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Alex Hillman

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Community or commodity?

06 Jun 2019
by Alex Hillman

A while back I got an email from someone working on starting a new coworking community in her rural town.

She was doing the important work of building a community first – and things were going right! People were showing up to her gatherings, and coming back week after week. Relationships were forming among attendees. All the signs were pointing towards success.

Until her friend suggested “hey why don’t you start charging for this to cover your coffee & internet?”

This question froze her in her tracks.

Should she start charging? Would people even pay for a nominal fee to cover her expenses?

What would you do in her shoes? To help her get unstuck, I offered the following thought experiments.


Lets pretend for a minute that it wasn’t your friend who suggested you charge.

And pretend for a minute that you were the guest, not the host. You’ve never tried coworking before. You’ve heard of coworking, but haven’t had the experience yourself.

You have coffee and Internet at home. And you’re already at home.

Would you be willing, or even excited, to pay $10 to cover the cost of someone else’s coffee and Internet?

Now, let’s try a different thought experiment. Like the last scenario, you’ve never tried coworking before.

You’re sitting at home, working from your kitchen counter.

You’ve been working on a project all morning and are a bit stuck on a decision. You go back and forth in your head, over and over…but still can’t get unstuck.

You turn to the dog, who is looking at you with the same puzzled face you’ve been giving your work for the last hour. You start to ask the dog, “what would you do?”, before realizing that the dog isn’t going to answer you. 

After refilling your coffee, the clothes washer buzzes, breaking your concentration again. You should keep working on your project, but you decide to take another break to fold your clothes. Another unproductive morning at home. Man, working alone sucks.

Would you pay $10 to escape this hell?


Charging a nominal fee is neither right or wrong. What you’re charging for, however, is a critical difference between how people think about what you offer and how valuable it is to them. This maps directly to success vs failure.

Especially for early stage communities, the most common mistake I see is thinking in terms of charging for “stuff” instead of creating a valuable experience that they crave – being around other people – and charging for that.

Don’t make the mistake of positioning your value as stuff that people can get easily, for free, just about anywhere else.

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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.