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When new coworking spaces are launched, they often take their inspiration from Independents Hall in Philadelphia. While not first coworking space, nor even the biggest, it has gained worldwide attention because of its bottom-up, community-focused approach to building a workspace. Independents Hall has all the requirements for a hip and flourishing coworking location – sofas, fresh coffee, conference rooms, lockers, an air hockey table, computer games, and collective brain-storming sessions. But it also has a strong focus on the people who use the space, and as co-founder Alex Hillman says: “Without a community, a coworking space is just an office”.
By Joel Dullroy - Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Independents Hall is part of a revitalization of Philadelphia, a city often decried as ugly and run-down. But the city’s cheap real estate, and its proximity to New York and Washington, have encouraged a flood of young freelancers to take up residence in Philly. A parallel scene of political activism pumps a buzz of creativity into the social landscape of this outwardly-unattractive city.

Alex Hillman and Geoff DiMassi met in 2006 with a similar vision of creating a vibrant working space. Hillman, who has a background in technology, was considering leaving Philadelphia to take up a job in Silicon Valley. But after visiting Citizen Space in San Francisco, and meeting with DiMassi, who had helped run artist co-operatives, he realized there was no need to leave Philadelphia at all.

“We wanted to put Philly on the map as a hub for innovation,” Hillman says, echoing a sentiment felt by many community organizers who believe that if something doesn’t exist in one’s own neighborhood, there is an onus to create it.

After holding many meetings and online discussions with Philadelphia-area freelancers, the pair pushed forward with their vision. In August 2007, they opened Independents Hall in a space on Strawberry Street in the downtown area. The name was derived from the nearby Independence Hall, an icon of American political history, a place where the Declaration of Independence and the new nation’s constitution were drafted and signed.

Within eighteen months of opening, Independents Hall outgrew its location and relocated to a newer and larger space. It now boasts 1340 square meters of open-plan space. About 80 freelancers call Independents Hall home, with many more dropping in for meetings and workshops.

The space, known affectionately as “IndyHall”, operates a membership system, with three levels. Basic level, at $25 per month, allows one free visit per month, and any extra days are charged at $15 each. For $175 per month, members can visit three days per week. And for a full-time desk with 24 hour access, Independents Hall charges $275 per month. Non-members are also welcome to rent a desk for $25 per day.

The founders have also found a way to capitalize on desks left empty at night – they created the ‘Night Shift’. From 6pm until 10pm, night-owl workers can use the space at a discounted rate: a five visit pass costs $50 for members, or $75 for non-members. Members of other co-working spaces are allowed to use Independents Hall for up to three days as part of the CoWorking Visa program.

As a business, the space was profitable after six months of operation. Moving to the new larger space required extending their credit, but Hillman says they expect to again be profitable within six months.

Some coworking spaces chose to adopt a non-profit business model. Hillman explains why they decided against that: "We run it as a business, though our model can be described as 'not just for profit…' We decided not to operate as a non-profit to remain agile and flexible. Geoff has been involved with, and founded, other non-profits and is familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. It didn't make sense for IndyHall to operate as a non-profit, yet, we generate a great deal of goodwill in the community and that's helped us immensely.”

Hillman and DiMassi are regularly approached by people trying to establish new coworking spaces around the world, and have started a consultancy business to provide advice. Their first word of caution – don’t treat your space simply as real estate: “The biggest mistake we see consistently is the "build it and they will come" mistake. Opening a space is rarely the first step to creating a coworking space. Building a community is. We always have been community first, and much of our success comes from the decisions that stem from that.”


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