to do it, doesn’t mean you should do it yourself.

4) Don’t ever get to one goal without setting another one first. That’s a recipe for stagnation.

5) Write down everything. Everything. Blog it. Twitter it. Email it to yourself. Scribble it in a moleskine (thanks Josh).

Where do we go from here?

Up. Onward. Just, for the love of god, don’t stop.

A couple of afterthoughts:

First, I know I said you can’t do it alone, and neither can I. The series of events I’ve scribbled down here for you wouldn’t be ANYTHING if it weren’t for the awesome teams that helped organize them, and just as importantly, the participants.

Independents Hall is a helluva group. Coworkers. Friends.

How often are the majority of your coworkers your friends. Not as often as me, I bet, and for that I’m blessed.

Also, I started this off talking about how I almost left for San Francisco. I almost left for an opportunity to work with two of my mentors, Chris Messina and Tara Hunt. Finding them, and interacting with them, was one of the most inspiring moments (or series of moments, as it would be) in my life. When I realized that some people were just meant to work together, I felt the need to be around them. And to date, I still love any time that I can find to work with them, face to face or online. Luckily, they helped me see that what I was looking for was already all around me. Chris and Tara, thank you for sending me on this incredible journey, and congratulations on affecting so many things that I needed to dump as many as I could muster into this post.

And finally, if I didn’t thank you specifically, it doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate something you’ve done for us. There are simply too many people TO thank, to get to them all.

So globally: “Thank you”.

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Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.