Community BUilding and Coworking

I just attended yet another great talk put on by PANMA, the Philadelphia Area New Media Association. For me it all began with PANMA. I first attended the talk entitled Links as Language. While there, everyone told me I had to go to BarCamp. I did, and ended up giving a speech which went over very well. Everyone told me I had to check out this place called Indy Hall. I did, and it changed my life. Now Indy Hall would come to PANMA to give a talk about community building and coworking. Full circle!

I took an Uber there. That worked out well, I got there with minutes to spare. I met another attendee and we found our way to a different room in the very prestigious Wharton School of Business. While getting situated my friend Christine enthusiastically came up to me and gave me a hug while saying hi. It felt so good to see her. We met at the previous PANMA event but I forgot to text her to see if she would attend this one, so it came as a pleasant surprise. We settled down and the talk began.

Reed, the treasurer, started out by saying that usually they have more technical talks, and tonight would go a little farther. He introduced the panel:

  • Alex Hillman, cofounder
  • Johnny Bilotta, Principal, GUIwerks
  • Eric Steele, developer, Principal,
  • Ahava Zarembski, CEO, Yesod Strategic Consulting Group
  • Brian Glick, Supply chain IT executive
  • Maya Northen, Owner, Chimera Travel LLC
  • Adriano Martino, Italian Label Advertising

Alex founded Indy Hall in 2006. At the time coworking spaces didn’t even exist. He met Johnny on the PANMA list, going back to my full circle theme. They founded Indy Hall, one of the first national and international coworking spaces.

In 2005 a guy named Brad Neuberg used the term coworking to describe a collaborative workspace. before that he and his friends would meet at local places to work and socialize together. They’d call this a Jelly. I learned some of this backstory during Jellyweek.

They treat Indy Hall like an open source project. One speaker described it as beautifully organized chaos. You can feel it when you walk into a place with positive energy. At a show and tell, someone told how they improved milk conditions in Kenya. People actually do things here. The speaker also said that walking into Indy Hall feels like walking into a micro-world.

Some wondered about the trend of coworking, and it really does feel like that. We believe it shows us a lens into the future. Coworking will become working. A coworking space does not have the hierarchy and competition of a traditional office space. People can work next to each other instead of getting forced to work next to someone. We do not work in offices with closed doors. We can overhear each other’s conversations. This leads to more opportunity for collaboration.

Coworking represents a product of generation X. A speaker pointed out that our generation has that gift, we can dream of bigger structures. Indy Hall attracts a special kind of person: cool and kind, self-driven but open to people. We have a culture of dreaming big and sharing. We all work (or would like to), we understand the value of money. This keeps things grounded. People don’t just show up to hang out (although you can), we actually come to get things done.

Indy Hall has a distinct Philadelphia spirit. We want to make Philadelphia a better place. “What happened to the visionary element? This was Ben Franklin’s turf! We had the first computer!” exclaimed a speaker. It excites me to think that we have a tremendous opportunity in the next economic boom. Philadelphia can become a trade town once again through technology and a thriving small business scene. These efforts to better the city have grown over the last few years from a blip on the screen to having beers with councilmen at City Hall.

It all started with some people showing up at a common place with a laptop, something to do, and a positive demeanor. They did that for at least six months. This let them test the waters and get the feeling of coworking. Now Indy Hall has around 250 members, and a 10,000 square foot space. It draws creative intelligent people like an magnet draws iron filings. It makes up part of the greater effort to renovate the city.

They got into the business aspects, which I didn’t understand as much but wrote down anyway. When asked about the funding, Alex described Indy Hall as 100% bootstrapped. Unless you only have the community as your investor then you will have outside forces to answer to. They didn’t want that. That also explains why they run it as a for-profit business instead of a nonprofit. Having a for-profit does not preclude doing good will. He likened their business model to raising a barn for a newcomer to a farming village. The farmer’s individual barn will benefit the community as a whole.

Alex used a great dated metaphor, we all come together like Voltron! And yes, I remember the cartoon. My brother and I watched it together. We preferred the version with lions if I remember correctly. “And I’ll form the head!”

At every stage the members come together to solve problems. They wanted to work in the Old City due to its central location, but instead of worrying about the higher cost, they just scoured Craig’s List and found a space. They approach every inflection point like this. Money was never the object. They could have gotten a bunch of funds and gone crazy with a big space, but chose not to. All the money comes from members, and they have town hall meetings twice per year.

Alex warned of those who see coworking as a trend to make money. “If the whole point is generating profit then you’re not profitable.” He also gave some good advice to those starting a coworking space: run the numbers out further. It became far more successful than they could have imagined.

Someone asked about security. If needed they can provide a monitor that faces the wall, which solves most problems. If you have concerns, try it for a day. Also, if you have an important conference, just don’t go that day. Most concerns turn out more theoretical than practical. Someone won’t look at your data with a hundred eyes looking at them from an open floor plan!

Here again we see the difference in this attitude of extreme self-autonomy. In a coworking space, security becomes everyone’s responsibility. Alex said if someone shows up we can’t trust we will know within five minutes. Another speaker compared it to someone showing up dressed at a nudist beach. Despite a large open space with thousands of dollars of computer equipment just inside the door, they have had only one theft in six years.

Finally the subject turned to the membership options. They have several levels, from the basic membership which costs $25/month, to a full-time membership which costs $275/month. Full-time members get a key, and need three full-time members as references. This also helps with security. They’ve only thrown two people out: a thief and an extremely mentally ill person.</p>

Interestingly, a correlation does not exist between how many days someone works to how much they contribute. I only showed up during the day on Wednesday to get my chair massage and cook. Other than that I have gone to every night owl session and all of their events open to all members. That has kept me busy enough.

Alex mentioned something called Dunbar’s Number, which he put at 149 (Wikipedia says 150, whatever). This refers to the maximum number of social relationships one individual can have. Indy Hall has grown past this with its 250 members now. Yet, relationships remain stable. This happens because of the growing number of sub-communities, such as the Philly Cocoaheads group I went to. Night Owls and the newly formed Engineering Core make up others. This self-maintaining pattern keeps the whole group alive.

They closed by mentioning the word I heard so many times, and have experienced myself: serendipity. Having a bunch of creative and intelligent people together in an open space causes good things to happen. Cross-pollination occurs, and people find new connections which could not have existed before. This gives a true sense of magic about the place, the reason for everyone’s enthusiasm, including my own.

To illustrate this point, I would like to share with you my Indy Hall story. I went to Indy Hall one Monday and got their free tour. While there I met a guy named Mike who runs Philly Cocoaheads, a group for Mac and iOS programmers, and they would meet there on Thursday. I had begun thinking about giving a talk about RubyMotion and accessibility, a topic relevant to his group. I really wanted to give this talk at the first RubyMotion conference in Belgium, but felt a little intimidated. I wondered about perhaps giving the talk at Cocoaheads sometime in the future.

I felt so impressed with my free visit to Indy Hall that I became a member and went to the wednesday night owl session. While there, I sent Mike a message on Twitter. He came down and I ran my idea passed him. It turned out his speaker bailed, so he gratefully accepted my proposal. The next day I showed up and gave a nice little speech.

This wednesday I showed up for a day of fun. While there, I received an email that they have accepted my speech at the conference! Cocoaheads and Indy Hall gave me the perfect platform to test my talk, and it certainly helped get it accepted. In a very real way, Indy Hall has changed my life forever! And I haven’t even belonged for a month! Thank you PANMA for yet another great talk. It made me feel proud to live in Philadelphia and belong to Indy Hall.</span>