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Alex Hillman On How to Start a Coworking Space

Sensei Alex Hillman is an ancient grey headed sage, dating back to the dawn of coworking. Famous for founding and sustaining Indy Hall in Philadelphia, he continues to teach and consult in the theme of “community”.  Or as Chapter 3 of my book puts it, “Community, Community, Community”.

Sensei Alex tags himself as a “community builder”, and he teaches that this is what really matters.  In recent weeks, he has snarked to the effect that he neither knows nor cares what is going on with WeWork or other “industry news”.  What they are doing is simply not coworking, or at least not the kind that matters.

This month Hillman pointed readers to a piece he wrote in 2016, giving advice on how to start a coworking space [1].  It is quintessential Hillman, and highlights just how non-WeWorky his world view is.

His tips for starting a coworking space is basically, “forget the workspace, find your community first”.

His four tips are:

1 – Start by finding a few places where people are already gathering.
2 – Look for patterns in what people have in common.
3 – Look for ways to bring those people together.
4 – Lead by example.

The first two sound like anthropology, which they are.  (And that’s part of why Coworking is so interesting.)  But this is, of course, the essence of “bottom up” organizing. No matter what you think people do and want to do, you’ll be better off finding out what real people really do.

Item 3 gets into “community organizing” territory. It also cuts right to Sensei Alex’s core value:  “bringing people together” makes things better.  Period.

Underlying these tips is the understanding that the right way to do coworking is to meet the needs of the community of workers that participate.  There is no one right way for everyone, you need to find your community and do what is right for all of you.

Item 4 is, of course, the essence of leadership in any context.  (The US Infantry School develops officers whose hard duty will be to lead troops into the teeth of enemy fire.  Their motto: “Follow me”.)

But this is more than just being a good example. Alex is famous for leading from within, being part of the community. “Of the workers, for the workers, by the workers” could be his motto.

“The best way to create a collaborative space is, well, collaboratively.”


I can’t resist drawing the obvious contrasts with the splashy saga of WeWork.  This company and others like it are in the workspace business.  Alex is in the community business.  As he says, “You can do this literally anywhere”.

Furthermore, Sensei Alex tells that if you take the time to find and cultivate your community, to pull together “people who would be upset if the space couldn’t open”, then

“You might open later, but you’ll stay in business longer”

This point is even more telling as we watch WeWork megafail.  Indy Hall is still in business after more than a decade, WeWork will not last out this year.  Indy Hall makes enough money to stay healthy.  WeWork is setting worlds records for getting rid of money.

Why did WeWork fail?

Well, they definitley didn’t follow Sensei Alex’s advice, did they?

And the bottom line is:

“The biggest mistake you could make right now is opening an empty space without a community.”

I’d say that the biggest mistake you could make, period, is trying to run a workspace without a community.


  1. Alex Hillman, Wanna start a coworking space? Start here. , in Alex Hillman: better coworking, better business, and better communities. 2016. https://dangerouslyawesome.com/2016/04/the-first-advice-i-give-to-almost-everyone-starting-a-new-coworking-space/

 

Making It As A Freelancer

The Freelancers Union and GCUC report that one reason that people like freelancing is because you get to work on what you want to work on, when you want, how you want.  Gig workers are free to pick their gigs, and coworkers pick their own work environments.

But gigging is hard, and, frankly, even the glass-half-full surveys of freelancers and coworkers show that the pay is short, and the hours may be long (assuming you can get the work).

Looking closely at the surveys over the years, it is clear that many of the respondents were enthusiastic newbies, happy with their first experiences. (We were all rookies once! : – ))

But I have long questioned how viable gig working will be for the long run, for a whole working lifetime.  (I discuss this in my book, “What is Coworking?“)

For this reason, I was interested to see several posts from experienced freelancers, who have rather more sanguine view of gig working.  It’s not all roses and unicorns.

To be sure, these senseis want people to freelance.  But…they have some important things to tell you.


First of all, Hannah Edmonds posts yet another discussion of time management.  (This is a perennial topic for freelancers and coworkers.)

Everyone has trouble managing their time.  One good thing about working for an organization and having a boss is that these things provide structure and other people to help enforce the structure. However, an independent gig worker is on her own [1].  Edmonds points out the need to structure your gig work, and offers tips on how to do it. This takes self-discipline, which I, for one, am not that good at.


Sensei Tyra Seldon has more tough advice:  freelancing isn’t meant to be free  [3].  In particular, gig workers need to know the value of their work, and need to charge appropriately.  Anyone who has worked with Sensei Seldon knows that she is very clear about terms of payment, and demands appropriate professional levels of compensation.

She tells us that this is “what 10 years of freelancing taught” her:  talk about money clearly and demand to be paid.  Say “no” if necessary.

I’ll note that this is another good thing about working for a conventional organization:  someone else sets the terms and compensation, and there is a contract that defines it.  There is no need to negotiate every piece of work separately, so there isn’t a need to explicitly worry about the value of each piece.

Gig workers have to make demands and get paid.  That’s not all that fun, but it is for sure necessary.


What does this mean?

Sensei Naomi Nakashima tells us that she had to learn “that it’s not enough to love what you do” [2]

It no longer felt like I was getting paid to do something I loved, it felt like I was barely scraping by. I felt underpaid and undervalued (because I was).” (From [2])

What she found is that, however much she liked what she was doing, it was necessary to earn enough to actually live.  She recounts how one of her clients refused a patently absurd low bid from her, and told her “no matter how much you love what you do, if you’re not making enough to live on it, you will end up resenting it.”

Think carefully about this.  She is telling you that getting paid isn’t just necessary for survival, it is necessary for your sanity and morale.

Sensei Nakashima’s suggestions are good advice for any job, freelance or other. I can testify that poor pay and lousy work will definitely make you hate any job, no matter how cool it might seem on paper.

She elaborates:

1) It’s not enough to enjoy what you do – you also have to enjoy the project you’re working on.

2) It needs to do more than just pay you – it needs to be worth your time.

3) It’s not enough to simply work on clients’ projects that you love – they need to help further your career in some way. (summarized from  [2])

I would say that #2 is the crux of all of this.  Freelancing might seem like a great thing, but it really must be worth your time or you’ll never survive.  This isn’t even a matter of money (though Sensei Seldon is right that you need to be paid), it’s a matter of life and death.  You only have so much time, you can’t really throw it away doing things you hate.

I would add a further bit of advice.  My own experience has shown me that the most important thing is who you are working with.  Working with good people is generally worth your time, even if it might not be perfect for other reasons.  (For example, I’ve been very happy doing unpleasant (but important) work with people I really care about.  I’ve also been happy working with good people, even when it didn’t particularly advance my career.)

I think this is one of the reasons why coworking is so valuable to many freelancers.  If you find a good coworking community, everything will be so much better because just showing up and doing your work with good people will be worth your time.


Gig working isn’t easy, and it’s not guaranteed to make you happy.  I doubt that you will get rich (at least not from the gigs).

But these experienced freelancers are here to tell you that it can be a good life, if you are disciplined and take care to do work that is worth your time.

What is Coworking?  It can be an opportunity to work with good people all the time.  And that’s a really good thing.


  1. Hannah Edmonds, How to keep freelance work from eating up your life, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/23/how-to-keep-freelance-work-from-eating-up-your-life/
  2. Naomi Nakashima, How one freelance writer figured out that it’s not enough to love what you do, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/30/why-its-not-enough-to-love-what-you-do/
  3. Tyra Seldon, Pay now or pay later: what 10 years of freelancing taught me, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/17/what-10-years-of-freelancing-taught-me-about-payment/

 

What is Coworking? Some Statistics

This month, Ivan Stevanovic reports an impressive list of statistics about Coworking [2].  (Important Caveat:  many of these statistics are from proprietary sources, and most are based on somewhat opaque methodology.  The reports are plausible, even though the empirical support is weak.)

Some of the stats are the usual:  there are almost 19,000 coworking spaces world-wide, and 30,000 “flexible office spaces”.  The latter appear to be a term for workspace that is similar to a coworking space, except not necessarily exclusively used by coworking. The latter would be a building suitable for coworking, but not necessarily used for that purpose.

Note that 50,000 workspaces worldwide is not a very large number.  That is a tiny number of the total buildings and workspaces in the world.

There are estimated three million coworkers world wide, according to the GCUC’s survey.  As I have noted earlier, there is room for argument about the definition of “coworker”, so this number has to be taken with care.  (Again: there are a billion workers in the world, so this is a tiny, tiny fraction.)

Some of the stats are no surprise to those who have read my definitive book on Coworking [1].  Coworkers work in digital industries, especially IT and media.  The workers are younger than the overall population of workers, and more male, though the proportion of women is increasing.

As I have discussed many times, coworkers like coworking for many reasons.  Coworking is a “respite from our isolation”, a tonic for loneliness, and a network of like-minded professionals. In short, it’s the community.

Stevanovic offers some stats about the state of the business.  Many workspaces are serving both coworkers and corporate workers.  I’m sure this has always been the case, though coworking was pioneered by and for freelancers.

Stevanovic reports the somewhat worrying statistic that, world wide, only 42% of coworking spaces are profitable, and 33% break even.  This puts the boosterism in perspective:  there may be more and more workspaces, opening every day, but many of them will close within a few years.  (One reason:  rents are rising.)

“there are currently around 18,700 coworking spaces around the globe. The number is growing daily and is expected to reach nearly 26,000 by 2025.”

The troubling implication is that these workspaces are breaking even or losing money in a strong economy with high employment.  At the next downturn, freelancers will suffer rapid reductions in hours and pay, and many coworking spaces will close.   Perhaps half or more existing spaces might close in a few years of bad times.

So much for the “future of work”.

Overall, these statistics confirm the foundations of coworking (“Community, community, community”, Chapter 3 of [1])  They also suggest that the recent drumbeat of talk about the “industry”, and the debt fueled rise of WeWork is probably a bubble.  WeWork is crashing, and the whole “industry” could crash.

Perhaps the lesson is, focus on the fundamentals, not on “growth”.  Coworking is about creating and sustaining community.  There is no short cut, and giant piles of borrowed money won’t help if you are doing the wrong things for your own people.


  1. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community. 2018, Robert E. McGrath: Urbana. https://whatiscoworkingthebook.com/
  2. Ivan Stevanovic, Coworking Statistics You Need to Know in 2019, in SmallbizGenius. 2019. https://www.smallbizgenius.net/by-the-numbers/coworking-statistics

 

“Freelancing in America” Report, 2019

It’s time for the annual “Freelancing in America” survey from the Freelancers Union*! [2] As in previous years, this is a survey of 6,001 (why not 6,000?) workers. Anyone who report any kind of temporary employment, including moonlighting, is counted as a “freelancer” in this survey. Notably, 28% report that they are full time freelancers.

I have criticized earlier iterations of this survey (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015), and most of my earlier points apply to this year’s study.

This study estimates there are 50 million freelancer workers in the US (by their expansive definition of “freelancer”), which is up slightly from 2018, and roughly the same as 2017. Similarly, the percentage of “full time” freelancers remains unchanged. Regardless of the headlines, this study shows freelancing is not growing.

I think it is important to view these numbers in the context of the historically high employment rates in the US in the past several years. There have been plenty of opportunities for employment conventional and freelance. In an economic downturn, we can expect the number of “involuntary” freelancers to increase dramatically.

Many of the other findings document the work life of freelancers. Many freelancers work remotely, especially technical and media workers. This location flexibility is desirable for workers, and one of the reasons people choose to freelance.

The report finds median hourly pay of $20 over all, $28 for skilled workers. This is shockingly low, especially when this has to cover overheads, insurance, etc., and even more because most freelancers are not full time.

The survey notes that, even in this hot job market, Freelancers feel insecure, and many are preparing for a future downturn. Like all workers in the US, Freelancers have trouble getting health insurance and have troubles with debt and lack of savings.

For the first time this year, many of the issues raised reflect the reality that a freelancer is operating a small business. A proportion of their time is not billable, and they desire more education and training for the skills needed to operate such a business.

On that last point, I certainly agree. For several years, I have been trying to figure out how such training—and, indeed, awareness of freelance careers—might be introduced in local high schools. Introducing anything to high schools is difficult. Sigh.


Nit Pick: The survey makes the irritating claim that Freelancing amounts to 5% of the GDP (basically estimating the total wages of “freelancers”), which they then compare to “Construction” or “Transportation”. Look, “Freelancing” is a type of employment contract (actually, multiple types), not an “industry”. For that matter, some freelancers work in construction, etc. This is a pointless and misleading number.


The bottom line is, according to this survey, Freelancing has not grown in the past three years. Freelancers say that they like Freelancing, and choose to do it. However, in many sectors, especially media and entertainment, Freelancing seems to be the only option available for workers. And the Freelancing life may be flexible, but the pay is shockingly low, and the future uncertain. In this good economy, work is plentiful, but that can and will change.

This is a distinctly mixed picture, and remember that we are in a moment of peak employment. The next downturn will see gig workers rapidly losing hours and pay, much faster than conventional workers.


  1. Caitlin Pearce, The Freelancing In America study shows that the U.S. independent workforce is a political force to be reckoned with, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/10/03/the-freelancing-in-america-study-shows-that-the-u-s-independent-workforce-is-a-political-force-to-be-reckoned-with/
  2. Upwork and The Freelancers Union, Freelancing in America : A comprehensive study of the freelance workforce. 2019. https://www.freelancersunion.org/resources/freelancing-in-america/

 

*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.

 

Freelancers Moving Back Home? A “Brain Gain” For Flyover States?

In the past, I have noted the potential for coworking spaces outside major cities and generally in what the US calls “the flyover states”, outside the dominant cultural centers on the coasts.

This month there have been a flurry of articles about a “brain gain”, reporting that people are moving to out of the way places, including small towns [1, 2].  This counters the dominating narrative that all the kids leave for the big city, and that small towns are dying.

OK, there is some hype here.  A handful of people moving into a small town is a big deal for that town, but it’s just a trickle compared to the flood pouring into NYC, LA, and the Sun Belt.  Plus, it never was the case that everybody was leaving, or even all the “best”.  So, it never was quite the way Girls portrayed it.

(And, knowing local Chamber of Commerce folks, I know that there is some motivated storytelling going on.)

But overall, this is plausible and even a good thing.

In the “Future of Work”, many workers can work from anywhere, so long as there is decent connectivity.  And, as I have pointed out, depending on how you want to live, the standard of living can be way better outside a metropolitan area.

Earlier I discussed a recent survey of Freelancers in NYC, and pointed out that the survey focused on Freelance workers who live in NYC.  The survey implicitly assumed that these workers also work in NYC, which, of course most do.   But many of them probably have remote gigs and they probably collaborate (and compete) with Freelancers who live elsewhere and work in NYC.  These variations on life and work were not really explored by that survey, which aimed to boost living the La Vida Giggada in NYC.

The fact is, if you are successful, you can move out of the city and keep working.

And when you do, you might well want to have a local coworking space in your new location.  It will be filled with other “freelancers in flyover land”.

So yeah. It’s not just me.  It’s a real thing. I know dozens of people who either never moved to the big city or came back to make a good life.


  1. Sara Millhouse, Brain Gain: Professionals Find Niche in Rural Upper Midwest, in The Daily Yonder: Keep It Rural. 2018. https://www.dailyyonder.com/brain-gain-professionals-find-niche-rural-upper-midwest/2018/05/30/25657/
  2. Sarah Smarsh, Something Special Is Happening in Rural America, in New York Times. 2019: New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/opinion/rural-america.html