Creative

Sep. 2, 2011 11:00 am

Alex Hillman: ‘I want Philadelphia to outlast other cities,’ [Q&A]

In 2007, Alex Hillman and P'unk Ave co-founder Geoff Di Masi brought together a cast of technologists together to form coworking community Indy Hall. Four years later, the community has grown, as has Hillman -- to full blown entrepreneur, handling a few roles aside from community architect.

Photo by Chris Sembrot.

Alex Hillman partied last night.

If Technically Philly were to suggest that Hillman was celebrating the anniversary of a building, he probably wouldn’t like that very much. Last night, the co-founder of Old City coworking haunt Independents Hall was at Frankford Hall in Fishtown with more than 100 other members of a community celebrating four years of formal partnership.

In 2007, Hillman and P’unk Ave co-founder Geoff Di Masi brought together a cast of freelance web developers, software programmers, graphic designers and their ilk to put an end to home office isolation and bring about greater collaboration and creativity. Thus was born the affectionately nicknamed Indy Hall. Four years later, the community has grown, as has Hillman — to full blown entrepreneur, handling a few roles aside from community architect.

Hillman, a week into his 28th year, came to Philadelphia in 2002 by way of Drexel University, after growing up “on 18 acres between corn and horse farms an hour north of here that surely pushed me to be a city boy.” He went to Drexel for the co-op program but even that couldn’t keep him, dropping out three years into the program to start work on his own.

Now, in addition to Indy Hall fame, he has helped build business strategy for ChoiceShirts.com, is working with web services shop Wildbit and is one of two behind creative directory WeWorkinPhilly, which could see some partnership with Technically Philly.

After years of coverage, Technically Philly grabbed Hillman for our first Q&A, talking to the Hellertown, Pa. native about coworking, business and what his plans are for his future.

As always, edited for length and clarity.

Indy Hall four years later: what’s the status report?

It’s still serving the core purpose we set out to do. It’s doing so many other things, but the main core purpose was to help find the people that are in your own backyard doing really cool things, in business and creative and technology.

Before we got connected to launch Indy Hall, I hadn’t met Geoff and he was doing cool things in a similar industry. I had no built-in way to meet people like Geoff. It started with Blogadelphia and Barcamp and those were the beginnings for the introduction of people. I had no idea what was going on. Four years later, people come here for any number of reasons, but the most consistent success is the first success: helping smart, cool, creative people in Philadelphia meet other smart, cool, creative people.

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What is the biggest way Indy Hall has changed in four years?

The word ‘diversity’ is loaded because it means so many different things to so many different people, but that’s what comes to mind.

When we started, most people looked like me: they were young, 20-something creative, business, tech white dudes. Now they span age and race and industry and interests. When people ask who works at Indy Hall, now I say, ‘it might be easier to say the few who don’t.’

I’d also say the maturity of the community has been a big change. When I left for a lot of last year to do business development, it was a test to see what happens when I am not beating the drum and I came back to something better.

What is ‘better’ about the Indy Hall community now?

People in Indy Hall have stepped up into roles in Indy Hall and elsewhere. What’s interesting about creating a place where the services are not the core function is that it’s a blank canvas to do whatever you want to make of it. That creates a self-selecting group of people who aren’t going to wait for other people. It’s a pretty powerful engine.

What are specific examples of that happening?

The Barcamp organizing crew were members of and friends of Indy Hall, and they’ve gone beyond that. Roz [Duffy] moved onto TEDx and is starting her own business. JP [Toto] got involved in Conshohocken, where he lives, and here. Kelani is playing the catalyst role, not just in technology but in the art community,  where there’s real crossover because we’re all makers at heart.

I haven’t been counting lineage, but we’re finding leaders training and mentoring new leaders…. All these people who were coming together or getting closer four years ago are still here making Philadelphia a better place.

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And then there are still new faces coming through the Indy Hall community.

Right… like, Parker [Whitney], who is great at bringing people together and he knows it. He has worked endlessly at his creative skill [in video game development, where he and partner Jake O’Brien launched Flyclops]. He and Jake may not have a runaway hit yet, but they’ve earned respect in the industry, as this little startup.

Two years ago, when he first found IndyHall, I asked him what he wanted to do with his life and he said he liked playing video games and designing T-shirts. Starting a company wasn’t even in his field of vision, but he was just surrounded by people like him who were a little further down that road and he found his way and has become really devoted to Philadelphia.

He is now in a position to start helping other new people who come our way.

Indy Hall is a strong but small part of a broader technology community and, bigger still, of a city and a region. How has Philly fared in the last four years?

Four years ago, there were two significant shortages of perception around Philly [being innovative]: one was self-awareness because no one here knew what was in Philadelphia and the second was the outside perspective, where no one outside the city knew anything was here either.

We chose to tackle the first, and there’s a lot to be done, but more people in Philadelphia better know and are more likely to know about a tech, creative community here than four years ago.

It seems Philadelphia is just keeping pace, at best, with other cities. How does Philly differentiate itself, to help draw and retain talent and business?

I think many cities across the world all have the same resources, so everyone is growing and chasing at tech in a real way and mostly in a pretty similar way. Philadelphia is rare because of its scale. We’re a big city that happens to think it’s small.

The other distinct advantage, one I harp on, is doing things the Philadelphia way.

This city is really seeing itself in a new way, faster than elsewhere. Philadelphia, particularly at Indy Hall, is looking to do it our way, doing things bootstrapped because we’re resistent culturally to outside help. Groups that find ways to do that our way, on our own, are Philadelphia stories and are stronger for it. Other cities are trying similarly and will be more successful.

We’re still doing it our way. The DIY way and we have the ‘just get it done attitude.’ I’m proud of it. We’re in a good position as a national if not an international leader in creating these communities.

I’ll say this, in traveling around, when you have groups gathering around strictly around interest, like startups or web design, I think those are short lived, trendy communities. They will only be around so long as that interest remains the new hotness. So there’s not a ton of longevity.

Then there’s  a community of practitioners, of people who are just interested in getting things done and they happen to be doing that in creative, tech and business, and they’re actually doing it. That is what we have here.

You talked about Philadelphia needing to outpace other cities, when really, I want Philadelphia to out-last other cities.

We just had the Philly Geek Awards and we’re gearing up for the second Philly Tech Week, to be held the last week of April. This broad technology community is getting better connected, but it’s also still growing. Is this community so supportive just because it’s perhaps still small or can it keep getting better connected and more supportive as it continues to grow?

Community scaling is super interesting to me, and that happens best with that leaders breeding leaders I talked about.

As communities scale, fragmentation is not a bad thing. Natural fragmentation: it happens two ways. Either, you pretend it’s not going to happen and you get stress fractures, which leads to fall out, disagreement, fiefdoms, bruised egos and all these things, just the collatoral damage.

The other way is stay focused on relationships and use them as guiding lines. We recognized that this is a big city and so there are going to be different parts of the community. We see where our communities are separating, we acknowledge that and keep communication alive gracefully and elegantly.

We hear that after taking on bigger space, Indy Hall is again reaching capacity. Are you experiencing these same challenges?

It’s, like, where we do we fragment? I need to do a better job to grow this in smart ways. The Indy Hall House cohousing idea became a new outlet for that growth when we felt that the answer wasn’t to just add more desks. Just adding more desks will just lead us to a fragmentation that we’re not ready to deal with yet, and that’s OK, but with the house we can grow laterally.

What is the latest with the cohousing plans?

The people most attacted to the Indy Hall house idea are the ones who don’t need an office to work in but are interested in the cultural elements of Indy Hall. Here will be our shot at some kind of healthy fragmentation, of taking our style and bringing them to a new place with perhaps new faces.

It’s already been yet another learning process. I saw the Postgreen guys at the first Ignite, and I looked at Geoff and said, “I want to do something with them.”

I want to go in and learn the neighborhood so we  aren’t just building ourselves. I want to be much more inclusive. I want Indy Hall to last longer than i am the one working on it, and I want the house to last longer than I am living in it.

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So, of course we have to ask, what does Indy Hall look like in the next four years?

Indy Hall, in four years, will touch more people’s lives. I don’t know what that means yet. How many people who are out there either don’t think we have what they need or they don’t know we exist at all — I bet we have a lot more of the second one.

A group from Wharton led by Tim Allen has lobbied for 20 percent time and part of that time is happening at Indy Hall. Tim is excited to bring people down here from Wharton, and I’m excited to get their take on why their perceptions are keeping them from working here.

So, I think we are going to see that, a lot of new ways that coworking and Indy Hall are working and touching more people in Philadelphia.

How have you changed during the last four years?

Indy Hall has had a remarkable effect on me.

When I started, I was building simple WordPress and Shopify sites, small applications, relatively simple websites for businesses. I was a web developer, nothing particularly innovative, but being around these people and working on my own as led me to find that I could be a part of products that help more people build better websites, rather than building a few myself.

I do love code and I do love to make things, but there were other people better than I am, so I wanted to find what I was better at.

And what has that been?

The transition into the strategic side of things…

Now I go in and learn the company and it’s like a heart transfer, if the new heart isn’t accepted by the body, it doesn’t work. So I’ve worked with startups to find out what they need and what would be compatible with them, if it’s a single role or a department or something else.

And that has translated into what is really your day job.

I came on with ChoiceShirts.com as a consultant on the marketing side of things and we found the real obstacle was the infrastructure. They were doing ecommerce since 1994 and someone else had always handled the IT. I said bring it in-house, and I filled that role, the CTO role, and worked myself out of a job, to bring them from an out-of-house closed source system to an in-house, open source one and then hired a successor. I’m getting involved again now on the leadership side of things, rather than technology.

How else do you make money?

I worked with Red Tettemer for almost a year, helped guide them through growing an interactive campaign, taking a new style of interactive work.

…Also, I started working with WildBit in December or so. They have a team of 12, and I was their first Philadelphia employee… I’ve enjoyed being in the trenches with partners and clients and getting their team to prioritize better, like not just talking to those customers when things go wrong but also when new possibilities are there.

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So what will your future look like?

I know that if I were to say ‘if there’s still work to be done, I’ll never leave Philadelphia’ I would be shortchanging myself.

I have fallen in love with Philadelphia. I didn’t love it four years ago. I liked it enough to give it a shot, but now I genuinely love being here. Every time I travel for work or pleasure, I come back and it’s special. So, both for Philadelphia and myself, I don’t know if it’ll be in 10 years or five years or next year, but, in order to be happy and be valuable to Philadelphia, I’m going to need to have the perspective of being away from it. Philadelphia will always be home, but I know my future will involve being somewhere else for some time.

For now, I hope our impact has been more than inside the four walls we have in Old City, but has an impact around the world. To use something we say a lot, in the future, it won’t be called coworking anymore, it’ll just be called working.

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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