(Photo by Christopher Wink)
If your company gets big enough, you’ll be in the real estate business, no matter what industry you’re in. Darren Hill promises you.
Hill, 38, launched WebLinc with his brother Jason in 1994 from Kelly Hall Room 501 at Drexel University (though they really got going in 1996 when Hill was living at 19th and Pine) and now has more than 120 employees spread across three buildings near the 3rd Street corridor, including, most famously, one above the National Mechanics bar and restaurant he has owned since June 2006, according to city records.
After nearly 20 years of business, WebLinc is actively raising its first round of outside investment ever, reports Hill in an Old City coffee shop. They attempted once before but mid-raise, Hill and his team felt it wasn’t the right time. Now is the time, Hill said.
The outside money will go to growing features to its ecommerce platform, Hill said, that will allow the company to basically rent out its technical plumbing to other tech firms. It’s a classic decision to build a scalable product that can create additional recurring revenue beyond the big clients that Hill’s various project teams manage.
Talk to other technology executives and the move makes sense, but it brings up this nagging question when a business with this much market validation approaches investors: how will you give outside money the kind of multiplied return it often demands?
Hill dives into the details for a moment, his coffee hasn’t arrived yet so he’s intertwining his fingers, talking about how he’s tested the need for his software and has paying customers. With a profitable business like his, he can push back against pressure to sell the company to return investment for as long as makes sense.
Earlier that morning, while walking Market Street, he predates the question with a different answer about real estate: “It’s a deliberate choice to buy the buildings we put our staff in. It shows ownership, that we’re not going away.”
It’s clear it’s no fly by night operation. His buildings have personality.
The company, which manages hosting for many of its clients, co-locates, so no servers on premises, and the two finished buildings that Hill owns are colorful, playful and rich with art.
One fall morning this month, most employees were still arriving, while others were hunkered down. Hill walked us through the National Mechanics building at 22 South 3rd Street, then took us up a block to 12 North 3rd Street, bumping into no fewer than three community members — another local CEO and two members of a nearby coworking space.
“How do you replace the accidental, quick, bump-into-you meeting?” he asked.
It had the feel of a campus walking to class, but the decisions around space don’t come easily.
“Finding a place to put a team of eight looks a lot easier when compared to finding a place for 80,” Hill said.
But Old City is such a good place to develop a creative corridor, just look at the infrastructure. These old buildings have so many 2,000-5,000 square foot spaces that are great for small teams to get their footing.
Hill is testing how big you can get in a tiny historic district.
After building a team above Nat Mechanics, WebLinc outgrew those offices and, after using a conference room at coworking space Indy Hall (which itself is pushing 100 members in its growing space), started renting additional desks elsewhere in Old City.
In 2010, he added five-story 12 N. 3rd Street to his portfolio, starting on the first floor and slowly developing and filling each floor as they grew.
Once WebLinc filled that space, they again rented offices at 304 Walnut Street, where they now have 20 people in 4,000 square feet. To remedy that, Hill added a third building this year.
In January, Hill bought four-story 100 Market Street, the historic property at the corner of Front and Market that was once home to the famed Revolutionary-era London Coffee House after a failed attempt to develop it as a restaurant. The property was abandoned inside, with half-finished construction when the developer’s efforts soured. Now he’s developing it to be the next anchor in his urban campus.
Below is what 100 Market Street looks like, looking southeast near Front Street. Find more photos of all three buildings below it.
Photos inside the National Mechanics building (6,000 square feet and 30 people):
Photos of 12 N. Market Street (9,000 square feet and 70 people):
Shots around under construction 100 Market Street:-30-
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