Cowo’s 5 questions to Coworking Europe. Alex Hillman’s 5 answers.

Alex Hillman, Indy Hall's co-founderWe thank Alex Hillman – founder of IndyHall with Geoff Dimasi, and one of the most influental people in the global coworking community – for answering our 5 questions.

Alex’s blog, Dangereously Awesome, is republished (with the author’s permission) on NomadWork’s home page, to inspire the nomads’ community.

At the Berlin conference Alex will speak on:
Taking coworking to the next level: it’s all about community!

COWO:

Has your own life changed since you practice coworking?

ALEX HILLMAN:

“Changed” is an understatement. It’s hard for me to find something in my life that isn’t somehow related to Indy Hall or coworking.
My days are spent, for the most part, working at Indy Hall surrounded by my coworkers (compared to sitting at home and working on projects).
When I started Indy Hall I was a freelance web developer. Now I make most of my money applying lessons learned from coworking and from my time at Indy Hall to helping other businesses grow, and only writing code for fun.

Many of my closest friends and loved ones I’ve met through coworking.
Much of my travel involves a visit to a coworking space. 
Literally, everything in my life has changed, and for the better.

COWO:

Is coworking a commodity (i.e. the chance to share an office with little money) or a strategic option (i.e. a platform for all kind of sinergies)?

A.H.:

There are elements that are commoditize-able, mostly in physical infrastructure, but those elements aren’t unique to coworking so that doesn’t make coworking a commodity – it makes desks a commodity.
Coworking is an experience, and as you said, coworking is a choice.
Coworking is about who you work with and how you work. Where doesn’t matter, and it will matter less as time goes on. 
You could look at food as a commodity – but consider the experience and the quality.
McDonald’s is commodity food (and happens to share the cheapness you mention about sharing offices).
But people pay money, and spend a lot of time, finding amazing dining experiences because food is better when you share it with others and when it’s created with care.
That’s how I feel about coworking – it’s the fine dining experience of the workplace.
COWO:
After all these years of discussing, I think we should know by now if business rhymes with coworking. Does it?
A. H.:
Over the years, there’s been lots of question about the viability of Coworking as a business.
Since day one, Geoff and I have beaten the drum of sustainability.
We didn’t create Indy Hall to fill our pockets, but to contribute to the interconnectedness of Philadelphia that would ultimately pay off in ways that renting space couldn’t.
And it has.
Sustainability means that growth and retention must go hand in hand. Business and culture are symbiotic rather than parasitic in a healthy coworking space.
Our book keeper gets nervous every time I share numbers from our books in public
But in our recent year-end planning, we noticed one of our most remarkable growth trends:
In the first 9 months of 2011, our net income grew by 462.8% over the entire 12 months of 2010. And it’s not slowing any time soon.
We’re bootstrapped and have been profitable (defined: make more money than we spend) for most of our history, with some brief exceptions during expansion efforts. But this is an unprecedented growth level for us and we’ve learned a lot through the process.
This is exactly why I’m teaching my workshops.
To help people understand that the business and the culture are BOTH important, and help them understand how we make decisions that keep the two in balance.

COWO:

Considering the media craze, the flourishing of spaces, the many online tools coworking-related and… why not, this conference itself, do you envision the risk of tranforming coworking in a sort of bubble, where a minority just trying to make money spoils the beauty of the idea, ultimately depriving the word coworking of its true meaning?

A. H.:

The media’s job is to tell stories. If it’s not telling the stories we want it to tell, that just means that the people talking to the media aren’t doing a good job of telling the right stories. 
I don’t worry about the fakers spoiling anything.
Bubbles only hurt the people who lose a grip on reality.
We stay true to our core values, and the fakers will burn themselves out.
It’s a big world, there’s plenty of room for people who want to make mistakes.

COWO:

What are your feelings about coworking as a public service, just like schooling or health services?

A.H.:

If you’re talking about coworking SPACES as a public service, you’d be describing libraries, parks, and other public spaces where people can gather and already do – they just might not call it coworking. Coworking isn’t a service. It’s an experience. You can do it anywhere. I don’t think it’s the government’s job to provide experiences. It’s to serve its citizens.
So while coworking doesn’t need to be provided by the government, I do think it needs to be understood by the government.
When we first started having city officials come to Indy Hall a couple of years ago, they said things like “I didn’t even know you could get things done this way”.
That’s the kind of positive disruption that a lot of stagnant and bureaucratic governments need.
If coworking and government are going to get in bed together, it’s going to be to teach each other rather than provide services for one another.

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