A Step Up From Working In PJ's

Posted: August 19, 2007

Let's consider the problem of Alex Hillman, 23, Web entrepreneur, quasi-college student, and architect of the local version of an international trend known as co-working.

"Three months working at my house, I was talking to the cat, and I don't even have a cat," Hillman said, describing what had happened after he quit his job as a Web designer in December. "I was going crazy without the socializing."

No, he didn't buy a cat.

Instead, he got together with a group of work-at-home entrepreneurs, found some hip space in Old City, and set up desks so he and others like him could work-at-work.

Things were changing for Hillman. He resolved to wear pants before noon. But we're getting ahead of our story. Let's return to Hillman's post-employment angst.

Having no cat with which to chat, he moved to a nearby java joint, laptop in tow.

It was vaguely satisfying in that he encountered humanoids, but "it's like they were silhouettes. I had people around me, but I didn't communicate with them, so it was filling half of the need, but it was the bottom half."

Not only that, but . . .

"I always felt an obligation to the coffee shop. I was taking up precious space," Hillman said. "I was definitely drinking more coffee than I should have, so I wasn't sleeping."

Even before he left his job, he had begun to learn about co-working, an idea blossoming on the West Coast.

It's not job-sharing, with two people taking turns in the same stall in the cube farm.

Instead, think of co-working as an entrepreneurial version of parallel play, with owners of their own small businesses working side by side in a drop-in place that looks like a coffee cafe, minus the barista, with all the accoutrements of what's hip: high ceilings, beer fridge, pool table and Internet access.

Paying as little as $175 a month, they mostly work on their own. But they also trade ideas, help solve problems, and move in and out of loose collaborations.

Today's technology - wireless access, cell phones, BlackBerries and laptops - makes possible a mobile workforce.

Still lonely, Hillman found himself drawn to social and professional groups, but networking nights over margaritas were not what he wanted either, although he likes margaritas.

What he wanted was the happy chance of serendipity and the collegial buzz of people united by passion for their work, whatever it is.

"I think when people work at home they have to come up with new ways to interact with people," said Daniel H. Pink, one of the first authors to write about independent contractors in his 2001 book Free Agent Nation.

"They miss one of the joys and banes of being in an office - the interruptions, the inadvertent contact on the way to the bathroom that sometimes leads to interesting ideas," he said. "Co-working gives a set of colleagues who will interrupt them on the way to the bathroom."

Then Hillman learned about a Web worker in New York, Amit Gupta. In February 2006, Gupta began to invite some of his friends to his apartment to work. They'd set up their laptops and hang out. That loose federation became known as Jelly.

Hmmm, Hillman thought. He and some others decided to create something similar, Cream Cheese, "because Philadelphia doesn't make jelly, it makes cream cheese."

By April, the group was gathering weekly at coffee shops and bars. "Then when we were done [with] work, we were already at the bar," he said.

Among them was Geoff DiMasi, who owns P'Unk, a Web-design studio in South Philadelphia. He and his crew created another group, Junto.

The dictionary defines junto as a group formed for a common purpose. Two hundred-plus years ago, Benjamin Franklin had one in Philadelphia. Through the Junto, Franklin promoted a volunteer firefighting force and a public hospital.

Today's Junto envisioned a creative network of entrepreneurs that could make Philadelphia an innovation center - without government programs, marketing campaigns or seminars.

As everyone talked, it became apparent that co-working was part of the answer. There were models - the Hat Factory and Citizen Space in San Francisco and Washington's Affinity Lab.

There were similar places around the world, either well-established or in progress. A co-working wiki carries blog posts from Lithuania, Bucharest, Beirut, Barcelona and Berlin.

In Elkins Park, lawyer Larry Feldman opened up Workplayce in July in a building he owned. His is more of a traditional tenant model, but without the guaranteed space that one would find in a business-center office with a shared conference room, receptionist and copy machine.

In Philadelphia, Hillman and DiMasi signed a lease on Aug. 10 for Independents Hall, a two-story, 1,500-square-foot space on Strawberry Street, an alley off Market Street in Old City. Hillman spent $1,000 for cheapie yet chic desks and chairs. Hillman, DiMasi and Bart Mroz, an independent Web-project manager, are the quasi-leaders.

Some people have agreed to pay $175 a month for the right to work three days a week at Independents Hall. Full-time space is $275 a month.

Hillman estimates that he needs 15 to 20 half- and full-time members to pay the rent and cover utilities, insurance, equipment and the Internet connection. The goal is to break even, not to make a profit.

By Wednesday, people were showing up for work.

Hillman said he already had experienced one benefit, previously unforeseen. His relationship with his girlfriend has improved. "Now I leave my work at work," he said.

On Friday, Independents Hall held its first event - a brainstorming session paid for by the client of one of Independents Hall's members, Web consultant David Speers, of Northern Liberties. The client rented the space and provided the food. Independents' designers and programmers showed up to share ideas.

Speers said that working at Independents Hall kept him focused - no laundry or television to distract him. And the collaboration already has paid off. He was on his cell phone with a client, unable to answer a question. At the next desk, a co-worker overheard the conversation and sent Speers an answer via instant message. Speers immediately had a smart-sounding suggestion, and the client was none the wiser.

On Sept. 1, Independents Hall, Philadelphia's co-working space, will have its official opening. By then, there may be sofas and a pool table. So far, there's a kitchen, conference room and shower.

Shower?

"Oh, a shower's critical," Hillman said. "I'm coming from [working at] home, where there's no pants before noon and if I don't have to, no shower. Now, at least, I put on pants."


Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

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