Interview: Alex Hillman of Indy Hall

For my January interview, I had the opportunity to pick the brain of one of Philadelphia's leading entrepreneurial minds, Alex Hillman. Among many things, Alex is primarily known as the co-founder of IndyHall, Philly's foremost co-working community for designers, developers, writers, artists and other entrepreneurs. To him, community is more than a buzzword - he lives and breathes it.

John: A lot of what comes up when someone searches on Google for Alex Hillman is community building. Why is community so important to you?

Alex: The word "community" carries a lot of weight for me because it's a shortcut to a number of other things that I've learned are important in life and in work. In no particular order:

  1. Collaboration - I've never really been into team sports, I'm more of a solo competitor. I love snowboarding, for instance, because it's me vs. the mountain or, more realistically, me vs. me. But one of the things that team sports gives people that I think they tend to otherwise be at a deficit of in their lives is true collaboration. The kind where you do the activity as a means to an end, where the end is working together with other people towards a common goal. That goal might be to score a point or beat the other team, but it might be to solve a problem, build a business, build a tool, understand/explain a concept, etc. Many other people spend the rest of their lives being competitive off the field (while sometimes calling it collaboration) and being truly collaborative on the field. I like to experience true collaboration in work and in play.

  2. Relationships - There's nothing as satisfying as connecting with another human being on a personal level. It can be scary, complicated, and make you vulnerable, but I've yet to have anyone prove to me that it's not worth it.

  3. Learning - I believe that the moment we stop learning is the moment we start dying.

  4. Practice - There's only one way to get better at something, and that's practice. Practice is something that can be done in solitude, but when you do it in the context of the other 3 bullet points - collaboration, relationships, and learning - it takes on a whole different shape. One that advances faster, and deeper. And I personally find it more fun and satisfying. The models for "communities of practice" are a big part of my study of communities, and I've found them to be among the most powerful and engaging form of community.

J: Speaking of community building, you deal with a community of your own called IndyHall. What kind of place is IndyHall and who benefits from participating?

A: You know, I could describe it, but I think this video does a better job.

J: Is IndyHall the only coworking venue in Philly? Are there other coworking communities that might benefit from the example you’ve built?

A: Indy Hall is not the only place to cowork in Philly, but our members would tell you that it's certainly unique.

I've worked with coworking communities around the world, but have been most excited to recently provide support/advice to some of the new local efforts. Some people seem surprised that I'd want to help them since they think I'd view them as competition, but I truly believe that there's a rising tide and it raises all ships. There's more to gain from succeeding together than pretending that any one community can dominate the scene. In our case, we're NOT for everybody and other good options emerging means that we can confidently suggest them to people for whom Indy Hall isn't the right place.

Some people have resisted our advice and it's pained me to see them struggle. Others have embraced our approach tightly and are already seeing great success. That makes me really, really happy.

J: You and Tony Bacigalupo of New Work City have partnered to present the Community Builder Masterclass. Can you give us an introduction to what it is and who might benefit from attending the sessions?

A: The Community Builder Masterclass is the lovechild of a leadership & design thinking course - the two aspects of community building that we've found to be the most valuable in our communities.

We've had community managers, corporate team leaders, consultants, government employees, and more take the class and find it very valuable. If you find it challenging to work with groups of people - from attracting them in the first place, to getting them "bought in", to getting them to collaborate and share, to learning how to delegate effectively so you can multiply your own efforts - then you'll learn what our students have found to be a pretty unique and powerful learning experience. If anything on our website sounds like a familiar problem, we can help. There's also a totally free lesson that you can download and get even more details.

J:You have your hands in multiple projects at a time. What inspires your creativity and what helps keep you motivated?

A: The people I work with are the main reason for doing so many things at once. Every project I'm working on is exciting in its own right, but the real excitement comes from the chance to work with whoever I'm working with on the project.

I also work hard to make sure that there are common threads through the things that I'm working on so each project is actually one small component of a bigger goal. So, with rare exception, it's actually more like I'm working on one project with lots of little components. This means that while I do trade away some focus, in return I get the ability to deepen my perspective on each project by taking what I learn in one and applying it to the others.

J: It seems that most people vouch for your expertise in all things entrepreneurial. Where does this experience come from?

A: My dad would tell you that I've been selling things since I was a little kid. ;) Truthfully, experience comes from two places:

  1. Just doing things, and
  2. Having mentors to guide you when you're doing things to make sure you're not doing the wrong things.

J: What does JFDI mean to you and how can entrepreneurs embrace it so their startups benefit?

A: JFDI isn’t “Just Fucking Do Everything” or “Just Fucking Do Anything”. It's Just Fucking Do It - where "it" is the thing that you already know you should be doing but are avoiding for some reason. Maybe you're afraid or uncertain. You're not going to get less afraid or less uncertain by NOT doing it. So try.

But be thoughtful about how your time is spent because you’re in this for the long haul.

A lot of people know about my JFDI mantra because I got it tattoo'd on my arm. I recently got a new tattoo of a Fermata on the same arm, but on the inside opposite the JFDI.

This makes my arm a bit of a two-sided coin, with JFDI on one side and a symbol representing a controlled, deliberate pause. The two act in compliment, and because the fermata is on the inside, I’ll see it more often than I see the JFDI.

J: Do you agree with the concept that failure is the real secret to success?

A: Yes, but not the way that most people do. I think that most people say that failure leads to success as a way to excuse their thrill-seeking, not a means to learn. They fail in ways that they might avoid again in the future, except they don't know why they failed in the first place.

My good friend and colleague Amy Hoy has a really great way of classifying failure into two types (which comes from the 30x500 Product Business Course that I teach with her):

Type 1: Doing the right thing wrong
Type 2: Doing the wrong thing

Type 1 failures are the kinds of failures we like - we're headed in the right direction, and can learn from our missteps, iterate, and refine. You can move forward from this type of failure towards success.

Type 2 failures are more common, but people don't admit it because they don't like to be wrong and use "well, failure is a step towards success" as a way to justify being wrong. And Type 2 failures can't be fixed. You have to start over, from the beginning.

So yes - failure is part of success, but only certain kinds of failure.

J: Is there any advice you can give to newer generations and future entrepreneurs looking to make their mark on the world?

A: Find at least one mentor. Someone who has actually made a mark on the world, not another person who is dreaming about it.

And learn to listen. You hear things every day, but if you're not listening, you're missing out on a lot of the world happening around you that's waiting for you to make your mark on it.


Alex Hillman can be found on Twitter @alexknowshtml.