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Happy Independents Day: Inside the Inspiring Walls of Indy Hall

Freelance video game designer Parker Whitney extends his arms skyward and lets out a large yawn as he enters the loosely appointed concrete kitchen at 20 N. 3rd Street. His t-shirt--featuring Darth Vader striking a piņata with a light sabre--scrunches as he shouts "I need coffee!" to no one in particular. As he pours himself a cup, he excitedly tells a friend working at a desk nearby, "I finished my proposal. I was up until 2 but I got it done." Whitney's newly formed gaming company Flyclops just finished its first proposal, a promotional web game for Center City healthcare firm Vynamic. He lets out a contented "AHHH" from the first sip of java before his eyes light up again. "Wanna see our logo?"

Water cooler chats like this were once thought of as an epic time-suck. But at Independents Hall, the Old City co-working den that has become a hub for tech and creative entrepreneurs, these chats are a form of currency. Gone are the enclosed cubicle walls and sound-deadening carpets of corporate office parks. At Indy Hall, all sounds echo. Every conversation over a game of chess, ping pong or Xbox can start a debate over best practices. Members are not shy about making the rounds, looking over shoulders and asking, simply "what are you working on," as if a stroke of networking genius could strike at any moment.

"This isn't speed dating for entrepreneurs," says Whitney. "Within these walls, you have all these ideas bouncing around and what you are doing is bringing them all into one space and sewing the seeds for serendipity. But you have to be patient. The people who come in and try to force it, blasting all over the message boards and talking to people like an interview, they end up leaving, not getting what they wanted."

As the office manager here for the last year, Whitney has seen it all. From massive successes to dismal failures, he takes pride in knowing everyone who walks through the door. With Flyclops, he hopes he can move on to his own venture and looks forward to training a replacement who will love this place as he has.

"You don't get this position with the goal in mind of keeping the job," says Whitney. "While you are the office manager of Indy Hall, you have access to a community. And you get out of that what you put in. You get money to keep you afloat but your pay really comes in those opportunities."

Founded in 2007 by web developers Alex Hillman and Geoff DiMasi, Indy Hall (the moniker given the space after confusing several local delivery people) was an attempt to create a developer-friendly environment popularized in coffee shops and bars: a simple table, access to good coffee or beer and a revolving cast of characters. Since those early days, Indy Hall has been exalted as the hub of entrepreneurial networking for Philadelphia's self-starting techno-class. It boasts nearly 100 members, maintaining steady growth (membership increased 12 percent in the last year) by charging them between $15-$25 per day. But with a slew of successful devotees and some new business-building features, Indy Hall is attracting more than just techies to its trendy island in the sun.

In 2008, Dr. Greg Wilder came to Indy Hall fresh off a professorship at West Chester University. As a PhD of Musical Arts with a concentration in Computer Music, Wilder was researching an intuitive digital music system that could listen to, analyze and characterize music based on mood. As a young pianist, Wilder had paid his way through grad school playing and composing for everyone from a traveling jazz big band to a handbell choir to a Baptist Church in North Philadelphia. The only way he found to play this music he was so unfamiliar with was to play to the mood of the listener and to create a system that would collect and organize music in this way. But when he began researching these concepts at West Chester, he feared he may lose creative license over his work. If he ever wanted to make money from his research, he had to leave West Chester. Wilder quickly went from teacher to student, taking a crash course in starting a business from his desk mates, and even meeting a former C-level executive who helped draft a business plan.

"I learned so much on the business and technical end but then there is all the other stuff like how do you work with people, how do you build a brand and all those things are happening at Indy Hall," says Wilder. "In all those years I have been there, it's just lesson after lesson after lesson. It's like going to school and you don't know what the class schedule will be each day."

Just two years later, Wilder still holds a desk at Indy Hall, though he is rarely there. His company, Orpheus Media Research launched its flagship product Myna two months ago and has been fielding calls from all over the world. With a client list a mile long, Wilder now has more business than he can handle, and credits Indy Hall with helping him get there.

"The place put me light years ahead of where I was when I was sitting in a dark studio by myself," says Wilder. "Once I got to interact with other people, it led me to other business groups and other entrepreneurs from all over Philadelphia who I could form long term relationships with."

And Wilder is not the only one breaking the techno-trend. Chris DiFonzo was so inspired by the space, he created a mobile desk sharing company for corporate clients called Open Desks, where business people who need a place to work can rent an empty slot in an office park or corporate center.

"I come here when I am doing thinking work and I might need someone to bounce ideas off of," says DiFonzo. "Like the library in college."
Another Hall resident, who wished to remain anonymous, works for a Virginia non-profit but she avoids having to move down south by working remotely. One freelance developer, Ryan Gallagher says he works at Indy Hall simply to avoid getting stir crazy at home and to have a nice ride on the El with his girlfriend every morning.

Part of the reason for attracting such varied clientele is that the space began to embrace its role as a springboard for new businesses. Originally opposed to solicitation of any kind, Hillman now allows an insurance broker and a lawyer in to speak with would-be business owners. These vendors were not let in on a whim. They came to Hall events and gained the trust of the regulars before being granted access. Another place entrepreneurs can access assistance is online. Whether tech is their business or not, Indy Hall members are serial networkers, constantly attached to Twitter or blogging about their latest ventures. The comments sections often become information goldmines. And while Indy Hall has never imagined itself to be an incubator or a place for investors to find their next pet project, some venture capitalists have connected with members in the past using these online forums.

But the best way these free-flyers find kindred spirits is through sharing stories, celebrating success and discussing failure, usually over a beer or four. The water cooler (or kegerator) is alive and well at Indy Hall and this tap is nowhere close to running dry.

JOHN STEELE is the News Editor for Flying Kite and is a freelance writer, blogger and communication consultant in Philadelphia. Please send feedback here.


Parker Whitney

Creative residents at Indy Hall

Entrance to Indy Hall

Casual Thursday meeting in the front lounge area

A giant dry erase board leaves a trail of brainstorming

Residents regularly take breaks to see what others are up to and offer feedback

An ongoing chess game awaits someone's next move

All photographs by Michael Persico

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