Five years ago I had an itch to talk to other people; so overrated.
OK, fine.. I originally was thinking of some electronics club but after talking with a few people and refining my ideas through research, it was clear this idea fit best as a makerspace. I bought a meetup.com subscription. For as crappy as it is, Meetup does have a surprising network of members and access to kickstart your local community group. There is no question SnoCo Makerspace wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for Meetup. I set a meeting for a couple weeks out in a Lynnwood library and 35 people showed up. I gave these suckers my pitch… and I got back: “What’s your makerspace going to have in it?” … Of course I’d thought about what I wanted but I gave her the predictable answer along the lines of “OUR makerspace will have whatever interests the membership”. I had my own makerspace… at home, I was looking for something social.
That leads me to my first suggestion*: 1. The only successful reason for starting a makerspace should be social. If your core members don’t evolve fairly quickly into friends you’re not going to make it, prove me wrong.
We avoided a couple misteps in attempting, but failing, to start out at a local college (avoid at all costs), a port authority and later on another college. Outside of finding someone with really-free space, you’re going to have to figure out how to do it on your own. Don’t rely on any entity unless you have the check in your hand but it’s fairly rare to find free-money. If you don’t believe me pop onto the Nation of Makers facebook group and ask the question… NOM is kind of a lobbying group for makerspaces but they don’t really do anything outside run a convention. It had a purpose? There is a little history there if you’re bored and want to look it up.
Our first space; the only thing we found that worked. We found a small space in a space designed for micro-businesses. It was enough for 10 core members and visitors to use a laser cutter, 3D printer, and an electronics lab. This was a good bootstrap project and I ended up fronting most of the money for the lease outside a couple generous large checks when we started. Costs were offset by 10-15 members dues ($40, with the understanding we knew we weren’t work it but build it and they will come). Once we started workshops the space broke even.
Which brings me to tip #2: Don’t start a makerspace unless you already own many of the tools or know someone you can borrow them from. I’m talking core tools… they don’t have to be the best… just usable and safe, bonus points for aesthetically pleasing.
The adventure is a series of leaps of faith moments, scares, disappointments, and elation to success. You should have some business sense, avoid cliques but allow for them, be likable to most, don’t talk poorly of anyone, be positive and strive to inspire… above most take care of your toxic members, one or two can ruin your group and the experience of anyone coming through the door for a first peek. Make sure you have someone with a positive attitude greet and talk to every single person who comes through the door. Ask them questions to include what they’re interested in and what they expected.
Our Makerspace 2.0 came out of space necessity. It would have been nice to be “in Seattle” but outside SoDo nothing had/has survived being in Seattle. It’s too expensive. We chose to move a few miles north of Lynnwood because space was cheaper, available, and Everett is a manufacturing town. Located 23 miles north of Seattle the makerspace pulls people in who live in North Seattle, Bellevue and north. The rent in Everett is affordable and for most of our existence outside the first few months of start-up and a “big leap” the space has been sustainable through membership and workshop income.
Okay.. so what sucked?
- Time. I spent more time on on this makerspace in the beginning than my 40-hour/week job. It tapered off a little here and there but finding that core group to help.
- Workshops. Finding people to teach courses… that can teach. I recommend creating a workshop template and guide… ask them to help you create hand-outs and documents for reoccurring workshops. It’ll help multiple people teach the same thing, the won’t forget important items like safety.. and there will be perceived value from attendees. Even when you pay people or credit dues… e-mails blasts will get the attention of a few people willing to teach: you should corner people and get a commitment with a date. If you don’t have workshops you probably will not succeed. People want to learn.. we have plenty of people who take workshops but never even use the tool… they just wanted to know how. Most of our attendees aren’t even members.
- Money. So much out of pocket cash.. particularly if you have to buy tools first. (Pro-tip #3. Tool-drives are nice…but be prepared to make a goodwill drop off when you’re done.. you get a lot of garbage with the occasional gems) .. I don’t know how many thousands of dollars I’ve spent over four years.. I don’t even want to calculate it roughly. Well in excess of $20k… probably a few times that. If you find big donors or business sponsors… well buy lotto tickets. No one gives away money… we have a couple companies that match but matching and donations make up less than 5% of our income.
- Space. What a pain… It takes forever to find a space.. then if it’s not close enough to usable you have to do some construction.. and decide if you’re going to do it legit or shady-maker-style. I tried for months working with city and county government entities to find low cost options… oddly Everett does give away very cheap rent in one of there buildings to some non-profit that is kind of a consignment shop for “makers”… mostly knitted stuff, books, jam, etc.. they didn’t have any interest in discussing possibilities with me but it’s good to have the contacts anyways. Doesn’t hurt to try, maybe you’ll get lucky.
- Insurance. Originally it took WEEKS of calling to find an insurance broker who could find a company to insure us. Over time we found another company, and then a company recommended an agent that did pick us up for a little more money but more flexibility. I never did find a company that would allow a minor to touch anything… I recommend selling your makerspace as very similar to some kind of industry or education center. Stick to selling yourself as a CBO to donors and such. You’ll find issues finding insurance companies that will let you play with real toys if you are a “club”, but don’t lie.. or you might as well not even have insurance.
Tip #4. Don’t start a makerspace if you think you’re going to make an income at it. Eventually you’re hire someone which is as big step, but no one on your board is going to want to pay that person what they’re worth when they’ve been donating all that time. Your first hire will likely be half-book keeper because that seems to be about 1/2 of the reoccurring work once you’re stable and of first-hire size.
What didn’t suck?
I don’t regret starting the makerspace, I wouldn’t do it again and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have done it if I knew what I know now.. but I am glad I did and it was worth it. I’ve done plenty of volunteer work before, if I hadn’t I suspect I’d feel more fulfilled in that regard. I created (with A LOT of help) a wonderful organization that is inclusive and provides a ton of social interaction, mentoring, and support to our members, guests, and community (we do some out reach… fix 3d printers for schools, etc.). There are a couple really enriching moments over the last few years… the best part is many of my now-closest friends I met in the makerspace… so that itch to talk to people was thankfully fulfilled.
My Cred: I founded the largest** makerspace in Washington State; I’ve helped consult start-up three other spaces, inspired others and seen dozens fail, most of them before they really got started. **We have a commercial fab lab which is larger but it’s really a commercial fab business, they have more sq ft.. Largest as measured by membership and presumed participation.
*In no way should this reflect any kind of government ran/funded makerspace to include schools, city government, museum spaces, art council funded space, etc. Additionally I do not consider incubators or co-working spaces to be makerspaces.