Nov. 15, 2018
Up to now, most of Philadelphia's successful co-working facilities, such as IndyHall in Old City, have had the feel of a high-tech startup. There's a youthful vibe in the air at most of them, a certain funky touch to the decor, a certain casualness about the place, even though there's serious work going on.
Pipeline Philly, which celebrated its official launch last week at 30 S. 15th St., across from City Hall, feels different. Yes, the ductwork is exposed in this space too—that's just about de rigeur for shared office centers. But everything else about this space says "we've gotten beyond the startup phase now. We're ready to get down to business."
"It's all about creating a community where people can come together and share ideas and thoughts and relationships and everything else that can contribute to one another. The space is very translucent, there's lots of glass, so people don't feel they're cooped up in their own little cubbyhole. Yet there is privacy, which people also need when they're discussing sensitive matters," said Philippe Houdard, co-founder of Pipeline
"It's about threading the needle—making an environment that appeals to people of a creative bent while still maintaining a professional atmosphere, so that people who need to present a certain formality can also do that."
(Well, there is one understatedly funky design element in this space too. More about that later.)
After leaving the studio, Smith found that co-working facilities offered numerous advantages. One of the biggest: Lower overhead costs. "It took down my overhead considerably, so much so that I could hire another person," he said.This combination of hipness and formality appealed to Tayyib Smith, one of the local partners in Pipeline Philly and the head of its community outreach efforts. Smith, a self-described "serial entrepreneur," came to the venture from a long background in the music business, all of it in shared workspaces, from his days with Axis Music Group, housed in a studio owned by music producer Larry Gold, to his years as the publisher of two.one.five magazine, a journal of arts, culture, music, entertainment and style that began as a print publication before moving online.
But there were aspects of the shared workplace he had moved into in 2011 that he found less than satisfying, so he and his business partner at the time began thinking about what they wanted to see in a shared office environment.
"We had approached David Grasso" - the owner of the building that housed their office - "about doing a shared workspace in Philly, but he passed on it at the time. Then, about a year and a half ago, he asked us to revisit the idea." As they were working on a cost analysis with a staffer in the Mayor's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, they got word that Houdard and his partner were looking to expand to Philadelphia.
"We opened the first Pipeline in the center of downtown Miami, on Brickell," said Houdard. "As it gained traction, we started looking around at different cities" where they might locate. "I was very surprised to hear a lot of the same language coming out of Philadelphia that I was hearing in Miami, even though they are very different cities," said Houdard.
Houdard and Smith began a series of contacts that ultimately led to a trip to Miami for Smith and a partnership between the the Pipeline founders and Smith's Philadelphia team.
Smith noted that shared workspaces actually have a longer history than many know: "Artists and creative people have shared workspaces for some time," he said, "and churches have also offered shared space" for nonprofit activities. Some of Philly's current co-working spaces continue in that mold. Pipeline Philly, however, is aimed at a different clientele.
"This is an aspirational space," Smith said. "It's good for attorneys, it's good for real estate professionals. It's a space that can produce synergy between different types of businesses." The first tenants bear him out: they include a real estate broker, a mortgage company, an application development firm and the Philadelphia office of the Knight Foundation, Pipeline's "anchor tenant."
Gregory T. Walker, creative director of The Brothers' Network, a locally-based organization with a worldwide membership that organizes and sponsors events focused on arts and culture as a means of highlighting the talents and achievements of black men like Smith, had heard about the space from a Knight Foundation contact and asked for a tour of the facility, as his organization was looking for room to grow.
Knight Foundation Regional Director Donna Frisby-Greenwood obliged, and what he saw made a powerful impression on him.
Which brings us to that tastefully funky design element. Upon entering the Pipeline lobby, one is greeted by a rough-hewn wood backdrop behind the reception desk and a patch of wallpaper to the right of the desk that contains scenes of classic Philadelphia icons and historic events.
But look closely. Those icons and historical scenes mix past and present freely. Those are the Roots signing the Declaration of Independence. John Coltrane, dressed in colonial garb, blows his tenor sax on the steps at LOVE Park while Ben Franklin gets windblown. Will Smith, in his earlier "Fresh Prince" days with sidekick DJ Jazzy Jeff, cavorts in front of City Hall while Daryl Hall and John Oates guard the Liberty Bell.
"When I came in and saw the Roots, I said, 'Am I imagining this?' Then I said, 'This is our space,'" said Walker, who noted that the wallpaper communicates a central message his organization seeks to spread.
"Philadelphia's got such a rich history. It's not just Ben Franklin and the original Founders, but there also the modern-day Founders, Will Smith and the Roots and all these guys, so the idea was to grab an assortment of people throughout time who have contributed to Philadelphia, and that's how these guys and gals wound up on the wallpaper," said Houdard. The Pipeline design team had the wallpaper custom made by a firm in London.
At once playful and serious, the wallpaper accent underscores the vibe Houdard and Smith sought to create in this space. The large expanses of glass also give the space a more open feel than other co-working spaces offer. And there are the great views of City Hall from the corner conference room. Yet the individual office spaces offer privacy when needed.
Smith also noted that Pipeline offers a level of service to its tenants that no other co-working facility in the city, and few in the country, offer. The facility offers striking conference rooms, including one overlooking City Hall, 100 Mbps broadband service, a full-time receptionist and on-site management staff, videoconferencing and private phone booths, secure storage, discounts on office supplies, free gourmet coffee and tea, and room to socialize and entertain as well - there's a cafe, a lounge, and event space, which the partners put to good use with a launch party last Thursday.
Smith's background in the music business, Pipeline's hiring of an events coordinator whose background includes organizing Bloktoberfest, and that wallpaper all demonstrate that while this operation is professional to the max, it's not strictly buttoned down. True to its Miami roots, it's all business, but with a special flair and verve. And while its memberships start at a level that even a greenhorn can afford, it's clearly aimed at those who've gotten off the ground—"the entrepreneurs who've at least gotten their first or second round of funding," Smith said—and are headed for the stars.