The Story of i3 Detroit
The founding of i3 Detroit largely started with Russ Wolfe. Russ read an article in Wired magazine that described the ideas and principles behind hackerspaces and their recent growth in popularity. Russ gathered a group of like-minded people, had a logo designed, and set up a website. He put significant effort into seeking out people who would be interested and in bringing them together. That effort was a huge part of i3’s success. The initial group of people complete strangers to each other, so there wasn’t an in-group and an out-group. The initial members also all had many different skill sets, interests, and perspectives (as much as a group of white suburban males can). The group debated a lot, but if they could all agree on something, they knew they were on the right track. There were five people at the first meeting at the Coffee Beanery in Berkeley in April 2009. By July 2009, three months later, there were 9 members; the group started collecting dues!
By this time, the group was spending a lot of time meeting and discussing how to build a hackerspace and they were not actually making anything as a group. Matt Switlik, a founding member, opened up his garage to the group, so they started to have meetings in Matt's garage. They started by holding a small build session to build bristlebots. It was a fun activity that got everyone to actually build something together. This was the first meeting that Nick Britsky attended. The group found out that Ann Arbor was going to hold a mini-Maker Faire, so they decided to do a group build for exhibition. The group project for the mini-Maker Faire was a giant rideable bristlebot. The group presented itself at the mini-Maker Faire as i3 Detroit, with information about their grassroots effort andbooklets on how to become a member.
After the mini-Maker Faire, i3 Detroit really needed and wanted a space. Jaime Wolfe, Russ Wolfe’s wife, helped run the financial numbers for a few different spaces and determined the financial needs to survive. The founding members agreed to fund the space with $100 monthly dues. The group had negotiated a space in Royal Oak down to an affordable initial rate that increased over time as the group was expected to grow. The group had 13 members when they took possession of the Royal Oak space on Labor Day weekend of 2009.
i3 Detroit spent the next month as a group putting their personal time and money into bettering the space. They set a goal of holding a grand opening in October. After a long month of working late into the nights with both members and guests (who started stopping by the space and stuck around to help with the build out (Nate Warnick and Rashad Williams really stand out), the grand opening party needed to happen. The group once again raised funds to throw a party and was even able to get a local brewery to donate two kegs.
The group wrote a personal letter to Jim Ellison, the Mayor of Royal Oak, and invited him to do the ribbon cutting. Metro Times had posted the grand opening party event and the group was finally ready to share what they had been working on. The space had 17 members as the day of the grand opening party arrived. Many people showed up throughout the day, including the Mayor, who stylishly cut the ribbon with an oxy-acetylene welding torch. The party went late into the evening and even though the members were all weary, it was tempered by a great sense of accomplishment. The space looked great, with works of local artists hung on the walls throughout.
Along the way, i3 Detroit had reached out to other hackerspaces like Pumping Station One (PS:One) and begun building good relationships and sharing ideas of what worked and what did not. The founding members of PS:One and i3 soon became good friends. The PS:One members traveled to i3 to spend time and the i3 members drive to Chicago. This is how PS:One really became i3 Detroit’s sister space.
The i3 members spread the word, went to local events to hand out flyers, and even got i3 involved in other groups' events. Nick Britsky and Russ Wolfe reached out to other organizations, going to their meetings and building relationships with Make, Handmade Detroit, etc.. The founding members were good at talking up i3 and spreading the word. They all seemed to live and breathe i3 at this point.
There were struggles as well, such as trying to determine the right price point for membership that allowed i3 to grow, yet not cut itself off from potential members due to their financial constraints. When the group had to leave Royal Oak and find a new building, they also had to raise additional funds. The group used word of mouth and a “help save the robots” campaign on Kickstarter. It worked, and the group was able to secure its current location in Ferndale. i3 Detroit prided itself on holding community events and classes, which, in turn, helped to build the organization.
Moving to Ferndale
On March 31st, 2010, i3 Detroit migrated to its new home in Ferndale, MI. The new location, a light industrial building, had over 1,000 square feet of office space and roughly 7,000 square feet of warehouse floor with a high-bay ceiling, more than 6,000 square feet larger than the previous space. The move was very hastily done, nothing was organized, and the space was functionally paralyzed for a few months. This, coupled with a mold abatement issue in the office areas, required determination and commitment from members to bring the space into a condition allowing it to be occupied. Amid the sound of saws and compressors, the new space, and i3 Detroit's first birthday, were both celebrated with a barbeque on April 25th, 2010.
i3 Detroit membership hovers around 120-150 dues-paying members (depending on your math and if the CRM is cranky that day) and a handful of regular guests, with several people in the space on any given night of the week. Until recently, the space was primarily used in the evenings and nights. However, many new members have extended the hours of use into the daytime as well, so visitors have a much better chance that someone will be at the space if they decide to stop by for a visit. Recurring events and occasional classes dot the calendar, and i3 members often make a strong showing at local DIY-oriented events. This is nowhere more true than Maker Faire Detroit, the number of projects from i3 justifies a separate large tent.
Regional hackerpsaces cooperate and compete. One highlight of the summer is the friendly competition in a Powerwheels racing competition series at Maker Faires and mini-Maker Faires. The competition can be serious and silly, with big hats and boomboxes mounted to some dashboards.
i3 Detroit was recently designated as a 501(c)(3) educational non-profit organization, reflecting its commitment to helping members of the community learn new skills and practice those skills in a well-equipped shop. Members freely share their skills in class settings and in one-on-one discussions related to specific member projects. Members are also regularly on the look-out for unique and useful additions to list of equipment available in the shop. If you stop by, you will see a mix of fully functional equipment, and some tools that are being renovated for use. The goal is to be able to walk in with an idea and be able to realize it in physical form. Having some fun along the way is also important, with regular member meetings and planned and impromptu social events.