A conversation with Alex Hillman, co-founder of Philadelphia coworking space Indy Hall

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Coworking is one of the trends changing the very essence of the modern workplace. For a generation of employees who grew up in sterile, corporate environments, the concept may seem radical and hard to even envision. Meanwhile, for up-and-coming young entrepreneurs, they may know of no other way.

So, what exactly is coworking? And might it be right for you?

This is our conversation with Alex Hillman, co-founder of Indy Hall located at 399 Market Street in the Old City section of Philadelphia.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Alex Hillman: "We started in 2006, which makes us a dinosaur in coworking years. That was not when we opened our doors. We opened our doors in 2007.
That entire first year was focused on building a community that I couldn't find - fellow freelancers, fellow entrepreneurs, fellow creatives who were making things, wanted to pursue a craft and a career that was a little different from the usual. There was no door to walk through and find those folks. So that entire first year was building up that community one by one. We found the club, built the club, and eventually, the club wanted a clubhouse. And that's where we are now."

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Question: "Is it a little bit 'Field of Dreams?' Like, 'If you build it, they will come?'"

Alex Hillman: "Very much not a 'Field of Dreams' approach. I think it's a common mistake in the world of coworking as people see these sort of, you know, very exciting looking offices, the sort of dream office, and it kind of sparks this almost dollhouse mentality of 'I can create the perfect office, then people will just show up.' The reality is, a lot of the folks that end up joining communities like ours don't need an office at all. They have a home office, or a dining room table, or even a coffee shop. So, our competition is not another office. Building an office and expecting people to show up, I think, is thinking that people are walking around all day going, 'Hmmm I wonder if there's a coworking space nearby?' And that's typically just not the case."

Question: "So would you say that's a cultural thing, a generational thing, or an individual attitude about how you want to live your life and work?"

Alex Hillman: "The interesting thing is, today, more people have heard of coworking and so maybe they're trying to figure out where it fits into their life. I think a couple of big things have changed. One, is more and more people are able to work wherever they like. Work and place have been decoupled. So, people are starting to rethink 'Well, if I can choose where I work, why wouldn't I choose a place that I like? If I can choose the people I work around, why wouldn't I choose people that I like?' I think that's a generational thing.
I think it's also, you know, it's impacted by the technology. It's impacted by the kinds of jobs that can, you know, be mobile, work on a laptop. I also think it's a lot of folks are kind of disenfranchised with the idea of a path that was either told they would have access to: you know, you go to school, you go to college, you get a degree, you get a job, you keep that job for 30 years and you retire. That hasn't been true in a while. And so people are realizing, 'I need to carve my own path.' Why don't I learn from other people who maybe are carving a path, like mine, or maybe it's not like mine, but they still carve their own? There's that like-mindedness.

When people are first choosing a path, a career path that they actually want, I think it's pretty common to find yourself alone and isolated, and your friends and your family saying like, 'That's crazy. Why don't you just go get a normal job?' Whereas you walk into this room and everyone's like, 'Cool, welcome home.' Like, we totally get it. Being surrounded by people who understand that you're, if not just following a different path, but you're creating a different path is something that as more and more people see it as an option -- which to be fair, most people still don't even know this option exists -- but as more people see it as an option, then the trick is getting them to realize, 'Right, well, how do I find a coworking space near me? How do I find the one that, you know, that has the culture that I want to be a part of, that is full of the kind of people that I want to surround myself with?' And ultimately, I think that's what's at the heart of why people choose to be somewhere like this."

Question: "It sounds a little bit like you're talking about startups and entrepreneurs. But that's not the only type of person that works here. So, is there a specific person that fits in coworking or at Indy Hall? Or is it a myriad of different people who all found a way to work this into their life?"

Alex Hillman: "Remote work has opened up a lot of doors for people. Coworking was seen more as like, if you're an entrepreneur, you're a startup, you go to a coworking space. They almost became unnecessarily intertwined, when in reality, it's more like, would you join a professional association for any industry that you belong to? Are you a curious person who likes to learn, wants to grow, wants to ask questions, wants to be inspired in your work? Are you someone who believes that you can be in control if you maybe learn some skills, you learn some new abilities? I think it has a lot to do with like, belief and mindset, and things like curiosity, than any particular industry or skill set. If you find yourself as the kind of person who is curious about the people around you and want to know what they're working on and are willing to be open and share what you're working on or what you're interested in, I think you can find a lot of value in a coworking space."

Question: "It seems like the kind of place where serendipity is really important. You know, a clash of ideas. You're working on a project and somebody in a totally different field or with a totally different set of experiences weighs in, and it's something you never thought of."

Alex Hillman: "Yeah, exactly. A friend of mine -- who I actually learned about coworking from in the early days -- had coined the term 'accelerating serendipity.' Even if we don't use the terminology on the day to day, it's a big part of how we think about designing experiences, how we think about building community and how we think about the value of being a part of a community like this.

A lot of times, people approach things, especially in business and career, in a very transactional way. It's like, if I do this, I will get that. And we try and almost slow things down a little bit and say, let's focus less on the transaction and focus more on the connection, focus more on the relationship. So once people trust each other, then they'll open up, then they'll share their thoughts, then they'll share their ideas, then they'll listen to each other a bit more. For all the talk about, you know, collaboration and innovation -- and I think that this is a very collaborative and innovative place and people to be around -- that's the result, not the thing you do. The thing you do is you build trust and you build connections. And when I think about 'accelerating serendipity,' it's: how do you identify the things those serendipitous moments that you can't control, you can't manufacture, you can't promise? But you do know that if you create an environment where trust exists, they become more likely, they happen more often, they happen with maybe some degree of consistency, where somebody can come in and say, 'I don't know what I'm going to get today, but it's probably going to be good. I don't know what kind of feedback I'm going to get on my idea or my project, or I don't know, if someone even has an answer to my question, but I certainly won't get an answer if I don't ask.'

All that is predicated on trust. So the way to create that serendipity, I think that the natural resource, the raw material, is thinking about how trust is formed in any community, especially in a professional community, and a business community. People know that trust is super important but the way they act doesn't match. So we try and sort of sculpt and shape experiences that remind people and guide people towards building that trust, reinforcing that trust, and then kind of let the magic happen."

Question: "What's your real competition? There are other huge coworking companies like WeWork, but you were saying that's not even really who you're going up against."

Alex Hillman: "The reality is, I think, we have two kinds of competition. One is people not knowing that we exist. More people don't know the core exists than do. Even 13 years in, that's still true. So there's a market education component to things. We've been at it for 13 years. And I still hear from folks, 'I'm so glad that something like this finally exists,' as if we just opened last week. And then the other side of the competition are the people who know we exist but haven't seen the value that gets them to put on pants, leave their house and pay money, when they have, you know, a couch they can work from, a home office they can work from, and in a lot of the mainstream mindset around coworking -- I think part of it is because of the way it's been brought to the mainstream by some of the bigger funded organizations -- is they frame it as an office alternative, rather than a learning opportunity, or a networking opportunity. Or worse, when they do frame it as a networking opportunity or a learning opportunity or community opportunity, they don't do the work to deliver on the product. So I think that's the challenge for coworking right now.

The word coworking is about as specific as the word restaurant. And if you think about if I were to say "I'm going to take you to a restaurant,' you'd want to know, well, what kind of food? How should I dress? What kind of experience? What music is going to be playing? Should I be bringing a bottle of wine? For all these questions we have language and jargon around restaurants to describe that experience. You know what you're getting. With coworking, it's a young industry. We just haven't really defined that. I don't think the market has been around long enough to define it. I don't think it's the operators that are going to define it. I think it's the people that join these spaces.

I'm always curious to talk to folks that are in a coworking space that they love or a coworking space that they really dislike. How do they describe the experience? Because I think that's what's going to give us the clues that help people choose the coworking space that is the best fit for them. I also think that there's a large probability for a lot of people that more than one coworking space might make sense for them, depending on the day, depending on, you know, is it a client day? Or is it a heads down workday? Is it a creative productivity day? Or is it something else? Back to my point about how work has changed; when work and place are not one thing and one task and one place, one of the things that I think is missing from the professional education system is how do you learn different modalities of work? And how do you figure out your own personal strengths and weaknesses in each modality and then choose the right place to be the most productive or the most creative or to create the most opportunities for serendipitous connections and learning whatever it is, and different places and spaces and cultures support different ones? But it's our job to not just create it, but also show people and teach people because most people haven't had a chance to experience it themselves."

Question: "All right, let's talk a little bit about trends. An industry analysis says coworking has been growing 23% every year since 2010. And they expect 30% of all jobs will be in a coworking space by 2030. That's ambitious. Anything like what you've seen?"

Alex Hillman: "I mean, the growth is undeniable. And it's not just a national trend. It's a global trend too. So I spent time working with operators, independent operators, like ourselves, sometimes even medium size, multi-location operators in other cities and other countries. And the only common theme is more places are opening, more places are opening, more places are opening. However, there's not a lot of data on places closing. So, you know, the growth data is very much tied to new spaces opening, not operating. And also what are the economic outputs, right? Are the members there not just are they happy, but are they growing professionally? Are they continuing to get the benefit? What is the ongoing benefit of joining that coworking space? How long do people stick around?

If coworking spaces open, fill up, and then empty out, you know, some places like New York City will have a never ending supply of new people to put in seats. Because it's a city like New York City or London. But I think you have to extract the megacities from the equation and say, Where is coworking actually helping people create economic growth for themselves, for their employees, for their coworkers for the neighborhood?

The other thing about the growth pattern is a lot of things are being called 'coworking.' No one owns the word. It's not trademarked. And at this point, any empty room is and will likely be called coworking. A really interesting new trend is it how landlords are now building out and outfitting new buildings and often, you know, they're rebranding a lounge as a coworking space. Or however, they're doing it they're framing it as a built-in amenity. But their version of the amenity tends to be pretty inert. There's no or little active support for community building. It's like a shared living room, except the things they don't talk about is what happens when people share space but don't actually have any care for or desire to interact with the people around them. That sometimes harms the space or makes the space worse.

So I mean, yes, the growth trends are real. And I also believe they'll continue to grow. But I think we should be paying attention to not just what's being called coworking, but what is the impact of coworking? I think that is largely still under realized. Because a lot of coworking spaces are just short term rental options.

About a 30% of jobs will be in coworking spaces -- this is another one of those things where I think the corporations have proven time and again, that leaders, a lot of CEOs and business leaders are trend hoppers. Right? So I think companies that struggle with internal culture or struggle with recruitment and retention will always be looking for whatever the latest trend is an attempt to deploy it to fix their problems, instead of actually fixing their problems. Coworking is no different from that.

I think coworking is often pointed to as the source of one of the worst trends in corporate workspaces, which is open floor plans. I agree in most corporations open floor plans are an absolute nightmare. If you already don't like your coworkers being put in a place where you have to look at them and interact with them all day long is terrible. But as you can see, there's a room full of people, there's hundreds of people in this one location alone, who choose to be here, for very good reason. And it's not because of the open floor plan. But it's because of the fact that the open floor plan and the culture here actually support one another.

If you're going to introduce an open floor plan or coworking to your company, but you're not going to do the work to overhaul the culture to develop the trust that is a mandatory prerequisite in order for this to not be a nightmare, of course, people are going to revolt. Some of the corporate consulting that I've done is with companies that spent millions of dollars tearing down walls and cubes and setting up their open floor plan hot desking and basically had employee revolt. And they're like, how do you pull this off? If they're actually interested in doing the culture work that's needed, then, you know, I can be seen as an insurance policy. It's like, do you want to have to undo the millions of dollars that you just spent on the open floorplan workspace? Or, do you actually want to fix the problems at your company?

So, I don't think coworking fixes anything. It's a tool. I would be very surprised if this statistic of 30% of jobs are going to be performed in coworking spaces. Even though I do believe it will continue to grow, I think that those trends are very short-term, short-sighted trends and will either be supplanted by whatever the next trend is or simply reversed because they didn't want to do the long term work anyway."

Question: "That being said, there seems to be a value proposition here for corporations, which can be very insular. So, you're never getting outside of that office space. And if you are allowing people to be more flexible in their work life, they can choose, hey, maybe this is a place that I can go get new ideas, get new energy. I'm still working for this giant corporation, but I'm also not feeling like I'm stuck in a cubicle or an open floor plan."

Alex Hillman: "So the corporate deployment of coworking options for their employees looks generally one of two different ways. One is that company looks for usually one of the larger coworking players that can support you know, whether it's tens, hundreds or thousands, basically like who can support my team? And they're looking as a direct replacement to augment their office and they do a contract with that one location.

They say, okay, team, now when you want to get out of the office, you can go work at this other office or this other network of offices, and they make the choice for them. And I can't speak to whether or not those get used very much. And I'm sure there are benefits to that. I think it tends to be more of a folks running away from their office rather than towards something in particular.

But at the end of the day, I think the thing that the employer is missing out on is the opportunity to grant their employee some autonomy. Dan Pink talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose as these three core elements of motivation for modern workers. And in his book, 'Drive,' I think employers seeking to understand that often really skip over the autonomy part. They say I want to give you something to do on your own, but I'm going to choose it for you. And it undermines the entire goal. But I think companies that are savvy enough to say, look, we've allocated a certain stipend to your benefits package, if you want to choose a coworking space that is either in your neighborhood, or has a community that you want to be a part of, we'll pay for some or all of that. I see that as a growing trend and a very positive thing.

As more and more companies even allow for partial remote work or off-site work, or support teams working off-site for periods of time, I think that's really valuable. The thing to remember for those individual team members is to make sure that when you're in that coworking space to interact with people outside of your own team. One of the things that we've seen time and again, even when teams form within our own community, is your primary responsibilities are to your direct teammates. And it's really easy to create your own little insular unit inside this other thing that wants to get to know you. But you're always talking to your own teammates. So there is no time. There's no space in between your team.

So when we onboard teams, we actually do some extra work to break them apart. And we tell them up front, we may ask you to do some strange counterintuitive things. If you believe that will break you, let's at least talk about it. But if it won't, if it's a nonstarter, this probably isn't the place for you. The thing you're trying to get, you're going to struggle to get here and you'll be unhappy. And not only will you leave, but you'll make other people around you unhappy and that is that's not worth the short term revenue for us.
Even just the simple reminder of you know, hey, when you come in, if you need to come work together as a team and have some conversations, take a meeting and things like that, asking people to think about their day and break their day into the little parts and say, how much of that day do you really need to be sitting directly next to or across from your team members? And if it's a bunch of small things throughout the day, maybe this is a good opportunity for you to think about reorganizing your day to be more efficient, where your face time with your team is now and then your heads downtime is on the other side of the office where your team members won't interrupt you. When you do go to take a break, instead of being interrupted by somebody who you already know, you're now taking the same moments that you would be interrupted to make a new connection, build a new friendship and be permeable to the culture that you're trying to be a part of.

It is more work for teams to be successful in a coworking environment, without a doubt. And it requires actual cultural work and change. For the teams that want to invest in it, 100% of the time they get results. That's not an 'if you do, you might;' it's 'if you do, you will.' But a lot of people don't want to do the work or the work is not a top priority.
One of the things I always say is if culture is not your number one priority, it's not a priority. It has to be everything else kind of stems from it. So, that work is something we've practiced a lot over the years. And in fact, there's a long time where I said specifically like teams don't work here. Teams larger than three, you've got to go. We've since been able to take the time and we've been able to work with some teams and some team leaders who really love being here and they're like, we don't want to leave yet. What can we do differently? What can we do better? And we've taken that as opportunities to experiment together and learn, sometimes be reminded of why it doesn't work and other times unlock new opportunities, new lessons.

For me, one of the best benefits, actually one of the best outcomes, is if a team outgrows Indy Hall, that, A) there's some element of our culture that carries on with them ongoing. We have a lot of alumni teams that have elements of Indy Halll DNA in them. And I think we can confidently attribute some portions of their success to how they learned how to be a team here. Another thing that we can do is we can work with those team leaders as they leave to realize, oh, shoot, here's all the things that I got for free, culturally, by having my team present at Indy Hall. Now I have to do the work to recreate all those things. And so we can teach, we can educate, we can guide and consult with those team leaders as well.
That's the thing that three, four years ago, I was pretty firmly in the camp of teams are not worth the trouble. Now I'm more in the camp of the right teams that actually want to do the work, we can deliver a whole lot of value."

Question: "What's the range on cost to come in here? For membership, are there different options?"

Alex Hillman: "So membership here runs from $20 a month to $300 a month. The vast minority of our members, less than 20% of our members, are a full-time member -- dedicated desk, their own spot, whether or not they're here, you know, seven days a week, they have a spot, they can call their own, they can leave their gear set up. That's $300 a month, which we think is pretty affordable. Affordability is a goal. It's not the top goal.

Again, the comparison is not to another office, it's you know, that spare bedroom and things like that.

The vast majority of our members, though, are on one of our flex memberships, which has them here anywhere from 3 days a week, once a week, once a month, or even less. Part of the way that we accomplish that is with a really active online community, as well. So a lot of times in coworking spaces, you'll find that they have you know, a chat room or you know, an email newsletter and things like that. We've worked almost as hard, in some cases even harder, to facilitate and support the development of online community spaces as much as we do the physical space because more people populate the online spaces than the physical space on any given day. So when folks join Indy Hall, you know, the $20 a month membership or the $120 a month membership to be in six times a month, that's how often they can physically be here. That's their day, the change of scenery, whatever it is. But the community that they're a part of, they can access anytime, anywhere, through the online community and the online community creates a sort of sense of continuity between times that I'm physically at the coworking space.

Sometimes I actually meet people online first and then I say, hey, what day are you going to be coworking? I'll come and we'll hang out that day. So, again it kind of reinforces the club and the clubhouse. The membership model is joining the club. The price point is how often you want to use the clubhouse. But once you're a member you have access to all the same things."

Question: "Demographics about the people who work here. Are they were coming from far and wide? Are they mostly in the Old City / Center City area?"

Alex Hillman: "That's a great question. We have members coming from all over Philadelphia, including the near suburbs and including the far suburbs. We've got folks that commute in from upper Bucks County, folks that come in from Lancaster a couple times a week even. There are folks here in Old City but I'd say most folks are commuting from one of the active neighborhoods in the city whether it's Center City, South Philly, you know, somewhere in Kensington, Fishtown, West Philly.

I don't have a current map, but I'll say when we when we first started (and part of the reason we chose Old City was that original community that we built wasn't in Old City) but they were sort of north, south and west. And if we chose to put our coworking space in any one of those neighborhoods, we likely would have lost the other two. And so we were thinking about well where is central, accessible and desirable? Old City more or less ticked those boxes, and again, going back 13 years or so there wasn't nearly as much built up here as there is now. But there was always this sense of small business community that was really supportive. But having lots of places where you can go to restaurants, go to dinner, go to happy hour, was important. So in a lot of ways Old City was like the the anti-neighborhood for where a lot of our folks were and then eventually, as more and more folks started thinking about city as a place where they might want to live, which is definitely been an increasing trend in Philadelphia, then you know the convenience factor is there.

We're a block and change from multiple subway stops on the El which makes us really easy to get to from West Philly, Northern Liberties, Kensington, Fishtown and pretty far north, same thing from South Philly. Folks jump on the Broad Street Line and things like that. Most people are taking public transportation or riding bikes or just walking.
Parking is definitely one of the biggest challenges in the neighborhood. There are folks who drive in every day, I would say, partly because the parking is difficult. They're the smallest population. It's something I wish we could address better but also there are so many other great options for getting here that I think it's still pretty accessible for a lot of folks."
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