The Untapped Value Of Coworking: A Q&A With Indy Hall’s Alex Hillman

Indy Hall co-founder Alex Hillman talks about the double-edged sword niche coworking operators face

In 2006, long before coworking was a hot topic in the work world, Alex Hillman co-founded Indy Hall, a community-focused space in Philadelphia. With an unwavering commitment to bettering the lives and work of members and the extended community, Hillman has been a force in the coworking ecosystem for more than a decade.

Allwork.Space spoke with Hillman about current trends he sees in the workspace industry, how niche spaces need to be connected to communities outside of their own, and how scaling a coworking brand doesn’t have to mean expanding your square footage. Here are the highlights of our conversation. Indy Hall is hyper-focused on your community. A few years ago, I heard you talk about scaling internally, as opposed to expanding to multiple locations. For workspace operators, what does it mean to scale internally?

Alex Hillman: There are three different directions to expand. People think of expansion as up, as more of the same thing, as creating a space a mile away, or 10 miles away, or in the next city. When people think about expansion and growth, that’s the default.

Then there’s lateral growth, which is taking the things you learned from the thing you started, and seeing what else you can apply them to. The farmers market we played a role in launching is a good example of something that clearly has Indy Hall DNA built into it, but it doesn’t look the same until you’re under the hood. You wouldn’t think of it as a coworking space, but it serves a lot of the same goals.

Then there’s scaling inward, which is the deepening of what you already have. It’s taking a look at the members who are already part of your community and finding ways to serve them better and help them serve each other better. It’s a deepening and multiplying of the human resources you already have, and creating more of it. You look at the development of high-value sub-communities within the ecosystem you already have.

A parallel version of that is intentional collaboration with other community organizations where there already is a little bit of overlap. You can go harder towards that, or look for ways to do things together on purpose, or look for collaborations that are missing and would further enrich both. What’s a good example from Indy Hally of that type of collaboration?

In our most recent recruiting efforts we asked ourselves who wasn’t already in the room, and who is in the room but isn’t visible to the people who aren’t in the room, and how do we bring that to the surface.

With our hiring process, we were very intentional about looking at communities that aren’t always represented at Indy Hall, whether that’s women, people of color, LGBTQIA, whatever. The hard part is, if you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t see what you can’t see. It requires turning to the community we have and asking them what’s missing for them that might not be obvious to me.

When we put together a job application or membership drive we go out of our way to personally send invitations to people who are representatives of different communities—who are leaders in this community. We want to do the work to earn their trust and ask them to be part of this too. Step one is identifying blind spots, but the lightbulb moment for us wasn’t that we had blind spots, it was realizing we weren’t doing anything about it.

Another example of that is parents. There are a growing number of parents in our community and we had all these blind spots to the daily experience of being a working, independent professional who has kids of any age. We ask what is missing from our understanding of that experience and how can we learn from that to create new experiences and adapt ones we have. Those are examples of growing inward. What I’m hearing is that the thing people love about niche coworking spaces—feeling welcome and understood and served—is what you’re working to bring into a larger space. Does that resonate with you?

If a niche space works, great. There are a couple of different ways to message it: exclusionary ways and inclusionary ways. When people go niche, there’s a default to be exclusionary, even if you don’t intend to be exclusionary.

If a coworking space exists on an island, I don’t think it will ever reach its full potential in any context. If it’s a niche coworking space that is for a specific group of people, whether that’s only attorneys or only women, then, a) you better do a really good job of serving those people in ways they can’t be served elsewhere because saying the space is for them isn’t enough, and, b) that increases the need to make that coworking space part of a bigger ecosystem, whether that’s the bigger ecosystem of coworking space, or the bigger ecosystem of other communities in your region and city.

When you go niche, people unknowingly put themselves on the other side of a wall, or they unknowingly put prospective members who could bring a lot to that community on the other side of that wall. That makes it even more important to do proactive outreach and find ways to bring people together on a meta level to make sure your community doesn’t exist on an island or in isolation from communities that have common values and common goals. I think having a safe, healthy, functioning place that serves the needs of different groups is super powerful. Then, extending that into the community is a way to educate people about cultural blind spots and things they’re not seeing. There’s a need for women-focused spaces and black-focused spaces because there are things these groups aren’t getting from other spaces. The Riveter is doing a good job with this, with their community education and programming. The founder Amy Nelson describes the Riveter as a space that’s built by women, for everyone.

I love that. And the reality is that, if you’re for everyone, it’s hard for people to know if you’re for them. That’s the double-edged sword here. When you go niche, you create an opportunity, but there’s an entire category of work that gets ignored: those opportunities to intersect and overlap with, and actively collaborate with, or simply collaboratively exist with. When I think about a space that is for attorneys, one of the things I love about my home space is that there are a few attorneys here, but there are also designers and developers and financial planners and writers. It seems that if a space gets too homogenous, you can miss out on what it is we love about coworking.

There’s the obvious example that the artist and attorney sit next to each other and learn about each other’s work and, when the artist needs a contract, they already have an attorney they know and trust that they can turn to.

What people don’t think about is that artists tend be surrounded by only other artists. In a professional setting, there’s a reason artists have a reputation for being bad at business: they only learn business from other artists who are also bad at business. Being exposed to other creative professionals, you have the opportunity, not just to have a contract reviewed, but to see that an attorney bills down the the five-minute increment and the artist can’t figure out how to get paid for any of their work.

Attorneys are good at that because they’re taught how to do it as part of their training, and they’re surrounded by other attorneys who know how to do it. Learn from people who do business differently from you and apply that to your business. All of a sudden, you’re a person in your industry who does things in a different way. That gives you an edge as a professional—it becomes an advantage, in and of itself. What are some of the interesting trends you see in the coworking movement, or the workspace industry? Do you have any concerns that are keeping you up at night?

On the positive side, I like that people are still trying new things. People are trying new niche communities, and trying new business models, and we’re still seeing coworking being developed in places it didn’t exist. There is endless room to grow in taking these core patterns of people who are normally isolated, bringing them together, and building ecosystems of interdependence and helping people create—and co-create—environments that previously couldn’t have otherwise existed.

We’re seeing more spaces make it past the, “Yay, we’re open!” phase. We need more data on this, but it seems to me that there are more spaces past the two-year mark, who have figured out what they’re good at and are sharing what they do. There’s a larger senior generation, which is really good because it was kind of lonely out here. We have a tight group of people who have been around the five-plus year range and a growing number of people who have made it past the two-year mark and are helping to welcome in the fast growing new generation of operators.

One of the things that concerns me is the other side of that. I don’t see a lot designed to support that senior generation. When I look at the conference schedules, the fact that I haven’t seen something new in a really long time is perplexing when there’s so much new going on. The topics and conference structure hasn’t really changed, ever.

I’m curious what you’d like to see because what I’m seeing is a renewed emphasis on wellness and spaces being designed around healthy lifestyles, which I find really exciting.

That’s on a very short list of patterns, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a new thing, at least not in the last few years. It’s good and we need more of it. Coworking spaces have a rare opportunity to experiment and prototype with these things then create tools and systems and programs that can make their way out into the traditional workforce. They’re sorely needed there, if not more than in our little community spaces.

Every conference seems to have the same core structure of stuff that’s mostly serving the high-growth or fast-growth real estate driven people who are showing up, more and more, at these conferences with money to spend.

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I completely get it from a conference organizer’s perspective. Events are expensive and, when there’s a growing population of people with their wallets open, you want them at the conference. There need to be conferences for those people, but for people who create community environments, I think it sends a confusing message to try and address both those audiences at once. Right now, we have a handful of events that do a good job of bringing a diverse group of people together, but not a good job of serving that group’s diversity. It’s a balance at the events I go to. There will be a billion dollar real estate talk, followed by a community-focused presentation. The room shifts depending on who is on the stage.

A new founder may be confused about what they’re supposed to do, and what success is. For people to see examples of success that are very disproportionate to their own reality does a lot of disservice. I think it breaks too many people’s expectations of what their reality can and should be. It disincentives people who want to do something on a relatively small, local scale. There’s a feeling that they may not be doing enough. It takes a lot to be confident to know you’re doing enough in the face of all these other things.

I strongly welcome the diversity perspective and I’ve learned a lot from people who are from the traditional real estate world. The majority of the mainstream coworking events we have are a confusing on-ramp for anyone who is new from either camp. Scaling can look different for different people. If the only vision of scaling is creating more spaces, it leaves out the possibility of creating something like Indy Hall which, I’ve heard you say, you hope outlives you.

I hope so. And hopefully outlives the space. The space could go away and I feel confident that Indy Hall would continue to exist in some critical form for the people for whom it exists.

To parallel this to another industry, I’m super active in the entrepreneurship community, at large. There’s a trope in the business world, and the media feeds it, of celebrating financial investment. A company raises millions of dollars and everybody celebrates, but privately, I’ll message a friend and say, “Apologies, I’m sorry for your loss.”

I don’t view it as a win—I view it that you’ve now given up some direction and control. If you know you made that choice and that was the right choice, then maybe. But in a lot of contexts, they put some money in the bank account, but to what end.

When we celebrate spaces by their square footage, it’s the same thing. In the coworking ecosystem, we celebrate new spaces opening and square footage, which sends the message that, in order to be celebrated you have to open additional spaces and add square footage. That’s generally a really good way to put yourself out of business and take the resources you’re building for your community out of commission. I’m secretly concerned about some spaces I see scaling really fast.

I always hope they can do it, but I’ve yet to see somebody doing it where there were not significant tradeoffs. I’ve had enough backoffice conversations with people who chose the investment and scale route because of some rationalization. I can’t critique the rationalization, because it may have been the right rationalization, but there were tradeoffs. Then they find themselves in a position where they know what they want to do but they can’t do it because they’ve boxed themselves in with new sets of expectations.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking investment money. My only real fear is how often I see people say they want one thing, then do something that is completely opposite. When you look down the road, where do you see this whole workspace industry going, and what would you like to see happen?

The long run for me is that more spaces are doing things that proactively help their ecosystems thrive. That means more to me than helping businesses grow. Right now that seems to be the majority of the focus—to help people grow their business. It’s a good vector, but it’s a singular vector. The introduction of wellness components is a really good one. A more holistic understanding of what it means for individual people to thrive at work, whether they work for themselves, a startup or a corporation, is the biggest opportunity our industry is sitting on. No one else can do quite what we can do.

I don’t expect people to do that in their first couple of years. So, get solid footing, then figure out your take on being a laboratory to help people thrive, then do that, and do it over and over and over. Tweak it, remix it, try new things and, most importantly, involve your community in the process. Don’t do it for them, do it with them.

The output of this is that there are people in your space who are better than when they showed up. That’s a mark of success in my mind. If people here are better in some measurable than when they showed up, then we’ve done a good job. If I know what did it and that thing is repeatable, it is my business opportunity and my cultural and civic responsibility to share that. It’s not a secret sauce, it’s literally a better understanding of what we need as people at work. That’s certainly a different metric than square footage or number of locations.

I have a concern that coworking spaces are on a trend toward being a commodity workspace utility. That’s still the majority of offerings under the very wide umbrella of coworking. Within that wide umbrella, there is something, and that something is where the opportunity is. Will we replace corporate workspace? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I don’t think so, but I don’t care. I don’t think it’s a thing that’s screaming to be replaced. The people who are trying to replace it are the same people who put treadmill desks in their offices to improve productivity and output.

People who ride trends are the wrong people to pay attention to. The people who pick a thing that is going to improve people’s lives, and do that over and over and over—both relentlessly and while learning how to continually do it better—are the people I pay attention to.

Long-term, I’d love to see coworking spaces viewed less as a real estate disruptor—though that can still be at-play—and more of a social fabric of place. Placemaking is not directly equivalent to real estate. There are lots of ways to do placemaking without owning and operating property, or even holding a lease on a particular block of square footage. The ways we can apply placemaking to work, in the same way we can apply placemaking to neighborhoods and parks, is still the majority of the untapped value here. Thanks, Alex. Anything you’d like to add?

Coworking is not just a response to the change in work, it’s also driving the change in work. So let’s make sure that the stuff we’re giving back is good, and helping companies grow and thrive, but also helping people grow and thrive. Ten years from now, I’d like that Indy Hall’s coworking operation—the shared workspace part of things—is a less than 10 percent fraction of who we are and what we do.

The majority of the value we create doesn’t specifically happen while people are sitting at desks. It happens when people see a wider range of people doing work in new ways; it happens when people see problem-solving happening faster and easier and with more resilience; it happens when people realize that the stuff they’re trying to do doesn’t have to be difficult if they’ve got a support system of other people around them.

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