Spotlight on Indy Hall’s Alex Hillman: Part Three

Welcome to the third and final part of our interview with Indy Hall co-founder Alex Hillman! If you missed parts one and two, check them out here and here.


SHAREMYSPACE: Indy Hall has come a long way. You now have a great coworking space of your own, which you can share with newer communities. What’s the experience like from the other side – being a sharer of space? I get this great picture of interlocking symbiotic communities within the larger community of a city.

Alex Hillman Community SignALEX: Yeah, that’s a really cool part of the evolution of Indy Hall. Because our community is so diverse, it’s become sort of a “community of communities.” The way people convene here is still focused on relationships. We’re not a “space for rent,” we’re a community to be a part of and contribute to.

The space continues to be a tool to help people gather and find each other. That’s what this is still really all about. The same way we try to help individuals connect, take genuine interest in each other, and help each other, so that the sum is greater than the parts — we can do that for communities as well.


SHAREMYSPACE: Can you give us an example of a startup organization that Indy Hall has helped nurture?

ALEX: The Philadelphia chapter of Girl Develop It has been hosting a portion of their classes (which create a women-friendly environment to learn how to be a programmer) at Indy Hall since their inception. From a facilities perspective, Indy Hall isn’t the most ideal place to host a class, but we go out of our way to make it easy, friendly, and welcoming.

Today, we’re working with GDI to design a new chapter in our relationship. We’re going to go beyond the transaction where we do a revenue share of their tuition in return for hosting the classes: we’re working together to hopefully blur the lines between our communities and make the sum greater than the parts. If things continue to go well, I’m excited to move beyond being their “space provider” and have the Indy Hall community play a more active role in the GDI community, and vice versa.


SHAREMYSPACE: IndyHall also gets used for non-work purposes – yoga classes, art shows, etc. How important is this to the life of the coworking space?

ALEX: You know what they say about all work and no play!

Here’s the thing: Indy Hall is an extremely productive work environment, and it has to be. But “productivity” isn’t as simple as measuring how many hours of pure hard work you crank out. Productivity includes things like inspiration, problem solving, and collaboration. Once we’re working, it can be hard to find room to build those relationships and the trust that’s necessary for people to connect, inspire each other, share problems that need solving, and ask for help. So all of the “extra-curricular” stuff might seem like non-work, but it’s where the magic happens. It’s where people meet each other, where they connect on a more personal level than work.

And that value comes back to the work in more ways than people imagine.


SHAREMYSPACE: What do you consider most when planning edits to the physical layout of space at Indy Hall?

ALEX: I’m often surprised how many people will make the decision to come work at a place full of people…and then hide in the only corner they can find.

I describe it as being a bit like riding an elevator. When you get in and you’re alone, you stand in the center. But when a second person gets into the elevator, you both move to opposite corners, as if you’re trying to get as far away as possible from that person in a 4′ square space.

People often choose options that aren’t in their own interest.

We have a few guiding principles:

1) Make it difficult for people to sit by themselves
2) Make it difficult for people to always sit by the same people
3) Make it difficult for people to avoid making contact with another member

Basically, the layout of Indy Hall needs to help people make better decisions about where they sit and how they interact with each other than they would on their own. We make a lot of layout decisions that aren’t the most efficient, because they’re the most effective in executing our primary purpose: to make it easier for people to find each other and form relationships. Some of the other guiding rules are on our Purpose page.


SHAREMYSPACE: A lot of cool subcommunities have come out of Indy Hall, like the North 3rd Farmers’ Market and Philly Give & Get. It’s very cool that a coworking space, ostensibly devoted to office productivity, is inspiring such a range of lifestyle and charity ventures – giving back to the life of the neighborhood and the city. Can you say something about that?

ALEX: The fact that we share a place to get work done isn’t really a devotion to office productivity — that’s an outcome. You can’t tell someone to “be more productive” (well, you can, but it doesn’t really work).

In order to be productive, you have to change the game you’re playing. For us, the game we’re playing is making Philadelphia a better place to make a living doing what you love. Making Philadelphia better was always a part of the ambition for Indy Hall. Remember that we didn’t start as an office. We started as an effort to make it easier for smart, interesting, creative, passionate people in Philadelphia to find each other and make things happen.

I don’t think we ever expected how far that could go, and honestly, it impresses me every day how many amazing people are members of Indy Hall and how many amazing things they do together.

If we’d devoted ourselves to office productivity, I don’t think that would be the case.