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 . 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.
- 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/