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We bought

7 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Less than one week ago, an unlikely e-mail found it’s way into my inbox. Actually, it found it’s way into 2300+ inboxes connected to the Coworking Google Group, which arguably the most active singular location to find out about coworking, share ideas about coworking, and meet people interested in coworking.

Gerrit Visser, and his partner Bernie DeKoven, had owned for over a decade. On it, they shared articles and ideas about collaborative work and play. They periodically interacted with members of the coworking community, including some interviews with Brad Neuberg who kicked off the movement we know coworking as today.

An Opportunity

Gerrit and Bernie had been approached by two commercial entities interested in, and decided between them that the community that had gotten behind the term “coworking” should have a shot at buying the domain first, if they were going to sell at all.

A few hours after their post the Google group with the offer, there hadn’t been any public activity so I decided to take some action and e-mail Gerrit for details.

Once I had the sale price and a target to hit, I realized that there wasn’t only no way for me to buy this domain on my own without seriously stressing my bank account, but it would have been the wrong thing to do. Indy Hall benefits from a strong sense of belonging and ownership even from people who do not technically own IndyHall. It’s peoples’ contributions to the making of Indy Hall in every step of our history that binds them to us, and to each other.

Photo by @missrogue

People support what they help create

I e-mailed a list of trusted advisors, peers, and a couple of coworking’s “patron saints” to first see if I was off my rocker, but also to propose a model for raising the funds. That model established a clear cut financial goal, defined methods of contribution, and outlined some simple rewards.

Three basic tiers of contribution, and actionable goals.

Before I could even get the model out of the hands of this short list, almost half of the target had been reached.  The concept had been de-risked.

The floodgates open

At 12:26 pm EST on Monday February 15th (my dad’s birthday), I posted a proposition to the google group based on the one that had happened in the smaller dialogue. 5 hours later, I had to put a hold on contributions because we’d actually OVERSHOT our target by a few thousand dollars. Money poured in from around the world.

Quickly, discussion on the Google group changed from excitement to excitement…with a bit of anxiety.

Woah. That went fast. Too fast?

In the hurry, I’d created a sponsorship model that was exclusionary, unless we were to raise funds without any limits. If we went that route, we’d need someone to be responsible for that extra money, and what its spent on. Talk of business entities resulted, co-ops, LLCs, and the like. The pendulum swung between highly inclusionary and highly exclusionary.

Nearly 100 emails were slung over the next 2 days, debating a number of ideas and issues. Among them, three primary ideas/questions began to crystalize.

  1. How to pay for/who owns the domain, long term
  2. What kind of entity could exist
  3. The definition of coworking

The idea of a coworking “entity” or “organization” seems like the right medicine, but I remained unconvinced that we weren’t curing a symptom instead of a disease.

Back to core values

We’ve approached the “what is coworking” conversation before, and at this scale, it’s EXTREMELY difficult to pin down an answer of what is and what isn’t. Instead, we have core values established by Citizen Space in 2006 and adopted and iterated by many other spaces and communities. Those core values are clear and understood, and most importantly, something we can expect people to respect.

I might argue that defining coworking doesn’t help anyone long term, because if the definition isn’t allowed to change, we’re stomping out the fire we intentionally created. That’d be counter to the movement. That’d be counter to the purpose. That’d be outright stupid.

But without arguing the “what” and the “who”, we can come back to the domain, and what it represents.

Power of Words

The beautiful thing about the internet is it’s made up of words. Domain names are technically pointers to ideas, and instead of having to remember IP addresses, DNS has allowed us to connect words with ideas. connected the word “coworking” with the ideas…and the ideals…of the community, without introducing commercial and organizational overhead.

Meanwhile, the discussion (and periodic disagreement) on the Google group continued in a healthy, smart, and fun manner. It was helping people bond, and figure each other out. The armchair psychologist and sociologist in me was grinning as I watched the whole thing unfold. The word coworking truly bring people together in fantastic ways at every turn. How could someone not get excited about this?


While the community continued to converse, sharing ideas, and inching towards something truly emergent, I continued working with Bernie and Gerrit on the domain transaction. It’s worth noting that THEY were every ounce of awesome to do a deal with. Their commitment to the idea of coworking was genuine, and their continued excitement about the domain being put to this use was clear in every e-mail. Almost 80 messages between the three of us over the course of a couple of days, keeping each other updated at every turn. Not the most efficient deal by any means, but they were responsive, fun, and most importantly: I think they handled things very fairly.

Today, I worked with their technical guy Jasper to transfer the domain and complete the transactions. While waiting for DNS to resolve, I drafted the home page that I described in the initial proposition to the group. I built a single page that introduced the coworking core values, and linked to the leading community properties: the google group where this entire legacy will live forever, the wiki which is full of an extensive knowledge base (despite being incredibly disorganized), and the blog (which could stand some refreshing of its own).

I launched that website at 7pm, February 18th, with the text:

Did you know that there is a global community of people dedicated to the values of CollaborationOpenness,CommunityAccessibility, and Sustainability in their workplaces? It’s called Coworking. And people seem to think it’s swell. Again, connecting the word to the values. The most important thing we can do right now as the movement grows and more people discover the word and the actions associated with it.

Now what?

Now that the site has been relauched, we can return to the questions raised by the admittedly half-baked funding model. I’ve returned the puck into the court of the community, suggesting we focus on brainstorming a way to redistribute the funding opportunity over a wider base, and creating a more sustainable and inclusive model. I have some ideas of my own, and some suggestions from others, but I don’t have an answer yet. My hope is that the ~20 initial funders are willing to re-draw lines so we can all move forward together gracefully. I’m not naive enough to think that money won’t complicate things. But I’m confident that we will find a lightweight and sustainable model to move forward, providing as many people in the community the benefits of the domain as possible.

My hope is that we can re-orient a bit, and as Chris Messina suggested in an offline e-mail, put the focus on the humans instead of the companies that make up this community. I think that will better represent the purpose of the website, and the voices behind it.

There are infinite possibilities with this domain, and that’s very exciting. We’re starting small, and even the small achievement is huge.

Furthermore, we’ve proven that this community can move mountains together. That may be the most exciting demonstration yet.

Thank you.

For this opportunity to lead, learn, inspire, be inspired, and make some history happen.

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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.