On the practical side of starting a hackerspace

Many people have been asking me about starting hackerspaces/makerspaces lately. I’m going to use this post to aggregate their questions and my answers.

What do you think about doing a Kickstarter for seed money?

It’s possible, but “the HeatSync Way” is to find your people first. To do this kind of endeavor it seems like you need 5-15 “good people” who are prepared to stick around for at least a year of creating this business — as a hobby, with perhaps 2-5 hours per week commitment.

Past that, you need the seeds of a community, and you need to gauge what they actually want. If any of us had created the space as we envisioned it in our heads instead of growing it with the community, it’d be totally different and probably get zero adoption. So our recommendation has always been to start having meetings wherein you do the kinds of things you forsee being done at the hackerspace. Meet in a free public location (coffee shop? studio? park? community center?), advertise what’s going to happen (“tonight, we talk about what we want to see in terms of a makerspace/hackerspace downtown!”, “tonight, we’ll be playing with liquid nitrogen and also laser microphones!”, etc) — and even if zero people show up, you adhere to the set times, do the activity, and publicize what you did virally with social media (“look at the party you missed!”) and eventually the snowball effect will take care of the rest.
That’s the HeatSync way of doing things, because then by the time you’re putting down rent on a place you’ve already got a dozen or three people who believe in you and are hopefully contributing money. This grassroots way, any failure is a “good” failure whereas I something like Parazol which was kickstarted seems to have withered away. It’s not uncommon to need a year or two of “runway” to get these things started, and if you can do that without paying rent you’ll be ahead. Certainly, recurring event membership shows that you’ve got the beginnings of a group.
Also, I think I’ve sent half a dozen people Lindsay’s way, personally, in the last few months. It might be time for you all to meet about this. Again, I recommend an actionable, hands-on meeting agenda: talking is fine, but wouldn’t it be cooler to meet up and draw a space, or research buildings, or drive around Downtown? All talk and no hands-on makes for a very dull hackerspace 😉

How does funding work? For broken tools, etc.

The way HeatSync does it is, nothing is “provided” by the organization. Okay, we pay the rent and maybe toilet paper, maybe we can find some money for a replacement laser tube. But we have a 3D printer because some community member did the work and fundraising to get one, and so whoever is on the list of “station volunteers” is responsible for making that station work again– sometimes that means out-of-pocket expenses and sometimes the organization has some money to help out, but usually when HeatSync pays for something it’s either a pre-approved recurring expenses or it’s matching member funds.
One of the main reasons for this is practical, we don’t have lots of money and are entirely member-funded, but the other reason is that without having “built it themselves” people won’t care about it as much. And that’s a problem when you’re an all-volunteer workshop.

When did you get your first real space, and what tools did you have when you opened?

We got our first real space in June 2011, after moving from a small room at the back of Gangplank where we grew our community over the course of a year or so.
For tools, we mostly had hand tools, a drill press, a mini-mill and mini-lathe, and a 3D printer. We also had a laser cutter en route to us.
Please note that we didn’t just arbitrarily buy tools; it’s been important to us that tools only show up if there’s clear need and volunteer support for a tool. Everyone wants metalworking tools, not many people want to teach metalworking classes or repair laser cutters for free.
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