The Indy Hall Experiment

Tech community Independents Hall and its dynamic founder are poised to change the way we work—and a North Philly neighborhood

There was some discussion about the merits of the varying room layouts. How big should the bedrooms be vs. the shared spaces? Should there be showers and tubs, or just showers? Should there be tiny private kitchens in addition to the shared kitchen? Hillman thought yes. His members had been telling him they wanted their own kitchens.

“I envision the [shared] kitchen has its own set of dishes,” said one of the developers. “People will plan a meal together, cook a meal together, eat a meal together,” Hillman said. “The whole thing is an event from beginning to end.”

One of the architects said that maybe they didn’t have to choose between the layouts; they could build a different configuration for each floor, then adapt them to the needs of the tenants. Hillman loved that idea. “I’m already thinking two steps past this,” Hillman said. “Like, let’s assume this is a huge success, and we’re thinking about the next thing that’s bigger than this? We have the experience of having a couple different models. From a pure prototype perspective, that’s why I like the idea of it being a little bit changeable. Because that’s what we’re doing.” He leaned back in his chair and grinned. “An expensive prototype.”

As the team continued to discuss K’House, men and women streamed into the Indy Hall office, several toting bicycles that they hung on a wall rack outside the front door. They dropped their backpacks on a series of black tables arranged in clusters. Music played at low volume on a stereo system. That day, someone had programmed a ’90s-alt-rock marathon: Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Almost everyone wore headphones, though, and listened to personal tunes.

After the meeting with the architects, Hillman taped two blueprints to the wall and wrote across the top of each: IDEAS? QUESTIONS? LEAVE A NOTE! The first comment came by 11: “Consider putting the premium living spaces on the top floor to give them better light and get them out of the flow of traffic.”

The Hall consists of two long, thin rectangular rooms: the North Hall, where the lounge is, and the South Hall, which contains the kitchen, the mini fridge full of microbrews, the life-size cardboard cutout of WWE Wrestler Triple H, and the motivational poster that reads I DON’T LIKE FEELING COMFORTABLE. IT’S TOO EASY. Everywhere, the walls are the color of a basketball and covered with original paintings—bold, cartoonish, vaguely African-themed designs executed by a graphic artist who’s an Indy Hall member.

An energetic woman named Yasmine Mustafa, 29, the owner of a start-up Web advertising company, (“I’m bootstrapping!”), was working at a North Hall desk. Mustafa said she loved working at Indy Hall because “there are so many smart people around, and you can ask them questions.” Yesterday, she said, a key page on her site hadn’t been working because there was a bug in the site’s code. She couldn’t ask her usual programmers to fix it, though, since they live in Romania and, because of the time difference, would be asleep. Within an hour, a programmer friend at the Hall had fixed the bug, and the page on Mustafa’s site was back up and running.

This kind of thing happens a lot at the Hall—informal quicksilver exchanges of knowledge. There’s a guy at the Hall who knows everything there is to know about the programming framework Ruby on Rails, and another guy who knows about Java Script, and a third who is a guru of something called Git. Modern websites and apps are like puzzles made of many small pieces. If you happen to be missing a piece of the puzzle, you can be sure that someone at the Hall will have the one you need.

THIS IS A KEY PART OF the Hall’s power, and one of the reasons Alex Hillman launched it in the first place. He wanted to work faster and better, and he felt he couldn’t do it alone. Even as a kid, he craved connection. He grew up in a small town in the Lehigh Valley, on 18 acres between a horse farm and a corn farm. By high school, he was good at hacking computers—“In my freshman year, I got in trouble for some computer networking stuff, and that’s as far as I can go”—but he also did theater and “fit in wherever I wanted to.” He came to the city in 2002 to study business at Drexel, but he soon grew antsy. Hillman didn’t understand why he needed to know about accounting when he could just … hire an accountant. He quit college and started working at an agency in Horsham that designed websites and interactive marketing campaigns. Then he went out on his own as a freelancer and began working with open-source software—software that had been designed by self-organizing groups of experts and made available for free, complete with the source code. Hillman noticed that open-source software was often higher quality than software made by big corporations. He wondered if other things could be open-source, too—things in the real world.

It was around that time that he read a book called Small Pieces Loosely Joined, about how the Web was binding people together in new ways. The Web is the exact opposite of a well-oiled corporation, and yet it has spawned an incredible richness of information and meaning; the Web reveals that we are fundamentally social creatures embedded in a social fabric. The book inspired Hillman to think of himself as “an agency of one,” he says—a lone freelancer, yes, but one who could instantly join himself to any number of other freelance experts to create a facsimile of a much larger­ entity. To do his best work, he couldn’t isolate himself. He needed to be part of a community of like-minded people. Problem was, “It was easier to find people like me anywhere but here, in Philadelphia, and that was sort of heartbreaking.” Hillman would go to tech conferences and meet groups of young tech-minded­ people from San Francisco and Portland and New York. Every city had a posse, except Philly.

So he decided he’d try to build one. It was slow, painstaking work. For six months, Hillman attended every single technology event in the city, trying to find out what jazzed other geeks. After a while, he kept seeing the same people over and over, “sort of like in the movie Fight Club, when Jack and Marla recognize that they’re both junkies and should probably talk over a beer.” One of these people was Geoff DiMasi, 40, a Web designer and longtime community organizer in South Philly; DiMasi and some friends had just restarted the Junto, Benjamin Franklin’s self-improvement society. Another person Hillman kept running across was Johnny Bilotta, a graphic designer who had recently quit his job at a large company. Bilotta said to Hillman, “You’re working alone, I’m working alone—what the fuck are we doing?”