Tomorrow, I head to Seattle and then to Mount Hood for a week of snowboarding with some of my best friends in the world.
I’m looking forward to unplugging. I’m looking forward to 2011.
I’m looking forward.
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.
These are my most popular and most valuable pieces, to help you get started.
…in a traditional company, are people that work together getting paid by the same boss working to better said company still co-workers and not coworkers like we know of in regards to coworking spaces?
It was a good question and helps illustrate part of the language I’ve been working to focus surrounding Indy Hall and coworking in general.
My general philosophy is that coworking is the future of working.
I’ve begun to posit things a bit differently.
I think that instead of more people working from coworking spaces, what we’re working to achieve is the ethos and social learnings of coworking spaces, which I think will lead to a better way of working in every work environment.
So – if I had to draw a line somewhere – I’d say that the difference between a co-worker and a coworker is more about their relationships with each other and the other people on their team, not so much where they work or for whom.
So the goal of getting more people to work from coworking spaces like Indy Hall TODAY is with the relationships of co-workers becoming the relationships of coworkers.
My hope is that the future leaders of business have worked from coworking spaces like Indy Hall at some point in their career, and that the experience has an impact on how they choose form relationships between them and their employees within their companies.
Among the interesting growth patterns I’ve seen as coworking has begun to make the transition from nascent “nerd clubs” to mainstream is varying instances of support from Economic Development Centers/Councils/Committees/Corporations .
In the best of cases, an EDC or other similar local government institution has partnered with a coworking catalyst and they’ve found ways to work together.
But, at least from a the vantage point of the landscape I have, that seems to be the rarity. The unfortunately common mistake is that the #1 failing design pattern in coworking – “build it and they will come”, is the first approach that an EDC or other government entity takes. They don’t have humanity to throw at a problem, but they sure know how to occupy real estate. I think that this is a fundamental business mistake, but that’s for another day.
I’ve had lots of one-on-one conversations about why I think that is problematic, but today’s post on TechnicallyPhilly interviewing author Margaret Pugh about why Philly missed the boat to “become the silicon valley” did a good job of capturing these mistakes.
The quotes below are from her answers in the interview conducted by Brian James Kirk, which I’ve followed with some of my own thoughts:
Places that have really been successful have tapped into a core competency, not just said, “let’s build a research park and they will come.”
Sound familiar? We screwed this up over 2 of my lifetimes ago (and more times since), why do we think a new version of the same old model is going to work this time?
The strategy of high-tech development was a means to an end of fixing larger economic problems. That’s how Philadelphia went about it; ‘we’re going to build this not just as a economic development strategy, but as a strategy to somehow stop the racial and economic change in West Philadelphia.’ But around the world, when high-tech is used as a tool to solve other urban problems, it generally doesn’t work.
This one is huge. When you view coworking as a tool, or a utility, to solve the problem, it’s like buying a hammer and expecting it to build the house all on its own. Coworking CAN be a means to an end, but the difference is – the EDC’s don’t get to decide what the end is.
Coworking provides a number of things, and interestingly, the most visible elements aren’t the most valuable.
Look at a space, you see desks, chairs, power, internet. If you’re lucky, you see smart, interesting, creative, motivated people. What you don’t see are things like: context – permission – serendipity.
Desks, chairs, power, and internet are commodities. There is always a cheaper version of whatever you have. Derek Neighbors from Gangplank has an awesome post on coworking’s “race to the bottom”. The core elements of WHY we do what we do, I think we agree on. I think our disagreements are superficial and not fundamental, which is why I continue to enjoy watching Derek’s hard work unfold and evolve. It’s also worth noting that Derek has, at least from what I can see, successfully forged a relationship between Gangplank and the local government. If I had to wager a bet, Derek fought for his vision of Gangplank to be maintained, regardless of what resources they provided.
Whether you charge money for it or not, if you’re renting desks because people need a place to work, you’re opportunities are soon going to be fleeting.
Instead, we work on building places (not just spaces) that provide context for people to learn and collaborate.
Instead, we work on building places (not just spaces) that grant permission to execute with the goal of transforming peoples’ expectations from needing to ask for permission at all to simply expecting that the permission has already been granted.
Instead, we work on building places (not just spaces) that allow for serendipity to take hold. You cannot create if you are fearful of possibilities.
Leaders in Philadelphia have been talking about it for 15 years: how you capture the brain drain. […] get smart people the room to do cool stuff, throw money at the problem and then get out of the way. The Cold War defense economy channeled tons of government money into scientific R&D and didn’t micromanage what happened. Scientists got grants, universities got money, and that creates a foundation for the American tech economy.
“Instituions are not designed for revolutions.” A quote paraphrased from Geoff, my illustrious co-conspirator, business partner, mentor, and friend.
To the EDC’s, government leaders, etc:
Please take a good, hard look at yourself. If you are in an institution, you’re not leading the revolution. I promise.
In fact, you’re probably what the revolution is working to change. Look outside of your institutions for leaders on the fringe, and support them the best way you can: stay out of their way.
In the best cases, look to the trenches for collaborators. Let them know they’re doing a good job, and see if they need help. Give them an opportunity to ask for what they need. Help them understand what it is that you can provide. But don’t build it for them.
You have to pure about it. Let’s get smart people together and give them tools to do really cool stuff, make it easy for them to innovate.
I’d change one thing about this statement, and it’s that instead of giving them tools, you should ask them what tools they want or need instead of assuming you know. You might be surprised what they ask for, and how much easier it is to give them than “space”.
I met Daniel Shipton, founder of since-shuttered “Impromptu Studio” in Des Moines, and knew he was in it for all the right reasons.
I think he’s successfully doing what many of us are, and should, be doing: making coworking a vehicle for revolution.
The scale may seem small, but they’re doing what many of you wish you could, and they’re doing it in a way that I think will have a lasting impact.
Kudos, Dan and friends. You’re making me proud.
I’ve been a broken record for years on the topic of the importance of “finding your members before you even start looking for space” when it comes to opening coworking spaces, but nothing illustrates how powerful it can be than this quote from Joel Bennet of Veel Hoeden in Pella, Iowa on the Google Group. Emphasis mine.
We started our space in a town of 10,000 which is located in a largely agricultural county. The key for us was finding the group of interested mobile workers before launching the space. Get them excited about the opportunity to work together first (possibly through jellies), then start looking at a space to make it official.
He follows up in another response about the tipping point:
We knew our small town was ready for a coworking space when the local coffee shop would no longer hold all the mobile workers trying to work there simultaneously. We had people sharing booth outlets while others strung extension cords across the upstairs loft. It was then that someone said, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a place of our own?” We immediately got to work on finding a space of our own, and in a few short months, opened our space 1/2 block from the coffee shop!
I’d be willing to bet that someone wasn’t Joel.
I’m coming down from a 48 hour binge. Not one fueled by two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls, but a binge on the discomfort of immersing myself in someone else’s industry and the revelations and discoveries that come from escaping my own comfort zone.
I had the pleasure of sharing the last 3 days with around 150 hand-selected participants of NewsFooCamp, a first-time event organized by O’Reilly Media, Google, and the Knight Foundation. While the format of a self-organizing “unconference” is something I’m hardly new to, there were plenty of other experiences to this weekend that contributed to my altered state of mind.
If I had to explain NewsFoo to someone BEFORE attending the event, I usually suggested that it was going to be an ad-hoc, self organizing conference focused on the future of news and journalism. This begged the common question: “So…how did you end up getting invited?”. Honestly, I haven’t the foggiest idea.
While I’m pretty sure that I’ll stick to getting in the paper by doing the things that I do best (including but not limited to shooting my mouth off), I have had some moments of clarity throughout this intoxicating experience, and thought I’d recount them here.
First and foremost: I’m realizing how passionate I am about information. I’ve always been a bit of a pattern junkie, and I’m fundamentally fascinated by the human condition. I think it all comes down the fact that I’m a reasonably observant person, and I’m absolutely in love with the world around me and the information it provides me. From my obsessions with behavior patterns (of which my skill and understanding have been amplified by the last 4 years working on Indy Hall), to my love for people watching, I’m more than a bit of a voyeur.
NewsFoo gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in the meta-experience of a sea of information about the seas of information that are gathered, managed, and moved by the journalism industry.
As an aside, this is the 2nd time I’ve attended & participated in a conference that largely focused on an industry outside of my direct channel of expertise; last time, a corporate human resources conference, and this time, a conference about journalism and publishing.
I have to say, it’s liberating to be naive. If more smart people let themselves be naive instead of trying to know everything all the time, I think we’d all live happier lives. But I digress.
Outside of my own affirmations about my interest in the spread of information and ideas (and admittedly, my interest is often to a different end than someone in journalism or publishing), I got to spend this weekend looking at problems for the first time that most attendees of NewsFoo have been staring square in the eye for some time.
While I was in San Francisco last week, a good friend made the analogy to “building in a burning house”, and I feel that best describes the kind of problem solving that’s largely exercised by the journalism industry, at least based on what was represented this weekend.
News organizations seem to have designed their operations – and relatively, their business models – around crisis. It makes some sense, if you think about it, given the types of events and experiences that journalism historically has shown its most value. I think that the problem with this is that the only reason that some of these news organizations are still standing upright is because they’ve fallen and nearly smashed their faces at least once already, and they don’t seem to be any less likely to fall – or smash their faces – again.
It’s almost like the news industry is populated by people of a specific genotype of humans that are predisposed to chaos and crisis. In their work, that’s viewed as an asset, and allows them to cope with some pretty antagonistic working conditions. But from an outsiders point of view, I’m observing how this dynamic is being transferred over to the business side of the industry (the one that needs to be there to support the operations). The outcome seems to have afflicted the decision makers with some whacked out Stockholm Syndrome that keeps them from wanting to build something that resembles a sustainable business model.
And regardless of how innovative the people within the organizations are, if the leaders don’t want to change, the organization’s members are going to have a very hard time changing it for them.
Another lesson I learned is that I need to stop trying new presentations that aren’t based on things that I’ve said or written about before. I’m awful at practicing a particular “speech” beforehand, and in fact, I’ve found that traditional scripted practice negatively impacts my ability to deliver a message as I intend to because I’m so caught up with what I thought I was going to say that I struggle to say it in the first place. I experienced this last night at NewsFoo Ignite, where I presented a new set of slides I titled “BUSINESSWEAK”, which was meant to be a critical analysis of the fact that news needs new business models, not just new versions of the old ones.
Given how supportive the group at NewsFoo has been, I don’t feel like I need to excuse myself for my awkward performance. Luckily, for all of my fumbling, one of the key points I wanted to make seemed to come out in an oddly important moment of clarity.
The train of thought that brought this idea into my presentation was more simple than I was trying to make it in my Ignite talk, but fellow Ignite speaker Andrew Walkingshaw pointed out to me, while JOURNALISM deserves a right to exist, the BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM doesn’t have that same right.
It’s pretty clear to me that the folks with the decision making power in these news organizations don’t see things that way, given how in another session, I watched some of those people actively dodge discussing hard questions in favor of the old and familiar.
Somehow, two sessions got jammed together: one was meant to address proposed laws to create opt-out techniques for reader tracking, while the the other was meant to explore non-advertising business models. While the former interests me from a technical challenge perspective, I came for the latter. I HOPED that they were using the former as a lens for the discussion of “ok, advertising as we know it really could be taken away from us and we’d be screwed, so let’s talk about creative alternatives.
And yes, there were a couple of ideas that I heard that were interesting. But the majority of the discussion kept coming back to models that still depended on a scramble for eyeballs in one way or another.
Ladies. Gentlemen. Friends. Please get a grip on reality. ANY model that is reliant on the size of your readership that isn’t the placement of advertisements is likely just a permutation of advertising, and even if it’s not, it will suffer from the exact same problems that you’re experiencing with your advertising models!
And let me be clear and fair. I’m not in the camp of “advertising is evil”, “advertising doesn’t work”, or “advertising is wrong”.
What makes me want to slap the sandwich out of your hand and tell you to go make another one lest you go hungry, is that the time and resources spent hunting for the “missing variables” to make advertising work for this industry are a distraction from the option of exploring new concepts that don’t have the same dependencies that we’ve learned simply don’t exist in the reality we’re all lucky enough to call home.
I don’t claim to know how advertising works, but it seems to me that it works BEST when it provides sustained and balanced value for all parties involved (buyer, seller, recipient). But if it’s not working for you, why won’t you take a hard look at why it’s not working before you move onto something that doesn’t look the same but still has the same fundamental problems.
Tim O’Reilly was quoted by Sara Winge, FooCamp co-founder and organizer, by saying
“Have the courage to talk about philosophy and values, not just business models.”
I wasn’t in the room to know the context of this quote, but the most important word I see in it ISN’T courage, as some might expect. It’s just.
I spent the last 48 hours outside of my comfort zone being exposed to the current outcomes of those philosophies and values, and the sad reality is, that I don’t know how much longer those philosophies and values are going to be able to be sustained the way they are being funded.
What I do know is that when I’m faced with a really hard problem to solve, instead of trying to figure out what I don’t have, I figure out what I do have and how that will help me achieve my goals.
I believe that there are untapped opportunities to discover and implement new innovative ways for the news industry to stand on its own two feet in financial independence lie in those philosophies and values themselves.What the opportunities look like is still not 100% clear to me, but there’s some stuff in there that smells like real business to me.
I want to invite a discussion for the attendees of NewsFoo as well as those as passionate about news & journalism as I am about information and independence, to step outside of THEIR comfort zones for a little while and check your assumptions at the door. Bring those philosophies and values, though, because I think that by better understanding their value on contemporary society, together we can start finding some new business models that might actually rescue your asses from the burning building and let you focus on what you’re best at: finding amazing stories and making sure that they have an opportunity to be told.
That smell could also be remnants from the binge. But we won’t know unless we try, and I’m happy to be a part of that process.
I met a guy named Sam Jones this weekend at FooCamp. He buys dead magazines. He’s awesome.
He said this in passing but I had to scribble it down to share:
There are managers who manage by putting out the fires. There are managers who manage by attaining predictability. And then there are managers who manage to greatness.
The firefighting technique – where you operate in constant crisis – not only is hard on you but it’s hard on your teams.
The predictability technique isn’t sustainable for an entirely different reason. Managing with a goal of predictability means that nothing unexpected happens. Not many of the truly great things in this world came the way they were expected to.
Managing to greatness means embracing chaos, understanding the value in serendipity, and not just talking about and promising empowerment, but actually learning from and understanding it’s implications and working hard to give power away.
Managing to greatness means that, almost all of the time, it’s not about your greatness. It’s about unlocking the greatness in others.
I wanted to publish this before I arrived tomorrow at NewsFoo, a niche FooCamp co-organized by O’Reilly, Google, and the Knight News Foundation. It’s self-described as “a gathering of 150 key practitioners and thinkers from the worlds of journalism, technology, and public policy who are re-imagining the future of the news.”
I’ve been looking forward to this for a while, a LONG while. I’ve got just as many questions about journalism’s future as I do ideas, so I’m looking forward to learning. But before I walk to the registration table, I wanted to get something off my chest. Hopefully this is able to spark some conversation over the weekend.
Right before the holiday, I shared a link to what I still would consider one of the worst articles about coworking I’ve read. SO bad that I was publicly critical of it, dubbing it “vapid and misplaced”. It raised some eyebrows across the industry, so I thought I would take a moment to explain my stance.
My criticism wasn’t a commentary on Office Nomads or Coworking Seattle, but lazy journalists everywhere. This article is just one of many that I’ve read, the ones that turned my stomach because they continue to tell an inexcusably misunderstood version of the story of coworking.
I could bullet point the misplacement of facts, but that’s not the point. I could harp on the focus on office space instead of social impact, but that’s not the point. There’s no singular mistake, this article simply embodied the most I’d seen at once in a long time.
All of that said, I felt that I needed to speak out because if we don’t raise the bar for the stories journalists choose to tell, who will? The fact that it’s a mainstream article and had no substantial content is all the more reason to raise question. The fact that the mainstream media is publishing anything about coworking puts the responsibility on those of us active in the coworking community to make sure that they cover it to the best of their ability.
If we don’t hold journalists to a higher standard and simply thank them for the free publicity, who WILL keep them looking for the real stories, the ones worth telling, when new “co-working offices” continue cropping up?
This isn’t about insuring our (yours and my) place in the industry. It’s about having respect for our (yours and my) hard work, which this article didn’t display in the least.
There are always journalists who tend to “creep around” looking for lowest common denominator stories and then editorialize, or repeat what others have said, taking no time to understand the context or purpose of the story they’re telling. Worse, it distracts from the real, hardworking journalists and their stories, and distracts the people with stories worth telling by making it unclear who they should tell them to.
If the question is, “wow, Alex, don’t you think you were harsh on that article?”, this is a longwinded way of saying, no, I don’t think it was harsh. I think we’re being irresponsible by not holding writers, publishers, and other storytellers, to a higher standard.
If we don’t who will.
These are my most popular and most valuable pieces, to help you get started.