Is the TechShop model in trouble?

Is the TechShop model in trouble?


It sounded like a dream: a health club for nerds, only instead of treadmills and weight sets, members paid $125/month to work with CNC routers, laser cutters, and other high-end gadgets. The first of three TechShops opened in Menlo Park, California in 2006 but two more, one in Beaverton OR and the other in Durham, NC followed.

Currently, only the Cali shop remains open.

Both the TechShop Portland and TechShop Durham have closed their doors and are seeking smaller spaces. In the former case, it appears the shop was evicted after missing two months’ rent.

In a forum thread, TechShop Durham founder Scott Saxon blamed the economy:

We have just under 25,000 sf here and secured our lease, as did Portland, during financially good times. The economy tanked right after we both started. Lack of funding is not the reason for anything. The reason we are moving is the landlord is unwilling to adjust to the current times. The rent here is simply too much.

We are moving to a much cheaper facility and with our present membership, about the same as Portland, we will succeed in 2010. I believe Portland will do the same. This is not political speak. This is just the way it is as told by the numbers.

Could it also be that the shops are experiencing member drain from the burgeoning hackerspace movement?

What do you think, readers? Is the day of the giant franchised TechShop over, to replaced by smaller, leaner, nonprofit hackerspaces? Will Portland and RDU bounce back along with the economy? Leave your thoughts in comments.

Note: A member of the Portland community asked me to link to the TechShop Portland forums which has additional discussion of the situation there.


64 thoughts on “Is the TechShop model in trouble?

  1. EngineerZero says:

    I’m reading a book on how to make a remote controlled robot, and then the writer starts talking about welding the frame, and I’m like, “Whoa!”

    I can see where a Tech Shop could connect me with professionals who can do the welding according to my specs. I’m not so sure the hackerspace movement can do that.

    Anyhow, I wish them well and hope they open a store in the Seattle area soon.

    1. says:

      You don’t think a full non-profit hackerspace wouldn’t have someone around who know something about welding and had the equipment? I think you’re likely to get a better deal out of the non-profit space because you’ll have a bunch of friends around who could trade you that service for you doing something trivial for them, like run an errand or solder a bunch of things together that they find tedious or whatever.

  2. KentKB says:

    I think Jims idea is a winner, but I do think the times are reflected in the down sizing of some of the locations. The new San Francisco Techshop will prove this, also location is important in anything. Look at the Maker Faires and how they are spreading and spearing the word.
    There are a huge DiY movement reflected in both, and when that begins to fade so will the Maker Faire and Hacker spaces and Techshops.

    1. KentKB says:

      Sorry typo should say:Maker Faires and how they are spreading, and spreading the word.

  3. nelsonii says:

    I like the TechShop idea because it’s more of a business transaction. The hackerspaces are more like clubs, which seem dependent on how well you get along with whomever is running the space.

    1. RocketGuy says:

      TechShop has a decent model for me (I have little tolerance for interpersonal politics or “clubs”), and is quite effective at providing some higher end tools than what I can manage on my own. I’m really looking forward to the SF shop, although I will admit that I might be using their machines to build my own machines. I’m not rich, but sometimes converting my cash into services I want isn’t totally a bad way to go, particularly when the value is very high considering the alternatives (hire a machine shop to do the same work for thousands). And it’s more fun.

      While they will have somewhat depressed business along with everybody else in the short term, I was really pissed that I couldn’t swing the investment pledge for the SF shop. I still feel that it was a big missed opportunity for me, but I gotta deal with a house remodel first. Had it been a year ago, or next year, I would have invested with no qualms at all.

  4. John Stoner says:

    Maybe the ‘hackerspace movement’ is causing problems for the ‘techshop model,’ but these are two spaces having trouble in two small cities. The number of hackers we’re talking about is under 100.

    If the hackerspaces in Portland and Durham (and I don’t see any listed for durham on, for Portland I see four) are absorbing the people who would go to the TechShops, the people on the ground know it.

    Anyone from those cities got any info?

    @engineerzero: depends on your specs and on the hackerspace. In Chicago, we could probably help you at Pumping Station: One. I don’t know anyone in Seattle. Maybe someone at can speak up for themselves. They have the wherewithal to build themselves a Makerbot, they probably have some talented people on hand.

    1. Matt Westervelt says:

      Hi, Matt from Metrix Create:Space (Seattle) here.

      .\C:_ is not a private club, it’s a business, open to the public and we’re small with a realistic attitude on growth. I think we’re in the best location (on Capitol Hill) we can be. The parking is lousy, but the population density is amazing and it’s a great place to hang out, get food, drinks, etc. We’re not a warehouse in the middle of some far off burb.

      We have walk in rates as well as memberships. We’ve got expert help available and workshops to ramp you up. We have built a couple of makerbots, picked up every color and type of plastic we can get our hands on and we’re building a reprap for larger objects and multi-object builds. We have a small laser that can cut wood, acrylic and other non-dangerous-to-us-or-the-machine materials. We probably won’t do Creme Brulee again any time soon, but we’re game to try things out. We just got a large format inkjet and we’re working out how to print on cloth so we can get jiggy with the sewing machines.

      We don’t weld or really do any metal work beyond what we can do with small tools in our shop, but Hazard Factory just put up a notice about welding classes on our bulletin board, and we know there are plenty of other people in the area who are as excited as we are about helping you get your project built.

      I would love to see a Techshop Seattle, because it’s nice to have big tools when you need them.

    2. robotbox says:

      I’m a member of the TechShop in the Raleigh/Durham area. It’s not exactly what I’d call a “small” city, as there are over 1 million people in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel-Hill, and surrounding area.

      We’re currently in the middle of a move, and we should “soft open” in a few days. The economy really has been a game changer in a lot of ways. For instance, $1/sqft was a good price for commercial real-estate a few years ago, when the TSDurham and TSPortland original leases were signed, but now paying half of that is too much.

      Regardless of what happen, the model seems perfectly viable. People forget that memberships are only a part of the revenue stream – there’s also classes and work done for paying clients with the tools.

      Given that Raleigh/Durham is a vibrant, techno-savvy area, and there isn’t any competing options, I’m pretty bullish on the TSRDU new location.

  5. Chrome6 says:

    The Durham shop has a new space, and is moving into their new space. They have pretty much daily updates on the owner’s blog.

    Wish it was a bit closer to me (or vice-versa), but my little town isn’t nearly big enough to support a Techshop.

  6. hualon says:

    The idea has merit but the implementation needs a lot of fixing. They’re going through a lot of growing pains. I have been a member at TechShop Durham since day 0 and I’ve seen what has happened.

    They had HUGE interest in the space with attendance at pre-opening meetings in the hundreds. They were obviously encouraged by this turnout and built a space accordingly. They planned on bringing in about half of their (perhaps overly optimistic) 4-500 members in the first year.

    The maximum membership in the first year peaked at around 150 but mostly hovered around 125.

    The problem doesn’t appear to be one of attrition. There frankly isn’t anywhere else to go! Instead the problem seems to be centered around exuberance. They planned to have far more members than they wound up getting. They planned to rent far more spaces than they wound up renting, etc.

    With huge overhead and projections that were WAY off the mark they had no choice but to relocate.

    But that’s all in the past.

    TechShop Durham is now TechShop RDU. TechShop RDU is building out their facility in a far less expensive location and they expect to reopen in the next 4-6 weeks.

    They are honoring all existing memberships and froze them so that the members won’t lose any of their investment. The fact that they had to close up shop and transfer over the course of two months sucks but it was unavoidable.

    So there’s your report from The Man On The Ground in Durham. All of this information is public on the TechShop Durham forum, blog, and website. I suggest you update this post to reflect the honest truth rather than all the supposition.

    Portland, from what I understand, is not doing as well as TS:RDU. As far as I know they do not have plans to reopen.

  7. Powderhound says:

    The original poster has a pretty jaded point of view. TechShop Durham and Portland might be in a rough patch but by no means are they down and out.

    TechShop Menlo Park is a much different story all together. Not only is the shop busier than ever (almost double the membership load each year) they are expanded to two locations this year.

    “Hacker spaces” are exclusive clubs that do not even scratch the surface of what TechShop can offer the public. Poster nelsonii above hit the nail on the head. If you not part of the in crowd you don’t get to play. TechShop lets everyone in and never judges any project.

    Any doubters as to whether or not TechShop will grow and eventually pop up in every city will be proved wrong very shortly.

    The ability to make with out judgment and fear is something we all desperately need.

    1. follower says:

      > “Hacker spaces” are exclusive clubs that do not even
      > scratch the surface of what TechShop can offer the public.

      To be fair, there are a wide variety of membership policies
      for Hackerspaces and while some of the more well known
      places have a degreee of exclusivity I would think the
      majority are very welcoming to anyone who is interested.

  8. PaulBo says:

    The ‘hackerspace movement’ and ‘Techshop models’ are not mutually exclusive. I’d argue that the overlap between them is surprisingly small.

    I’m from San Francisco & love Noisebridge. It’s fantastic. What a great place for people to get together, share knowledge and have fun doing so. I’m also a fan of TechShop. It has a ton of good tools and machinery and the experienced people to train you in using them.

    The hackerspaces can’t generally fund the types of things that a Techshop can. Where’s the $50K laser cutter or shop-bot or welding tools or powder coater at the local hackerspace?

    TechShop is opening up another bay area location in downtown SF & I can’t wait. But I’ll also be spending a good amount of my time at Noisebridge.

  9. Sam Ley says:

    I’m on the board of a project in Boulder, CO called the Phoenix Asylum that is somewhere between a hackerspace and a TechShop kind of model. We have a large facility, with some “common” resources, such as the heavy metal working equipment, as well as a number of 100-200sq. ft. marked floor spaces. Members rent a floor space on 3-month lease terms, move their personal equipment into said space, and then work in their space, spilling out into the communal area and using communal equipment when needed. Members circulate a bit as some are long-term, and others rent only while they are working on a particular large project.

    We are currently experiencing a problem that I suspect will be experienced by many shops attempting to provide this sort of service, and has affected others before (most notably NIMBY) – CODE COMPLIANCE.

    The issue we are running into is that in order to make a space where people can MAKE without being professionals who sell a lot of materials, the rent and fees must be minimal. In order to do this, the organization can’t charge much more than the expenses on the facility, and has to run with minimal overhead, and low margins (we do this by design, since we are a CO non-profit organization).

    The problem is that the code and fire safety requirements for running an INDUSTRIAL space are much higher than for running a home workshop, and are designed around facilities that make a lot of money doing what they do, hence, can afford $300/door panic bars, complete fire protection systems, full ADA compliant upgrades, etc. A facility that essentially generates no income beyond what is necessary to pay the bills plus a little pad for the future can’t handle that level of requirement. Right now we are faced with many long lists of required corrections – and if they were all done, we would either a) run out of money, or b) have to raise fees to our members above their budgets as “personal makers”.

    Our facility is very safe by “home workshop” standards, but still not up to snuff for “industrial and light manufacturing” standards in our area.

    This creates a trap in the business model – home workshops fall on one side of the fence, true industrial job-shops fall on the other side, but when you combine the two concepts, you end up with something that is very difficult to make tenable, the way most fire and building codes are written.

    We are working on our plans to stay open, and intend to do so, but it represents the largest challenge we’ve faced in over a year of successful operation, and has killed other cooperative projects quite quickly.

    If you haven’t ever had to deal with your building department, let me offer this warning – it is like a force of nature, if you haven’t dealt with them yet, it is just because they haven’t found out, or haven’t got to you yet.


  10. Garrett says:

    What’s the commonly quoted statistic about small businesses? Only one in ten will succeed? I don’t know how accurate that is, but it’s definitely a common occurrence for any kind of startup business to not get off the ground. There are thousands of factors that could possibly work against a fledgling business.

    I was fortunate enough to move to the SF Bay area right before the first Techshop started up. I was part of the volunteer crew that helped tear down walls, spackle and paint drywall, paint floors, cart building refuse out to dumpsters, etc. I’ve been involved as a member since then (though I haven’t been there much recently due to my own startup business).

    There’s probably no single factor that is responsible for Techshop Menlo Park surviving for over three years when other Techshops have struggled to last six months. One major factor may be location…this is an area where innovation and self-directed projects are taken seriously. Another factor might be Jim Newton and the people he’s selected to help him run the business. You need a crew who knows the waters or you’ll eventually end up on the rocks.

    Maybe Jim will talk about this in more detail if he ever writes a book, but I know that even TechShop Menlo Park was at one point during its first year extremely close to going under…a matter of days really. Jim figured out a few drastic business moves that pulled it back from the brink. It could easily have been a different story, but if you ask any successful business they probably have a similar turning point in their early years.

    I don’t think TechShops will ever be very profitable, so you really need to have someone who believes in the idea have ultimate authority over the enterprise.

  11. Nate says:

    For me, $125/mo is hard to swallow, especially for something I don’t need on a monthly basis. That monthly fee is a mighty big “safety net” for the day when I *do* need a bigger tool.

    CNC stuff aside, there are plenty of local tool rental shops that can provide what I need, with a little advice, for $30-$100 a day.

    As for hackerspaces…maybe they could strike up a deal. Techshop could give a discounted rate to local hackerspace members (with a small monthly due from the ‘space?). This combo could alleviate the idea that the hackerspace *needs* to have a massive set of tools, and instead focus more on the community relations and classes and general camaraderie that needs to exist in order to spread the word about the Maker culture.

    1. Ron Bean says:

      The problem with tool rental shops is that they can’t rent me some space to use the tool in. Finding affordable space is *much* harder than finding affordable tools (unless you have the critical mass to form a hackerspace).

      Of course homeowners have things like basements and garages, but many of us are apartment dwellers (either by choice or by necessity).

      I’d like to know what’s the smallest metro area that has a functioning hackerspace. We’re trying to prove that Milwaukee is large enough, but the jury is still out…

  12. morgoth says:

    Posted by from another viewpoint

    “The issue we are running into is that in order to make a space where people can MAKE without being professionals who sell a lot of materials, the rent and fees must be minimal. In order to do this, the organization can’t charge much more than the expenses on the facility, and has to run with minimal overhead, and low margins (we do this by design, since we are a CO non-profit organization).”

    SO would the codes be different if you used a model built on an educational facility or incubator? After all it is not like you are mass producing like a factory. As a member of the culinary field all of these “new” schools opening up often do not have professional educators teaching classes. They have people from the industry doing that, and from what I have seen on the PBS show and online, you guys as a group have quite a number of people who could teach such classes.

    I,in my spare time do woodworking but there have been many videos and other presentations I have seen that have peaked my interest in what you and other Makers are doing. Other than that I HOPE and PRAY for the sake of NON-PROFESSIONAL INNOVATORS everywhere that concepts like this spread like wild fire. Especially here to Saint Louis, Missouri.

    1. JohnG says:

      I have always been wondering if it is part of what I like to call the “U effect”.

      When TS first opened up and talked about expansion, I remember there being one in TX somewhere.. I don’t remember about the east coast.

      Anyhow, basically the “U effect” would be to take the map of the US and draw a big ass U on it. What you have there is where about 90% of the “cool” stuff opens up at. Look at the remaining 90% of the US not covered in your U and you have the “have nots”. Ok, Chicago is sometimes used as the “Token” Midwest city.

      I’ve been starting to look into how to graph this all out, but it seems like those in the U are Overloaded with stuff to do. So, anything that opens up has to compete the hell out of a lot of other things to get people to do it. While, the rest of the area just has issues with population density. A techshop is a major time filler which the midwest is in the market for.

      I planned last year to take a vacation to go to the TS in ?Austin? because it was only a 4 hour flight away, but they closed or never opened.

      Could a reason that TS is having such membership problems be because they are cannabalizing their own markets? I mean, 3 of them are within a 3 hour drive. I drive for an hour just to go to a good store.

      Oh, and as the guy above, I am in St. Louis as well.

    2. Deech says:

      I (and several others) run a hackerspace in St. Louis called Arch Reator (if you’re in the area, have a look!), and I don’t think that we’d overlap all that much. Unless some angel comes out of the woodwork, there’s no way we could offer the kinds of tools that a Techspace could. I see them as complementary, not competing. I know if there was a TS available in STL, I’d still be a member of both. Hackerspaces are about community and the people you build around you, not just the stuff.

      Also, I take issue with the idea that hackerspaces are exclusive clubs… That’s simply not true. Every one we’ve dealt with so far has been *very* open and welcoming. We had our first official open house on Jan 30th and people drove in from Kansas City and Huntsville to support us. They didn’t even know us and yet drove hours and hours to help us make our event a success. Everyone is welcome to our meetings and everyone is welcome to learn and teach.
      Not exclusive at all.

      1. Deech says:

        Our hackerspace name is Arch Reactor. Sorry about that. :)

  13. says:

    Most communities already have public schools that have well-equipped shops. We should be working on opening these up after hours and in the summer. It would cost the schools next to nothing, which means cheap, widespread tools across the nation instantly.

    1. rjnerd says:

      “open up a school shop”

      Around here most of the public Jr and Sr high schools have closed their shop classes, and sold off the gear. You have to go to one of the regional vocational schools (one or two per county) to find a place that still has a shop.

      Before I went and filled my basement with cast iron, I signed up for a local adult ed program that was basically a facilitated open shop. It was the only town offering one in a 10 mile radius of where I lived. 5 weeks into a a 14 week term, I got a letter from the town saying “we are closing the shop, Tuesday will be the last class, here is a coupon for your unused weeks, hope you want another class”

      I bought the O/A torch rig 3 days later, and my first (third hand) mill drill three weeks later. The house I was in didn’t have an electrical service that would support the TIG welders available back then. (I build bicycle frames for my own amusement, siege weapons for competition, the occasional mad max style contraption for TV, and help non-tool-wielding artists turn their kinetic sculpture sketches into functioning lumps of metal)

      When I was of school age, middle school (we called it Jr High) meant shop class for all the boys (and since it was the 60’s, home ec for the girls). Those shops disappeared a very long time ago, part expense, part fear of injury. The high schools held out longer, but its been more than a decade since I have seen mainstream high schools with shops, you only find them in the Voc/tech. Makes it difficult for the budding engineer, who will be going to college, still wants to take AP physics, etc. but wants to take a single shop class as an elective, so they can actually build stuff.

      Nowadays I do some work with schools, trying to encourage some kids to become part of the next crop of engineers, and workers in the sciences. I do this with programs that exploit my participation on the TV series Junkyard Wars/Scrapheap Challenge. Core of my program is a mini version of the show, with participants divided into teams, and given access to tools, a communal pile of junk, and a timed challenge that must be solved by the building of a machine. This model works with adults. (hell I even had the traders and managers of a NYC hedge fund build working machines) – see for details.

      This can be difficult when I do it with school kids. If I have them for multiple sessions, I have learned I have to spend the first meeting with exercises that give them some basic tool skills. I can’t just jump in and give them a build a solution challenge. They haven’t seen enough machine guts, to be able to come up with even a fairly simple machine, nor have they ever grabbed a saw and cut a hunk of wood, then screwed it to a metal bracket. If it doesn’t snap together, helicopter parents seem to think it too dangerous.

      I get them using tools, and seeing the innards of a machine by giving them mechanical things to take apart. Feedstock for the exercise are old wind up alarm clocks, dead lawnmower engines, and other things that are bolted together, and available from curb depot, freecycle, or the craigslist giveaway category. (when I don’t have them for multiple sessions, I talk about how to think about solving a mechanical problem, then give their challenge. They do the actual building as a classroom exercise, led by their usual teacher.) (yes it can be fun for me, the look on a 12 yr old’s face when they got the head off the Briggs and Stratton, and saw the piston move up and down, in synch with the valves…)

      Founder: The New England Rubbish Deconstruction Society; The NERDS.

  14. Rhenium says:

    …but it sounds awesome. I knew about “The Crucible” in Oakland, but not this one. This is why I really enjoy reading the Make Blog.
    Maybe I can get into one of the CNC classes when I am down in the Bay Area next month.

    Thanks MAKE.

  15. rjnerd says:

    Boston had Sparqs which was another shop that hoped to turn itself into a chain. It closed after about a year.

    One problem with renta-shops is equipment condition – Especially metal cutting, inexperience often leads to damaged machines, or at least cooked cutting tools. Sure having classes helps, but you wouldn’t be a maker if you didn’t push your limits. (in fact consumables may always be an issue. I bet I could go thru $50 of cutoff wheels, welding wire and shielding gas on a single saturday. I don’t know a good way to deal with this)

    An issue I had with sparqs was that there are far more tools than any place can afford to keep around. I regularly asked Tim “Is there an ….”. This is especially true when you are working metal, there is a reason that the MSC catalog wound up as a multi-volume set.

    The wood shop had a lot of the large tools (great jointer and planer, well setup table saws), but lots of the small tools or accessories just weren’t there. (things like a biscuit jointer, a Dado set for the table saw, a taper cutting jig, a mortise attachment for the drill presses, etc) (I have too many metalworking tools, not much for working wood, so when I wanted to make a bookcase I had to do it elsewhere.)

    I suggest that anyone that is going to open such a space, make a universal tool and cutter grinder an early addition to the shop, and if you have the budget to hire actual staff, get someone that knows how to use it. (and don’t let anyone touch his/her measuring tools)

  16. electricalalchemist says:

    I’m actually in the process of starting up a central-mass workshop in Millbury, MA (15 min south of Worcester). I’ve got most of the headache out of the way (space, insurance quoting, suppliers), I’m just looking for members now. Anyone here in central mass should certainly check it out.

    MakeIt Labs.

  17. -SLN- says:

    I really agree with this, and am surprised more people haven’t mentioned it. I looked at a membership, excitedly, with my fiance. When we saw the prices, it was an instant “yeah, maybe not.” The trial memberships are convoluted and seem to be about $90 for a day pass. This is prohibitive pricing for many of us, especially when they’re trying to image as a health club for nerds. I can join a gym for $30/month on average, and for that price (give or take a few dollars), I’d happily have a membership.

    When you’re talking about maintenance and costs and trying to cover them with revenues, you have two approaches: volume/scale and pricing. Clearly, TS took the latter approach. I think 400-500 members in a year wouldn’t have been unrealistic at prices reasonable for occasional hobbyists.

    As for the hackerspace movement in RDU, there’s a vibrant DIY movement, but there’s no reason they’d have to be mutually exclusive. As another commenter noted, in many cases the two movements are complementary.

    Still, for a casual hobbyist, $120/month means I’ll never be a member of Durham TS.

    1. robotbox says:


      I agree that TS could be expensive for some people depending on their budget, but it’s all about perspective. TS RDU, right now, is only $83/month if you buy a year membership. The “average” cell phone bill is like $50/mo per user. The “average” cable bill is probably higher than that. You could give up eating out twice a week and have more than enough for a TS membership. People pay $12 for a movie ticket, and $4 for a cup of coffee. It’s about perspective.

      Also keep in mind that you’re getting access to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Any moderately savvy person could probably make something nifty and sell it on Craigslist to recoup their costs. In addition to the equipment, you’re getting a whole group of friendly makers to trade ideas with.

      Take, for instance, laser cutting. You could pay $83/mo to get access to a laser cutter (and everything else) at TS, or you could pay Pololu $2.50 per MINUTE for laser cutting ( You could sign up for TS, or you could go to your local cobbler and pay them per stitch to get them to sew something w/ their industrial machine. You could pay hundreds of dollars to get a vinyl sign made up, or $83/mo and do your own.

      Everyone’s budget is different, but it seems a very reasonable cost for any maker with disposable income.

  18. rmd6502 says:

    Just a bit too expensive considering the current state of the economy.

  19. jeff-o says:

    There’s no way I could afford $125 a month for a membership! Over the span of one year, that’s $1500 – enough to buy almost all the tools I could want, aside from a laser cutter. And I can get by without a laser cutter. Once you remove the camaraderie aspect that a hackerspace provides, I just don’t see the point of a place like this.

  20. Josh Leone says:

    You could never buy the tools Techshop gave access to for $1500 per year, even if you saved that $1500 for twenty years. What pisses me off is that all this talk about how it’s the location, it’s the economy, etc. is just crap. The location RDU TS moved to was the worst possible choice imaginable. It was basically hidden and no effort was made to let the community at large know about it. No advertising except what could be gotten in free pubs and through occasional random N&O articles. The whole thing was run like a garage hackerspace instead of a full shop equipped with a huge range of gear. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t even a community relations person. The TS model, no matter where it is, is not going to survive at all unless they start reaching out to the public and the business community. Here in the Triangle there are dozens of major tech companies that could have helped support Techshop RDU. Far as I can tell, no serious effort was ever made to involve them. It basically comes down to just bad business practices.

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