Skip to Content

Alex Hillman

better coworking, better business, and better communities

Twitter Instagram

Search this Site

Type in terms like retention, culture, or tummling and press enter to search.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for by searching, don’t give up! Shoot me a message on Twitter, I might be able to point you to a post about the thing you’re looking for.

The Real Deal

17 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Last week, I shared publicly why I chose not to be involved with Innovation Philadelphia’s Global Creative Economy Convergence Summit.

Response was mixed, to say the least. In a dozen comments, views ranged from surprise to support, from dismay to disgust, from confusion to confederation.

I also had some offline conversations with friends, peers, and mentors, and the majority of the things discussed in “meatspace” are what led me revisiting the topic to this post.

I appreciate all of the feedback, from everyone…in my mind, anyone who takes the time to feedback at all cares one way or another, even if we’re not on the same page.

A part of me likes the debate, too. I think disagreement is important. As much as I preach alignment = execution, unique viewpoints involve new perspectives. That’s what leads to growth, evolution, diversity, and richness of culture.

The most dangerous thing in the world for me would be to think I operate in a bubble.

I’m not sure what I expected, to be honest. What I am sure of is that my post probably did not have came across the way I really wanted it do, mostly because I was trying to play the hand diplomatically.

I had help refining and honing my thoughts, and I was pleased with what came out…if it was for somebody else. I re-read my post and I can’t hear my own voice. That’s a problem.

So I’m trying again, and taking some risks. I’m drawing some lines in the sand, and I’m sure that I’m raising some eyebrows. I may burn bridges. I will alienate individuals, even some that I know and care about.

My goal is not to be destructive. It’s to open peoples eyes to what I see going on around me. If I’m completely off base, I expect to be told so, and I’ll be better off knowing that. If I’m not off base, and I cause someone to look at the world around them in a new light, then we’re all making that progress together.

Those of you who’ve been around me for more than a few minutes, you know that’s the true blue Alex Hillman.

Let’s go back to the beginning. How far? Pretty far.

3 years.

Almost to the week.

I put out a very specific call to action that I’ve been riding ever since.

Dare to be great. Together.

Please read this post from 2006 before moving on, it provides a ton of context for my conclusion.

Re-reading this post in light of my self-removal from GCECS2009, I realize that I strayed from that call to action for the first time that I can remember. Much like reading my own blog post and not hearing my own voice, straying from that call is a problem.

My post framed the discussion as “top down” vs. “bottom up”, and I essentially boiled it down to “you can’t be both”. I still stand by that, but I was making the wrong point.

I’ll circle back to 2006 in a moment.

The real point I was ineffective at making in my last post is:

I don’t believe that Innovation Philadelphia has been, or can be, 100% effective at its mission of “working to establish the Greater Philadelphia Region as a national leader and world-class destination for Creative Economy industries, businesses and talent”, because Innovation Philadelphia itself has an identity crisis. It doesn’t know what it’s supposed to do, so it does whatever it can to make sure it looks busy (pdf available in case it asks you to log in).

I want to be clear that what I’m about to share is my personal opinion. Not that of any organization I represent, partnership I share, or otherwise. I know that I’m not the only person that shares this viewpoint, but other people are tied to organizations and partners in ways I am not. I respect their desire to keep our conversations behind closed doors, unless they themselves decide to speak out.

I see Innovation Philadelphia as an under-used and over-produced attempt at being a regional resource for a good cause, the betterment of Philadelphia’s creative industry.

I see Innovation Philadelphia as an entity that thrives primarily by associating itself with lots of goings-on, effectively looking busy without necessarily contributing to the things it is associated with. It doesn’t serve its own purpose well, so it places itself alongside everyone else’s.

What bothers me is that this organization hasn’t been involved with these communities that they’re claiming to spotlight until now, when they stand something to gain from it.

For the last year and a half, since our new mayor was elected, Innovation Philadelphia has been reacting to significant budget cuts. In fiscal 2008, they received $2.5 million from the city of Philadelphia. In fiscal 2009, they were not even included in city budgets and pleaded for $1 million of city dollars for the year.

I don’t know where things ended up after that. In fact, a big part of my hesitation to even bring this up publicly is that I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m not an investigative journalist.

What I DO know is that IP’s news site is a reblog of everything else that’s going on in the region. Google searches for “Innovation Philadelphia” budget turn up very little, positive or negative, since mid 2008.

In light of that, GCECS2009  feels like a landgrab for where the real activity in this region is, in an effort to justify existance. They’ve admitted to co-opting a number of other successful formats from the community, including things that mimic Ignite Philly and BarCamp Philly.

Kelly Lee’s persistence over the last 3 months towards my involvement with the event leading up to (and even since) my declination also supports my instinct.

Without my support and involvement, there’s a void in the honesty of how this event represents Philadelphia. Comments on my original post support that.

From the Philadelphia Business Journal:

The conference format combines a mix of structured and informal meetings, panels and presentations with DIY elements borrowed from the tech sector’s bar camp model. For example, “unconference sessions” will be free and open to the public for sharing best practices. There will also be pecha kucha sessions, which are fast presentations kept to under seven minutes to allow a lot of people to showcase their work. Free meet ups will be held throughout the city to give the public opportunities to network and brainstorm outside of the conference format. Twitter and blog feeds will provide live feedback as the events unfold.

Let me be clear: “Free” isn’t the distinction between their events and ours. When we, the grassroots, plan and execute an event, we aren’t doing it to justify budget spending or even our existence. We plan them to satisfy a human nature to share, and the mutual benefit of the members of this community. When corporations hold the same type of event, free or not, their gain is different from that of the participants.

Like it or not, intent affects the execution.

Even the way that speakers were placed into panels for GCECS09 feels dodgy. I was asked to speak on a panel about alternative workspaces, along with two other people from outside of the region and one local. The fact that these people were from outside of the region wasn’t what had me puzzled, in fact I think that balance may have been beneficial. When one of the other panelists e-mailed me before I confirmed involvement saying, “Hey, I heard we’re going to be on a panel together”, I turned to some people who’d been involved with my deliberation and asked, “What’s up with that?” The other two non-locals happen to be people I know through my own network. Given the way that the first candidate approached me, I have to wonder if Innovation Philadelphia led them to believe that we’d be on a panel together, and if that had any influence on their decision to participate? I don’t know. I haven’t asked them. I hope they speak up in the comments of this post.

The outreach into other grassroots organizations has felt awkward as well. The inception of NxtUp Philly ties a bunch of independently operated events into a unified calendar of creative stuff to do for the first 2 weeks of October. Once again, whose logo shows up on the “partners” page? You guessed it. Innovation Philadelphia.

I was surprised that even the pre-party event was copy-catted. There are hundreds, into the thousands, of bars in Philadelphia. Why would they choose National Mechanics, a known hotspot for our community’s social events, as the location for their party?

Part of me says, “Well, why wouldn’t they?” I think National Mechanics is a phenomenal venue and their continuing support of community projects has been instrumental in the social side of our community’s growth. We are the way we are, largely in part, thanks to National Mechanics. Business is business, and I don’t expect their management team to have made a different call.

But why, when there are dozens of great bars and venues closer to the Philadelphia Convention Center in Center City? Doesn’t it seem strange to host a bunch of people to the Philadelphia Convention Center, one of the most bureaucratic (not to mention expensive) event venues in Philadelphia (compared to the likes of University of the Arts, or Johnny Brendas), but first haul them 10 blocks to another part of town place just because there’s a local hangout for the geek crew? Do they expect to recruit us as conference attendees while we’re hanging out with our friends and enjoying our veggie burgers and Yards IPA?

I’ve taken my parents to National Mechanics and they love it, so I know that this place most certainly can cater to any age range. But lets put the bacon vodka and weekly karaoke aside, consider the context, and think about how odd choosing this venue seems unless it’s a blatant ripoff of a significant number of events put together by our communities.

I’m not very good at arithmetic, but even I can tell things don’t add up.

I stand by my biggest concern about GCECS2009, as an event hosted by Innovation Philadelphia, is that it’s positioned itself as a platform for the often underproduced but highly energized grassroots movement that’s taken Philadelphia by storm over the last 2+ years. The energy of the grassroots that has impacted more than just the local community, but outside of Philly as well. The energy of the grassroots that Innovation Philadelphia has had nothing to do with.

I travel a fair amount, for business and pleasure. In every city, I’m meeting the leaders of their local “creative economies”. Emerging creative regions like Omaha, Des Moines, Salt Lake City, and dozens of other cities I’ve been to in the last 3 months alone cite Philadelphia’s metamorphosis over the last 2 years as not just an inspiration, but as having turned Philly into a potential destination for them to come and grow. Even established cities like New York have begun to interact with Philadelphia closer to equals in the creative/business world than ever before.

Consider this exchange between three New York independent creative business people:

“I like Philly a lot. That’s my Plan B.”

“Me too. I would totally live there.” “Sigh, me too”.

Things have changed. A lot.

Just this week I received an e-mail from a journalist in Berlin. He asked me one of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked:

You’re not the first coworking space, nor the biggest, yet you’re often referenced by start-ups all over the world as their point of inspiration. Why do you think that is?

In other cities, they’re looking to Philly as a model. But none of these have ever heard of Innovation Philadelphia. All of them have heard about our meetup community, Refresh, Ignite, Junto, and without letting my head swell too much, IndyHall.

Given Innovation Philadelphia’s identity crisis, I’m concerned about it appearing as if Innovation Philadelphia has in any way contributed to that grassroots until now.

It’s not just gut instinct. While the business journal makes it clear that they’ve co-opted formats from the DIY culture, other releases make it seem as if the format was something “innovative”.

New Topics, Innovative Format and More Speakers Highlight 2nd Global Creative Economy Convergence Summit

The language they chose makes things really scary for me. DIY activity IS usually pretty innovative. Innovation is not necessarily transitive. That is, co-opting something innovative doesn’t make you innovative.

The odd ball amongst my criticisms: The GCECS keynote presenters.

Well, they did something right.

There are 4 keynotes lined up that bookend each day. Three out of four of the keynotes, I’ve seen speak (in person or online). I’ve watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk on genius, and had my breath taken away. I’ve saw Jane McGonigal speak at SXSW08 and she brought the house down. I’ve read a bunch of Peter Shankman’s blog, and if I remember right, my first introduction was a HARO livestreamed giveaway he did celebrating the 1 year anniversary of Help A Reporter Out. The 4th keynote, Randall Kempner I’m not familiar with, so I can’t say much.

But the other three, though, I can verify with my own experiences as winners.

Presenters worth seeing.

In fact, the prospect of Elizabeth Gilbert, Jane McGonigal, and Peter Shankman being in Philadelphia alone had me glamoured when Kelly told me they’d signed on. I realize that now, and have to imagine I’m not the only person to have felt that effect.

I don’t think that the keynote speakers have anything to lose for participating in this event, though, since they’re effectively hired guns to motivate and inspire. They have a different set of responsibilities that, quite frankly, I do understand. Their individual impacts are larger than this conference itself, and that perspective is helpful for all of us.

While others haven’t been nearly as verbose, or had so many points to reference related to a single event, I’m not the first person to express these opinions:

Innovation Philadelphia has been relentless in getting its message out. I’ve probably received more newsletters, studies and e-mail updates from it than any other economic development agency. Perhaps Lee will raise the money she needs. But if July 1 spells the end of Innovation Philadelphia, I won’t miss it.

For a long time, I’ve shared this sentiment. This is the honest explanation of my previous post was charged with “top down” vs. “bottom up”, and quite frankly, any tone of “us” vs. “them”.

So back to my call to action, 3 years ago.

“Swallow your pride. Dare to be great. Do it together.”

And yet, considering the statements and observations above, I’m conflicted.

I know, I understand, I believe that the message that I can bring to this conference is positive and constructive.

I know, I understand, I believe that the perspective that I can share with people who I haven’t met is important.

I know, I understand, I believe that I need to swallow my pride, dare to be great, and do this together.

That means us.

That means them.

That means the entire city of Philadelphia, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, industry, employment status, living arrangement, preference of Pepsi vs. Coke, consumption of decaf or regular. Top down. Bottom up. Upside down and inside out.

The big picture is just that. Big.

Unfortunately, things became cloudy in my last post because of a poor judgement call on my part to use speaker compensation as an easy out. Luckily, there are digital paper trails and verifiable discussions to back the fact that my motives have been consistent prior to this judgement call, and that I’ve never been comfortable being involved with this event. My busy schedule this summer provided a front for the time it took me between correspondence with Innovation Philadelphia/GCECS2009 planners, and in that time, I spent a lot of time deliberating my involvement with both. I’ve been hesitant and cautious since first contact back in early June.

If I’m sure of anything, it’s my desire for Philly to continue to evolve, gather momentum, and for the hard work of today will live long past tomorrow.

In order for Philly to win, I need to figure out how to stand my ground and swallow my pride at the same time.

But this isn’t like walking and chewing bubble gum. It’s more complicated than that.

Mark Naples asked me,

If you were offered an editorial board with the Wall Street Journal, would you decline it because that organization is “too top down” for you? Doesn’t that sound silly?

First, I don’t like my values being called “silly”. But given the context of this conversation, I’ve swallowed my pride. Mark doesn’t know me, and I don’t know him. Mark doesn’t know about my motives because he hasn’t felt the effects of my actions.

What this comment illustrated to me, though, was that an ever-increasing part of my role in Philadelphia needs to be a part of closing this gap.

I don’t exactly know how, though, so I’m looking for input.

Is it possible for me to speak at this event while still expressing my concerns? What sorts of things do people need to hear from me in order for my presentation to be effective? What kinds of takeaways can I provide the larger community, the one beyond the grassroots, while not compromising my integrity and values, speaking openly and freely?

The comments and discussion that follow this post will be important. I don’t know the answer, because it’s not simple. I won’t find clarity without your help.

Please, share this post with others, and be honest in the comments. When I sat down to write this post, I committed to being honest and open, and if you’re planning on responding I ask the same of you.

That includes commenting with your name. While I haven’t disabled anonymous comments, I place a whole lot more stock in comments from real people.

This will help make sure you can find the most useful resources. I respect your privacy & email. Absolutely no spam, and I won't ever share your data. Pinky promise! 🤞

Hey, thanks for reading!

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.