How to start a makerspace with next-to-no money
-Ryan Hunt, Co-Founder of the MakerBus, Canada’s first mobile makerspace
Three years ago Kim Martin, Beth Compton, and I decided to build Canada’s first mobile makerspace. But there was one small catch – we didn’t have any money. Despite this (big, but not insurmountable) catch we have managed to create a social enterprise that has surpassed our wildest expectations and have built something that now reaches thousands of people in our region every year.
This article will reflect on our experiences (good and bad) creating a makerspace with zero funding and will offer practical advice that you can use to help build or grow your own maker space or community.
I have ideas but no money, where do I start?
One of the most intimidating parts of starting a makerspace of any kind is finding initial funding. While money is great, funding can take many forms. Three things are key to getting to creating or growing any makerspace: money, time, and resources.
Let’s start by getting money out of the way. To get the MakerBus off the ground, we turned to the crowd-funding platform Indiegogo. There are scores of resources devoted to crafting the perfect crowd-funding campaign, so I will focus largely on our experience. Something that no one told us about crowdfunding is that it takes a lot of time. Before launching a campaign or appeal, be prepared for a near endless amount of Tweeting, blogging, emailing, posting, and self-promotion. While one tends to hear about the wild crowd-funding successes (I’m looking at you MaKey MaKey), the failures greatly outnumber the successes.
Community is key to starting any makerspace, but if you’re trying to build a makerspace on a $0 budget, community your single most important resource. When we started the MakerBus we had absolutely nothing – without our community we would be nowhere.
Developing a community takes a lot of work. For months after coming up with the idea for the MakerBus we talked to as many people as we possibly could. We met with not-for-profit organizations, companies, dreamers, and anyone who would listen. This period of community consultation was essential for helping us develop an idea of what the community was interested in and who would be interested in collaborating with us.
Don’t get me wrong – a lot of these meetings never went anywhere. It takes time and effort to start making community connections. These connections pay dividends in the long run. I remember explaining our idea for the MakerBus to the Executive Director of a charity called Literacy Link South Central on a park bench. Three years later and we’ve worked with Literacy Link on grants, developed innovative adult digital literacy modules, and made lasting friendships with their staff.
What if I really have no money?
As I mentioned earlier, to start a makerspace you need three things: money, time, and resources. If you have enough time and resources you can do a lot with very little money. To acquire time and resources, you’ll need people. People to offer their time in getting the makerspace off the ground and people to give their resources to the project.
Resources can take a number of forms. Resources can be the skills that your community members can contribute. From people with experience in carpentry, to people with experience in grant writing, to people with experience creating curriculum, you can find a use for pretty much any skill in a makerspace. Quite often the skills and interest that your community members have will shape the direction of your makerspace. If your community has an interest in sewing and knitting, your makerspace might become more of a textile-focused makerspace like Victoria’s Makehouse. If your community is interested in heavier equipment, it might become a more industrial makerspace like Toronto’s Site 3 coLlaboratory.
A skilled, engaged, and committed community of people is more valuable to a makerspace than any amount of money. Think about this – without an engaged community, why do you even need a makerspace? At the MakerBus we’ve had the privilege of visiting a lot of different community makerspaces. Creating makerspaces has become a huge trend amongst libraries in the past few years. We’ve noticed that community makes or breaks a library makerspace. Libraries that spend a bunch of money on equipment without first cultivating a maker community often find their equipment going unused. Without community, a makerspace is just a room filled with stuff.
What are things some things I should watch out for?
It can be tricky cultivating community. It’s important to keep in mind that while you’ll meet many amazing people while building your makerspace, not everyone you meet will have your best interests at heart. People and organizations often have agendas and may want to use your makerspace to fit into those agendas. This may sound cynical, but the MakerBus spent too long being involved with a predatory not-for-profit organization and it’s important to keep in mind that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Speaking from experience I would also caution against saying yes to all donations. Every makerspace will have different amounts of available space. In the early days of the MakerBus we would accept anything donation the community had to give to us. We did this for two reasons. First, it’s an honour to be offered something from a stranger and it can be difficult to say no to a generous offer. Second, as makers it’s easy to imagine that we’d find a use for anything eventually. And while it’s true that a creative maker can always find a use for something, it’s amazing how quickly your space will fill up if you accept any donation that comes your way. If you can’t think of an immediate use for a donation, you might want to consider whether or not you really need it.
Is it worth it?
I’m not going to lie, creating and maintaining a makerspace is a lot of work. Before embarking on such a project you have to prepare yourself for a massive commitment. Creating community, finding funding, designing compelling activities, and promoting your makerspace are 24/7 activities. But if you’re willing to put in the work, you’ll be amazed with the results. In the three years of running the MakerBus we’ve met amazing people, had crazy adventures, and pushed ourselves harder than we ever thought possible to learn to skills.
Starting a makerspace with next-to-no-money is possible and will be an adventure you’ll never forget.
If you liked this article, why not follow the MakerBus on twitter (@DHMakerBus) or like us on Facebook (/dhmakerbus)? We post some of the most creative maker projects found on the web every day. If you #getonthebus, we promise a fun ride!
-The MakerBus team