Alex Hillman is the person you want to talk to if you want to know what coworking really means. He is the co-founder of Indy Hall, one of the first coworking communities in the United States, based in Philadelphia, and aslo runs the blog dangerouslyawesome.com and the podcast ‘The Coworking Weekly Show‘, where he discusses about coworking, communities, and business.
With his experience and knowledge, he has helped several coworkers and entrepreneurs to build communities and grow their business around the world. To keep it short: Alex is surely by far one of the responsables for why you and I are doing ‘coworking’ right now!
For all of this, we wanted Alex to be the next guest in BCNewt‘s blog. So after sharing some tweets and emails, we send him right away our questions. Alex gave us a lot of good and usefull answers, and we can wait to share them with you!
BCNewt: Alex, you present yourself as a community builder. You are the founder of Independents Hall in Philadelphia, and a key name when it comes to coworking issues. But everyone has to start somewhere. Can you tell us more about the beginnings of Indy Hall? Where did all this community-coworking necessity came from?
Alex Hillman: I’d been freelancing on the side of my full time job as a web developer, and realized that if I tried even a little bit, I could earn the same living or better if I quit my job and focused on freelancing. I LOVED being on my own – I got to choose what I worked on (and what work I said no to), who I worked with, the hours I kept…it was awesome.
Except, I was lonely.
The origin of Indy Hall isn’t because I needed an office, it was because it seemed like it was easier to find likeminded people in all kinds of places outside of Philadelphia, but I couldn’t figure out where to find them easily in my own backyard.
Indy Hall started because I was looking for those people. It took a while, but thankfully, I found them. We did all kinds of things together, including «casual coworking«. Then we started to talk about how great it could be if we had a place that made it easy to do the same thing every day, and for more people to join us. Indy Hall started as a club, and evolved into a club with a clubhouse.
BCNewt: Indy Hall is now a well-established community that keeps on growing, interweaving the micro and macro experiences of its members. As we know, the experience of each coworking member happens to be critical in defining both what a community is and where it is going. How important is the participation and relationship between the coworkers in order to develop a coworking identity?
AH: What is a coworking space’s identity WITHOUT participation & relationships between people? It’s nothing – it’s made up, a complete fantasy of what could be. Too many people are trying to sell a ‘creative, collaborative place to work’ when it’s really a room full of empty desks. And trust me – potential members can tell. I talk to SO many people who tell me how disappointed they were when they went to check out their local coworking space. If you focus on giving people ways to contribute, and helping them actually find ways and reasons to care about each other, the identity follows.
BCNewt: Following that last thread. In one of your latest blogposts you have discussed the title ‘community manager‘, suggesting that it works against the coworking philosophy. Instead, you stress the word ‘Tummler‘, for to become a person who make things happen. In this sense, how important is the mindset when it comes to cowork?
AH: Adam [Adam Teterus, from Indy Hall] and I work with a lot of community managers. 99% of them are burnt out. Stressed out trying to solve problems for everyone, having people come to them every second of the day for help with something. Is that just «part of the job?» Heck no!
A Tummler makes it more of a two way street. A Tummler looks after the people and the place…but the people also look after each other, the place, and the Tummler as well. It’s more of a symbiotic relationship. People doing things WITH each other, instead of for each other.
90% of what most «community managers» do every day are things that members could very easily do for themselves if they were given the agency to do so. A Tummler makes that possible, which also frees them up to work on bigger things to make the community better.
BCNewt: ‘Learning’ is a concept you mention constantly throughout your blog dangerouslyawesome. What can we learn when being part of and doing coworking? And does our experience – in your case as a former software developer – affects our ways to cowork?
AH: There’s a few different kinds of learning – but the most VALUABLE (and often the most difficult) is called «tacit knowledge«. My favorite example of tacit knowledge is how to ride a bike. You can only learn it by DOING it…but you’ll learn it a lot faster if you have the help of someone else who already knows how.
They can’t push the pedals for you, or turn the handle bars, but they can coach and guide you to finding your balance. With most professions – and really, in life – most of the things that make someone a true master of their craft come from gaining tacit knowledge from other experts.
Here’s the cool thing – in a coworking space you don’t just get what the people in the room do today, you get what they’ve done in the past. Their histories, their experiences, their connections, their stories…and all of the kinds of knowledge (tacit and otherwise) they’ve gained along the way.
A well Tummled coworking community can be one of the most valuable learning environments on the planet!
BCNewt: One of your mottos is: ‘True communities and great collaborations start with the foundation of a meaningful relationship, not a transaction.’ Your aim is clear: the human component should come first. Do you think this sentence applies nowadays when earning money and capital investment represents the paradigm of a successful entrepreneurship activity?
AH: I LOVE MAKING MONEY. I wish more coworking spaces realized that they’re not running a charity. You can build an amazing community and have a business and have them both be very successful – but they need to be aligned. And it’s not that hard: if your business model stems from the value of being a part of the community (vs renting desks), a more successful and vibrant community = a more financially successful business.
Making money is awesome because it creates freedom, compared to taking investment (money from anybody OTHER than your members) which sucks because then you have to answer to two masters. It breaks my heart when coworking spaces create terrible experiences because they have to answer to their investors instead of their own customers.
It breaks my heart even more when coworking spaces close because they’re afraid to charge what they’re worth. «Relationships before transactions» an order of operations, and it doesn’t say «transactions are bad and you shouldn’t do them.» What happens when you prioritize relationships first is that you don’t get caught up in tiny worthless transactions that don’t move the ball forward. I think that’s where people get screwed up.
You’ve gotta be smart. A BIG part of my and Indy Hall’s success is that I’ve almost never chosen a short term gain over a long one, and always putting relationships first makes that easier.
BCNewt: Twisting the last question: It is very interesting how big firms and companies seem to have realized how important can be a coworking space for building healthier and happier communities -some of them run coworkings as extensions of their own offices. What do you think about this ‘sudden turn’?
AH: It’s not really all that sudden. This is actually how the first coworking spaces started (before Indy Hall). For example, Citizen Space was an extension of Citizen Agency.
There’s definitely a lot of value to be created, and it’s mutual: the company can be surrounded by people who they haven’t necessarily hired (and maybe they’ll hire them via freelance), and offset their rent. The members often benefit from reduced costs, since the company can subsidize infrastructure that they were going to run anyway (internet, common spaces, meeting rooms, etc)
Big companies sending their members to coworking spaces…now that’s newer. And it’s interesting to me. It’s probably going to grow quite a bit moving forward…but I fear that companies will only do it for economic reasons. When companies start FORCING their employees to work from coworking spaces instead of the companies’ office, you can be sure we’re going to see backlash.
One of the big keys to coworking’s success is that people CHOOSE to do it. As soon as it’s a mandate from the boss…those workers will become the only people in the coworking space who are there because they have to be.
That’s going to send ripple effects through the culture…because when you can choose where you work, being around people who are only there to punch a clock is going to make you think twice about wanting to be there.
BCNewt: After being at the Valencia’s conference, how was your approach to the Spanish coworking movement?
Sadly, I didn’t get to attend the conference itself…I only got to do the presentation via video! But I’ve met a lot of the leaders of the coworking community in Spain, whom I love, and am proud that I have strong connections into the movement to be able to contribute even when I can’t be in the room.
BCNewt: Spanish Coworking has similarities and differences compared to the US?
AH: I’m way less excited by big coworking spaces that are so focused on being big that it feels like it’s full of faceless startup clones. There’s a lot of that happening in the states, and frankly, I think it sucks. To contrast that, though, one of the things that I remember vividly from our visit to Barcelona was that there were so many different flavors – but they each seemed to connect to the neighborhood or part of the city or culture where they were. The people really seemed to make the places. That really resonates with me.
BCNewt: Can you tell us more about your newcoming projects and ideas within and outside the coworking world?
AH: You’ll have to subscribe to CoworkingWeekly.com to find out 😉
BCNewt: Last but not least: Any plans to cowork someday in Barcelona?
AH: I’d LOVE to come back to Barcelona. I’ve been twice and every time I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ll be back, for sure!
Alex is updating his blog constantly, so don’t hesitate to check it out so you can get new updates from him: dangerouslyawesome. You can also follow him on Twitter, where he is always tweeting and interacting with his followers: @alexhillman