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

At first, they appropriated coffee shops and bars. They’d show up en masse, 15 or 20 geeks with laptops, taking over tables, hopping on wi-fi networks. It was funny that such a simple act could have such a profound effect on the psyche of the average freelancer, but it did. The freelance life is solitary and blurry-edged; one minute you’re home alone, typing away at your project, and the next minute you’re doing the dishes, or taking a nap … you wake up, go for a run … pound away on the laptop until midnight … and then the next day has a completely different shape, but one that’s just as lonely. Work never shuts “on” or “off.” But now, suddenly, if you were part of Hillman’s posse, your day—your life—had structure. And what’s more, at the end of the day, you didn’t need to go looking for companionship, because next to you were 15 or 20 of your best friends, and whaddya know, you were already inside a bar. Hillman was already calling the crew Independents Hall, and certain people were willing to do almost anything to be a part of it. One guy drove into the city from Lansdale in the middle of a snowstorm. Hall member Chris Dawson told me something I heard from several other Hallers: “Without Indy Hall, I would have no social life.”

Eventually the shifting locales got to be a drag, so Hillman scoured Craigslist and found a second-floor loft on Strawberry Street in Old City. He and DiMasi signed a lease. In September 2007, after setting up desks, power strips and a wi-fi network, they decided to throw a grand-opening party in the loft. The Daily Grape’s Gary Vaynerchuk, the hyperactive wine guru and Internet marketing phenom, happened to be visiting Philly, and he showed up at the party carrying what Hillman calls “immense amounts of champagne.” “He’s got fire, he’s got fire,” Vaynerchuk says of Hillman. “The way he spoke about the concept of open space and co-working and all those dynamics that Indy brought, it was bigger than just a place. It was a movement. It felt big.”

What felt big, innovative, new, wasn’t merely the basic business model of co-working;­ according to Hillman, “People think it’s such a darling concept, but really,­ if you can’t make this work, you don’t deserve to run a business.” In fact, the business model­ is quite simple: Any money left over from membership dues is reinvested back into Indy Hall; Hillman and DiMasi have never taken a penny out in salary.

No, the key to Indy Hall is that it represents­ a way of looking at American business more broadly. “When Indy Hall changes how business functions, on a massive scale, I’ll be happy,” Hillman says. In normal corporate life, you worry about the money first and the friends later; at Indy Hall, you worry about the friends first and then the money just kind of comes. It just appears. It’s the strangest thing.

Look at the saga of Parker Whitney, burly, outgoing, and one of the best-liked people at the Hall. Two years ago, Whitney was unemployed in his native Houston—“an aimless grunt in the world,” he says. He had a psychology degree and no career direction. He was 23 years old. Whitney typed the words “cool internship” into Google, and the first or second result was a post that Hillman had written describing an internship position at the Hall. Whitney flew to Philly to interview with Hillman, who asked him what he wanted to do with his life. Whitney said, I don’t know… design t-shirts? “I just wanted to be around people who would inspire me to do something cool,” Whitney says.

Hillman has always envisioned the Hall as “sort of a disco ball for cool shit,” he says—“a refraction tool for cool things that are happening that may not have anything to bounce off of, so it’s hard to see them.” Whitney proceeded to light up the disco ball. After Hillman gave him the internship, he flew to Philly with enough cash to last three months. For three days a week, he manned the front desk, answering phone calls, sending e-mails. But mostly, he made friends. He went to every Indy Hall happy hour. He drank enormous quantities of beer. He started helping out on projects, learning Photoshop, making a little money here and there. Then, bang, it happened: Whitney met a guy at the Hall named Jake O’Brien, a Web developer and programmer who had made a couple of video games on the side. Over beers one day, Whitney and O’Brien decided to make a simple iPhone game. The object was to throw boomerangs at zombies. When the zombies died, there was lots of blood. O’Brien wrote the code, and Whitney did the art. Within three months, their game appeared in the App Store.