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

The tattoo on Alex Hillman’s right forearm reads “JFDI,” in letters two inches high. The letters are his bare skin, reversed out of a black stamp tattooed around them. In a recent picture he took of himself and uploaded to his personal website, DangerouslyAwesome.com, Hillman brandished his arm in such a way as to nearly fill the frame of the picture with the letters. On Twitter, he calls himself a “JFDI Master.”

JFDI stands for “Just Fucking Do It.” JFDI starts to explain why Hillman has brought me to North Philadelphia on this humid weekday morning in August; why he has led me down a half-mile of cracked sidewalk and broken glass; and why he has now stopped in front of an empty, grassy lot between two rowhouses and across from a yarn-and-silk-dyeing factory. He squints and looks around.

“So this is us,” he says.

By “us,” he’s referring to his buddies at Indy Hall, a remarkable business that Hillman co-founded in 2007. On the simplest level, Indy Hall is an office space for ­freelancers—a 4,400-square-foot loft in Old City peopled by website developers, computer programmers, marketers, video-­game makers and artists, part of a movement known as “co-working.”­ They pay by the month for the right to work there. A “basic” membership costs $25 and includes one workday, while hard-core users can get a full-time desk at Indy Hall for $275. Altogether, the Hall’s 136 members pay just shy of $15,000 each month in membership fees. Rules for use of the space are few and informal: Chip in for coffee now and then. Keep the fridge clean.

And above all, be friendly. Indy Hallers believe that business is too ruthless, too mechanical, too secretive, so they strive to make business friendly, casual and open. They are inverse corporate raiders, with all of the same drive and desire but none of the core beliefs. They share information publicly, even sensitive information about their finances—“Enough to make my bookkeeper uncomfortable,” Hillman says. They drink coffee and beer. Lots and lots of coffee and beer. Then they collect data on how much coffee and beer they drink and share it. They are hyper-social geeks who Show & Tell and Lunch & Learn and work alongside each other for 10 hours at a time and then go out to bars together and drink till dawn. And the solution to any problem at the Hall is to become even more social. Last year, when $2,000 worth of equipment was stolen during off-hours, Hillman and co-Hall-founder Geoff DiMasi, a Web designer and civic activist in South Philly, held a town hall at which they explained they wouldn’t be installing security cameras. Security cameras would change the vibe. Instead, DiMasi­ suggested, the members should redouble their efforts to get to know each other. “It’s an excuse to pretend you are in Minnesota,” he said. “Everyone says Philly is cool once you get past the shell, so let’s get past it quicker.”

There are other co-working sites in other­ cities, but Indy Hall is one of the fastest-growing, and Hillman has become a sought-after guru of the movement. This month he’s giving the keynote speech at a large conference in Berlin, and the online retailer Zappos.com recently flew him to Las Vegas to deliver a co-working talk. In Vegas he met with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and rode in a Zappos Escalade. (As Hillman later e-mailed, Hsieh “was more aware of what we do (and how) than I expected. Not really sure what comes next yet. But woah [sic]. A totally surreal experience.”)

Indy Hall has spawned dozens of start-up companies. It has convinced people to stay in Philly who otherwise would have decamped to Austin or New York or San Francisco. In four short years, Hillman has built one of the city’s most innovative communities and a powerful technology brand. Now, in an act of staggering ambition (JFDI!), in a blighted section of North Philadelphia, he’s going to try to build something else: a neighborhood.

On a recent Thursday morning at the Indy Hall office on North 3rd Street, Hillman and Geoff DiMasi sat in chairs in a lounge area near the front door, their backs to a 50-inch HDTV and an XBox 360. DiMasi’s t-shirt said INDEPENDENTS HALL, and Hillman’s said CHANGE THE WORLD.

Hillman reached across a nearby table and picked up a copy of a thick magazine called Scenario. “It’s out of Copenhagen,” he explained to DiMasi. “They do the coolest shit all the time … big stuff … a guy out of a hangar in Copenhagen is building, like, manned rocket ships, out of parts from junkyards. It’s awesome. He talks about how innovation is bullshit, stuff on whiteboards—you’re not really doing anything if you don’t get into the garage and build something. Which is pretty cool.” Hillman paused. “He’s clearly bat-shit crazy, but I appreciate that.”

Sitting on a blue wraparound couch across from Hillman and DiMasi were four architects and developers from the architecture firm DIGSAU and from Postgreen Homes, an eco-friendly developer in the city. One of the architects now unfurled a large blueprint on the table. It depicted three different layouts for a three-story house.

The house represented the first phase of the Hall’s expansion into North Philadelphia. It was to be a co-housing space for Hall members­—a sort of dorm for geeks, with a mixture of private and public spaces. Co-housing projects are popular in European cities, and there are some in America, too, but they tend to be in suburbs, not in cities. The design for the house called for six one- and two-bedroom apartments. On each floor would be a shared kitchen, dining room and living room. The idea was to create a continuum of spaces, from private (the bedroom) to semi-private (the shared kitchen) to public (the patch of lawn outside, with room for bike racks). And a glass facade would reveal the shared spaces, giving the outside world a peek at goings-on inside the house—embodying­ in architecture the crucial Indy Hall values of transparency and openness. Hillman had named the project K’House, short for “co-house” and pronounced “Ka-HOUSE,” like “Ka-BOOM.”

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  • Rachel

    Saw the drawings on the wall a few weeks ago at Indy Hall when I was visiting but could not help but notice something was very missing….where are the dog houses? Given the present culture or the culture present, I should not expect an environment accommodating children but definitely dogs. Dog house, dog bowl station, centrally located dog park…..certainly an oversight.

  • Cary

    LOVE reading what you’re doing. I co-lead a social enterprise down in DC that has a plan for co-working space, housed with a hostel and a thrift store (http://spacious.me/projects/spacious-world-hq/). You’ll be an inspiration as we dream and build.