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Serendipity Stories – A Wet Cigarette

5 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Indy Hall and the global coworking community has provided me with literally THOUSANDS of stories. I’ve realized, looking back, how many of them are packed with serendipity. This is my attempt to share just one of them. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to share more.


  I went to the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas for the first time in 2007. It was a last minute trip, largely spurred by the generosity of my friends Rob Sandie and Colin Devroe (founder and early team members of, respectively). 
  In many ways, SXSWi 2007 was a turning point in my career and a catalyst for creating Indy Hall. But it also set the stage for a personal, and mostly untold story. One evening near the end of the festival, I was at one of the countless nerd-packed parties. This one in particular – being hosted by Google – was at a partly indoor/outdoor venue. And it was raining. It was raining a lot. 

  This pushed most of the party attendees inside, making it extra crowded. I had just elbowed my way to the edge of a room to step outside under a narrow corregated aluminum roof to get some “fresh air”. As I reached for my lighter to spark a cigarette, I realized that I’d lost it at some point in the night. Another guy, who’d clearly just stepped out of the rain, with long shaggy hair held out of his face by a pair of sunglasses, leaned in to offer a light. “I’m Matthew.” 

  For the length of time it took to smoke a slightly soggy cigarette (and maybe a second one), Matthew and I spoke about the fact that it was my first time to SXSW. He was a veteran, though moreso of the music festival. He was from nearby(ish…Texas is huge) Houston and also a radio DJ back at Rice Univeristy where he was working on his PhD. 
  For a bit of context about where my head was at the time, attending SXSWi was a bit like going to “mecca” for the first time as a web developer. I’d met dozens of people, including a handful of heroes. But coming from Philadelphia – a place where I was actively working on growing the tech community that I hadn’t been able to find previously – I was growing distraught that I wasn’t finding many other Philadelphians who were also attending SXSW. 

  I later found out that they were around…but the clear lack of “Philadelphia community” presence at SXSW struck me like a stone. I was remarking about this observation to Matthew, and explaining a bit about my efforts to create “Independents Hall”, a community & coworking space in and for Philadelphia. He took a bit of special interest because he’d lived in Philly for a while, and had an affinity for the town. I told him about how I wanted to change how people in Philadelphia saw Philly, and how others outside of Philly, and he nodded with understanding. 

  I told him that I was dreaming of coming back to SXSW the following year with other Independents Hall members – a posse of sorts. He smiled an affirming smile that I’ve come to know as “the way Matthew smiles”.

  We parted ways with words of encouragement, and both disappeared back into the crowds of the party. If you were to fast forward 12 months, you’d skip over the continued growth of the Independents Hall community, the launch of our first coworking space, the shortening of our name to a more colloquial “Indy Hall”…and as the tape wound closer to SXSWi 2008, you’d see a contingency of a dozen and a half Indy Hall members forming a plan to attend the conference together. 

  On the closing night of SXSWi 2008, I was at the big closing party hosted by Media Temple. As I was elbowing my way through the bar, I had an unexpeced experience. I bumped into Matthew, the guy who I’d shared a cigarette with the year before. The guy who had listened as I spilled my dreams of making Philadelphia better, and attending the conference with other Philadelphians – the very thing that I’d just succeeded at achieving. Matthew and I hugged, and shouted over the music as we asked each other how we had been. And then the unexpected turned even more unexpected. 

  Matthew told me, “I thought about what you told me when we met last year. I thought about it a lot when I I got back to Houston. And it made a ton of sense. So while I’m finishing up my PhD, I’m also opening a coworking space. I want to do my part to make Houston better. It’s a little insane. But I’m glad I ran into you so I could tell you.” 

  I was floored. What the fuck could I have said to this guy during the cigarette break at that party (even if it was two cigarettes) to end up with THIS as the result. We swapped contact info this time, and I left Austin to return to Philadelphia the next day. About 3 months later, I flew to Houston for the opening of Caroline Collective, the coworking space that Matthew was opening with partner Ned. 

  I was welcomed by their community as if I was family. The evening of the Caroline Collective opening party I was surrounded by friends new and old, many of whom I still am in touch with, and experienced the proud glow of Matthew for his community. 

  I’m glad it rained that night in Austin.

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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.