How to Hack Your Own Hackerspace in Five Easy Steps

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In last week’s post, I talked about how hackerspaces can help you realize your invention idea cheaply and get community help with building your prototype. Entrepreneurs can also benefit from hackerspaces by using these spaces as business incubators. If you live in a major city like San Francisco, you might already have a hackerspace in your area. However, what if you live out in the sticks and your closest neighbor is Gladys the Cow?

No worries. In this week’s post, I’m going to outline how you can launch your very own hackerspace in five easy steps. Your hackerspace can be built in your garage or basement, a warehouse, school or rented business space, or even be completely virtual. So, how do you get started?

1. Find interested members and select a theme.

The biggest asset that any hackerspace has is its people. These are the folks that are going to be your “critical mind mass,” helping you generate and realize big ideas- and hopefully even make money through them. Therefore, it’s important that you take the time to find parties that are actually interested in helping start a hackerspace. And by helping, I mean investing.

Hackerspace investment comes in two forms: money and time. Members who have money can certainly add more of the green stuff to the pot when it comes time to purchase equipment or rent space. However, that’s not to discredit those members who have less disposable cash but more time on their hands; sweat equity is highly valuable for a hackerspace in terms of needed tasks like construction, moving and setting up equipment, teaching classes, giving demonstrations and talks, drafting applications, etc. And many of these tasks can generate cash in their own right (more on that later).

2. Collect, win or apply for funding for the hackerspace.

Chris Meyer, the hacker about whom I wrote in last week’s post, was able to start his hackerspace, Sector67, on the backs of two business plan competitions. Universities, state and local governments, science foundations and corporations are usually interested in helping wannabe hackers with seed money because hackerspaces are well-known to launch new businesses and generate jobs.

Grants.gov is a great place to start looking for money, as well as the The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. GrantSearch, which is operated by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, is also a great resource; however, you need to first pay for a membership to access its database. Don’t forget to query nearby corporations about whether or not they’d be willing to front some cash for your hackerspace in exchange for advertising or some other trade-off; a phone call or letter to the company’s Director of Business Strategy may be your ticket to sponsorship.

You might also consider starting a crowdfunding campaign through a platform like KickStarter or Indiegogo to raise funds. Finally, if all else fails, it never hurts to query other hackerspaces on how they got their financial start.

3. Determine the hackerspace’s location and negotiate member dues.

Once you have some money in hand, whether that money be from the members themselves, the government, angel investors, etc., it is time to pick the location of the hackerspace. If you are extremely frugal as well as generous, you could just set up shop in your basement or garage in order to limit costs. However, most hackerspaces are established in so-called “third spaces.” A third space is defined as a community location that is not home or work-related.

Because of safety concerns and the eventual need for extra space as well as electrical power, many hackerspaces are set up in warehouses or old factories. Schools, churches and community centers have also served as hackerspaces, although the difficulty with those places is that members may not have ready access to the space at all times.

Members will also need to strike a deal on how they plan to keep funding the place and paying its bills once the seed money runs out. Typically, this is done through member dues. Another big money-maker for many hackerspaces is instructional classes. Thus, members who can’t pay their full share of the dues might work off that amount by teaching classes. Alternately, all hackerspace members might commit to teaching a set number of classes each year in order to bring additional funding to the hackerspace.

4. Create the organization type (e.g., board of directors) and rules.

It is a good idea to assign the hackerspace some kind of governing body rather than have member anarchy because a hackerspace can easily run into legal issues if there is a physical injury, theft, fire, or even a call to the police about noise. Thus, the hope is that a governing body will minimize legal issues and incidents by establishing a set of rules and making sure that everyone sticks to them. A governing body also establishes goals for the hackerspace and who is responsible for what.

A governing body can take many forms, including a total member democracy (useful for small hackerspaces), a representative assembly or board, or even a mild sort of dictatorship where the founders or major paying members make all the decisions. If the hackerspace is organized as a non-profit business with charity status, a board of directors will be one of its legal requirements anyway.

5. Start hosting (online or real-time) meetings.

Once your hackerspace is in place, it’s time to schedule regular meetings so that all members are in the know about issues and events. You should also determine how frequently your governing body meets and whether or not it makes decisions/takes votes at those meetings. Typically, you will want to have meetings for all members at least once a month; officer meetings can occur once a month or even once a week depending on how much business there is to discuss.

The best and most productive meetings are conducted in “real-time” with all members/officers present. However, it may come about that one of the founding members moves away or your hackerspace gains a supporter who lives in another state/country. Not to worry; through the magic of the Internet, virtual meetings can also be conducted.

More information on hackerspaces

If you’re looking for additional information on starting your own hackerspace, definitely give the Makerspace Playbook a read. This book  provides lots of practical advise for would-be hackers in terms of finding money, deciding on a location and collecting needed equipment and tools. Another good source of information is Eric Michaud’s blog post on How to Start a Hackerspace.

4 Comments

  1. Man, I thought hackerspaces were for renegades and people with good ideas but no cold hard cash. This post was an eye-opener for me.

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  2. Another interesting and well organized post. Getting funding for a project is one of the most stressing things a new entrepreneur has to do, and you have made it easier to get started on getting a project off the ground.

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  3. Great post!

    I’ve always been fascinated by how inventors build their prototypes. I’ve never heard of hackerspaces before, but they sound like a great solution – and this is a very helpful guide for getting one off the ground.

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  4. This is a great breakdown of how to get started. I especially like your suggestions for finding start-up funding. As a professional grant writer by day, I’ve found that the best source of funding for local pilot projects is usually right in your own backyard. If you can show a local corporation or other stakeholder how the project will benefit them in the long-term, they are more likely to sign on as a financial supporter.

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