Washington DC is not known for a being a manufacturing town, which is why I was so surprised when I first heard that TechShop was opening a location here in Spring 2014. When I went on a tour I was smiling ear to ear in wide-eyed disbelief. Had I won a golden ticket? How is this massive warehouse full of hi-tech machines opening in such a high rent area? It seemed too good to be true. It was like a vegan burrito and cold brew coffee cart started following me around for no reason. How and why is this happening? Am I at the center of an elaborate prank? Wait. Am I dead? I decided not to over analyze it.
A little over two years ago I was laid off for the first time in my career. I spent the next few days doing the classic panic induced resume update and application blitzkrieg. After a few days the shock passed, the realization settled in, and I thought, what to do now?
I dove in. At first, I was all business. It was a place for me to update my skills and keep my mind (and body) busy. TechShop provided me a respite. As I went more and started to take it a little easier on myself, I got to know people and began to socialize both inside and outside the shop. It was a place full of super cool, interesting, and like-minded people. Eventually, it became my Cheers, and I its Norm.
I got a job within a few months. Coincidentally, it was right across the street from TechShop. At my new workplace, I was able to immediately utilize many of the skills and tools I had just gained access to and made a great first impression. I was also able to continue going to TechShop for learning, working projects, and just hanging out.
While my story is unique, I’m sure there are many similar stories. I read “The Maker Manifesto”, a book which talks about the history and promise of Techshop, the maker movement, and tells many stories of its members. Such as stories of popular products launched from the spaces, tales of people who take “maker vacations”, and others who reinvented their careers and lives through TechShop.
TechShop has an atmosphere.
Alternative music is usually playing, tables are strewn with projects in various states, some people diligently working, and others talking shop or shooting the breeze. All surrounded by unique scent combinations wafting through the air (like popcorn and wood stain). In one sense, it’s like a giant dorm room. Legitimate signs make users aware of machine dangers while others warn of robots and/or raptors. There is a feeling of youthful exuberance, but not in the way that would normally annoy me. I would work at TechShop instead of my office (under the guise of monitoring a 3d print) because I was motivated by the upbeat and lively spirit.
I worked on all sorts of projects there. I did massive remodeling projects for my home, side hustle product designs, gifts, and art for no reason other than I had ideas I had to get out. I even (bless her heart) took a date there to make holiday ornaments on the laser cutter.
Now please allow me to rant.
There were many things that could have been improved and I strongly believe that TechShop should have made it. The problem was this: they did not apply the DIY grassroots methodology they promoted to their own business practices.
It was not open source. Three things seemed obvious to me but were missing. They could have 1) collaborated with the makers and a marketplace to sell their goods 2) a tiered payment system for those who don’t need full access 3) Made it accessible, not just to the handful of designer/engineers like myself but, to a wider audience by finding a way to make it feel less intimidating and prohibitive.
The reservations system was unquestionably abysmal. The only way, to the great frustration of members and employees, to make an equipment reservation was to call in. If they had allowed (or better yet challenged) the community to solve this I guarantee they would have had, for free, an awesome online reservation system and app… that likely would have contained a space unicorn. But the philosophy seemed to be one where the community was welcome to be creative within the static and defined bounds they imposed.
They had a loyal legion of fans at their beck and call. A community of people that inherently questions the status quo and are driven to go to extraordinary lengths when they see needs that aren’t being met. They did not apply a prototyping mentality to iterate on successes and failures. My message to makerspaces of the future is simple: allow the passionate, talented, and creative people who love the place to contribute to improving and evolving it.
Most of the people who worked there were awesome. They seemed perpetually upbeat and helpful despite the inefficiencies. When socializing with their employees (dream consultants), I would hear variations of the sentiment that the only reason they stayed, despite being able to make more money elsewhere, was for the people and the environment.
Yes. I am sad for myself.
I will no longer have this fun and inspirational place. The time and money I spent getting certified on specific machines are largely lost. TechShop was my backup plan, if I was to lose my job again, and provided me a sense of security just to know it was there. For me, like others who utilized the space, the value was unprecedented. I had access to tools for consulting work or design, for selling products or rebuilding a career when a job was lost.
Yes. I am upset for others.
The employees, those who relied on TechShop’s tools to run their businesses, those trying to launch something new, the people for whom it was their second home, and all those future people who won’t get to experience the creative playground that was TechShop. TechShop was an amazing place for entrepreneurs, inventors, and startups. It also welcomed a wide variety of eccentrics with the common thread of passion for making, doing more with their free time than sitting around.
There are other makerspaces, and new ones will rise up to fill the gap. We will continue to create. We will go back to our basements, garage shops and lairs and use our 3D printers and Dremel tools to make. But the failure of the most recognized, publicized and hyped makerspace will give those who are skeptical of the validity and future of the movement something to point at. This is a big setback to the maker movement.
Be a creator, not a spectator.