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Notes from the Future of Indy Hall Town Hall (Part 2)

21 minute read
by Alex Hillman

New people, new perspectives. Not just a 2nd performance.

Last week I published a set of notes transcribed from the first of two Town Hall meetings that we hosted with the Indy Hall community about planning for the future of our community beyond the one-on-one conversations I’d already been having.

Below, you’ll find the notes from the second meeting. I considered simply folding the notes from both Town Hall meetings into a single document, but I actually felt that the two conversations were unique enough to merit their own set of notes.

It’s worth noting that for their similarities, the attendance of both of these meetings was almost entirely different! The specific questions and ideas that people had were different in some cases, but hosting two separate meetings actually proved very useful for me to get a pulse across two different groups of members…to see what they had in common but also what was different, or said differently.

For me, this exercise has been tremendously valuable – and I want to thank everyone who was able to come out and participate.

My next steps are to extract the actionable next steps we can take from these discussions, and I’m feeling MUCH better about that now than I was just 10 days ago.

As you read through these two stacks of notes, please feel free to ask any questions or share your thoughts in the comments down at the bottom.

Lots more to come!

I want to open up the conversation beyond what’s already been said. I’m trying to share as much as I know, as well as the things that I don’t know.

There’s nothing like a common enemy to bring people together, and I’d hate to be the “common enemy” of this community 😉

One on one and small group conversations have been great – members, proud alum, neighbors, other orgs. The thing that’s been missing has been a chance for more people to talk with each other, and hear each other.

What kind of reaction do you have to our current situation? What’s your understanding of it? What’s missing, what’s still confusing? What do you want to know more about?

Tonight is the START of a conversation for many of us. When it comes from shifting from conversation to action, I know that every time I’ve tried to do that myself it’s been way harder and way less successful than when I do it in the open, with people who care.

Initial Reactions

“From being there when Indy Hall started, to seeing where we’ve become, it seems like we have a ton of options. It seems like people outside of Indy Hall are really embracing us.”

“I think we should buy, though the price they’re asking here is way, way premium and not worth it. Buying comes with its own set of unique challenges, but this is going to happen again. Rents are going to keep going up, Philadelphia is on the rise.”

“I have a very strong pre-Indy Hall attachment to this building because my fathers business was here in this building when I was in high school. But I also know we have to put things like that aside.”

“If you had $3MM+, is this what you really want to buy? OR would we put that towards something else, where it can go further?”

“What’s going to happen to the community? I’m pretty sure the answer is we’ll be fine, wherever we end up.”

“Thank you so much for being transparent with this. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to suddenly get a surprise from you with all of this information, being a part of the process makes a huge difference for me.”

On the business side

“I’m delighted by how you’re handling this. I have every confidence in you as the leader of the business and this community. If we start handling very large sums of money and building ownership, how could that change the relationship between the community and the business?”

I firmly believe we’d be able to get a mortgage, on decent terms, to buy the building we’re in, at the current asking price. HOWEVER if we’d be able to come up with that much money it goes so much further almost anywhere except for our current address. I’m even confident there are even better options in the neighborhood, even if they’re not “equal square footage” options. I don’t want to get into another unsustainable situation for the sake of protecting an address.

Every real estate person approaches me with the same question: how many square feet are you looking for? I have to deflect – which is weird because I know why they’re asking it. They have a “formula” that they want to plug some quick numbers into and decide “is this something I can get involved in”?

I’ve had to figure out how to navigate the conversation with RE people to a point where we can start somewhere different – this isn’t about how many square feet I need (yet), it’s about whether or not we want to work with you or if you want to work with us. Based on that, I KNOW that any RE professional worth their salt can find square footage we need, and we can morph into almost anything we’re presented if we want.

The relationship with our landlord is my top priority – related and aligned goals.

I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to simply take the 10k square feet we currently use and replace it with a new 10k square feet. I’m thinking more about what makes this community unique and successful, and what success looks like moving forward. How could a new home at ANY size make our community even more valuable.

The Old City District wants to help, wants us to stay

One of the first outside groups to reach out after the news was published, with a VERY strong desire to help.

OCD is already doing a 10 year master plan – research already being done on the Old City Neighborhood, from a professional urban planning group.

With the support of the Old City District, the same planning group is going to help us conduct an enconomic impact study to learn the size of Indy Hall’s impact economically on Old City. I’ve already sent off some preliminary data – basic membership numbers, alumni companies still in the neighborhood, etc.

We’ll have a survey to collect more information very soon – shooting for 50% response rate from our entire community. I don’t know of a coworking space in the world that has this kind of data or shares it with their own members.

Indy Hall’s “Full Time Equivalent” may account for ~2% of the entire neighborhood’s workforce. So OCD has a good reason to want to try to figure out how to help us stay – while they also acknowledge that we can use the same information and knowledge to shop around to other parts of the city as well.

Whatever that number comes out to – that’s what we do just by being us. With no outside funds or grants, etc. There’s lots of organizations that consume TONS of outside resources in order to promise even a fraction of the impact we create as a bi-product of just being ourselves.

This is a huge point of discussion for potential real estate partners – how can our baseline contributions help with the development of other parts of the city? How can a thoughtful developer help us do what we already do for our own businesses, better?

We didn’t start this to make Old City better, we started Indy Hall to make Philadelphia better. “Where else” suggests we leave Old City, but let’s not make those options mutually exclusive.

“Have you thought about more than one location?”

“Different areas could result in different crowds.”

“Spreading around the culture of Indy Hall to reach more parts of the city.”

“Transportation/commute could improve.”

More than a couple of blocks from a subway station is basically a deal killer.

“#1 factor of quality of life at work is closeness and proximity to food, drink, and activities. Affordable, too.”

“I’m conflicted about multiple locations – it makes me realize that half the people I see here, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t see. I love the diversity that comes from other parts of the city, I learn about more things happening outside of my own neighborhood.”

“I dislike the idea of having a divided group – I’d rather keep commuting from West Philly than lose the diversity.”

“I don’t want to see an Indy Hall east that is all software developers and Indy Hall west being all art people. I want to create a space that’s allows for emerging ways of using the space by different people without isolating people based on the stuff they need and use.”

“More apparatus – you told us you don’t want to be in the business of managing buildings, this would increase the need for managing.”

“Banks close branches more often than they open them.”

“It’s hard to be familiar with, close with, 300+ people. More closeness with your own location could help create a more intimate feel.”

If I’ve learned anything from people that try to run more than location, the most consistent mistake is trying to make them all be “one big thing.”

Opening Indy Hall was a lot less like opening an office, a lot more like a barn raising. We only opened because the community came together to help find the location, and get it set up. We created it together.

This is a big part of why we do Reboot every year – to create the barn-raising type opportunity for everybody. We literally take it apart so we can put it back together, together.

“We don’t want to run our resources too thin – more than one opening at the same time would more likely lead to both failing vs either of them succeeding. “

3 ways to think about scaling.

There are ways that Indy Hall has gotten better as it’s gotten bigger. But these days, there’s no “shallow end” for new members who walk into a community this large.

Scaling up, adding more square footage.

What people think of most often.

Scaling out, more applications of what we do to other things.

Can we create different places that look even less like offices, but have the same culture & DNA? Other industries that don’t need desk space for a laptop, but still want our kind of community as part of their work.

Scaling inward, the unlocked potential of what we already have

Finding ways to get people closer to each other, whether it’s someone new or somebody who’s been around for years, how can people connect and reconnect in ways that are more meaningful and valuable.

Very very few people approach scaling “inward”. I think this is our strongest suit, something we already do every day.

I don’t think that any one of these options is best alone, it’s a combination of all three that will define our future growth.

I’ve yet to see a coworking space, even the places that I think do a good job, who has multiple locations that I’m inspired by to the point of wanting to do it too. Absent that kind of inspiration, are we going to pioneer the best way to have multiple coworking locations? Do our community members WANT to be involved in that process?

Compromises will be inevitable, so what will those compromises be in service of? Why bother?

What is the “through line” up until now?

The theme across all of our most successful efforts – cultivating a mindset.

Tough, cuz it’s intangible. But it helps understand what makes our experience different.

We’re driven by an intention of:

  • being around people who aren’t exactly like you
  • being aspirational, but also being humble and vulnerable
  • being mindful
  • optimism for the city of Philadelphia

If I look at this as a foundation, this is at the heart of everything we do.

The Philadelphia of today is different from the Philadelphia of 2006. Who shares those intentions today that we didn’t know about in 2006? What problems exist now that those intentions could help solve?

That’s what we should be thinking about as the backdrop for how we grow and evolve.

Who is our membership 10 years from now?

“I was an artist/illustrator, I didn’t think I had a place here. I do have a place here. It’s amazing. How can we introduce this to more people?”

“The next kind of business that grows up in Indy Hall might not even know coworking exists yet.”

We used to go to one bar.

When we started hanging out in Old City, National Mechanics was home. It wasn’t just because they had wifi and the owners were becoming our friends – it was because there weren’t a lot of other options for casual food and drinks.

The multitude of awesome options we’re used to is a relatively new thing, and is successful BECAUSE of the overall neighborhood’s success. Even Continental’s beer menu went from…dismal to pretty awesome with the help of Johnny Bilotta and Dave Martorana back when they were doing their beer review show Two Guys On Beer.

The notion that we’ll find another place like the Old City we know TODAY, anywhere else in the city, is the wrong goal. Instead, we should be thinking about places that are like Old City was in 2006-2007. What would a new neighborhood’s “National Mechanics” be? Not just a place where we can eat and drink, but a place where the relationship with the owner matters.

What happens in the long term of Indy Hall supporting it’s neighboring businesses?

  • How noticeable would it be if the businesses that we frequent lost us as customers?
  • The flip side of that is that we can potentially predict how much we’re able to help a business if it opens near us.

“This really is a clubhouse – we’re able to make this space our own.”

“The ability to grow with the neighborhood has helped us grow. We could help put another neighborhood on the map.”

“This is an opportunity to show everybody that this isn’t about the place.”

“If the goal is to help the city, being more ubiquitous could help us be more inclusive too.”

The power of a purchase

Purchasing the location we’re currently in doesn’t make sense, but purchasing makes a LOT of sense looking forward.

We have to make sure that whatever we’re buying is worth what it’s being sold for.

There’s an amazing precedent to create an asset as a community – with the membership dues we’re already paying – so that in time we have paid down a principal that’s large enough to borrow against for more future community projects.

I want to create a way for members to get involved in creating that asset from the very start and even on an ongoing basis as new members continue to join our community, even if you don’t have $100k laying around.

Keeping the priority and focus on the community members, so that if you’re active in the community you have incentives related to ownership.

“When you stop renting and start buying, it’s part of a decision to be in a place.” Puts us in a position to think about a very long play on a place.

“It’s impossible to create a detailed 10 year plan, the best we can do is define broad strokes” I see this as more about setting an intention than a project plan. What do we care about? What’s our north star?

Immediate choices – what happens on the ground floor on Sept 1st?

Does the landlord have a tenant lined up for the South side of the ground floor if we choose not to take it? I don’t know.

We have to give 30 days notice – so by August 1st – of our decision to downsize the ground floor or plan to pay the 20% increased rental cost. I need to make that call before the end of this month.

Disrupting the downstairs and still increasing the relative cost per square foot is the worst option, in my opinion.

I don’t want to simply pass along an increased cost without delivering more value. I wouldn’t want that done to me, so I won’t do it to someone else.

I understand that an increase of 20% could be problematic for some of our members who are bootstrapping their companies and pour every bit of cash into growing their business.

My business philosophy is that it’s usually easier to find a way to earn more money than it is to cut costs (it’s not like we’re loose with our spending and there’s a ton of easy costs to slash).

If we come up with a way (ways) to create more value, that can CONTINUE happening even once we’re past the one year timeline of this arbitrary increase.

We can create that value together, and for each other.

  • What can we do to facilitate things that are already happening, but would be valuable if they happened more often (knowledge sharing, business exchange, etc)
  • What things do we WANT to happen, that currently don’t?

What kinds of things would help each other and our businesses be more successful?

Please, email me!

“This is my first time here”

Something really cool happened – a guy named Edward who knew about us from Meetup, from Cocoaheads, and a member from the Philly Game Forge around the corner – raised his hand to ask a few questions.

I love this because his outsider perspective cut through the emotion and let me answer a few things I hadn’t been asked before. It’s so easy to get caught up in what we already know.

But also – how amazing is it that someone who’s never set foot in the room came to listen…but also share with the room? Truly, thanks for speaking up Ed.

“This seems to be the Philly ‘dev’ community.” – common misconception. Less than half of Indy Hall’s members are developers, or even in tech!

1 – “Are there people who would be willing to simply pay more to help offset the increased rent? Have you asked?”

The short answer is yes, there are. But I at least want to make it OPTIONAL in a way that also doesn’t make anybody feel guilty. This is why I like the idea of member-sponsored “scholarships” for students/community members who cannot afford membership, because it actually brings value to the community instead of just filling in a hole.

“From the small biz perspective, Indy Hall is the quintessential bootstrap capital…it’s where people are making things their way so they can do thing their way. I’m not spending other peoples’ money.”

2 – “Is there anything about the zoning of this building we should know? Does that have anything to do with why they think the space is worth so much?”

The building we’re currently in is all mixed use. 7 floors, 2 condos per floor. Approx half are businesses, the other half are residential (and we know all of the residential neighbors – they’re awesome).

All of the residential units are lived in by the owners – all of the commercial units are rented out, though I believe the entire top floor is currently vacant.

If anything, it’s been suggested that the way this building is mixed ownership & zoning makes the ground floor less valuable. I don’t know if that’s actually true or not.

3 – “How does the City of Philadelphia feel about Indy Hall? Can they help us?”

We have a LOT of support from the City, all the way to the top at the Mayors Office. When the city tours delegates from other cities around the world, they often get shown major institutions like the University City Science Center and Comcast…but Indy Hall is a common tour stop as well.

In fact we have a tour of ~30 delegates from Africa visiting us this Friday.

I’m getting together with Luke Butler tomorrow (Thursday) to get him caught up on everything and to see what directions he can point us, and together we can start brainstorming how we might be able to work with the city more than we currently do.

I know there are ways they can help, but I don’t know what they are yet.

I very much want City Hall to be a part of our long-term strategy now that we’ve spent so long building relationships and never needing to ask for anything. This is especially true considering our upcoming mayoral transition.

“Is street access a must?””

We were a 2nd floor only coworking space for a long time before we had a front door with street access.

The long arc that helped us make the choice to take on the risks of the downstairs was the intention of having a better connection to the street.

Having that connection to the street has given us massive value – and I’d love love love to continue building our connection to the street wherever we end up. But I could see the ways we use the street access most (like the art gallery) being executed in a different (and maybe even better) way, too.

A bit on how I feel right now.

As we wrapped up this Town Hall, I asked the group “How is everybody feeling.”

I got mostly nods and pleasant smiles of affirmation.

During this process, a lot of people have been asking me how I feel. And I’ve been responding honestly, depending on how I’m feeling that way. 9 times out of ten, I’ll say that I feel good, because I do.

I know that some days, I look tired. It’s because I am. But I’m not upset, nor am I worried, about the future of Indy Hall.

Right now, I’m especially thankful to be surrounded by people who care about that future as much as I do. I’m excited by the places these conversations are leading us. I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness and creativity of our community members. I’m humbled by the support of friends and partners across the city and around the world.

If you have thoughts, please don’t be afraid to share them with me.

Don’t assume that I’ve thought of everything – I definitely haven’t. Don’t assume that I’ve heard everything, either – it’s especially valuable to hear the same thing several times, because it helps me see that an opinion is shared across members…possibly an unpopular but valuable perspective for me to know about.

Even if I look like I’m tired, the thing that’s keeping me going is the thoughtful notes and emails that are pouring into my inbox every day from people just like you.

Even if it’s just to tell me a bit about how Indy Hall fits into your life, where you commute from, and what other places you like to hang out – I want to know that you’re thinking about the future of Indy Hall and how that relates to you.

Besides being extremely valuable in helping consider our options, think of it a chance for me to get to know you better.

Which, for me, is what this is all about in the first place.

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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.