Yesterday, Indy Hall co-founder Alex Hillman told us about gathering a community of freelancers to work together in coffee shops, pubs, and other neighborhood spaces. An important factor in the founding of a good coworking space, Alex tells us, is building the community first, then looking into real estate. We asked him a few more questions about the process of getting the Hall up and running.
SHAREMYSPACE: What’s a particularly fond memory you have of a space you used before Indy Hall opened at its current location?
ALEX: The very first cafe we worked from together was Chapter House at 9th & Bainbridge in Philadelphia. It’s an awesome cafe in a neighborhood that I love.
They have this back room — kind of a sunroom — that five or six of us spent the day in. It wasn’t just us, of course; there were other patrons there too.
During the day we set up a chat room, sort of an online back channel, so we could have little bits of conversation without disturbing our work or disturbing the people around us.
Once in a while, someone would post something funny into the chat room and everyone would laugh out loud…except for the people who weren’t in the chat room. To them, it was a room full of strangers who broke into laughter at the same time for no clear reason.
We should do that again sometime.
SHAREMYSPACE: How did you go about finding and creating your own space when you were finally ready?
ALEX: Like everything else, we did it as a community. Geoff [DiMasi] and I had done some basic math that gave us some price constraints. We scoured Craigslist and members took note of vacancies that they walked past.
Many landlords helped us narrow the list for us — we were a strange model that they didn’t understand. The landlords that finally said yes owned a small loft on Strawberry Street in Old City.
They were skeptical of us too, but even though they didn’t totally understand what we were planning to do, they offered us a trial lease of six months with an option to renew. When we signed, we had about three weeks to get the space set up. It was less like opening an office, and more like a barn raising.
We kept it simple at first: desks, chairs, power, and internet. Every day, people came by to work for a few hours, then help out with something that needed doing to get the office ready, like assembling furniture. Then they’d go back to work for a few hours.
Slowly, as we realized what we needed, we’d figure out a way to add those things.
We didn’t do anything because we thought we were supposed to. We stripped an office down to its barest essentials — desk, chair, power, internet — and let something new emerge based on people working together. What emerged is a style of collaborative workspace that could only come from a community.
SHAREMYSPACE: Why is there such a strong temptation to open a space first, and then start building community? How does rushing ahead this way strangle early-stage communities?
ALEX: Because it’s easy. Because it’s sexy. Because you can say “look, I did it.”
Compared to everything else, opening a space is really, really easy.
There are a lot of problems, but the biggest is that now you’ve opened YOUR space. And it’s empty.
This is a bit like going grocery shopping when you’re hungry. You buy all sorts of things you know you shouldn’t…and you skip over the stuff that you know you should.
This is how you end up with community members who don’t really care about the community; they just want a cheap space to rent. They’re like the Oreos you bought when you should’ve picked up a bag of fresh veggies.
When you start with the community, you don’t have the temptation to fill a room with people just because it’s empty. Instead, you can focus on the thing that’s important: helping people form relationships. The difference between a group of people and a community is that people in a community care about each other.
Consider the alternatives:
- Develop your business plan
- Find Investor(s) and convince them that coworking is the new hotness and they should invest
- Investor(s) buy in, and now own a piece of your hard work
- Find a location to open your coworking space
- Move in. Build furniture. Paint walls. Install network.
- Grand opening! Celebrate!
- Celebration over! You need to find members!
- Hunt for members
- Develop your business plan based on the members you’ve found
- Work with your membership to find a location to open your coworking space
- Members buy in, now share a piece in the hard work
- Move in. Build furniture. Paint walls. Install network. Together.
- Grand opening! Celebrate with your members!
Going with option one is a great route – if you’re into delaying the inevitable. No matter what, you’ll need to do the hard work of finding your members. In this case, you’re waiting to do that and asking somebody else to fund your stalling.
Option two, however, gets the hard part out of the way early and puts you in a remarkable position – most notably having member buy-in – for your ongoing community development. When you open at the end of option two, you open with revenue, momentum, and buy-in. A lot of the hardest work is behind you. You have complete ownership of your business and the ability to answer to your community instead of an investor – because the community IS your investor.
So start with your first 10 members, not your first 1000 square feet.
SHAREMYSPACE: Do you have to use the same caution when expanding the current space as you did when establishing it in the first place?
ALEX: We use the same caution, if not more. Usually, a quick business calculation can tell us if the expansion is financially viable, but that’s the easy part.
The hard part is making sure that we’re not going to be forced grow too quickly. Fast community growth is one of the most common causes for community weakness, and it requires a lot more work than at slower growth rates.
We don’t grow unless we have a waiting list, and we don’t grow unless we have the support of the community. The truth is, we’re never in a position where we need to grow. So we think hard and have a lot of conversations about the benefits and risks of growth.
Our most recent expansions have allowed us to connect to the street and the sidewalk in our neighborhood in a more meaningful way. Our art program and gallery, led by Sean Martorana and Mike Jackson, has been a huge hit and is only getting better, and it’s given us a path for people to wander into Indy Hall in ways that never would’ve happened in the past. Having those guys program the gallery space has been one of the most powerful additions to the Indy Hall space.
Stay tuned for the third and final part of our interview with Alex!