As you may know, Techshop used to be a hardware makerspace where inventors and tinkerers had fun fiddling with milling machines, 3D printers, laser cutters and other tools. Several hardware companies, including Square, TeaBot and Chowbotics, had our beginnings there and probably would not exist without it. The reason why I had the term “used to” above is because Techshop is no more. It has shut down. Gone. Leaving tons of makers and inventors and tinkerers with no place to call “home”. In fact, some Techshop friends of mine started a group called “Techshop orphans” 🙁 In this article, I’ll share some details of makerspaces that still exist. And talk about how makerspaces can be structured, so that they make business sense and still provide value to the community as places to launch businesses and create jobs.
Our beginnings at Techshop
When I first started Chowbotics, I funded the company out of our family savings. I couldn’t afford to pay someone else to make my prototypes. Thank heavens there was a Techshop close to my house where I could pay $125 a month and make unlimited prototypes. Better still, they taught classes on how to use the tools. I could build my first prototypes with a $20k budget instead of a $300k budget (which I definitely couldn’t afford!) There was no way our company could have existed without a low cost and fast prototyping location like Techshop. With the prototype built at Techshop, we raised our first funding and got into Techstars Austin.
Besides serving as a prototyping location, Techshop allowed me to recruit several team members who are now a key part of our company. Kugan, our employee #1 who has done great things for us, was a Techshop colleague who liked his food made automatically 🙂 Tai, another Techshop member whom I hired as a consultant early on, is now an employee. A good portion of our customer service team is formed from Techshop members too.
What makerspaces exist now?
Many of the makerspaces that exist now are connected to hardware accelerators or VC firms. HAX has a makerspace in China that can be used for their portfolio companies. Playground Global has a makerspace in Palo Alto that can be used by their portfolio companies too. Shenzhen Valley Ventures in China has a makerspace they provide to members of their accelerator. To get into all these makerspaces though, you need to have an early prototype already ready. That was what Techshop provided to entrepreneurs and inventors. And which people miss now.
There is one makerspace that doesn’t follow the accelerator model still, in the Bay Area. Its called Ace Monster Toys – its in the Oakland area. Its a non-profit with a bunch of volunteers. One of the things that cost Techshop was its lack of financial discipline and the way it was expanding to too many unprofitable locations – Ace Monster Toys thankfully doesn’t seem to be doing that.
How can we build makerspaces that last?
Fundamentally, makerspaces take a lot of real estate, require frequent maintenance when used by non-experts, have a bunch of liability costs and the membership fees aren’t high enough. To me, it seems like three viable approaches exist for makerspaces:
(2) A makerspace solely for startups – One could think of makerspaces where startups apply with a business plan. Selected startups would give up 2% of their equity (or some other lower number vs. the 7% many accelerators take today), and would pay a reasonable monthly membership fee too. If Techshop had taken some equity from Square or us when we were small, they’d have been in a much better position.
(3) Build makerspaces as an extension of Home Depot, Lowe’s, Orchard Supply Hardware or some other hardware store – The money spent in the hardware store by makers could potentially pay for the costs of running the makerspace, plus there would be a membership fee.
I don’t know if (2) or (3) will materialize, but it will be interesting if something like that happens. I’ve been hearing someone’s been trying to resuscitate Techshop with almost its original business model and call it Techshop 2.0… I hope they succeed. For now, I will make the long drive to Ace Monster Toys in Oakland when I want to build something…