Sitting in a kitchen in a loft on Third Street in Old City, talking to one of the most enthusiastic and driven people I’ve met in years, I began to wonder what would happen if I quit my job, moved to Philadelphia and started my own business. Alex Hillman, wearing a t-shirt that read “I <3 my internet friends,” was selling me on the cheekily named co-working space Independents Hall, of which he’s a co-founder. His friend Parker Whitney was helping, telling me the story of his two years in Philadelphia.
With no real direction and no real skills beyond a liberal arts degree, Parker stumbled across Alex’s email address and sent him a message. After an internship at IndyHall, he started a business with a fellow member, making games for mobile phones. Total time from “lost recent grad” to “ambitious game designer” and company co-founder? 22 months.
But wait, co-working? It’s a no-longer-radical idea that puts independent-minded free agents in the same building, for encouragement, for inspiration and for killer happy hours that couldn’t happen if everyone was working from home.
Indy Hall’s other co-founder, Geoff DiMasi, says Philadelphia is the perfect place for such a radical departure from the traditional go-to-an-office-job working life, a city perfectly suited to creativity and innovation. It is, after all, where Ben Franklin and his Renaissance men friends created the original Independence Hall.
“The key thing was that we cared about Philadelphia,” Geoff told me. Alex agrees: “Regardless of our differences, it always came down to ‘This is to make Philadelphia a better place.’” He wants, in no uncertain terms, to put Philly on the map.
The IndyHall guys certainly have the attention of the city, or at least some of its politicians. City councilman Bill Green is a big supporter, and government staffers are taking notice of the way things get done when fueled by passionate people-and Victory beer happy hours.
Alex told me about Jeff Friedman, who works with Mayor Michael Nutter, and the time he visited a “hack session” that took him well outside his comfort zone. “At the end of the day, [Jeff] said something to the effect of ‘I didn’t even know things could be done this way,” Alex said. “To have somebody who works at City Hall be turned on to a new way to ‘get shit done,’ I think is extremely powerful.”
Alex’s story reminded me of downtown Cleveland, where food truck-driving entrepreneurs sang the praises of their city councilman, Joe Cimperman, when I visited earlier this summer. He pushed through a policy allowing the trucks downtown-a risky move politically-to enable creative people to do what they love. The crowds mobbing the trucks are proof that sometimes taking a risk pays off.
While Alex, Geoff and the IndyHall crew certainly aren’t sitting around waiting for rubber stamps from City Hall, they do see the value of having politicos on board. With help from Councilman Green, they’re working together on a new effort to create “co-housing” near Fishtown, a place to extend the co-working vibe to residential life.
Partnering with an environmentally conscious developer, Postgreen, plans have been laid and property has been acquired. The do-it-yourself hackers, who started IndyHall about four years ago, have gone from imagining to literally building the city’s future.