The Experience of Community – Alex Hillman on Listening, Building and Doing

Alex Hillman - Community Manager Story

Editor’s note: We’re kicking off 2013 with a CM Story from Alex Hillman, who has built an incredible community at Indy Hall. Keep reading to learn more about Alex’s story (and to get some great community-building tips) and join us tomorrow, Tuesday 1/15/2013 for a Live Hangout and Q&A with Alex Hillman on Google+. Now, for the good stuff…

1. How do you define community?

This might be the hardest question to answer because it’s different for everybody, but I think that difference leads to the answer. I hear a lot of people answer with “You know it when you see it” type answers, which doesn’t help people who are trying to build community.

I define community as an experience—really, a set of experiences—that enable people to develop and work within a shared set of beliefs. Because those belief sets are different from group to group, every community ends up being different.

But underneath those differences is a foundation, I’ve identified three factors that separate a “group” from a community, and a successful, sustainable, growing community from an unhealthy, unsustainable, stagnating community.

Those three factors are 1) Participation, 2) Relationships, and 3) Empathy.

I’ve chosen these factors based on my own observations and interactions with communities and their culture, but also because their presence is measurable.

Factor #1 Community Participation

How can you tell which farmer has been working in the fields and which one has been napping in the barn?

The working farmers have dirt covering their boots, not just on the soles.

Being on a mailing list and paying a monthly membership is like being the farmer whose boots only have dirt on the bottom. When you observe your community, you want to be able to see and “measure” the growth of participation amongst your members.

Participation creates buy-in. Without participation, a person’s attachment to the community is weak if it exists at all.

Participation creates opportunities for the other factors. Without participation, connections and empathy will not crystallize.

Participation provides direction. Without participation, every decision becomes a risk of losing people to conflicting interests. When people participate, even if the outcome isn’t 100% what they wanted, they play a part whatever becomes.

Factor #2 Community Relationships

How many contacts are in your address book? How many of them have you spoken to in the last year? How many in the last month?

Who in that list would you call or email if you needed something? Who in that list would you take time out of your day to spend time with even if there wasn’t a specific reason?

Community relationships, like participation, are only measurable when they are active. This is why many great communities feel “alive.”

True relationships trump wider networks. Your member roster, Linked-in groups, spaces, events or discussion lists facilitate connections, but it’s you that must do the work to maintain them.

It’s up to your community members to maintain those relationships for themselves, with your help and facilitation.

You want to be able to see and “measure” the growth and persistence of these relationships between your members.

Relationships reinforce attachment. People connect to other people far more deeply than they do to anything else.

Relationships create a sense of belonging. By combining participation + relationships, people feel like they “belong” to the community. Building relationships build on top of their participation changes the feeling of participation from something you do to something you’re a part of.

Relationships breed coordination & collaboration. As trust is established, the individuals in the community begin to coordinate their efforts and energies more fluidly. Divergence turns to convergence (hat tip to my business partner Geoff DiMasi). Every individual effort becomes greater than the sums of their parts when they are connected in this way.

Factor #3 Community Empathy

It’s natural for a group of people to have disagreements and misunderstandings. The presence of empathy isn’t the lack of these rifts, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Community empathy takes place when members go out of their way to think and consider the community and its members. This sounds deceptively simple, but don’t be fooled.

When someone puts himself in the shoes of another member in order to make a decision, that’s member empathy in action.

Nobody in the community, especially you, the community builder, is exempt from the importance of this factor. This is why the first lesson of the Community Builder Masterclass is built to help you take on the perspective of being a member in place of the “role” of being a leader.

Empathy is the hardest factor to “measure”, especially over time, since so much of it seems to happens silently. To observe and measure it, you need to learn to recognize the “halos” of community empathy in action – and how to encourage it.

Empathy broadens worldview. Every time a community member takes the time to understand one of their fellow community members, the way they interact with the world around them shifts even if it’s just a little bit.

Empathy creates room for self-actualization. The tip-top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is Self Actualization. Self-actualization itself contains a number of measurable factors as well, including:

  • Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the fake and dishonest.
  • Comfortable acceptance of self, others, nature. Self-actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance.

And others, close to a dozen in total.

2. Why is community so important to Indy Hall?

Indy Hall - Alex Hillman community manager story

“Town hall” meeting at Indy Hall

Community is the only reason that Indy Hall exists. Specifically, the purpose it serves.

When I left my full time job in 2006 to freelance as a web developer, I loved my freedom, flexibility, and ability to choose what I worked on and who I had as a client. But I quickly realized that the #1 thing missing from my equation was other people in my day. I had a decent online network. The early days of Twitter provided a backchannel that was really pretty amazing. There was a time when Skype chatrooms were popular too, and I was very active in a couple of them. I got to know these people quite well, but still found something lacking from the experience.

When I left my house to try to meet people who cared about similar things to me, wanted to learn similar things to me, it was challenging. There were a few watering holes here and there, but most of the people I met in these meetups & organizations were stuck in time. Even though we shared interests, there was a disconnect on the beliefs side of things: I wanted to make things better, they were content doing more of the same (or complaining about change).

My heart broke when I realized that it seemed easier to find a community for me in any city other than my own. I loved everything else about Philadelphia, I just couldn’t find my tribe. I started building tribes in other cities, discovered coworking & community building models that resonated with me, and said “If I can’t make it work here I’ll move. But I have to try.”

Indy Hall began as a community—not a coworking space and definitely not a business—with the goal of making the process of discovering and building these kinds of relationships in Philadelphia easier. It began as a tribe-finding exercise.

When I found people, I didn’t just find them but I often found that they were having the same challenge finding their tribe. This process continued for several months, and the eventual opening of a coworking space was more like a barn-raising than an office opening.

To this day – 6 years later – everything still works this way. Community is at the core of everything we do, every decision we make, our entire business model, partnerships, etc. When we grow the community, it’s not just bigger, it’s deeper. We study, we design, we experiment. And then we document and share as much as we can.

Ask our members, they’ll tell you that they’ve never experienced a community like ours, and that’s not an accident.



3. What is the Community Builder Masterclass?

The Community Builder Masterclass is the most recent effort in sharing what we’ve learned.

I’ve noticed a lot of good people struggling to build community, or be unsure of what they’re building. The Masterclass takes on those three factors that I mentioned before  – participation, relationships, and empathy – and tackles them head on in a course that’s built to be a hands-on education of equal parts leadership and design thinking.

A big part of the problem is that we dream about leading people one of two ways:

  • we give them everything they need and they’ll be forever loyal.
  • they understand what we expect, and things will “just work themselves out”.

Unfortunately, neither of these dreams are anything like reality. Instead, you need to learn how to:

  • Attract the right people – and stop worrying about people who don’t “get it”
  • Increase participation and engagement – and avoid constantly having to beg for attention
  • Improve retention and reduce churn – once the right people are in the door, be confident that they’ll stay
  • Generate word of mouth – reducing and sometimes completely removing your marketing & recruiting costs
  • Solve bigger problems through collaboration – bringing people closer together while making things better for everyone involved
  • Build trust and understanding – not just between you and others, but amongst them at the same time

This isn’t your typical leadership course—in fact, it’s the leadership course I WISH I’d been able to take. It’s based on applied experience, several years of research and observation, and the work of some leading published psychologists & sociologists.

The Masterclass is a 5 week online course that takes place entirely over email, so you’re asynchronously learning with ~24 other community leaders. When you all graduate, you join an alumni community list for continued practice & discussion, sharing and support. The really fun part has been continually running our own material on the course itself to improve the aspects of community within the course itself.

To teach the course, I’ve teamed up with Tony Bacigalupo from New Work City, which was the first New York (now the biggest coworking city in the world). Tony and I met in person for the first time at Indy Hall’s grand opening and have been close friends ever since. We share philosophies and techniques, and when I set out to build the Masterclass there wasn’t another person on the planet besides Tony that I wanted as a teammate. We completed our trifecta bringing on Adam Teterus who is Indy Hall’s community & operations manager, and one of the brightest community builders I’ve ever hired, to include his fresh & pragmatic perspective.

We’re about to announce the Business of Community World Tour, taking our material into an offline experience. We’ve got 5 cities already planned – Philadelphia, New York City, Gold Coast Australia, Melbourne Australia, and Austin TX – and will be launching a community-driven process for planning additional cities over the course of the next year. If you’re not already, you can sign up for the announce list – you’ll also get some preview material and community building tips about once a week.

4. How do you track the success of your community building efforts?

A mix of quantitative and qualitative metrics.

The #1 metric for me is “new participation”. This isn’t counting how many people have joined, or even how many “show up”, but how many people are actively engaged. This gets hard because we’re constantly finding new ways that people are being actively engaged, and not all of them provide the same level of return on community.

Another metric that I like is “time to leadership”. Anyone who joins the community has the potential to lead something. It could be a discussion, an event, anything really. But the point is that they own it. If we can decrease the amount of time it takes between somebody walking in the door to “owning something”, it’s a win.

I also like “time to relationship”. If you ask anyone in our community when they realized it was something they wanted to be a part of, it almost invariably tracks back to the formation of a real bond with another coworker, and often the beginnings of the formation of trust. We know that this transition is extremely powerful. We informally call this an “Indy Hall Moment”. There are dozens of experiences that generate Indy Hall moments, some that we plan and some that happen serendipitously, but ALL of them can be designed for once we notice them. If we can reduce the amount of time between someone walking in the door and having their first “Indy Hall Moment”, that’s a win.

And of course, on the qualitative side, happiness is a metric of success for us, and not just superficial happiness. Deep levels of fulfillment and enjoyment in the member experience are the holy grail. This worldview study was conducted on our members to get a sense of what fuels that kind of happiness and fulfillment, and I think speaks for itself.

5. What was the biggest challenge you faced when building your community?

Lack of experience was both my biggest strength and weakness when I was getting started. Like I said earlier, how do you build something intangible like a sense of community when you don’t know what even leads to it?

It’s really scary to try to bring people together when it’s your first time doing it. It’s really scary to relinquish control. It’s really scary to trust people. But this weakness was also a strength, in that I didn’t know any better so I’d try things that more “experienced” people would never do. My instincts and habits needed work, but as I got stronger, I learned what to listen for.

The other big challenge was naysayers. Philadelphia and some of the communities in it have a well-earned reputation of being pretty parochial, so I initially got a lot of “that’s not how we do things around here, kid”. I listened to the people who wanted change instead of the ones who didn’t, and that worked to all of our advantage. Eventually, even some of my biggest naysayers came back and admitted that they were impressed that we pulled it off.

Today, the biggest challenge is staying true to our roots while still advancing. It’s totally possible (and a big part of what we teach in the Masterclass) to scale culture as a community grows, and we’ve especially learned a lot from the challenges that show up when we go through growth spurts.

6. What continues to excite you about community?

I think that a great community is more of organism than organization. That means that at a certain point, it can start to evolve and do things that you never told it to do, never taught it to do, never expected it could do. That’s so freaking exciting to be around, I feel bad for people who have never experienced it themselves.

On a big scale – like, the whole world big – I think that as a society we got dependent on institutions and organizations over the last 100 years, post industrial revolution. It didn’t really deliver on a lot of its promises, and in a lot of ways, institutions and organizations have left people with a bitter taste in their mouths. I think that means that we’re ready for a return to our roots where we look to our communities and ourselves more often than institutions and organizations.

We need something more sustainable than the way we’re doing a lot of things. I don’t like being a sensationalist and saying that a community is the solution to everything (because it’s not), but models of community are baked into the science of how we’ve evolved. Institutions, on the other hand, are totally artificial.

I trust natural over man-made any day.

7. What advice do you have for someone just getting into community management?

Start small and build a real community, even if it’s just a few people. Focus on the factors of participation, relationships, and empathy. Start a club or a meetup around an interest you have. There’s zero substitute for even a little bit of real, practical experience.

Learn how to listen, really listen. If you can’t shut up and listen once in a while, you’re probably not going to be very good at building community.

Read the timeless book How to Win Friends & Influence People“, and if you read it before read it again. I can also recommend a recent addition to my bookshelf, Just Listen“. I’ve  got a pretty massive recommended reading list (including essays, videos, books, and academic work) that I’ve amassed, so you can dive into any of that stuff as well.

8. How did you learn how to build communities?

The same way I just advised you to: practice & research. And a shitload of listening. When you have 2 ears and one mouth, you should be listening at LEAST twice as much as you’re talking.

Even now, for all of the time I spend talking about my work (proactively sharing findings & answering questions), I’m spending a lot more time listening and observing.


Join us tomorrow, Tuesday 1/15 at 3pm ET for a live Google+ Hangout – click here for details. Bring your questions about Indy Hall, community-building and the Masterclass!

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About the author

Alex Hillman

Alex is the co-founder of Indy Hall, one of the world’s most respected coworking communities with hundreds of active members and thousands of participants from around the world. He publishes the Coworking Weekly email newsletter every Thursday. And he teaches people how to build amazing communities in the Community Builder Masterclass.



  1. […] (Editor’s Note: We’ve recently had Alex Hilman as one of our #CMStories and you can hear more about his perspective on community here). […]