Imagine gathering in one place dozens of the local — and not so local
– geekerati. Picture an assembly of artists, technicians, designers and engineers. Hobbyists, tinkerers, and the geeky-by-trade. Young and old, men and women of every stripe, their only common trait a drive to build and create. What could draw this crowd together? What lure would bring some of them a hundred miles or more?
Would you believe me if I said all it took was an empty building?
A scant few days ago we converged on a nondescript business park on the edge of Durham, North Carolina, summoned by the siren song of arc-welders and metal lathes. In the shell of a former office space, we listened as Jim Newton and Scott Saxon spun the dream they plan to make a reality in just a short time.
By way of introduction, Jim Newton is the founder of TechShop, the Menlo Park, CA maker’s paradise. The quick-with-a-quip Newton calls his business "Kinko’s for geeks," though that hardly does justice to the depth of his vision. His partner in this newest venture is Scott Saxon, a mustachioed bundle of energy with a complement of beltware that immediately marks him out as a GeekDad. The budding partnership between the two men stems from Saxon’s immediate enthusiasm for the TechShop concept, and the first fruits of that partnership are what drew us all to Durham for a pre-opening event in what will soon be TechShop’s first expansion.
Saxon billed the event as a party, though the mien of most attendees was more of intense interest and anticipation than of party-hearty celebration. In what will become the facility’s central workroom, attendees gathered to hear news about the new TechShop, ask questions and, almost as an afterthought, indulge in free Red Bull, water, soda and pizza. It’s safe to say that Saxon and Newton have a fair bead on their audience.
As it stands, TechShop Durham is little more than a big, empty building with paper signs taped up as harbingers of the future. Listen to Newton and Saxon talk, though, and you start to see it through their eyes. The massive grouping of open work tables here, the member parts-exchange bins stacked along the wall there. Behind the bins, the store and maker’s shed. Along one end wall, private workshops for rent by members, along the other a lounge area and kitchen. In the center of it all, an enclosed space holding one of the shop’s gems — an Epilog laser cutter.
Got your attention yet?
Saxon hands off to Newton, and you quickly understand that that’s just the beginning. There are slides and SketchUp walkthroughs of the entire 25,000 foot facility, evidence of the considerable planning and forethought that’s gone into the creation of the new Durham shop. Saxon says he’s already leased the space, and plans to start his buildout as soon as funding is confirmed. He’s looking for volunteers in the crowd, but enthusiasm notwithstanding, most seem a little reticent to swing a hammer on a volunteer basis.
Volunteers or no, Saxon will fill the space with a list of gear that already has "400 line items," as well as a full complement of spaces and services not available at the Menlo Park location. Plans include 25 private workshops, a vehicle bay and a sign-cutting workshop. Metal lathes and machine shop gear will be on hand, along with a woodshop, a sewing room, sheet metal tools, welding kit and, of course, storage for projects underway. The shop will offer laser cutting, a Shopbot CNC router, 3D printing, plasma cutting and vertical milling machines.
Beyond mere equipment, Saxon plans for the facility to meet more basic needs of his members. Getting hungry while you work? Hit the kitchen. Need a shower before you head home (or out to work)? Covered. Saxon’s plans are ambitious, at the very least.
At this point, Saxon says he’s still looking for investors for this first expansion of the TechShop brand. Part of the money will come from people looking to buy into the concept and get a return. Saxon says he hopes to bring 20 $25000 lenders on board at 10% interest. Additional funds will be raised by selling annual memberships, with total membership capped at 500 to assure that everyone gets time on the equipment. Some members of the audience even offered — somewhat to crowd’s amusement — to donate money to the startup shop. The guys demurred, pointing out that TechShop is, after all, a for-profit enterprise.
Listening to Jim Newton, Mythbuster alum and once-frustrated maker, talk about TechShop is an experience. He spends as much time telling amusing stories about shop experiences as he does talking about what TechShop hopes to bring to Durham. If you ever meet him, be sure to ask about the TechShopper who broke a serger trying to stitch wood. The Durham crowd could be conservatively called interested, and remain intensely focused on Newton’s presentation, even when the occasional joke or quip went awry. One joke took a bent that women in the crowd didn’t appreciate, earning Newton a raised finger from at least one audience member. On the whole, though, the crowd was abundantly receptive to Newton’s unabashedly geeky humor.
After a relatively short talk, Newton turned the session over to a question and answer period. This is where the depth of the crowd’s interest truly came through.
The questions came thick and fast for an hour. Will TechShop offer classes to non-members? Can members become paid staffers? Will we own our work? Will there be this or that piece of equipment? Can I bring my kids to TechShop?
Throughout the session, Newton answered service questions by turning them back to the audience and asking their opinion. Obviously, the company is focused on providing, to the extent possible, what members want to see. Rather than simply cloning Menlo Park Saxon, like any good geek or maker, wants his facility to be special and customized.
After the Q&A session, the crowd was free to wander the facility, though most of the crowd seemed less interested in the building than in each other, or Saxon and Newton. The gathering broke into small groups for the remainder of the evening, talking animatedly about what they could build using the tools Saxon plans to bring in.
Less common among the topics of conversation were what might be considered TechShop’s downsides. First, it’s expensive. At the discounted pre-opening price, memberships to Durham’s TechShop are a wallet-popping $1000 per year. No small investment for a GeekDad and family. Even day or month passes aren’t especially cheap, and that doesn’t figure in the cost of training classes.
Then there’s the issue of location. Though Newton plans a wave of post-Durham expansion that will see 10 TechShops open around the nation, odds that you’ll be within comfortable driving distance of one are still pretty small, especially for GeekDads in the middle of the country. Newton says there is "lots" of additional interest, though.
Still, if you’re close, and can afford it, it’s a grand possibility for the motivated maker, or even just the inspired tinkerer. Newton says the business will be set up to function as an incubator for small businesses, allowing people with good ideas to try them out without spending a huge chunk of money on space and manufacturing. He and Saxon also hope to create some sort of investment fund that could provide startup capital for "good ideas."
It’s fair to say that TechShop has big plans, and the road to world domination goes straight through Durham. Geekdads in the RTP region will soon have an incredible array of tools and equipment at their disposal — provided they can meet the price of entry.
UPDATE: Jim Newton writes to point out that I’ve incorrectly left you with the impression that the $1,000 membership is the only option, which isn’t the case. The monthly passes noted above are an option for those with short-term requirements or a tighter budget, and go for $125. Twenty-four hour passes are $30 for those who just want to get a feel for the place. The annual membership is, as Jim notes, a larger up-front payment, but less costly over the course of the year if your needs or wants are long-term. (I should also point out that the annual price goes up to $1200 after opening day.)
(Be sure to check out the full gallery of pictures from the event, including facility mockups.)