follow me on Twitter

    Saturday, March 6, 2010

    Indy Hall, Coworking Space in Philadelphia, PA

    Just one block from Christ Church and situated in the upscale neighborhood of Old City, Philadelphia, amidst outdoor cafes and coffee shops, I squeeze my large New Englander we-get-more-snow-than-you (except for D.C. this winter) SUV into a parallel parking space between a Bentley and a beater 1970s hulking Chevy. Philly is interesting in that way; from block-to-block, neighborhoods change fast. Just this morning, Far McKon, Maggie and I engaged a stranger in a conversation of whether the Satellite Coffee Shop is in West Philly or South West Philly—the locals decided upon the latter by 50 ft.

    I’m dropping in on the Indy Hall crowd this afternoon right after departing the Hive 76 hacker space. On the second floor of a loft space, I exit the elevator to a large sign painted on the wall, “Independents Hall”. However, this is not the Independence Hall where our Nation was planned just a few blocks away, but this one is where startup companies are being planned, developed, and grown into companies.

    On a Saturday afternoon, Indy Hall’s conference room hosts a cluster of about eight men sitting at desks arranged in a coworking circle. Their mission: to get Google to bring Google Fiber to Philly. Fast at work talking and typing on their computers, Alex @alexknowshtml, co-founder of Indy Hall, took time out to give me a tour.

    Indy Hall’s furniture consists of modern IKEA individual desks, but all desks are arranged in clusters where developers can work side-by-side with their coworkers and with other entrepreneurs who choose a group working environment over renting an office in solitude. When asked about the arrangement of the desk and the permanence of a few of the work stations, Alex said, “Every 4-6 months, we move everything around just to keep things new. Sitting in the same place breeds complacency; when you’re running a start-up company, mixing it up keeps ideas new".

    The idea of a modular set of individual desks was clever. Just when you get used to the same coder or social media mogul sitting next to you every day, you may have a biologist or a hardware architect next to you tomorrow. According to the philosophy of Indy Hall, taking down walled barriers and moving around spreads ideas, intrigue and innovation.

    I asked questions about usual organizational management: about $275-400/month for full-timers, less for part-timers, and there is a $25/day drop-in membership for out-of-towners or people who just want to drift through when they feel like it. Between the murals on the walls, the hang-out area with couches, glass tanks containing a rat and a turtle (respectively), video game consoles, and large pillows to sit on the floor, this was a fantastic co-working space in which the organizers have given obvious attention to the flow of ideas and co-working camaraderie in a dynamic business environment in which old ideas of managing companies and intellectual property are becoming stagnant. This coworking space keeps it fresh.

    Visit to Philadelphia to see Hive 76, one of Philly's hacker spaces

    I might have one of the most awesome part-time jobs: I am setting up a 5,500 sq ft hacker space in Northern Virginia. I traveled to Philadelphia this weekend to talk with Far McKon, one of the founders of Hive 76. About a year ago, I met Far in the D.C. area and we talked about the idea hacker space. Of course, ideals are challenging to obtain, but some hacker spaces have come closer than others. Hive 76, profitable after only 8 months since it was started, is one of those.

    I met Far and Maggie, from the Prometheus Radio Project, for lunch at the Reading Terminal Market. After living in the Seattle area for a year and enjoying Pike Place Market, I have pretty high standards when it comes to indoor public markets, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Reading market. If I lived in the Philly area, I would do most of my food shopping here. I was also interested to see that most of the shop vendors were Mennonites and Amish.

    At lunch while I enjoyed crepes with Nutella and fruit (I have fond memories of Nutella from my days living in Oxford, England), we discussed ideas such as an international hacker space conference, an organization for helping new hacker spaces get started, and challenges with management, legal, and lobbying efforts with hackers spaces and those faced by The Prometheus Radio Project.

    After lunch, Far and I went to Hive 76. It is situated in a large warehouse/loft space in Philly’s warehouse district, not far from Center City. Upon entering the building, I was delighted to find that access to the 5th floor loft is via an old elevator that looks like it is straight out of the movie Blade Runner; for a moment, I envisioned Sebastian’s bio-engineering workshop apartment with his invented creatures--his hacker space. Entering the caged elevator room through two steel lattice doors and watching the old counter weights go by as we ascended, I was impressed with the engineering prowess of the well-oiled machines of the last century.

    The space’s access is on the 5th floor in a building occupied by artists. Upon entering the loft, the sparsely furnished entryway is accented with little more than a threadbare couch and a large steel frame cubical sculpture. Hive 76 is down the hall, and in contrast to the neighboring artists’ spaces with kilns and easels, this hacker space is comfortably full with tech equipment: laser cutter, cupcake CNC, server racks, a workspace area for computers, and tables for projects. Christmas lights strung from the high ceiling reminded me of the hacker’s workshop in the movie Sneakers. As I sit here writing this blog posting, I have a great view of Center City, Philadelphia.

    Far and I discussed some models for hacker space physical and business organizations: this is why I came. With my huge hacker space (perhaps the biggest in the U.S.) being planned for a grand opening later spring/early summer of this year, I have a lot of work to do to learn from other hacker space organizers to share what works and what doesn’t. I’ve visited a handful of other spaces, and collectively, I have graciously been afforded the opportunity to talk one-on-one with the founders about their successes and failures. I hope to replicate the former, not the latter.

    Some of the discourse we’ve shared: the hacker space size, equipment and memberships should be commensurate to community in which it is located to facilitate success; membership, ideally, should pay for most if not all of the space overhead costs; a national hacker space organization (with Founder conferences and a data base of shared technical, management, and legal resources) would be very helpful in helping manage existing hacker spaces and facilitate start-ups of new spaces; a hacker space in which co-working/hacker start-up companies can rent full-time locking office space that is physically connected to the hacker space. (Image is of an old typewriter being turned into a keyboard for a computer)