10 Questions with TechShop
Playground for CreativityTechShop isn't exaggerating when it calls itself a playground for creativity. Part hackerspace, fabrication studio and prototyping lab, people have been signing up for memberships to the workshop chain since 2006. There they gain access to training, expert advice and a broad range of professional grade equipment including sheet metal equipment, woodworking equipment, plastics working equipment, laser cutters, welding tools, hand tools, sewing machines, design software and much more.
Members can use the resources at TechShop to make just about anything they can imagine – and they have, including innovative new products that have launched new companies and changed lives.
(Photo credit: Bart Nagel)
TechShop Vice President of Business Development and Chief Operating Officer Dan Woods took a break from his increasingly packed schedule to answer our burning questions about this expanding business.
Q: How has the increasing popularity of the Maker Movement impacted and influenced TechShop from a business perspective?
"From a business perspective, the growth of the Maker Movement has allowed TechShop to embrace economies of scale. As TechShop expands, we are able to invest more money in education content and tools. In addition, there is a fascinating scale with members.
With a smaller number of members, TechShop is mostly a place to access tools. But, as the membership grows, there is a critical point – around 500 members – where members start coming in because they want to experience the community and see their friends.
That is also the point where, as a business, we have enough members to hire a staff, do maintenance and make sure we can pay for health insurance."
Q: How does TechShop choose what type of equipment and tools will be available in a location?
"TechShop provides members access to just about every machine, tool and process that you can imagine, including milling machines and lathes, laser cutters, sheet metal equipment, welding equipment, woodworking equipment, plastics working equipment, hand tools, a 3D printer, computer-controlled vinyl cutter, sewing machines, design software and lots more. The exact number of each type of tool varies from shop to shop, based on the number of members and demand for each tool."
TechShop's Mid-Peninsula location in California. The ShopBot cuts parts, objects or art designed
in 2D or 3D CAD and works with most woods, plastics, foams and other composites.
Q: How does TechShop choose which products to select from a large range with different functions?
"At the end of the day, we select equipment that allows us to meet the evolving needs of our members. One of our strengths is our ability to leverage the depth of experience of our 150 talented staff members, who help us identify advantages – and sometimes pitfalls – of certain equipment in the hands of makers with skills ranging from beginner to expert.
Obviously, when meeting the needs of more than 6,000 members, reliability, serviceability, availability and up-time are critical considerations. It's also important to note that our members' privileges extend across all of our locations, so we standardize machinery as much as possible."
Q: Could you share any stories of how TechShop positively impacted a community or an individual?
"There is a long list of stories about TechShop creating a platform for education, community development, learning and economic development. One of the most compelling stories is that of Marc Roth.
Marc was living in a homeless shelter in San Francisco when he found a business card for TechShop in a garbage can. He came in for a free tour and spent $49 on a one month membership and class deal we had at the time. He spent 10 to 12 hours a day studying the tools in the shop and quickly became an expert.
Within six months, Marc was supporting himself as a TechShop instructor and part-time helper for other members. Within 16 months, he had started SF Laser, making $75 an hour for production laser cutting and etching.
Now, Marc is developing a program to teach hands-on industrial-hardware skills to homeless individuals, and provide housing and volunteer mentors, called The Learning Shelter."
Q: Have there been any concerns or criticisms when a new TechShop location is proposed?
"We've seen a few hackerspaces and makerspaces who express some concern when they first learn that TechShop is planning to open a new location in their community. Initially, they see a new 18,000-square-foot workspace with $1 million worth of new machinery and tools as a threat. In reality, nothing is further from the truth.
The world needs more makerspaces, not fewer. We fill an important role in the makerspace landscape that no one else is doing on a global scale: we provide an open space where everyone is welcome regardless of skill level or background, access to a broad spectrum of leading edge tools and machinery, a community of helpful and spirited makers, and hundreds of classes taught every month by paid professionals."
Q: What would you like people to know about TechShop?
"TechShop is for more than just hobbyists and engineers. Anyone can come into TechShop and learn the skills they need to use tools and build what they want in a short period of time, even without any background knowledge."
Q: What is the biggest misconception about TechShop?
"We've had a tremendous amount of publicity around businesses that were launched around products developed at TechShop, such as Square. We're very much fueling the birth of new companies and jobs, but we want aspiring and novice makers to know that the majority of TechShop members are here because of their love of making. TechShop is filled with people from all walks of life who bring a richly diverse range of interests, skills and ideas."
Q: Can you mention any companies that have participated in TechShop's experience-driven corporate events?
"This is actually one of the fastest growing parts of TechShop's business. Whether it's classic one-day team building events, holiday parties or more intensive week-long innovation workshops, we hold hundreds of corporate and group events annually. Our clients include Google, Cisco, Nike, Apple, Intuit, Dell and dozens of other companies."
Q: Are there any community programs or fundraising efforts that TechShop supports?
"Sure, we have a partnership with Making It In America where we provide membership and training to underemployed and unemployed trade union members in Pennsylvania. We also have a program – generously sponsored by GE and the VA Center for Innovation – that provides membership and training to veterans. And, each of our locations provides workshop access and time to support deserving local school groups and other community causes."
Q: Why offer free coffee and popcorn, and is that at all locations, all the time?
"Yes, it is available at all locations at all times. It's important for our members to have a place and a snack to come together and chat over. TechShop is more than just tools, it is a community where makers can come together to share ideas and find inspiration."
Update November 2017: TechShop closed all locations.
Update February 2018: TechShop 2.0, also know as TheShop.build, has opened its first location in San Francisco.