TechShop’s “Innovation Cathedral” Comes to San Francisco—Serving Craftsmen and Entrepreneurs on the Gold’s Gym Model

12/16/10Follow @wroush

As a Web journalist, I don’t need many tools. Give me a laptop, a smartphone, and an Internet connection, and I’m basically a roving newsroom. But don’t ask me to make anything other than words: in my loft, the closest thing to a power tool is the kitchen blender. To build, say, a robot dog, I’d first have to spend thousands of dollars on design software and metalworking equipment.

Or at least, I would have until this week. Now there’s another option: I could just get a $100-per-month membership at TechShop, a craftsmen’s clubhouse that plans a “soft opening” of its new San Francisco location this weekend. TechShop has almost every conceivable tool at the ready, from design workstations to computer-controlled looms, laser cutters, commercial-grade sewing machines, welding equipment, injection molding machines, an electronics lab, and a full woodworking shop. It’s a DIY enthusiast’s paradise.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Founded by Jim Newton, a former science advisor for the Discovery Channel cult favorite Mythbusters, TechShop has grand plans to expand Kinko’s-style to dozens of cities around the United States. But the former San Francisco Chronicle distribution warehouse that TechShop is renovating at 926 Howard Street is the company’s first big venture beyond its Menlo Park, CA, birthplace. (There’s a TechShop partner location in Raleigh-Durham, NC, but it’s not company-owned.) As such, the San Francisco opening a major test of the whole TechShop premise, which is that urban areas are bursting with creative people who want to make and sell stuff, but lack the necessary tools, training, and facilities.

“Our mission is to engage, enable, and empower people to build their dreams,” says TechShop’s CEO, Mark Hatch.

Work Tables at TechShopSF

Work Tables at TechShopSF

That may sound like marketing-speak, but Hatch is as earnest as they come. He’s a business development ninja who once ran the computer services business at Kinko’s and has studied the ideas of sociologists and new-economy gurus like Richard Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class) and Joseph Pine (Mass Customization, The Experience Economy, Authenticity). He’s convinced that Americans have a deep-rooted urge to make things with their hands, and that with the right tools, a significant minority could turn their basement-shop hobbies into real businesses. Which is why he believes that there’s a place in every major city for a fully tricked-out machine shop that functions on the Gold’s Gym model—that is, charging a flat monthly fee in return for unlimited access to TechShop’s space and equipment.

Those membership terms aren’t just an administrative convenience—they’re the cornerstone of the company’s business model and marketing philosophy. At Kinko’s, says Hatch, “the fascinating story that was about the community that developed between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.” This was back in the 1990s, when hordes of desktop-publishing professionals and design students would descend on Kinko’s stores every night because they couldn’t afford a $1,000 copy of Quark or Photoshop or their own laser printers. They’d end up helping one another and, in more than a few cases, going into business together. “The problem was that we charged by the hour, so you were incentivized to leave,” says Hatch. “If you want to create a movement to change the world and really help drive innovation and creativity, you need a ‘third place,’ as Starbucks likes to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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