Farewell TechShop, and thank you. An open letter to all affected.

Like many, I was surprised and saddened to hear of TechShop’s closing. My name is Nate Bezanson, and I’ve been around i3Detroit since the very early days, back in 2009, before we had a space. Before we were even certain we’d end up in a space! That seems obvious in retrospect, but it might not have happened the way it did if not for TechShop’s influence.

The history of i3Detroit is intertwined with the history of TechShop in several ways, and I think it’s time to tell that story.

I’ll start with perhaps the least obvious aspect: Motivation.

In the spring of 2009, a little group started meeting at the now-defunct Coffee Beanery in Berkley. (It’s now a Firehouse Subs.) Russ Wolfe was inspired by an article in Wired, I had previously spent some time at HacDC, and going around the group, every single person had their own “origin story”, of how we came to believe in the value of the shared workspace. Russ had come up with the “imagine, innovate, inspire” theme and he registered the i3Detroit domain name, but there was no i3Detroit yet, not in a physical sense.

As the weeks went by and we meandered in the direction of getting a space (rent something? buy something? convene in library meeting rooms? hang out in someone’s garage?), TechShop was already well-established in California and looking to expand. Someone at UMich saw the opportunity, and put together a meeting with a whole bunch of big names. We didn’t have a space yet but we’d been reaching out to other interested groups in the area, and Dug Song (through A2geeks perhaps?) put us in touch with the UMich coordinator. So five twentysomethings from a ragtag group called i3Detroit rubbed elbows with Jim Newton, Mark Hatch, Dale Dougherty, and a whole list of people from various foundations.

I remember three things distinctly from that meeting:

1: I tried to make the point as clearly as I could that Metro Detroit is where people make things, it’s also where people take *pride* in making things and knowing how things are made. Look at FIRST, where Michigan is one of only three states with its own competition district. We’re home to an enormous museum dedicated to engineering and invention, too! Clearly, an obvious place for a shop.

2: I think it was Jim who expressed that the “market” for DIY workshops need not be concerned with competition at this stage, since the market is so far from saturation. He used an analogy along the lines of “Even if we open a TechShop and you open something else, we’re not fighting over each other’s piece of the pie. More interest just grows the pie.”

3: TechShop had no interest in starting small and grass-roots in the way i3 was coming together. They needed a million-dollar investment to get a new location going, and if nobody wanted to put that together, it simply wouldn’t happen. From a quick glance around the table, nobody had that burning a hole in their pocket.

So indirectly, TechShop both helped solidify our resolve that something needed to happen, and clarified that they weren’t gonna do it. Well, that left the task to us! After that meeting, i3Detroit moved forward with redoubled vigor, nailing down our bylaws and pursuing real estate. Within weeks, we had found a tempting prospect in Royal Oak, we arranged a meeting with the landlord, and the rest is history…

The next aspect, as I see it, is people:

Notably, the manager of TechShop Detroit was himself an i3Detroit member at the time they started up. For a while, their class coordinator was an i3 member too, who remained active at our space in the evenings, even as TechShop occupied her days. I myself taught there for a while in 2012 and 2013, and likewise kept up my i3 membership the whole time.

 

The third aspect, and I think most important in the grand scheme, was the diversity of approaches.

At i3Detroit, we have no staff. Or, stated another way, everyone has to share the duties you might otherwise expect staff to take care of. We have no janitors. Or, we have 160 janitors — every single member takes out the trash, scrubs the bathrooms when they need it, et cetera. We have no paid trainers. Some equipment requires training to use, so you might just have to wait a while until one of the volunteer trainers is free. And some of the (less likely to hurt itself or you) equipment is simply entrusted to you and your ability to read the manual and watch YouTube and and ask questions when prudent.

That approach doesn’t work for everyone. To put it mildly!

When TechShop finally found that million-plus-dollar sponsor and opened their Allen Park location in 2011, some of us around i3 fretted a bit about possible loss of members. (Ultimately that was moot; Jim was totally right about growing the pie.) After a while, though, we came to realize that the TechShop model could be a better fit for individuals who weren’t up for teaching themselves, or couldn’t wait for a volunteer’s free time to align with theirs.

Having TechShop in the area provided an incredibly valuable alternative option. It freed us from the compulsion to be “all things to all people”, since some people would obviously do better in the commercial model, and we didn’t have to feel bad about that. We could embrace our community-driven nature and all the positives it delivers, while still having a good answer for people who came to the picnic expecting a waiter.

Now that this valuable resource has closed its doors, the ripples will be felt throughout the DIY world, not least in Ferndale.

Moving forward,

As TechShop’s members and staff figure out what’s next, there’s a lot to consider. Naturally, comparisons will be drawn, but while our lists of equipment may look similar, our approaches are radically different. Everything at i3 is done by the community, for each other, with a bare minimum of structure and management.

Specifically:

  • There are no business hours. Every member has a key that grants 24/7 access. We all share the responsibility that a “key-holder” would have anywhere else.
  • There’s no front-desk to show visitors around. We ask members to take turns hosting Friday Nite Tours to welcome interested visitors who don’t yet know a member.
  • There’s no fee for having a friend come in and work alongside you. Every member can sign in guests, and this isn’t just tolerated, it’s encouraged!
  • There is no sign-here-to-join. Because of the amount of trust we place in each other, there’s a self-guided “membership quest” where you teach yourself all the things you need to know before getting your key. It can take several weeks!
  • There are no DC’s — nobody’s gonna charge you for consulting. (But they might joke about it if they’re really annoyed.) We just call each other “friends” and this process is “conversation”.
  • Sometimes the equipment is broken, and sometimes the documentation is unfinished. If you can muster a posse to fix it or finish it, thank you!

Obviously, this is a far cry from the professional setting that employed a team of knowledgeable and dedicated people to help members build their dreams. Here, all 3 i’s, the imagination, the innovation, and the inspiration, come from you.

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