Alex Hillman pioneered the movement in real estate and entrepreneurship we know today as coworking, and he continues to serve as its chief proponent and thought leader internationally.

Hillman is co-founder of Indy Hall in Philadelphia, an eight-year-old coworking space that today has more than 300 members.

The space is known for its sense of community – members are involved in every aspect of the space from painting walls and mopping floors to installing speaker systems and planning educational programs. And they’re encouraged to contribute back to the Indy Hall community and to the city in which they live.

Hillman’s team also believes in sharing what they’ve learned with others interested in opening up spaces. They operate a coworking discussion group and wiki and publish a weekly newsletter.

And this Saturday, he’ll share what he knows with a crowd of 50 or so operators (or aspiring operators) of coworking spaces across the Southeast at the first-ever WorkShift Conference in Durham. Check out our overview of the conference, planned by Bull City Coworking head Robert Petrusz here.

Because we can’t all attend the event, I asked Hillman to share some thoughts about coworking and the impact it has on cities and the economy.

Here’s the transcript from our email interview:


EE: You were a pioneer of coworking back in 2006 when you started Indy Hall. Tell us why you started it (and a brief background on yourself).

AH: Like most newly-minted freelancers and small business owners, I found myself loving freedom and flexibility but not loving the loneliness that came from working at home and in cafes. I missed having people who I could riff with, share what I was working on and be inspired by what they were working on.

It seemed easier for me to find those people in ANY city other than my own…so I had a choice between leaving Philadelphia for another city where finding my community might seem easier, or seeing if I wasn’t the only person around wanting something better.

Longer story here in my TEDx talk.

EE: So what has changed? What is different about coworking today than back then? How do you explain it today?

AH: One of the things that always makes me chuckle is when people say “coworking isn’t working here because people don’t know what it is”, because I remind them that in 2006, there were literally TENS of people who knew what coworking was. There wasn’t any press to point to for examples. So…clearly, that’s not a real reason why coworking spaces fail.

The biggest thing that’s changed is that coworking HAS become discovered. It garners local, national, and international press.

But the thing that the press tends to talk about include:
Cheap space/real estate.
Flexibility (read: no commitments).
Open floor plans.
Tech, startups, and “talent.”
All of which are possible attributes of coworking, but are both superficial and non-exclusive.

Because of this, the biggest thing that’s changed is that while more people are finding coworking, those people generally don’t know what they’re even getting, or how to use it. We spend less time describing coworking, and more how to be a coworker.

EE: What is the perfect coworker then? How does someone become one?

AH: I don’t think “perfect” is what anybody should strive for. Just strive for being a little bit better every day.

I think of being a good coworker is like being a good citizen. Good citizens don’t only vote and pay taxes…they’re role models for other members of the community, they look out for each other.

There are three simple goals to follow:

Look after yourself
Look after each other
Look after this place we share.

Everyone has different ways of actually accomplishing these goals, and we see members discover new ways every day.

EE: You’re big on the culture of spaces, and putting members first. So how is that done in practice? Can you give an example or two?

AH: (He’s written extensively on this topic. See posts below)
The Neighborhood Watch Method for Coworking Space Security.
What’s Wrong This Picture: Dos and Don’ts for Photos of Coworking
How to Design Community Building Events that People will Love and Remember

EE: How do you feel about the movement that has formed around the practice? What does the rise of coworking say about the economy and the working world?

AH: Frankly, I wish there was more “practice” being practiced. Instead, I see a lot of cargo-culting, which is effectively copying the superficial elements (open floorplans, funky furniture, etc) without any understanding of the intent, and as as result missing the mark in terms of results.

Some have suggested that coworking has shifted from a “movement” to an “industry”, which I don’t exactly agree with. I’d say that both exist in parallel, with some overlap in participation. Both are valuable, for sure. But the industry, as I’m observing it, doesn’t seem to be doing much thinking about what it’s doing…it’s just doing, and then getting upset when things don’t work.

EE: What impact has Indy Hall had on Philadelphia and its entrepreneurial community?

AH: Don’t ask me, ask our members:

Much Love to Indy Hall
Finding myself in Philly
Independents Hall: Coworking Saved My Life
Took What I Need
Indy Hall Radio: Nicole Arasim
Indy Hall Radio: Jennifer Hensell
Why Do People Love Indy Hall? We Asked. They Told.

EE: Is there any perfect experience you’ve had that explains the value of coworking? If so, explain it.

AH: You’re better off getting that from a member of a coworking space, not a coworking space owner. 🙂

That’s actually another big problem with the coworking “industry” is that its focused so heavily on the coworking spaces and their owner/operators…when in fact, the people who SHOULD be talking are the members.

EE: Are there downsides to working in an open space with so many different types of workers and people? If so, how do you balan
ce it? If not, why not?

AH: I don’t think there are actually downsides to the open space. There are, however, downsides to having a culture that doesn’t match the flooplan.

EE: Is there a next generation of coworking that you see? If so, what does it look like?

I don’t see a long-distance future for most coworking spaces, actually. Most coworking spaces won’t look like “coworking spaces” in 10 years. To look at this as a real estate trend is a big mistake and a major red-herring. I think that the future is less about space, and more about place, and the sense of belonging that comes with place-making.

Coworking is less of a future-trend than people make it out to be. This is how we used to work. When Philadelphia was at its peak 150 years go – as a manufacturing and knowledge capital of the world – people were succeeding by working together. They were playing an active role in making their industry – and their city – a better place.

EE: What can coworking spaces and coworkers learn from each other? I.e. Why are events like Workshift so important?

AH: By and large, I learn WAY more from our members than I do from other coworking space owners. But think about it for a second.

If we’re putting our efforts towards helping our members come together, share what they know, inspire each other do be better at what they do…why wouldn’t we want that for ourselves, too?