About Me

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.

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The Real Value of Bootstrapping

There’s a lot of reasons not to give up a slice of your passion or business to somebody else, but Tony hits a home run as to the real reason why in his reflection “Alone at NWC“.

I wonder what it would be like to start a coworking space without having to do any of the grunt work. If you had the money right away to hire people to do all of the little things, I wonder whether you’d ever be able to fully appreciate the intricacies of every detail that make a place like this so special?

Replace “coworking space” with “business”, and the message becomes universal.

The whole thing is worth a read. I highly recommend it.

Think you need investors for your coworking space? Here are four alternative ways to get funded.

I’ve been where you are.

About to open a coworking space with limited cash. Banks don’t want to talk to me (a business with no track record isn’t a great candidate for most loans).

What about investors? Depending on where in the world you are, or your experience in business, you’re likely to encounter the reality that lots of people don’t really “understand” coworking, so convincing a funder is even harder than convincing potential members about the value of this idea.

Gatekeepers, ugh. Amirite?

Indy Hall is famously bootstrapped, largely by following a path of building our community before we even went looking for spaces. I’ve helped hundreds of coworking founders start coworking communities this way, too.

But once you’ve got the community…how exactly can you close financial shortfalls? 

Nearly every day of the week week I get a question from someone about pitching investors for their coworking space…and my first question is “what other funding sources have you tried?”

The answer is almost always “none.” At most, they’ve applied for some small business loans, pitch competitions, or possibly even are thinking about a crowdfunding opportunity.

That’s when I remind them that I’ll do almost anything to avoid having an “investor” involved in my coworking business – and here’s why.

Investors are essentially business partners that don’t work on the business every day.

And I also have a philosophy around business partnerships: they’re relationships, and not casual ones. I think a lot of people mistake “business partner” as a kind of special coworker when in fact partnering in business is a lot more like getting married than being coworkers.

And honestly, business partnerships are often more difficult to undo than a marriage. And in that vein, bringing on an investor is an awful lot like marrying for money. It happens, but it usually doesn’t end well.

Yes, there are great investors out there – “some of my best friends are investors” – who bring a lot more value than money. But even the best investors are someone else to answer to, and to explain yourself to.

And I hate nothing more than giving up control over my decisions. Related: this is why I’m a great consultant and a terrible employee. But I digress. 

The only people I want to answer to are the people I create value for – in the case of Indy Hall, our community and our team – and to be able to make decisions that I believe are in the best long term interest of how we serve the community.

With an investor, things are peachy if my decisions create value for our members and our investors. But if I’m in a situation where I have to decide between creating value for our members OR our investors…you had better believe I’m going to side with our members and that is going to make for a very uncomfortable conversation on the investor side.

So I place a very high value on control over how I make decisions, especially after seeing how often people find themselves torn between the interest of their investors and the interest of their community. I actively avoid anything that clouds my long-term decision making abilities.

Plus – if you ever do want that you want to grow to a scale where you want to have investors involved – leverage is magic fairy dust for business conversations. You’d better believe that it’s a lot easier to find investors who want to talk to you (and give you good terms) when you already have a thriving business. It’s way easier to strike a favorable deal when you don’t show up to the table hungry for a check.

So, if not investors or banks, then what funding options do you have?

Here are four options – things Indy Hall has specifically done to raise money we needed – and that anyone can do without needing a gatekeeper to say yes:

1 – Membership drives.

Assuming you’ve been doing the all important early steps of community building, you have people who want this to happen and are willing to put their time and money in to see it become a reality.

(What’s that, you don’t have a community yet? You’ve got work to do, friend.)

Now’s the time to get those people signed up for memberships.

One of the first things we did was turn the act of “signing up early” into an event.

We knew that we had people ready to go, and we’d done the work to negotiate the lease. So we went to the community and said:

“Meet us at this restaurant, at this time, and bring your checkbooks. 

If you can pay for your first month, that’s great. If you can pay for three months, that’s even better. Can you afford 6 months? AMAZING.

If people show us that are ready to sign memberships, we’ll sign the lease!”

That wasn’t a bluff, by the way. If we didn’t have enough people sign up, I would’ve called off the lease. I didn’t need a lease to accomplish my goals – I needed committed community members.

We made it an event. We promoted it as a celebration of a milestone. We made it a thing to participate in. Make the people who sign up feel special.

Bonus: taking checks in person helps you avoid payment fees (which add up!) but also the collective energy of people signing up can be contagious.

We ended the night with ~22 founding members. Most of them didn’t need an office, but they all wanted to know that our community had a home.

2 – “IRL” crowdfunding.

The biggest mistake I see people make with crowdfunding is getting caught up in the “crowd” and forgetting what each individual is actually contributing towards, and why.

SO while tools like Indiegogo, etc make it easier for a wider audience to discover and support a project, most successful coworking spaces are hyperlocal efforts for a specific community.

What people don’t realize or expect is that a typical crowdfunding campaign (which requires a TON of work) is going to spread your limited resources thinner by promoting it to “everyone” instead of focusing on connecting with people who already have a reason to care.

A better way to crowdfund your costs. 

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from all of the funding work I’ve done is that the more specific of a “thing” you can offer people to contribute towards helping, the better.

For example….imagine you’re looking at a $50,000 shortfall for opening your coworking space. Break that $50,000 into the actual list of things the money is going towards…and then look for ways to connect the individual needs with people who might want to support it.

Within any group, different people will care more about different things, and people want to support the things they’ll benefit most from. Lean into this! For example:

One part of “we are looking to raise $50,000” can be turned into…“We need $5k to get nicer chairs.”

Now you can start looking for an “official chair sponsor” – maybe a local business who you can offer member benefits to. Or, even better, imagine asking for 50 people to each “help us buy one chair and we’ll dedicate it to you” and then offering it to members, supporters, and other local businesses.

Smaller contributions are more accessible, meaning more people can contribute in a meaningful way, and know exactly what their contributions are going towards.

Bonus: when you break things down this way you can also find creative ways to reduce costs…e.g. maybe it’s a local furniture supplier who can reduce your costs, while still turning to the crowd for financial support and making their every dollar go even further.

3 – Member loans.

The first time we expanded from our original location, we needed a similar ~$30,000.

At a community town hall, we shared exactly what we needed it for, and our current potential options for closing that shortfall. After the meeting, one member approached helping us. Their business had been doing very well (largely in part because being a member) and they saw this as a way to give back. In fact, they really wanted to buy in as an investor.

Even though I had a good relationship with this person, I had to ask if they’d want to be a partner even if the money wasn’t involved. If it wasn’t a hell yes from all sides, this wasn’t the right move.

So I said “what about a loan?” and after thinking it over he said yes.

We put together terms where we had 12 months before we had to start paying back the loan. He gave me a rate that was better than I could get with a bank, and I had the flexibility down the road if needed.

The only challenge we ran into with this first deal was when we’d make a decision that he wasn’t fully supportive of, or when he wanted to do something and we didn’t think it was the right move. It took a lot to keep that relationship from affecting my decisions.

To be crystal clear – I’m incredibly grateful for the support. But I’d be bullshitting if I said this loan didn’t stress the friendship and the professional relationship.

So the next time we needed an influx of cash, we made some adjustments. This time we went to the community and said “before we go to other sources we’re wondering if anybody would be willing/able to offer us a small loan? We’re looking for a few people who can loan us $5k-10k each.”

This approach meant that no single person could hold the loan over our heads, and in a worst case scenario we could accelerate paying that person back if they did (removing tension, frustration, or cloudy judgement).

Another side effect of these smaller loans was that we were able to turn these into zero interest loans. They had the same “1 year before payback begins” term – something that really makes a difference with slow-but-steady growth businesses like coworking spaces.

But we also talked one-on-one with each member about the actual interest they were going to earn at market rate on such a relatively small loan. We said “here’s the dollar amount you’ll earn in interest,  but maybe there is something else that’s similarly or more valuable to you than the interest?” and in every instance we were able to offer something with nearly no cost (membership credits, consulting/support, public gratitude, etc) instead incurring the cost of the interest.

Like the crowd-funding tips from above, the key here is really understanding what people value the most and being willing to offer that instead of the most obvious option.

4 – Don’t buy everything at once.

This one is the most often overlooked.

If you’re someone who spends a lot of time looking at what other coworking spaces do, building pinterest boards for your dream coworking space, it’s easy to fall into the misconception that you have to have it all on the day your doors open.

YOU DON’T NEED TO BUY EVERYTHING AT ONCE.

When we opened we didn’t have…

  • a coffee machine
  • a couch
  • whiteboards
  • a printer
  • a projector and screen
  • dishes or mugs

We didn’t have chairs for every desk. We didn’t even have the number of desks that our space could hold….we just had enough for the people who were there, and a few more to grow into!

Bonus: a space that isn’t fully built out may look unfinished, but a bunch of empty desks looks sad. Some of your best members are the ones who are going to be drawn to a work in progress, and by “starting” unfinished you actually create opportunities for people to feel more connected by helping make improvements and upgrades.

In fact, since we’ve never focused on “having stuff” we also made it clear that we would buy tools and make upgrades based on what we learned was a) most important and valuable to the most people, and b) we’d do it as soon as we could afford it.

Want Indy Hall to have something faster? Help us recruit more members! Help us find or negotiate a deal!

And if you think “yeah Alex that worked in 2006 when you didn’t have any competition…” guess what we’ve done every time we’ve moved, or expanded? the exact same thing.

Take a good hard look at the things you think you need to raise money to have, and ask yourself what you REALLY need.

Desks. Chairs. Power. Internet. And people. That’s all you need for coworking.

And believe me, you’re going to need to learn how to prioritize eventually otherwise you’re going to die the death that comes from trying to “do and be everything for everyone.”

Learn how to prioritize early (and getting your members involved in that prioritization). It’ll save your ass now, and in the future.

INVESTORS ARE YOUR LAST RESORT.

The fact is that when you don’t have money, it feels like your options are limited.

But they’re only limited to your understanding of who you serve.

Do you want to serve your community, or an investor?

Personally, I’d rather not even open a coworking space to begin with than give up control over how I serve my community.

That control is one of the biggest things that’s allowed us to thrive for over a decade, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

How to get people more involved in your community without forcing it

This question shows up more and more in my channels, especially from community staff that have been hired and are essentially inheriting a challenge of turning a room full of still relatively disconnected people into a dynamic, interactive community.

On one hand, you’re telling prospective members about how great it is to join a community. But on the other hand, you can’t remember the last time YOU saw members really interact with each other. It might even make you feel a little bit dishonest about your offerings.

As lots of people learn – and often the hard way – it’s not enough to just say the word “community” 100 times a day. You can’t wish that people would interact more. You can’t force people to interact more.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything!

There’s one fundamental that I think plays out across ALL community building exercises: create opportunities for people to talk and discover things about one another that they have in common.

Psychologist Carl Rogers said “that which is most personal, is most universal.”

In simple terms: get people in a place where they can share something personal about themselves and good things happen.

Here are a couple of things we’ve suggested for people who are trying to bootstrap a room of relative strangers into something that looks more like a community. And bonus, this stuff works for breathing new life into already vibrant communities, too! We use both fairly often to periodically rejuvenate Indy Hall.

1 – Everybody has to eat.

Depending on your community, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners might work better but finding a time when people were going to have a meal and inviting people to have that meal together.

During our member lunches, we often let people mingle and chat on their own for a little bit and then warm up the group by having everyone go around and say their name and something about themselves. We pick a prompt question like…“what’s something you recently started learning” or “what’s the best thing that happened to you in the last week” or “what’s your favorite spot in Philly that nobody seems to know about.” These questions give everyone a chance to share something small and simple, learn what they have in common, and there are ALWAYS conversations that extend beyond the lunch.

You don’t even HAVE to provide lunch, just a time and a place for people to bring theirs often is enough to get started. Down the road you can get fancy and try pot luck sharing…but I say down the road because that’s much easier once people are already in the mind/mood for sharing.

Sharing a meal is probably the simplest to execute, lowest barrier to entry, beginner community building event. Don’t be afraid to personally invite people one-on-one. They might say “no” but that doesn’t mean “no, not ever” it usually means “not this time, I’m busy!” or “no, that doesn’t sound especially interesting to me” (which is a clue that you need to figure out what WOULD be interesting to them).

Personal invites are super important – you might be worried about bothering people, but the alternative perspective is people saying “I didn’t know that was happening, why didn’t you tell me!?” 🙂

2 – Group Projects/Activities.

This move is a bit more advanced than a community meal, but works VERY well when executed properly.

There’s sooooo many ways to do it, too. Here’s a couple that have worked well:

  • You could find a local charity that is having a volunteer day, and rally some members to participate in volunteering together.

  • There might be something in the space that needs improving, and your members very likely have ideas for how to make it better. DIY projects are awesome for fixing problems in coworking spaces partly because they can save money but more importantly because they give people a sense of pride and ownership once they’ve played an active roll in making the space.

  • Is there a band or show coming to town that people would want to go to together? Or the opening of a new park, or museum, or other activity? Don’t feel like everything needs to happen in the space. My favorite “hack” is to ask members what stuff they do for fun (movies, music, books, food, sports, etc) and then ask “is any of that more fun when you’re doing it with others?” and when the answer is yes, suggest that they organize a group to do that within the community.

#Repost @jagtalon ・・・ Hiking with #IndyHall peeps

A post shared by Indy Hall 👌 (@indyhall) on

Again the goal with ALL of these ideas is not to get 100% participation in any of them…but to get even a small core group of 5-10 people to come together in a way that you can make visible to the rest of the community…which starts the snowball rolling downhill.

Repeat, repeat repeat!

This last part is SUPER important: the key to success, especially with an otherwise dormant community is, to do it more than once.

Lots of people try something once, maybe aren’t super impressed with the turnout (“it was just a couple of people!”), and decide not to ever do it again. Don’t act like it’s a failure, or else it will be one. In reality, if two people are there it’s a success.

Instead, follow through and next time you let people know there’s going to be a member lunch, talk about the great conversations you had last time to get people interested in the next one. Small successes add up to bigger successes over time, and in a community setting, growth really tends to pick up once you’ve created something contagious.

I really hope this helps lots of people. If you try any of these ideas (or modify them in some cool way) I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Indy Hall <3 Philly Dev Night Community

Roberto Torres from Technically just shared a really great article about something that I’m really excited about: the Philly Dev Night community finding a home with Indy Hall.

This is notable because historically, we’ve been pretty intentional about not treating Indy Hall as an event-space-for-hire. There are events, of course, but the events are almost entirely for and by our own community. Renting out our space for events might bring in a few extra bucks, but it’d be like coming home at the end of the day to find a complete stranger in your kitchen making porridge, sitting in your chairs, or trying out your beds.

The bears weren’t thrilled to find Goldilocks commandeering their digs (and I don’t think that they’d put their house on AirBnB).

So obviously, Philly Dev Night is different. In the past, we have had a similar relationship with the Philly Cocoa community, largely because it was run by Indy Hall members, but this new relationship with Dev Night has actually made me want to rekindle that connection. Zorn & crew…look out for a note from me soon. 🙂

For the unfamiliar, “Dev Night” is a confusingly named community of people who love making and playing games. I say confusingly named, because you don’t need to be a developer to be a part of dev night. I’ll explain more in a minute.

But I’m especially happy with the article’s intro line:

““Indy Hall celebrates a lot of the same stuff that we do,” said Philly Dev Night organizer Tabitha Arnold.

Because Tabitha’s so, so right. Believe it or note, we didn’t coordinate our quotes with Technically.

Below is a more set of notes that I sent to Roberto about why I’m excited about this potential and what I have learned about the Dev Night community, and some of the important cultural roots and values that we share:

We’ve been friends with a lot of the early Dev Night crew since the start, even before the Game Forge was a thing. Will and Dain from Cipher Prime are longtime friends. Indy Hall was also home to the local chapter of IGDA back in the day, including their annual global game jams. Those meetups were how Flyclops co-founders Jake O’Brien (then an indie iOS developer) and Parker Whitney (then Indy Hall Den Mother) initially met and released their first game together.

As The Game Forge began to come together, it gave birth to Dev Night. A weekly event that really was more of a community unto itself than an event.

I had lunch a few months ago with the Dev Knights – the leadership crew behind Dev Night. They were looking for advice on finding a venue, but knew that their needs just didn’t match most places.

And the more I talked to them, the more I realized why. What they call “Dev Night” is actually three distinct experiences that the Game Forge space made possible in somewhat unique ways….and those experiences made Dev Night difficult to host in a “normal” event space.

One, it’s a place to create together. Creating is in the DNA of the Dev Night community. Every month (and sometimes every week) their game jams were encouraging people to embrace constraints of time and themes to make something new. The Dev Night crew had figured out something that Indy Hall learned a long time ago: one of the most powerful ways to build lasting relationships is to make stuff together. Communities thrive on this particular kind of doing.

Two, it’s a place to share together. There’s an inherently generous nature to Dev Night. Everyone wants to play everyone else’s games. That makes people want to share their games. For feedback and critique. For fun. The built in motivation of sharing what you have – the abundance mindset – is also a big part of why Indy Hall exists the way it does today.

And three, it’s a place to learn together. The foundation of Dev Night was always to help create the game dev ecosystem in Philadelphia that didn’t exist. Will and Dain sunk a lot of their resources into a very forward-thinking objective: to bootstrap what a community that wasn’t there (or find one that was here, but seemingly hidden) and make it visible to newcomers. I literally have notes form when we were getting Indy Hall started that set two objectives: first tell Philly, then tell the world. It felt like we didn’t have the kind of tech/creative community that I crave but saw elsewhere. So we found it, and built a home together.

All of this is to say – the more I heard Jake, Kotaro, Shawn, and Tabitha describe the Dev Night community the more I realized that our communities exist for the same reasons. They didn’t need an event venue, they needed a reliable clubhouse for their club. That’s a very different kind of need, and it’s pretty rare that TWO communities have the potential to contribute to each other in the ways that Dev Night and Indy Hall do.

I’ve already seen the nascent bridge between our communities spark a few times – for some of our alumni like Flyclops it’s kind of a homecoming, and they get to show another community that they’re a part of what Indy Hall has been about for them. And the Indy Hall community has always been playful, but we’ve never had a consistent group of champions for intentional play like the Dev Night community has been.

We’re not forcing a crossover here – that kind of “partnership” doesn’t work anyway, at least not long term. And a big part of me advocating for this was the long term, especially knowing that Dev Night has had rocky footing for the last year or so. They’re important for Philly, and I want them around for a long time.

This is much more than symbolic, I think this is us each bringing our unique strengths as communities to each other with the curiosity for what happens next.


It’s early days for our communities playing together – we’re still figuring some things out – but as you can probably tell I’m optimistic 🙂

If you’d like to meet the Dev Night crew, check the calendar on their website. They have gatherings planned at Indy Hall the first and third Thursday of every month, ranging from creative, inspirational, and educational talks; to nights for playing local homebrew games; to collaborative game jams where you can literally make a game, even if you’re not a developer (and even if you’ve never made a game before, but always wondered if you could).

Welcome aboard, new friends. We’re so glad you’re here!

Tough Love & Oxygen Mask Coworking

Let me save you from a hard-earned lesson in being helpful

Earlier this week, I got an email from a reader asking advice in a tough situation:

We partnered with our City to create a vibrant community for entrepreneurs in exchange for a rent- free space.  It hasn’t been easy, or perfect, but it is working and is valued by many.   

We are at a crossroads right now.  We just got notice that the City is taking over the facility at the end of our lease… which is in June.  That does not leave us much time to find a new home for our community! 

Our current building is definitely not ideal office space, but it is rent free.  Even so, we’re just barely breaking even.  My team and I are currently exploring all kinds of options for where should move, and what implications that will have on our finances. 

I am concerned that we will take on too much expense and not be able to bring in enough members to cover it.  I am also concerned that there will be so much pressure to bring in revenue that our culture will be damaged, and we will turn into a soul-less office park, not the vibrant, fun, bootstrapping group that we are.  

Have you encountered a problem like this before?  We really aren’t sure what our next move should be, and we have only a few weeks to lock down a new location that will serve our community, and allow us to grow our impact and revenue!

Ouch, right?

Situations like this hurt. You work your ass off, scraping by, because you believe you’re doing something important and helpful.

And in the moment, it’s easy to find yourself wondering…what the hell do I do now? Here’s how I answered.

First – is the space actually most valuable tool in your toolkit? 

If the answer is yes, then you need to do some serious re-evaluation of your model. In your current configuration, you’ve built your model that makes space a liability, not an asset. That needs fixing.

Have you thought about what your community would look like if it were “homeless” for a little while instead of scrambling for a space?

Who would stick around? What could you do together if sharing office space wasn’t the most visible aspect of your offering?

Even if you’re not in this situation YET, use it as a thought experiment. What would you do if the coworking space you run burned to the ground, or got knocked down? How would you deliver value then?

If the answer is “I’m not sure” – that’s a problem. And it’s going to be a lot easier to solve that problem NOW then when you have your back against the wall.

Second – have you talked to your community about the fact that you’re barely breaking even even though the space you use is provided for free?

If they don’t see that as a problem, again, you have a much deeper rooted issue.

If you’re actually an asset to the community, it’d be worse if you weren’t able to keep doing what you do.

But you know how the airplane security videos tell you to put on your oxygen mask before helping others put on theirs? That’s because if you put someone else’s oxygen mask on first, there’s a chance you’ll die in the process and that means you won’t be able to help anyone…and you’ll be dead.

Fact: Your model isn’t sustainable even with free space. That’s a problem you owe to your community to fix. 

Fact: Even if you found another free space, what’s going to prevent you from being in this situation again in the future? This is a problem you owe to your community to fix. 

Because if you ignore these problems in this transition, you’re only delaying the inevitable.

You need to put on your oxygen mask. 

My biz partner Amy Hoy coined the term “Oxygen Mask Entrepreneurship” – it’s often emotionally counterintuitive, but absolutely crucial for long-term success.

Fear and Scarcity make us do and say stupid things.

Did you notice this quote from the original email above?

“I am concerned that we will take on too much expense and not be able to bring in enough members to cover it.  I am also concerned that there will be so much pressure to bring in revenue that our culture will be damaged, and we will turn into a soul-less office park, not the vibrant, fun, bootstrapping group that we are.”

If this feels familiar, I’d bet you $100 right now that giving away free/cheap space isn’t what makes your community awesome.

And won’t it be worse for your culture to be damaged by you not being able to exist any longer if you don’t address your sustainability issues? You have to take a longer view than just replacing your space.

And I’m not just saying YOU should do this…I speak from experience

When I started Indy Hall, all of the models for coworking were dependent on free or subsidized space. On one hand, I didn’t have access to that. But I also saw it as a liability. Space that’s free is space that’s likely to go away.

Why would I want to put in all of this work to help my community…just to put them in a vulnerable position?

Our membership model is even designed specifically to make it less likely that a single entity or group could put our community at risk.

More recently, I’ve been following this advice myself for the last 12 months.

From the moment I shared the news with our community that our landlord had lost their mind and we would need to find a new home, I made it clear that of all of the things that were possibly going to change WHO WE WERE wasn’t going to change and that’s all that mattered.

I talked about this at length in this two part podcast. I highly recommend listening to that one closely.

And then taking a serious look at your model and take care of that oxygen mask, stat.

It’s hard work, but the people in our community are worth it. I bet the people in your community are, too.

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

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.

This post is part of the thread: Future of Indy Hall – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

6 conversations I’ve had about the future of Indy Hall

A little over 3 weeks ago, I published a lengthy but important post about the future of Indy Hall.

If you haven’t read it yet…it’s a pretty important prequel to reading THIS post, so please take a few minutes to click the link above and read that post carefully before you continue here. It’s cool, I’ll wait.

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Done? Awesome.

From the moment I hit publish on that piece, I felt a huge sense of relief. For one, I HATED keeping this information private, and having it out in the open was where I’d wanted it to be all along.

But in the days and weeks following I was reminded of why I’m so thankful and proud to be a part of the this community, and that I’m not alone in creating the future of Indy Hall.

I personally feel good about what I’ve heard and digested as these conversations unfolded, and I want to share some of my own synthesis here.

In the coming weeks, my goal is to shift from conversations towards action. And at the end of this post, there are a few opportunities to continue the discussion together, offline.

It starts with gratitude.

Far and above, nearly everyone has expressed gratitude for my decision to be transparent in the face of something complicated and messy. Frankly, it wasn’t easy to lay out the full range of emotions I’d gone through prior to that post…from confusion to frustration to disbelief, before I found myself in a more peaceful place to process the facts.

I’m a firm believer that you get what you give, often in multiples. I feel this way especially about Philadelphia, a city that I joke “loves you back 10x if you show it you care, but if you show it the slightest glimmer of hate…prepare to get punched.”

This experience so far has shown me that by putting grounded positivity and optimism out into the world, that’s exactly what I’ve gotten back.

My original post was meant to share some specific information and make one thing clear

We will not “react” to an ultimatum. We’ve been handed a timeline to operate on, but that doesn’t mean we can stop thinking strategically about the long term.

As Indy Hall continues to evolve, our success depends looking forward and being intentional, while remembering everything we’ve learned about what has helped our community thrive.

What that in mind, here’s a few of the kinds of conversations I’ve had, along with some of my own initial thoughts.

  • Conversation #1 – “Let’s crowdfund the down payment and buy the building!”
  • Conversation #2 – “I’ve got a creative business idea to help Indy Hall make more money.”
  • Conversation #3 – “Are we going to move? Where would we move to?”
  • Conversation #4 – “I’ve got Philly’s next hot neighborhood – want in?”
  • Conversation #5 – “Let’s use this as an opportunity to fix some problems”
  • Conversation #6 – “Whatever you decide, I’m on board.”

Conversation #1 – “Let’s crowdfund the down payment and buy the building!”

Lots of people – and not just Indy Hall members – have come to me with a sketch for crowdfunding a down payment to purchase our building. And not just crowdfunding…I’ve heard some other very creative models for buying our current space, too! But crowdfunding has been far and above the most common variation, so I’m going to focus on that here.

I’d said in my previous post that I didn’t think that a purchase made sense, and then later edited to say it was still possible, but I didn’t really get a chance to expand more on those thoughts.

If we back up from the situation at hand, I think it’s useful to remember that we “crowdfunded” the opening Indy Hall’s first location on Strawberry Street in 2007. Through membership prepayments and our invention of our basic membership for coworking, we were able to raise nearly half of the budget we needed to open our doors. More importantly, it gave our community a tangible activity to rally around. The money was just a piece of the equation – it was peoples’ participation in the process that made our launch successful and established our community’s culture from the very start.

Instead of fitting out an office and then saying “come over, we’re ready for you now!” we approached the effort more like an old fashioned barn raising.

And then when we moved from our original office into the second floor of 20 N 3rd Street, we repeated the process. Without membership prepayments AND real people with skin in the game helping make it happen, we wouldn’t have expanded.

So, if I’m such a crowdfunding hipster, why haven’t we launched our Kickstarter campaign yet?

There’s a lot to unpack here, and it’s got a lot less to do with coming up with a $700k+ down payment for a commercial mortgage than most people think.

For the sake of argument, yes, it’s definitely possible for us to mortgage our current location’s $3.3MM asking price…for about the same monthly payment (and maybe even less than) we current pay in rent.

I’m extremly confident that we could creatively crowdfund a down payment, especially if we pursued some kind of equity component that’s compliant with the JOBS Act.

And while we’re talking about equity, I’ve thought a lot about how transformative it could be for Indy Hall AND our community members to collaboratively build equity in an asset like a building. For our entire history, we’ve invested heavily in the intangibles: social capital, human capital, knowledge capital, etc.

For the last few years that I’ve been having serious conversations with lenders about the possibility of buying our space, I’ve thought about what it could look like to create a community owned and operated fund, one that thoughtfully blends financial capital with our already thriving stockpile of other capital forms.

Imagine: With Indy Hall as a primary lease holder, our membership dues could potentially create INCREDIBLE amounts of long term value. I think about getting to a point where we’ve paid enough into our principal that we have an asset worth borrowing against, and the potential to use that to invest in yet another community-powered project.

It’s easy to get excited the further I let myself wander down that rabbit hole.

I know this is a great idea, and I believe in pursuing it.

I also know that if we continue to have the kind of economic impact we’ve been able to generate to date, the problem we’re in now has the potential to follow us.

But…

Preoccupied

Before we talk about HOW to buy our space, we need to answer if we should.

  • Buying a building is a long term investment, and means we need to be thinking DECADES of strategy. Which I’m okay with, but any purchase of this scale needs to be part of a plan, and NOT a reaction.
  • Given how much we’ve grown & evolved inside of the last 8 years, I have a hard time believing that Indy Hall will look exactly the same in another 10 years…let alone 30+.
  • Ownership comes with additional cost and management overhead beyond the mortgage. For example, taxes & condo fees in our building will easily add another 20-25% on top of a mortgage (with the potential to increase). And if something breaks, as happens in our old building, those costs and headaches are ours to bear.
  • Our current building is amazing in a lot of ways, but it also has major shortcomings. Most notably in climate control and basic construction quality. Winters cost us thousands of dollars a month to heat – high ceilings and terrible electric heat – while still being uncomfortably cold.
  • Even if we made ALL of the numbers work, the space we’re in is EXPENSIVE. If we spend that much money, we can get SO much more value per dollar if we expand our search beyond preserving our home at 22 N 3rd.

And this may be the most difficult thing to say out loud:

Every time I ask myself, “Do you want to be in the business of owning and operating a building?”, my honest answer is…no.

I’ll be the first to admit that the effort I put forth into the social infrastructure at Indy Hall FAR outpaces our physical infrastructure. You won’t find “workspace operations and management” on my list of aspirations. The fact that Indy Hall has as much infrastructure as it does is a means to an end.

I know that this challenge is surmountable by finding a trusted partner who would be on-call for building related issues. Not a service provider, but a true collaborator who actually cares about the people inside the building, too. And while I’m dreaming big, someone who’d want to be an active part of the Indy Hall community.

I haven’t met that person yet. Do you know that person? Is that person you? Drop me a line, I’d love to talk.

To wrap up this kind of conversation, I’ve been sharing a mental model that I’ve been using to parse out the pros and cons of each conversation. In the simplest terms, I’ve been organizing pros and cons into the 4 following scenarios:

  • Buy our current space
  • Rent our current space
  • Buy elsewhere
  • Rent elsewhere

If there were a clear leader, I’d have chosen it already. 🙂 With that said – I want to make it clear that all options are still on the table, including ones we haven’t talked about yet.

Every scenario has both pros and cons, and I’d like to explore them further, in the open, taking into consideration everything I’ve outlined so far.

If you’re interested in this conversation you can either head to the comments below, email me, or come to one of the “Mini Town Hall” events linked at the bottom of this post.

Conversation #2 – “I’ve got a creative business idea to help Indy Hall make more money.”

First, I wanted to share a thought on money, since it’s inevitably a complicated topic that stirs lots of emotions.

Indy Hall’s core business is based on our monthly memberships, is sustainable, and has been for it’s entire lifespan. The business is healthy and predictable, and allows us to operate with very little debt and to have cash in the bank.

We’re proudly 100% bootstrapped, having never taken money from outside investors. This means that the only people we need to answer to are our members, and we’re able to make decisions in our community’s best interest instead of “maximizing shareholder value”.

The only debt we carry is in small (<$10k each) loans that have helped us have cash on hand during periods of growth. We’ve only ever borrowed money from community members who had personally benefitted from Indy Hall and were in a position to lend to us as a way of paying their success forward. #### To me, the purpose of profits is to be able to say yes. There are plenty of other reasons not to do something, but if something is going to be truly great for the community, Indy Hall’s profitability allows me to say “yes!” without having to ask anybody else’s “permission”. My job is to make decisions in service of our community, because without our community, we have no value to offer. Indy Hall’s profitability affords me the ability to offer our members the most valuable thing: the freedom to do the things they think are best for the community. When our profits are down, or worse, when we’re eating into our savings, we have a lot less room to experiment and try things even if they’re not going to create an immediate return. So when we’re talking about “more money”, my actual goal is to create more freedom, more sovereignty, more agency for our community. Money is just a tool to that end. Kapish? #### To review our near-term situation, on September 1st of 2015 (just over 2 months away), we face two options. Option 1) our rent is going to go up by nearly 20% OR Option 2) we’re going to have to cut our ground floor space in half, but paying a 47% increased cost per square foot. In Option 1, we get to keep running as we currently are, but we need to come up with another $3000/month. In Option 2, we’re forced to shrink our ground floor by 50%, but with the higher cost per square foot, our rent only goes down by 15%. We also have to be honest about the fact that a reduction in our space will have some impact on our revenue. And if that impact is greater than the 15% cost reduction…we’re heading in the wrong direction. In both cases, these options only carry us 12 months until September 1st 2016. At that point, our current lease agreements expire. If we haven’t made the decision to purchase our building, our landlord intends to raise rents as high as $50/square foot (nearly 2x what we currently pay). And in the short term, both options might mean we need to get REALLY creative with the way we use and lay out our space…but the last thing we want to do is pack people in so tightly that it feels uncomfortable. So frankly, both of these options suck. Ugh. #### But hey, I’m surrounded by problem solvers. In my last post, I wrote: > “We’ll have some new costs to bear starting in 3 months, and I’m sure many people’s first thought is ‘shit, membership prices are gonna go up’.

While that’s certainly one option, I want to brainstorm more ideas and options to help bridge that gap. What new things we can do to create more value with what we’ve already got? This includes new levels of membership that are focused on things other than renting desks: things like learning new skills, growing our businesses, etc.”

I’ve been pleased and impressed by everyone who rose to that particular challenge, and came up with some great ways to do more with what we already have.

Here are just a few of the ideas I heard.

…along with a few others that aren’t new but worth bringing up in this context.

– Scholarships for students and new independents.

In the last couple of years, students have shown a lot of interest in Indy Hall but we haven’t come up with a really great way to offer them access at a rate they can afford. Not just college students, but also Girl Develop It students who are taking their career transition seriously and investing in their skills…but don’t really have enough extra income to justify the expense of an Indy Hall membership.

I’m imagining an option where existing members have the ability to “sponsor” a vetted student member…either by signing up for a “sponsor” membership that’s paid monthly or we could provide some incentive to pre-pay for a sponsorship in 6 month increments.

There are still details to work out, but sponsors could have the option of choosing their preferred target sponsor recipient, and also choose if they want to have the student they sponsor know who they are so that they can connect one-on-one, with hopes of furthering their relationship beyond a transaction.

– “Bake sales” & pop-up shops.

Not necessarily baked goods (though heck, why not), but we do have a 300+ person community with a broad range of talents. We also have a combined reach that spans far and wide across the city. We could come up with a model where people could offer their skills and services, products and creations, and Indy Hall could earn a commission by hosting that channel.

This idea needs more work to keep it in line with our core values and to keep it from becoming a logistical nightmare, but I definitely see something cool hidden inside worth exploring.

– A better job board.

We get a fair bit of demand from the outside for people wanting to “hire talent”…but we’ve never put the time into creating a dedicated channel for it, especially from the outside.

Keeping things in line with our intention of prioritizing relationships ahead of transactions, we’ve always said, “If you want hire people in this community, come and spend time here.” This approach has done a good job of weeding out a lot of time-wasters, but it’s also possible that it’s also left a number of potentially great opportunities on the cutting room floor. I know we can do better.

I personally would like to see this be better than a job board, with some degree of vetting and quality control considering some of the awful the job postings I see. I’d even consider some kind of service where “premium” job listings are actually rewritten to better connect with potential candidates, instead of serving up buzzword bingo. I’ve been inspired by some pro services out there like Workshop* and the now defunked TinyProj*, and know there’s lessons to be learned from them.

* disclosure, Rob Williams of Workshop is a student of mine and TinyProj founder Kyle Bragger is a longtime friend.

Optional membership increases.

It makes me proud to know that there are people in our community who get more value than they currently pay for, and so they would happily pay more. In my mind, that’s how all business SHOULD be.

With that said, this option gets a little complicated because the last thing I want is for people to feel obligated – or worse, guilty. I’m still very open to ideas for how we could execute this in a way that’s thoughtful and fair.

– IndyHall.EDU

Okay, so we probably won’t focus on getting accredited right away. But we do know that our members have a LOT that they could teach – the answer to “How do I do __________” is almost never harder to answer than asking our email discussion list.

At the same time, we’ve never focused heavily on formal learning…so much learning happens at the one-on-one level and in small groups. But if we knew what people wanted to learn, it would be pretty easy to find people in our community to teach it. If structured as a revenue share, this could become secondary revenue for members who teach AND Indy Hall.

– Junto Membership.

This one merits a bit more explanation, mostly because it’s been rolling around in my head for so long.

In a similar vein to adding some structure to the ability to learn how to do nearly anything, Geoff and I have long been inspired by Ben Franklin’s Junto. The original Junto was a “club for mutual self-improvement”, a structured gathering of professionals and politicians to share what they knew in oh-so-Quaker pursuit of community betterment through personal betterment.

Before Indy Hall had our own clubhouse, one of the first events that brought our community together was a re-invented Junto gathering hosted at P’unk Ave in South Philly. And in the last 2 years, it’s evolved into a business retreat unlike anything else I’ve ever participated.

While our current Community Membership is just $20/month, it serves (mostly) as a social membership with the business benefits that are baked into our community. And with very limited promotion, that level has grown to nearly 10% of our total membership!

I’ve discussed the possibility of another membership, which like the Community membership would not be based on desk/workspace usage. But instead of the more casual business benefits, Junto membership would be more focused on helping members get better at their business in areas where they know they need to improve. With the natural diversity of industry and experience that we all have. While many independents & small business owners aren’t in a position to seek or afford business coaching, a Junto-style structure could help make that kind of experience accessible.

Personally, I have both paid for and have been paid for business coaching…and I’ve also done plenty of it for free. In nearly every case, it’s been worth it. Like anything else, there’s a lot of sheisters out there just trying to make a quick buck by “giving advice”. And there’s a lot of bad advice out there.

I think that the difference here is two-fold: First being the foundation of trust and relationships that we’ve ALWAYS made our top priority at Indy Hall, and second being the fact that our community already has so many shared values that you’ve got a MUCH better chance of getting advice/support that’s in line with the things you care about most.

This list is far from exhaustive and definitely not complete – so if you want to riff on any of them or a new idea, please share in the comments or email me directly!

What’s missing from this list, and why

You may also notice that I omitted “one time” ways of bringing in more money…like Kickstarter & pursuing grants. That doesn’t mean that we can’t consider them, but I’m cautious of getting caught in a trap of creating an unsustainable outcome, or one that isn’t easily repeatable.

In all cases, the BEST ideas are ones that create opportunities to bring our community closer together. I think it’s important to avoid things that are “extractive“, and instead look for models that are generative.

I don’t think any single option above is going to bridge the gap, but a few of them in combination could MORE than bridge the gap, and keep us in a situation where we can say “yes” without hesitation.

Which of the ideas I’ve listed are most interesting to you? If you’re interested in this conversation you can either head to the comments below, email me, or come to one of the “Mini Town Hall” events linked at the bottom of this post.

Conversation #3 – “Are we going to move? Where would we move to?”

Indy Hall undeniably has Old City DNA. And while I’ll always be humble about our contributions, lots of people tell me that the Old City of 2015 has a lot of Indy Hall DNA in it, as well.

Long before we nicknamed N3rd Street, even before we opened our first location on Strawberry Street in 2007, we spent countless hours bonding at National Mechanics. We literally signed our first lease while sitting in one of the church pew tables.

And if you’ll let me get romantic about it, LONG before there was anything to be known as a “tech community”, Old City is where Philadelphia and our country were founded in the name of freedom and liberty.

Most of us don’t live in Old City. But that’s also part of why we’re here.

Today, a number of our members literally walk down the street from their homes to spend the day at Indy Hall, MOST of our members don’t live in Old City. Many actually travel past other coworking spaces that are more “convenient”. Others cross state lines.

We even have members who travel upwards of an hour a few days a week to be at Indy Hall.

Not a lot of people know is how we chose to be in Old City in the first place. When we surveyed our original community for founding members, we learned that most of our members were in Northern Liberties, South Philly, and West Philly. I’m pretty sure an updated survey would show that’s still pretty accurate, expanding Northern Liberties into Fishtown & Kensington.

So naturally, we looked at potential spaces in all of those neighborhoods.

And some were pretty cool…but were a real pain to get to. That’s where we realized that if we picked any one of those neighborhoods to get started in, there’s a good chance that people from the other parts of the city would be less likely to make the trip.

So we started looking at Old City. Not because it was a hotspot for creative businesses, but specifically because it wasn’t one of the parts of Philadelphia where most of our members were. There were a couple of important creative business anchors – notably Weblinc and I-Site who predated us – but the odds of running into familiar faces the way you can in today’s Old City was completely foreign.

At the same time, we found that it felt easy to jump on a bus, subway, or bicycle from just about anywhere in the city and be there in 10-15 mins. Less convenient for our friends traveling in from the suburbs, but that’s never been our strength.

In a way, Old City won in our search because it was the un-neighborhood.

And I don’t mean that to be diminutively.

Because as Old City has changed, we’ve gotten to grow up along with it. We’ve gotten to become a part of a story that’s been in motion for decades or longer. We’ve been able to enjoy the explosion of amazing restaurant and bar scene. The “campus” feel of Old City has become a huge draw, making it easy to bump into friends almost anywhere in the neighborhood…and not just at National Mechanics.

For the last couple of years, Indy Hall Arts has gotten to play a role in the art community, attracting thousands of attendees and many first-time art buyers to our First Friday shows. Through the N3rd St Farmers Market, I’ve met more of our neighbors in the last 2.5 years than I did in the previous 6. And I don’t have to say how awesome it is to have places like Spruce Street Harbor Park and Independence Beer Garden within easy walking distance as a way to enjoy each others’ company outside.

And then there’s the graduates

When Indy Hall members’ grow their companies larger than 3-4 people, they almost universally begin looking for ways to stay in the neighborhood. Within a 2 block radius of Indy Hall, at least 100 people are employed by Indy Hall alum.

And we’ve gotten to play a role in dozens of businesses choosing to open their first and second offices in Old City, and many more expand into the neighborhood. We’ve even had a steady stream of companies occupy our former coworking space on Strawberry Street.

Today, Old City is a destination, and one that I’m really proud of.

But maybe most importantly to myself and for many of our members, Old City has a sense of “home” for us.

A lot of people have reached out directly to express how devastated they would be if Indy Hall left Old City. That’s their word, not mine. “Devastated”.

I hear this – and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hit me right in the heart. And as you can tell, I feel very strongly about Old City myself.

But I also know that emotions aren’t a good place to make long term strategic decisions.

I think the most honest answer to “are we moving?” and “where would we move to?” isn’t an answer I can give today, but for a good reason.

When I do the dirty work of separating my emotions from the long term goals of our community and our business, I think about each location-based decision we’ve made to date.

Even the most recent one, the decision to take over the ground floor of our building in 2012. In order to make that expansion WORTH it, I couldn’t just look at it as adding more space. More space came with more risk. A second floor came with more complicated operations. Street access came with potential security risks.

We balanced all of these things with one important goal that fit our strategic goal: to connect more with the world outside our front door.

And if you look at our work over the last 3+ years, and the way our community has grown and evolved, I can say with confidence that even though all of our concerns were valid they were worth addressing head-first because the benefits have been transformational.

So today, in the consideration of ANY kind of move (to another spot in Old City, to another part of the city, some combination of the two, or even hidden option D), I’m asking the question “How does this move help us achieve our next long-term goal?”

Which makes me ask, “What IS our next long term goal?”

The problems we set out to solve in 2006/2007 aren’t 100% solved, but we chose them in part because they’re not the kind of goals to solve to 100%. That way, there will always be room for more people to join us in solving them.

My goal wasn’t to bring shared workspace to Philadelphia. My goal was to make Philadelphia a better place to make a living doing what you love. My goal was to make it easier to build relationships with people, long before you needed them to complete a transaction.

Is Old City the only part of the city worthy of those goals? How can those goals be refined to better reflect Philadelphia of 2015? And can we look ahead to Philadelphia of 2025, and imagine what we want it to be like?

Today, that’s the most important thing to answer.

Because once we have that answer – the questions of “Are we going to move? Where would we move to?” become much easier to answer, as they’re in service to a much bigger goal than putting our stuff into boxes and changing our address.

If you’re interested in this conversation you can either head to the comments below, email me, or come to one of the “Mini Town Hall” events linked at the bottom of this post.

Conversation #4 – “I’ve got Philly’s next hot neighborhood.”

This 4th conversation is a little different – more of a conversation that I want to have. So let’s see how that goes.

Today, I created a new label in Gmail.

That label is called “Real Estate”, and I added over a dozen email threads to it.

And more are coming in just about every day.

The point of me sharing this here is two fold:

1 – It’s been very interesting to see the different approaches from the real estate world. It’s pretty easy to pick the best from the bunch based on the amount of thought they put into their first contact.

It’s amazing to me how many people don’t do even a LITTLE bit of research about Indy Hall before sending a cold contact. Many don’t even address me by name. Vultures.

2 – At the same time, everyone’s pitch is pretty much the same. With a few rare exceptions, of course (you know who you are).

Here’s just one example:

> “I don’t want to prematurely divulge too much information at this point. The gist is that it’s going to be a pretty big deal, it’s located within walking distance of Center City, and the Building stock is all former industrial / turn of the century. The area already has a cool vibe to it. it’s just been overlooked for decades, has lacked some TLC, and it needs a cohesive vision to create a ‘place.'”

Or, it’s less wordy cousin…

> “We’re looking for tenants 2000 sf & up for this cool office redevelopment. Please call/reply if you have interest.”

At this point, I’ve learned to keep my expectations low when working with the real estate world, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lowered the bar.

Whatever happens, rent or buy, I’m sticking to my principles of relationships before transactions.

If you work in real estate in Philadelphia and you want to work together, I want to know who you are.

Not your property and it’s features – that’s the same commodity shit that everyone else has.

Who are you? What do you care about? Why do you love Philadelphia?

Think of it like asking someone on a first date. “Nice shoes, wanna fuck?” might work with some people, but that’s not what I’m looking for.

If you’re interested in this kind of conversation, you can either head to the comments below, email me, or come to one of the “Mini Town Hall” events linked at the bottom of this post.

Conversation #5 – “Let’s use this as an opportunity to fix some problems”

Okay. Back to actual conversations I’ve had with actual Indy Hall members.

One of the things that I’m FOREVER thankful for is that our members are comfortable talking to me about Indy Hall’s imperfections.

I’m crazy proud of our team – Adam Teterus, Samantha Abrams, and Sean Martorana are without a doubt the BEST in the coworking business. Part of that is because most days of the week, my team and I are our own toughest critics.

What I think sets our team apart is that when they know they’re not doing their best work they’re not shy to admit it so they can recalibrate. They’ll even turn to their fellow community members – that’s right, our team members are members of the community first and foremost – and ask for help.

I’m saying all of this because I know that our willingness to acknowledge our imperfections instead of pretending “everything is awesome” has opened the door to members being willing to say “Hey, I noticed something is off. Can we work together to make it better?”

This came to the surface in a powerful way since that last blog post, when a few members have independently taken the opportunity to acknowledge Indy Hall’s fractures. And most interestingly…they each brought up the same core problem.

I want to save the details of that problem for a follow up blog post (how’s that for a cliffhanger?), but suffice it to say that it felt really great to be able to frame the problem against our potential future.

Even when we’re in the same location for 5+ years, Indy Hall is a work in progress. The difference is that our community has always played a role in that progress, and that’s certainly not going to change now.

If you’re interested in this conversation you can either head to the comments below, email me, or come to one of the “Mini Town Hall” events linked at the bottom of this post.

Conversation #6 – “Whatever you decide, I’m on board.”

This might seem like a throwaway, but I’m including it for a very important reason.

Among all of the creative ideas & thoughtful questions, a number of members approached me simply to say:

> “I know you’ll do the right thing. I love how things are now, but I also know that I’ll love things however we end up.”

And here’s why I share this to close out this blog post: none of the people who came to me with this particular conversation did it in blind faith. In 100% of the cases where the conversation started here, there was still an opportunity for a conversation to unfold.

Let me be clear, I’m thankful that people trust my leadership. And I know it’s hard earned.

But more important to me is that even when people think they don’t have an opinion, they know they are heard, and considered, and valued. This includes today’s members, our faithful alumni, and our countless supporters.

We’ve scheduled three in-person events to host discussions about next steps

Town Hall

As I said in the opening of this post, the next few weeks are about shifting from conversation to action. That’s why it was so important for me to get these 6 conversations out into the open, so that we could invite the next steps.

And for members of Indy Hall, I’ll also be sharing updates more frequently via GroupBuzz and our weekly email announcements, so keep your eyes on your inbox.

If you can make it to any or all of these discussions, I assure you that your presence means a lot to me and even if you don’t have a specific goal or thought to share, I’d encourage you to join us.

I have the privilege of sometimes being the face, but Indy Hall isn’t what it is because of me. It’s what it is because of all of you.

Together, Indy Hall is our love letter to Philly, and we’ve been writing it for nearly a decade.

It’s time to work on our next chapter. What goals could we be working towards, together, for the next 10 years?

This post is part of the thread: Future of Indy Hall – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Behind the scenes of a front-page Biz Journal interview, “Coworking: Any old space won’t do”

I have a love/hate relationship with the press, especially when it comes to coworking. Mostly because I know what’s NOT in the story.

On one hand, I can’t imagine a world where coworking’s increasingly mainstream presence could’ve happened without articles in mainstream press like the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Wired Magazine.

On the other hand, these same publications have largely chosen from one of the following narratives:

  • Cheap space.
  • Flexibility (read: no commitments).
  • “Collaboration”, but only vaguely speaking.
  • Open floor plans.
  • Tech, startups, and “talent”.

If you follow along on this blog (or any time I talk about coworking on twitter), you know that these themes are not representative of coworking’s thus-far successes, nor what I see as its potential or future.

Ever wonder why the press has gotten coworking so, so wrong?

The stories about coworking that DO hit the news stands aren’t surprising when you realize that:

  1. the people writing about coworking have almost never experienced a coworking space for themselves, and
  2. the people writing about coworking almost never interview members, only owners/operators

These two biases factor for a lot of the media’s poor discussion of coworking today, and also point to how we can start making it better.

Expectations are a big challenge for coworking

People start coworking spaces expecting that if they offer a room full of desks and services, those desks will magically fill up with people. Because that’s what the press shows.

People expect their “tenants” to get along in open floor offices…and even expect them to start collaborating, as if some law of physics predicts that will happen. Because that’s what the press shows.

And on the other side of the exact same coin, people  are joining coworking spaces expecting…well, they don’t even know what to expect, most of the time, because of the confusing messages from the press.

At Indy Hall, we spend a tremendous amount of time helping prospective members understand what they’re even buying, and also helping other coworking spaces even understand what they’re selling.

Is it a desk? An office? Meeting space? Business partners and collaborators?

No, no. We aren’t in the business of replacing a long-term lease with an affordable monthly rental option. We’re not in the leasing business at all.

And let’s be honest: if your plan is to sell access to workspace for less per month than a mid-range hotel room charges per night, while offering any sort of  premium services to hopefully attract and retain tenants, how long do you expect to be able to keep your doors open?

No. Coworking isn’t a real estate business. Not now, not ever.

Improve the story, improve expectations.

PHLBizJournal_2014-Jul-18 I’ll be honest. The Business Journal is the last place I expected this to happen, given it’s old-school bend for business.

But when Lauren Hertzler knocked on our door after taking over Peter Key’s beat of the happenings in technology, education, energy, and venture capital, I thought differently.

She was starting fresh. She had no idea what coworking was, or what Indy Hall was.

She hadn’t watched us “grow up”, or become attached to our story.

She could see things fresh again, with open eyes and most importantly, what I noticed was a genuine curiosity.

Lauren wrote an article that was this week’s cover story for the Philadelphia Business Journal, pictured to the right. You can even read the entire 1300 word feature story online without a subscription using this link, something that the Biz Journal doesn’t normally permit with their feature stories until 4+ weeks after the print date.

And I encourage you to read it, it’s quite good.

And take note, that Lauren is the first journalist I’ve interviewed with who:

  1. spent an entire day working in a coworking space (not just interviewing people)
  2. embraced my insistence that for every coworking space founder/operator she spoke to, she should speak to at least a couple of members of that space as well.

Lauren asked a lot of questions. Way better questions than the usual questions I’ve gotten for coworking stories.

She challenged me on a bunch of my “party line” responses, too, asking for more evidence or explanations.

I have 3000+ words of unprinted interview

Lauren interviewed several other coworking spaces, and a few members. Meanwhile, she still had to tell a story to tell, a word count to meet, and an editor to make happy.

So I’m sharing my whole interview here, for you to learn from.

I’ve done this before with DeskMag (an online magazine about coworking whose name never fails to strike me with irony), and more recently, with an interview with an Italian newspaper. But I’ve never published a FULL interview with a mainstream business publication before.

  • You’ll see my quotes from the article in context.
  • You’ll see my recurring recommendations to speak with community members instead of just owner/operators.
  • You’ll see how I respond to Lauren’s questions.
  • You’ll see how I reinforce my points and offer citations/references for my facts. Citations and references which, surprisingly, I’ve never had a journalist ask for, but I always offer. Keep that in the front of your mind next time you’re reading the news.

Below, you can see the complete transcripts of our interview, unedited, straight copy-pasted from my email. The only thing I’ve altered is to reorder follow-up questions (and their answers) to appear directly after the original question/answer they reference.

Interview with Lauren Hertzler, Philly Biz Journal

Lauren: Give me a brief history of Indy Hall (what are the big aspects I can’t miss).

Alex:

http://embed.verite.co/timeline/?source=0ApThYvShK5yNdHRuMzdaU2ZuamNmcnY0YjFkOTc5NHc&font=Bevan-PotanoSans&maptype=toner&lang=en&hash_bookmark=true&height=650

Lauren: What makes a coworking space work?

Alex:

Two things make a coworking space work:

1 – It has to be better than the alternative. For most people that means it needs to be better than working from home or from a cafe.

2 – People need to be able to see beyond the space. They need to see value in being around each other, but also in being a part of a community that extends beyond the walls of the physical space. A successful coworking space helps people help themselves, and help each other, even when they’re not in the room.

Lauren: Define a coworking space.

Alex:

First, let’s define coworking. My favorite definition is from the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance:

“Coworking is about making the personal choice to work along side other people instead of in isolation.”

That personal choice is critical. Everyone in a coworking space is there because they want to be. In today’s world of work, that’s a rare opportunity that creates immense value for everyone involved.

But it’s important to realize that coworking can and does happen in many more places besides coworking spaces. Anywhere you can CHOOSE to intentionally work alongside people who you don’t NEED to work with, you’re coworking. Indy Hall started by doing this nomadically, taking over cafes and bars (including our now long-standing neighborhood mainstay, National Mechanics) that have wifi. These temporary and often casual working experiences are better than being alone, but not as good as a place that’s set up with strong wifi, appropriate noise levels, ergonomic workspaces, and without leering baristas.

Coworking Spaces are places that can facilitate the act of coworking. It’s not as simple as setting up a room full of desks and chairs and turing on a wifi connection, though. Those spaces experience the challenges of high turnover that come with short-term (usually monthly) rentals, mostly because they treat “members” as a fancy new word for renter.

I like to think of coworking as a kind of club, and a coworking space as the clubhouse. Without a club that people want to be a part of, the clubhouse doesn’t have a reason to exist.

Lauren: Comment on Philadelphia’s coworking space scene.

Alex:

For a long time, Indy Hall was the only show in town (other than a couple of spaces that opened and closed within a year after ignoring our advice about the importance of community). But the thing is, Indy Hall isn’t perfect for everyone, and we didn’t have anywhere to send people who were looking for something a little bit different.

In the last couple of years, more spaces have opened. Some have followed our advice better than others. Many continue to ignore it (and struggle). Overall, the effect has been positive: more people are discovering that coworking is even an option, and more importantly, there are more and more “styles” of coworking.

Compared to where we were less than two years ago, things are better. But we’re still at the very beginning. Peoples’ experiences are varied, and not always in a positive way.

The vast majority of the potential that coworking has for making Philadelphia better has still not yet been realized.

Lauren: Where do you see the future of coworking spaces in Philadelphia going?

Alex:

I don’t see a long-distance future for most coworking spaces, actually. Most coworking spaces won’t look like “coworking spaces” in 10 years. To look at this as a real estate trend is a big mistake and a major red-herring. I think that the future is less about space, and more about place, and the sense of belonging that comes with place-making.

Coworking is less of a future-trend than people make it out to be. This is how we used to work. When Philadelphia was at its peak 150 years go – as a manufacturing and knowledge capital of the world – people were succeeding by working together. They were playing an active role in making their industry – and their city – a better place.

Lauren: Are you referring to the physical appearance? Does this mean you see more of these coworking spaces that don’t have a “community” dying, and then the ones that will thrive (and stick around) will be the community-oriented ones? Do you foresee Indy Hall lasting many more years to come, the same way it is now? Or are you saying coworking spaces will sizzle out? Any comments on if the job market changes or not, then the number of people working out of coworking spaces will fluctuate?

Alex:

I think that, done right, Coworking Spaces are laboratories for people working together. The four buzzwords that EVERY company is uttering (and totally confused how to do well) are: recruitment, retention, innovation, collaboration.

Many coworking spaces are just recreating offices. They’re solving a “desk problem”, but I don’t think that problem actually exists long-term and more importantly, the underlying problem of “people suck at working together” is usually left untouched. When people no longer need a desk, they move on.

Coworking spaces might “look” different (and many will vanish). But more importantly, I think that coworking will be come more of a verb – a style of working that happens in all kinds of places, including more traditional organizations. More and more of the work that I do is with traditional organizations, and the lessons that we’ve been able to learn by running Indy Hall as a community instead of an office rental have been able to provide tremendous value to helping those organizations with their culture. “Corporate culture” in many ways, isn’t as ephemeral as companies make it out to be. It’s concrete, takes effort and intentionality.

Indy Hall already looks different than it did 8 years ago. Hell, it looks different than it did 2 years ago. That’s because we’re constantly listening and evolving. Why would it look the same 8 years in the future?

Other examples of “Indy Hall that doesn’t look like Indy Hall” are the N3rd St Farmers Market and Indy Hall Arts. Both of these arms of the community (and the business) have the exact same coworking DNA and lessons at their core, being applied elsewhere. And we’re just BARELY getting started with that kind of evolution.

The future of coworking isn’t more coworking spaces. It’s coworking as an “operating system” for more and more types of businesses.

Lauren: Any chance coworking spaces might start turning into incubation spaces?

Alex:

The question is, incubation of what.

The near-contemporary idea of incubators is that they incubate companies. By applying pressure (usually a time constraint) and providing money and resources (usually in return of % of equity), hoping to “hatch” as many companies as possible. But it’s become an odds-based game, focused on maximizing the number of companies to improve the chances that one is a runaway hit paying for the rest of them. This venture-capital minded approach isn’t just measurably unsuccessful, I believe that it’s damaged the entrepreneurial mindset by positioning gatekeepers in the business community.

Just this past week, I watched a man walk into Indy Hall and say “I’m about to get into an incubator program, but I have to hire a developer first.” Nevermind for a moment that he’d be largely unsuccessful at convincing anyone here to work with him based on that pitch, the fact that he’s spending time out of his day to walk into coworking spaces prowling for a supposed “missing piece” to his business before an incubator “lets him in” is a damn shame.

Lauren: How do coworking spaces change people’s lives?

Alex:

Ask our members:

http://flyclops.com/much-love-to-indy-hall-221 http://newworker.co/mag/ratzabi-philly/ https://cjdawsonphoto.exposure.co/independents-hall http://adjoterus.tumblr.com/post/81796521670/took-what-i-need http://radio.indyhall.org/2014/03/episode-16-nicole-arasim-indy-hall-member-since-october-2012/ http://radio.indyhall.org/2014/02/episode-12-rob-epler-indy-hall-member-since-april-2011/ http://radio.indyhall.org/2013/10/episode-8-jennifer-hensell-indy-hall-member-since-july-2012/ http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2011/07/why-do-people-love-indy-hall-we-asked-they-told/

I have lots more where that came from.

Here’s the thing – to find out how coworking spaces change peoples’ lives, you can’t ask the people who run the coworking spaces. You need to hear it from someone whose life has actually been changed by being a member of the space.

Lauren: Can you name a few great coworking spaces around the nation/world that I should know about?

Alex:

  • New Work City at Broadway & Canal in NYC
  • Office Nomads in Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington
  • Les Satellites in Nice, France
  • The Salt Mines in Columbus Ohio

That’s just a few – but the thing they have in common is that they put their communities first.

Lauren: How have coworking spaces (yours and others) evolved since you first opened Indy Hall?

Alex:

There’s a broader “spectrum” of what is being called/considered coworking.

http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2011/11/sex-coworking-and-rock-n-roll/

In the last 2 years, I’ve started reminding people that the word “coworking” is about as specific as the word “restaurant”. The word by itself doesn’t tell you if it’s fast food or fine dining, if it’s a $2 meal or a $200 meal. If it’s chinese food or BBQ.

The word “coworking” is at an inflection where it has the same issue. So asking how coworking has evolved is like asking how restaurants have evolved.

One of the biggest changes for us has happened in the last 2 years: until a couple of years ago, most of the people who found Indy Hall heard about Indy Hall first (from friends, an article, an event, or usually some combination of all three). Only once they were here they discovered that Indy Hall was part of a bigger “thing” called coworking that happened in other cities.

Nowadays, people are seeking out coworking, finding us as one of their options, and coming in to try us out. This is ultimately a good thing, but we’ve had to learn a whole new way of interacting with prospective community members because most of them have read about coworking as a way to “rent a desk”. 95% of the time, people who come in wanting a desk don’t even know that something like Indy Hall is possible, so they wouldn’t know to ask for it even if they wanted it.

I’m certain that most coworking spaces don’t do this work, and as a result, struggle with a whole range of problems from conflicts among members to corrosive membership churn.

Lauren: Is coworking becoming overrated because of all the new spaces opening?

Alex:

I think this is the wrong question. Back to my restaurant analogy: do restaurants become overrated because more of them open in a city? Or do some kinds of restaurants flourish more than others? You can’t ask a question like this at the beginning, you can only answer it with real data based on what actually happened. Most closings don’t share data, which from bruised egos to blatant lies, people generally don’t like talking about what they screwed up unless they’ve somehow managed to avoid certain death and can talk about the mistake in the shadow of their success.

Are more coworking spaces struggling and closing? Yes. But those spaces have things in common, and having done my own research, their mistakes are completely avoidable.

Lauren: And you say the question about coworking spaces being overrated isn’t the right question. That is a question that stemmed out of conversations with my fellow coworkers. You say it’s not the right question to ask, but it’s a question we’re thinking of. I guess I can rephrase: Are people making coworking out to be this cool, hip way to work, even if it’s not really benefiting them?

Alex:

It depends on who is doing the talking.

If members are talking about how awesome it is, it’s not overrated. If the operators are talking about how awesome it is, you have to consider their biases. And if the press is talking about how awesome it is, without having ever having even TRIED coworking themselves….well then they’re a big part of the reason things could be perceived as “hyped”.

Most of the people talking about coworking are coworking space owners and the press. This is why I’ve been urging you to talk to coworking space members.

Some people do it because it’s cool, sure. But for MOST people who walk into Indy Hall (we give several tours a day, 5 days a week), we get the “holy shit, where have you been all my life. I HATE working from my house. The isolation is literally driving me nuts.” THis is a very real need for a lot of people, and a growing population.

That population isn’t startups, or even “tech” specifically. It’s independent workers, which includes freelancers, consultants, remote workers and “contingent” workers. When people talk about the jobs that “aren’t coming back”, it’s because a lot of positions have been moved from full time employees to “contingent” workers – a mix of part time and long term contractors who are free-agents in the industry instead of being tied to a single company. MOST of these people are new to being independent, and MOST of them have no interest of ever going back to being an employee.

Research on independents shows 17.7MM independent workers in the US alone for 2013, and a projected 24MM by 2018.

Close to $1.2 trillion in total income was generated by independents in the US in 2013, up 20% from 2012. They also spent over   $150 billion on non-payroll/contractor expenses. Independents earn income both   globally and locally: $43 billion came from overseas while a robust $700 billion came from their metro areas. Nearly 10 million households receive at least half of their income from independents.

The #1 thing all of these independents have in common is isolation. But again, most coworking spaces think they’re addressing a desk need. We hear from people all the time that they’ve tried other coworking spaces and it was just as isolating as being at home. A lot of coworking spaces don’t realize how much more work it is than providing desks to solve the isolation issue.

If you ask a member if they like coworking, you’re not going to get a very informative answer. If you ask them how coworking has made their life better, that’s where you’ll find gold.

Lauren: How do you sustain a coworking space?

Alex:

There are three facets that you need to focus on at all times:

Participation, Relationships, and Empathy

http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2012/11/the-three-necessary-ingredients-for-community-do-you-have-them/

Lauren: Do you think it’s healthy for our city’s coworking scene to have all the different spaces cater to different types of people?

Alex:

Different types of people, yes. But different “types” is less about demographics and more about what people care about, and how they do their work. Within Indy Hall and all successful coworking communities, you’ll find a diversity of industries, experiences, and knowledge. That’s important. But the things that people REALLY have in common are usually just below the surface.

Lauren: Do you know of any local coworking spaces that have recently closed? If so, why do you think they closed?

Alex:

Yes. They do everything backwards: they open a space without a community, and they struggle to get people in the door let alone stay there.

They bite off more than they can chew, they get involved with investors who don’t understand what’s necessary to make coworking work, their core business becomes a commodity business (short term space rental) which is a race to the bottom.

Lauren: Do you think partnering with other coworking spaces is key?

Alex:

No.

Lauren: Are other coworking spaces in Philadelphia competition?

Alex:

Only the ones that think they’re in competition.

Lauren: Anything to add?

Alex:

You really need to talk to our members, and members of other coworking spaces.

Lauren: Explain your business model.

Alex:

We’re a membership business.

Lauren: How did you fund Indy Hall from the beginning, and how have prices evolved over time?

Alex:

We’re 100% bootstrapped. We pre-sold memberships to our existing community, raising a little less than half of the cash we needed to open our first space. I invested $10k of my own money for the rest, which the business was able to pay back inside of 18 months.

We’ve borrowed money twice both to support expansions, and both times from members within the community.

Our prices didn’t change for the first 6 years, we raised them for the first time earlier this year.

Lauren: Are you profitable?

Alex:

Yes, and growing.

Lauren: Is it just being done because it’s the cool thing to do? And on the other hand, are people opening up coworking spaces because they look cool, and it’s a seemingly fun job. (This is all just based off of presumed thoughts of our readers, by the way.) Do you see this at all?

Alex: Yes – coworking spaces are often being opened because people think it’ll be fun. But that’s not a coworking thing, that happens in ALL Kinds of small businesses and it’s run even more rampant in startuplandia. It’s my PASSION! So I’m going to turn it into a business.

But again, they don’t understand the problem they’re solving, or who they’re solving it for. They see startups and desks, and they cargo-cult their way forward.

How to keep the Barley Editor “off” by default

I don’t write technical blog posts super often these days – it’s usually things about coworking, communities building, culture development, or bootstrapping product businesses. But what the hell – this is my blog and I’ll do what I want.

Since the end of last year I’ve been happily using Barley for almost all of my WordPress-powered sites. It’s awesome.

But there’s one thing that wasn’t awesome: the guys at Barley decided that by default, the Barley editor should be “on”. And I get why: the whole idea is that you can just click on the page and boom, you’re editing.

But sometimes – and I found increasingly often while browsing one of my own sites for a link or a reference – the Barley editor got in the way when doing non-composing things. Most recently, as we moved Indy Hall’s members-only site into a WordPress-powered site, this problem surfaced once again.

I mentioned to Colin that having a toggle in the WordPress admin would be handy, but I also know that they have many things going on besides supporting me and my $12/year purchase of the Barley plugin.

Unfortunately, one of the functions that I needed to edit was this one:

The real problem, though, was that code wasn’t wrapped in the statement that ties a function into WordPress’s hook system. Editing the plugin directly meant losing my change every time Barley is updated and to the team’s credit (and in this scenario, my dismay)…that’s pretty often.

So, with the help of a longtime buddy and Indy Hall member Chris Morrell, I was able to override Barley’s defaults without directly editing the plugin.

The answer is to add the following code into your active theme’s functions.php file (and, if it doesn’t have one…create one).

Lines 3 and 4 were Chris’s clever contribution, essentially grabbing the querystring params and inverting them before Barley tries to consume them.

Line 6 un-hooks Barley’s built in override of the edit post link, which usually gives a logged-in user the ability to quickly jump to the edit screen in the WordPress admin. Normally, this Barley override adds a link to let you turn Barley OFF (like this)…but remember I wanted it off by default.

Lines 7-21 are a near-copy of the same code in Barley that I just unhooked, but with a couple of small edits that take the new default into consideration.

With those 21 lines of code dropped into your theme’s functions.php file, Barley’s default state is inverted just like I wanted: off by default, but ready for handy in-place editing with a single click.

(A Better Way to Say) Philly is for Entrepreneurs

This morning, I’ll be joining a few of my friends and the Mayor of Philadelphia as he announces a new City of Philadelphia initiative called StartupPHL and I wanted to share a few thoughts in the moments beforehand.

There’s been a very interesting swell around startups and the city recently, specifically with the attraction of Josh Kopelman’s First Round Capital to a downtown office that is in no small part due to support and interest from the city. This latest initiative centers around our “startup scene” by funding new company creation out of a $3MM pool of seed capital, and a $500k grant distribution (over 3 years, ~$25k or less per grant) for ideas that will spur entrepreneurial growth.

And of course, mixed in with this money is the marketing pitch for why Philadelphia is the place for entrepreneurs. Well. A pitch.

“New opportunities are here for thinkers, innovators, idea makers.”

I think we can do better.

When I first heard the pitch, I was underwhelmed. Even the quotes from prominent entrepreneurs who I really love and respect were totally non-differentiating. And in some ways, didn’t paint a complete picture of the realities of entrepreneurship in Philadelphia.

Every city in the country, if not on the planet, is currently competing to attract and retain companies. As the economy continues to fragment, this only accelerates. When every city that’s trying has the same pitch, “we have a vibrant community for startups,” those cities are competing…but aren’t competitive. The reality is that there’s a national – if not international – match for cities to become more entrepreneurial, and Philadelphia is acting like it’s just decided to jump into the ring.

One of the important things to remember is that so far, the entrepreneurial spirit here has been driven by the citizens. The City is just starting to catch up. That’s a very good thing, in my mind, but it also means that our efforts need to be a Citizens AND The City partnership, not one or the other.

One of the things I’ve learned from my dear friend Amy Hoy is that the most effective marketers learn how to “punch above their weight”. Philadelphia needs this approach, badly.

Further, I think the city needs to be honest about the fact that while they’re making strides – or perhaps baby steps, but I recognize forward motion and the effort it takes the city to make it – the business creation climate in Philadelphia is not a reason for entrepreneurs to be in Philadelphia.

I can prove this, simply and quantitatively, and even without pointing fingers at a specific problem in tax code or support networks.

Check the #whyilovephilly hashtag, or any of nearly 100 Philly Love Notes, and not one of them mentions “the business ecosystem” as a reason they love Philadelphia.

Not convinced? Ask anyone you know why they’re in Philadelphia. I’ll challenge you to find a single person whose first answer  is “because it’s a great place to start a business.” There’s a reason that the big companies move to the suburbs unless the City goes out of its way for them (I’m looking at you, Comcast).

I’ve heard a myriad of answers from entrepreneurs first hand, and not one of them has said “this just seemed like the best place to start a company.” Instead, we have people who were in Philadelphia for other reasons, who wanted to start a company, and they were already here.

I’ve even asked some of the noisiest cans who rattle about the challenges of capital and talent in Philadelphia, “why are you here?” and have gotten a range of answers from “My wife/family loves it here” to more broadly, “I love the culture here.”

So the accepted answer to “Why Philadelphia?” by every measure I’ve seen or heard, is the  High Quality of Life. This high quality of life factors in a relative cost of living for a city our size, access to great cultural and historical resources, a burgeoning food and drink culture, quality nightlife and entertainment, a mix of urban and suburban lifestyles, and of course easy access to other major cities like NYC and Washington DC in under 2 hours.

I’ll include myself in this mix. I almost left Philadelphia for San Francisco in 2006, but actively chose to stay in Philadelphia because I loved living here and my love for living here has only grown in the last 6 years of working to make the city even better. I’ve started a business – in fact, a couple of business, in spite of the business climate because I love everything else about this city so much.

Chris Wink doesn’t think this is enough, and I sort-of agree. His recent attempt at a regional distinction suggested that we should work harder to own Social Entrepreneurship. I like this pitch for a lot of reasons, but I find it challenging for a couple of reasons.

First, the term “social entrepreneur” is weighted heavily against “opportunity” in a business sense and towards “opportunity” in a social improvement sense. It seems to suggest that social entrepreneurs are special in some way, when I believe we should simply all strive to be better entrepreneurs, considering our impacts beyond our bottom lines instead of excusing those who prefer financial return by making up a new term. I know many entrepreneurs who are socially conscious but don’t self-identify as a social entrepreneur, ultimately breaking this approach as a sustainable pitch.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, positioning ourselves as a leader in Social Entrepreneurship isn’t punching above our weight. It’s suggesting that if we grow the Social Entrepreneurship ecosystem, that we could own it as a regional distinction. What we need is something that is regionally distinct, and already present.

And we shouldn’t forget that Quality of Life metric. Alone, it’s not enough, but it is the kind of strength that we can use to punch above our own weight.

The Trouble with Money

My other struggle with the StartupPHL pitch is that it is centered around money. I understand that the goal is attraction of capital. In favor of not repeating myself, I also recognize that the rallying of capital is ultimately a good thing for the region. But we need to be careful about how it is positioned.

In entrepreneurship or otherwise, I’ve never seen money make people do smart things.

Smart people do smart things, and money can make them go faster.  

The role of money and the growth of our entrepreneurial community should be carefully considered, and balance itself between new company creation and entrepreneurial attraction. Given the groundswell of energy we’ve seen from the citizens of Philadelphia over the last 5 years that has been almost entirely bootstrapped, I’d hate to see that energy get distracted by a shiny pot of gold. Instead, I’d like the money to be seen as a way to seize more of the opportunity that we’re already building for ourselves.

Truthfully, I believe this is what the city wants as well, but they haven’t done an awesome job of saying it in their message.

Balance Growth with Resilience

My primary concern with the term “start-up” is that it connotes high growth, job-creating businesses. We need these companies because we need these jobs. Or do we?

Given that high-growth companies are also high-risk companies, by focusing on growth startups we’re effectively placing our  job market in the hands of the risk takers. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I do think that the risk is understated.

Only a small percentage of high-growth companies last long enough to provide dozens, or even hundreds of jobs. Some argue that we need that numbers game. Personally, I don’t like that gamble.

What’s the alternative?

We already have an influx of population in Philadelphia, for the first time in 50 years of census data. And home ownership is on the rise in Philadelphia. Clearly people are moving here with intentions to stay…but our job market doesn’t reflect availability. What’s going on?

Small business & independent entrepreneurship is happening. Not just here, but everywhere. Most people aren’t suited to successfully create jobs for dozens or hundreds of people, but with a little help they’re perfectly suited to create a job for one person: themselves. With practice, they can provide a job for a few people, maybe up to a dozen, without stretching their abilities or risking their quality of life.

Working to spur high-growth entrepreneurship is important for the region, but like social entrepreneurship that’s only a slice of the pie.

We need support for all levels of entrepreneurs, including the people who choose to create a job for themselves instead of seeking employment. For every measure taken towards “growth”, we must balance it with resilience. It’s not an either-or.

The ecosystem depends on both to thrive.

Learning to Punch Above our Weight

I initially declined involvement in the StartupPHL campaign, concerned about everything that I’ve noted so far.

Bob Moul challenged me on my declination, and asked to speak about the efforts so far over a beer.

You could say that Bob and I embody the yin and yang of growth and resilience. Bob’s experience with building and selling Boomi makes him one of the rare candidates with the kind of experience to lead the growth startup community in Philadelphia. He’s thoughtful and diligent in his work, but he’s wired for growth and he’s the first to admit it.

Meanwhile, as a friend and colleague, I’ve been able to act as a foil for Bob’s character, often reminding him that growth without resilience is not sustainable. It’s led to wonderful conversations, and a lot of mutual respect earned between us.

Over a couple of beers at Race Street Cafe, we discussed everything I’ve outlined in this post so far. His concerns, my concerns, and our shared desire for something better. Over the course of the conversation, we agreed that the financial part of the StartupPHL pitch needed to be led with something stronger, more unique, and defining for Philadelphia but the best thing we could come up with was the usual “Quality of Life” angle.

As I sipped a beer, Bob very casually said (paraphrased), “I’m here for the quality of life, and I don’t really feel like I’ve missed out on that much in terms of business opportunity.”

I almost spit out my beer. That was it. Quality of Life alone wasn’t enough. But stack it up against what is still a city that is full of opportunity – in spite of it’s business challenges – and maybe we’ve got something.

Philadelphia Has The Best Ratio of Quality of Life to Business Opportunity

There are other cities that do better on the vector of Quality of Life, especially depending on what you’re looking for. But Philadelphia is capable of performing above average, especially when you factor in cost of living. This city is not without it’s social and economic challenges. We have poverty and crime and other big-city challenges. But those problems are deductions on our otherwise high ranking potential.

There are other cities who do better on the vector of Business Opportunity, especially depending on your industry. But Philadelphia is capable of performing above average, especially when you factor in cost of living. Philadelphia’s large industries are dominated by life sciences & biotech, with much of our money and talent tied up in the suburban pharmaceutical industry. We have Comcast as an industry superpower as well. And our tech industry seems to have a unique strength for e-commerce with companies like Urban Outfitters and Monetate being based here. But we also have representation from many other industries, making it possible that your first customer or client, regardless of your industry, could already be in your own backyard. You might have to look a bit harder, but I’m consistently surprised who’s actually here when I take a moment to look around.

It’s true that other cities have more business opportunity. New York for instance, is an undeniable superpower for media, finance, and most recently high tech entrepreneurship. And New York offers remarkable access to it’s own wealth of resources and by virtue of being a melting pot for the world. But it comes at a cost, literally. The cost of living (and running a company) in New York City means that it’s risky to your existence to stand still or take a pause to think.

Philadelphia is the place where you can enjoy life AND start a great company. Growth AND resilience. Citizens AND the city.

Are you seeing the theme?

After that beer with Bob, I sent over a 6 point pitch for him to share with the StartupPHL team.

Ignoring my broken bullet points, here they are in text:

  1. We must lead with our defining strength: “the best ratio of quality of life to opportunity in the world”
  2. We must weave that strength through as many stories/industries as possible. Balance growth & resilience. References to history and contemporaries. Illustrate that it’s already in our DNA.
  3. We want the world to realize that Philly has “the best ratio of quality of life to opportunity in the world” but some “thing” is in the way? Can money make that thing go away?
  4. The City as a partner in us – the citizen’s – in our ambitions. They’re following OUR lead, and supporting us.
  5. We must remember that money is rocket fuel for participation. It doesn’t take you from inaction to action. It takes you from action to MORE action.
  6. We must be upfront that the money is a catalyst, and that people must look for their own reasons beyond the money to make a difference in Philadelphia.

I’m excited, and admittedly anxious, about this morning’s press conference. In spite of sharing this message and Bob Moul’s tireless work to help the City and their partners adopt it, I don’t know what will come across and what won’t.

But I wanted to share this perspective and story for the people who remember that we are the ones who will make Philadelphia known as the entrepreneurial city that it’s been since it’s inception.

The first business started in Philadelphia was The United States of America.

It has been alive and resilient for over 200 years.

It’s done so by balancing quality of life with opportunity.

It’s motto is “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Of course, Philadelphia is a great place for entrepreneurs. That’s not new. We just need to get better at how we say it.

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:)