By Marjorie Preston
You don’t have to go far these days to find a self-described nerd. From this end of the tech revolution — and in the age of the multi-billion-dollar comic book adaption — “nerd” has gone from a four-eyed, pencil-necked cliché to a byword for creative minds who plan to make big things happen.
In Philadelphia, those creative minds are concentrated in a trendy, tech-heavy business district located in a stretch of the city between Market Street and Girard Avenue. In March 2014, that neighborhood, which includes North 3rd Street, was officially designated N3rd Street (yes, it’s pronounced “Nerd Street”).
Encompassing both Old City and the Northern Liberties section, this hub of creative entrepreneurs may have originated as early as the 1990s, when brothers Jason and Darren Hill settled there with their ecommerce design company WebLinc. That flagship business and its neighbor, Ian Cross’s venerable web design company iSite, brought in scores of bright, techy types by day. It also kept them there after hours with a famously nerd-friendly bar, National Mechanics, owned by the Hill brothers and located downstairs from WebLinc.
But the movement really picked up steam in the 2000s, with new kids on the block including engineering firm Jarvus Innovations, SEO juggernaut Seer Interactive, software designer Arcweb Technologies, web tools developer Wildbit and software development shop DmgCtrl.
Perhaps the most influential of the bunch was Independents Hall, a co-working space where subcontractors, gig workers, freelancers and nerds of all kinds could work and play in a dynamic, fluid, shared community. CEO Alex Hillman says he launched Indy Hall “as my personal drive to seek out like-minded creative people.” Before, he adds, those fellow creatives were “a nomadic tribe” in search of an oasis.
As Hillman has written on his blog, Dangerously Awesome, the pack moved “from bar to café to restaurant to living room — anywhere with Wi-Fi — in the pursuit of a better working experience than working alone in our apartments. We found that there were dozens and dozens of people who felt similarly — that Philly was a great town for creative people; it was just too hard to find each other.”
Hillman conceived the Indy Hall model in 2006, and launched in Old City the following year, a stone’s throw from its namesake landmark (the one from 1776).
From just a few members, Indy Hall has swelled to hundreds who share a common space: light-filled, art-filled, with customizable workstations, bike racks and really good coffee. Its success — and the landlords’ plan to increase rent by more than 60 percent, according to Hillman’s blog — will soon propel Indy Hall from its current 8,000-square-foot home on 3rd Street to a 10,000-square-foot location around the corner on Market.
But one thing won’t change at the innovative workplace that has inspired similar co-working spots in the city and around the world: You won’t find time clocks, cubicles, silos or any other of the (literal) trappings of traditional job sites. More than half of Indy Hall’s members rarely even use desks. Just as technology has revolutionized the way people communicate, places like this have disrupted — and in some cases dismantled — the old definitions of work and employment.
‘A COMMUNITY OF FOOD AND CULTURE AND MUSIC’
While N3rd Street includes dozens of tech companies and design firms, that’s not all there is to it. The emphasis on technology makes for great copy, but it’s an incomplete narrative, argues John Fazio, co-founder of Jarvus Innovations.
“It’s frustrating when we hear people talk about ‘the Silicon Valley of Philadelphia’ — it’s really dismissive of all the people in the community who aren’t coders or software startups,” he says.
According to Fazio, N3rd Streeters in general “are people who have established businesses, who are established freelancers, who have lived in the community and care about it. I’ve always seen N3rd Street as more like Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It’s a community of food and culture and music; it represents something that’s kind of spiritual.”
N3rd Street departs from Silicon Valley in fundamental ways, he adds. The San Francisco-area technology ecosystem has “an elitist culture where everybody bows down to the top few.” That’s the antithesis of N3rd Street and Philadelphia itself, which share a populist outlook and a unique identity grounded in the working classes.
“We’re held together by people on the ground, people in the street,” says Fazio. “N3rd Street follows in that kind of Average Joe mentality, where every man and woman contributes equally.”
Hillman agrees. “Any time someone says the ‘Silicon Valley of X’ anywhere outside of Silicon Valley, they haven’t done their homework. Even more importantly, [N3rd Street] is not just business. Lots of other business districts empty out at 5 p.m. This one lives and breathes into the evening and weekends.”
Hillman has described N3rd Street as “a melting pot of industries and interests, including but not limited to design nerds, art nerds, fashion nerds, technology nerds, startup nerds, food nerds, sustainability nerds, science nerds, game nerds, history nerds and a whole lot more.”
He also points out that many people who work at N3rd Street businesses live nearby, and that the area is as much a cultural as a business district. “The community’s creative population is often active and on the street, socializing and connecting in the area during and after work hours and late into the evening,” he says.
At 5 p.m., Hillman adds, there is no mass exodus of suited men and women, climbing into sedans or boarding commuter trains for the long haul back to suburbia. When the sun goes down, the party starts — at National Mechanics, at Mark Bee’s N. 3rd, and dozens of bars, bistros, clubs, eateries and other hangout spots on both the Old City and the Northern Liberties sides of N3rd Street.
BOOTSTRAPPERS AND PHILANTHROPISTS
Another distinction that makes N3rd Street the anti-Silicon Valley: a prevailing bootstrap mentality, the widespread rejection of venture capital and a strong commitment among many of the business owners to DIY.
Just ask accidental entrepreneur Wil Reynolds, founder and director of digital strategy for Seer Interactive, an industry leader in SEO, SEM and analytics.
Back in 2002, Reynolds was a young web marketer with plans to become a teacher. One day, he asked his boss if he could leave work early to volunteer at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “My boss said no,” Reynolds recalls, “and I decided to quit.”
When he couldn’t find a company that matched his standards — including a strong commitment to philanthropy — he started one. The earliest iteration of the business “was literally a phone, a computer and me, all alone in my apartment. I’ve always bootstrapped, and we were really lean in the early days.” But the one-man show was unsustainable. “I always knew I didn’t want to win by myself,” says Reynolds. “That was never going to be any fun.”
Today, he oversees a $15 million mini-empire with more than 100 employees and two offices — Seer headquarters on N. 2nd Street, and a satellite office in San Diego.
“I never intended or planned on this being my life,” he says. “It worked out for me. And it never would have happened if not for that first push” from a particularly Scroogey boss.
As Fazio points out, Jarvus Innovations would be considered an abject failure by Silicon Valley standards. “Ten years old and only $2 million [in annual revenue]? That’s terrible. We would have been crushed in Silicon Valley. But we didn’t do this with anyone else’s money, and you can’t argue [with] our impact.” (The company is named, coincidentally, for Iron Man Tony Stark’s robot butler Jarvis, or Just a Rather Very Intelligent System.)
Reynolds foresees millennials — and the generations that follow them — radically reinventing long-standing concepts of work, career and job satisfaction, just as he did, because “they’re empowered to do what they want,” and because they have the technologies to do so.
But that empowerment and the explosion of the so-called gig economy may present a challenge to employers of the future. “They’ll have to find a way to be transparent and trusting, and all those things that attract” top talent, he says. (According to a study by software company Intuit, 40 percent of American workers will be independent contractors by the year 2020.)
And no cubes, please. Seer headquarters, for example, which started in a renovated church and moved to a glass-clad tower in Northern Liberties in 2015, includes “huge living rooms and gathering rooms, where people can just work in different places if they want it quiet.”
But for all its friendly vibe, relaxed dress code and homey pretensions, it’s not home, or a playground for creatives. The place is intense, says Reynolds. “There’s no foosball table or ping-pong table. I say let’s get the work done so we can get out of here, and go home to our friends and families.”
Not surprisingly, volunteerism is a keystone of Reynolds’ workplace philosophy. “We encourage everybody to find something that speaks to their heart and make time to work there — and they can take off in the middle of the day to do it.”
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Chris Cera, CEO of Arcweb Technologies, also notes the rise of freelance consulting, co-working communities and the other new orthodoxies of modern business. Like Reynolds, he lived it, starting as a consultant, doing one-off client projects and working out of Indy Hall. He launched his own business in 2011, principally because he couldn’t corner more space for his contractors at Indy Hall.
“I’m not complaining, they were awesome, but they were kind of pushing us out — politely,” he recalls. “We were the fastest company that ever grew out of there, and when I needed more memberships, there was a waiting list. It just wasn’t possible to grow there anymore. And luckily, we kept most of our people in the transition” from giggers to full-time staff.
Arcweb continues to outpace the CEO’s expectations. In 2015, it was named Philadelphia 100’s Fastest Growing Company. And in 2016, Cera was named Small Business Person of the Year by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
Having witnessed the evolution of N3rd Street, he can’t imagine being anywhere else, and established his new quarters “a stone’s throw away [from Indy Hall], because I wanted to stay close. I can see it from my window.”
Arcweb isn’t the only company that’s made a commitment to the neighborhood, he notes. “There are a large number of companies that have laid down the flagpole here and decided to grow. I could have gone to Center City, but I chose Old City. I was so excited by the grassroots community I found here. Our location is a huge part of who we are.”
“There’s a communal feeling,” agrees Reynolds. “Lots of times, when I’m walking in the city on a nice day, I’ll stop by Indy Hall. I’ll walk down Third Street and there are a bunch of businesses I can pop into and say hello, what’s up. It’s like a corridor where I know people with similar belief systems, people who are doing really neat things.”
But it’s not just a tech center — Fazio makes that crystal clear. “We keep hearing that from the outside, but people inside the community do not feel that way. There are more food nerds, art nerds and book nerds here than tech nerds. They’re the foundation on which our community is built.”
In any case, the idea of tech as a separate sector — a self-contained “bubble” — is behind the times, he says. “Self-contained tech is now implicit in every industry. So sure, you have tons of technologists that push this, but it was never about them. N3rd Street was about the people who live in Philadelphia and run businesses here and care about the city.”
OUTLASTING THE BOOM
With the district in growth mode, and all the attending clamor and headlines, Hillman is concerned that N3rd Street could lose some of its close-knit, communal flavor. “With growth comes change, which means we need a sense of community even more to keep people from growing apart. Growth is great, but our efforts are going to be in complimenting the upward growth with lateral and inward growth — that is, focusing less on adding people, and more on the interconnectedness between people.”
Moreover, he adds, businesses come and go, and trends by definition are fleeting. “We need to think more like a cultural district — think Chinatown, Gayborhood, etc. — that can outlast short-term boom/bust business cycles.
“My biggest hope for N3rd Street isn’t just that more businesses move here. It’s that they take the time to get to know their neighbors and encourage their people to invest time and energy into the city beyond Old City and Northern Liberties.”
As Wil Reynolds says, “If I have a motto, it’s just, let’s try to be good to our industry, our community and each other. And that’s it.”
It’s the nerd way. CEO
Marjorie Preston is a freelance writer based in Media, PA. Contact us at email@example.com.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
For years, the creative hub on and around N. 3rd Street grew quietly, organically, under the radar. Then came the light-bulb moment when people realized the street signs seemed to spell out “nerd.”
“All I could think was, ‘How has it taken us this long to see that?’” says Alex Hillman, CEO of Indy Hall. “We started using the nickname colloquially, and soon, others did too.”
That included then-Mayor Michael Nutter and officials with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, who talked up N3rd Street as Philadelphia’s technological hub. Interest intensified. More nerds migrated in, and a community star was born. In March 2014, the city passed a resolution, with the usual whereases and therefores, making the moniker official.
It was all a happy accident, says Hillman. The name wasn’t stuck on like a label, and that’s why it works.
“I’ve spoken to city leaders who want to learn from what we’ve done, and the biggest mistake I see is the attempt to establish a ‘brand’ instead of looking for what already exists, and simply saying, ‘This is good — keep going.’”
Artificial brands “always feel hokey and unnatural. That’s not what N3rd Street ever attempted to do. Instead, we recognized what was already happening and helped make it visible.”