The Challenge of Running a Community Makerspace

Maker News Makerspace
Class at NoVA Labs in northern Virginia

Jim Sweeney of NoVA Labs

My guest on this episode of Make:cast is Jim Sweeney, the treasurer of NoVA Labs, a community makerspace in northern Virginia. Jim talks honestly about the challenges of growing a makerspace. With 700 members and many programs for young makers in the community, NoVA Labs has a bold vision of what a makerspace can be and Jim is determined to realize that vision in his community. NoVA Labs is thriving with plans to host a Maker Faire against next spring.

Jim Sweeney of NoVA Labs
Jim Sweeney of NoVA Labs


Jim: The biggest problem we have is if you ask any of our community makers, should we have a robotics program for kids? They would say, Oh, absolutely. I don’t want to see them or run into them or have to deal with them. But yeah, that’s a great idea. Should I have summer camp? Oh, absolutely. Especially for kids that can’t afford to pay it. That’s wonderful. I don’t want to see them. They better not be using my tools when I need to use it. But yeah, that’s a great idea. Space rigging, I call it, and moving has been and is continually an issue for us. We are continuing to look for additional space.

The Story of Nova Labs

Dale: That’s Jim Sweeney of Nova Labs, a community makerspace in Northern Virginia that recently bought its own building and continues to need more space to accommodate its 700 members and expanding youth programs. There are makerspaces that are doing quite well these days. In the new issue of Make Magazine, I wrote about Happy Lab in Vienna, which has a vibrant space with 1, 200 members.

Makerspaces around the world are making a comeback of sorts, as they become even more rooted in the communities they serve, and they refine what they offer. They are finding more people who want to learn new skills and connect with others who have skills and talents. In Jim Sweeney and his fellow board members, Nova Labs has the leadership and ambition to drive its impact. They serve as an inspiration to others who want to boldly grow their makerspace. 

Jim: I’m Jim Sweeney and I’m the treasurer at Nova Labs. This is my second round as treasurer and board member of Nova Labs. 

The Journey of Nova Labs: From Reston to Fairfax City

Dale: Where is Nova Labs?

Jim: Now, it’s in Fairfax City, Virginia. Still in Northern Virginia, but we moved from our Reston facility. 

Dale: Okay. I visited the Reston facility, but so you’ve moved to a different location.

Jim: When we moved to Reston, we knew that we had a limited amount of time there because that whole complex was scheduled for demolition and a complete redo with high rise apartments and everything. So we knew, and when we got the call that said, okay, you’ve got a year to get out. We started looking and we actually purchased a building in Fairfax City, 38, 000 square feet. 4. 4 million dollars.

Dale: Wow. 

Jim: And that was two years ago.

Dale: The previous building in Ruston was in an office park, right?

Jim: Of sorts. And it was very old. 

Dale: And what is this new location like? 

Jim: The new location started out life as a Verizon truck repair facility. When we bought it, it had most recently been owned by a gentleman who does T-shirts and I don’t mean a guy who just irons on shit. This guy does T-shirts for the Grateful Dead and Disney World. I don’t know the full story, Dale, but evidently his family ran into some major health problems. the business, the business suffered. The bank wound up repossessing the building, but they allowed him to stay and so the city who gave us a little bit of money to help us move in said we’d really like you to find a way to keep the T-shirt company, at least for a few years. So they lease out about 11, 000 square feet of our 38, 000. But we went from 10,500 in Reston to adding another 3000 in robotics and incubator space to roughly 27,000. And we don’t have enough space. , 

Dale: You’re already up against the limits there.

Jim: We are. 

The Financial Aspects of Running a Makerspace

Dale: How does, I’ll ask this directly, how does a community makerspace afford a $4.4 million building?

Jim: Our major sources of income are our member dues, right? Our classes that we teach, which are mostly open to the community, right? And some donations and we have been very lucky to have Google as a donor for several years and continue to have that relationship. Now we have added Amazon to that list. As a matter of fact, we have a new initiative to go find other donors, because what we want to do in terms of programs and things is going to take certainly more money than what we have now and what we’re bringing in now. We had almost a million dollars in the bank from capital campaigns and as the Maker Faire has always been profitable. Our robotics program is profitable. Our summer camps are profitable. We asked them, just don’t lose money. We don’t expect you to be all that profitable, but don’t lose money. And they managed to make, a little bit of money every year and, add that up and you wind up with about a million dollars in the bank and we needed 880,000 down, obviously 20%.

I called our bank, which was at the time BB&T, Truist, and they turned us down. You know me, I said, sweetheart, you’re going to get that money ready, because if you’re not my banker, I’m not your customer. I went that afternoon and pulled it out. And little Freedom Bank of Virginia, who is a Fairfax City bank. Their president has been to our facility numerous times; our loan officer has been to our facility numerous times; our account manager has been to our facility, said absolutely no problem. We were able to get the mortgage and we spent almost a million dollars retrofitting the building.

There’s been a lot of work to bring it up to code and it’s an old building. It’s got plenty of power. It just wasn’t where it needed to be at all times. 

Dale: When did it officially open? 

Jim: We never closed during the pandemic. During the pandemic, we actually had a team who got some additional 3d printers donated and immediately began printing PPE equipment.

Or the local hospitals and doctors offices and donating them. And that was great. This building just looked at the documents yesterday, October of 21, we actually signed the purchase and we moved in January of 22, so we have been in it almost two years now. There has been obviously a ton of changes, a much bigger wood shop, a much bigger metal shop, a blacksmithing area. Much bigger crafting area. And now built-in 10 office incubation center for people starting new businesses, more classrooms, et cetera. 

Dale: That’s great. 

Jim: Yeah we’re really fortunate, really happy with what’s going on. 

The Impact of Nova Labs on the Community

Jim: We do have a couple of grants from various organizations First Virginia, the City of Fairfax, National Geographic, and these ranged anywhere from, I think, $10,000 to $50,000 to help with various programs.

Since we moved right into little Fairfax City, the one thing that really helped us is that we’re right on a major road. People stop in all the time and go, what are you guys? And they find out and go, wow, this is cool. I want to join this, right? But the other thing that I think helps is we met with the three local schools right around us and found out that over 50 percent of the families that make up those schools come from below the poverty line. The poverty line in Virginia is 40, is 20, 000 for a family of four for a year. So, for the first time in our summer camps, 39 kids who couldn’t afford to take summer camps took summer camps.

This year in robotics, 25 kids who couldn’t afford to take robotics are taking robotics um, and next spring we are starting an apprentice program. We’ll be teaching a pre- apprenticeship program. We have various metal shops and fabrication facilities around the area who are willing to hire these apprentices.

They will get OJT there. We will give them an additional 3 years of self-paced education requirements so that they can become hopefully a journeyman. We incubate companies willing to hire those kids at 22 bucks an hour, which is $44,000 a year. 

Dale: This is workforce development being, 

Jim: Incubation center, workforce development, kids programs like robotics and summer camps. And then of course, our main business, which is a community maker center, right? And quite frankly, Dale, the biggest problem we have is if you ask any of our community makers, should we have a robotics program for kids? They would say, Oh, absolutely. I don’t want to see them or run into them or have to deal with them. But yeah, that’s a great idea. Should I have summer camp? Oh, absolutely. Especially for kids that can’t afford to pay it. That’s wonderful. That’s, I don’t want to see them. They better not be using my tools when I need to use it. But yeah, that’s a great idea. Space rigging, I call it, and moving has been and is continually an issue for us.

We are continuing to look for additional space. I don’t get that other 11, 000 square feet for five years, but by then our anticipation is to turn that into a full youth making center.

Dale: That’s fantastic. 

The Challenges of Balancing Different Needs in a Makerspace

Dale: People often ask can you run youth programs in the space and or shouldn’t everything always be open to youth? But it’s not as simple as that. It isn’t, it isn’t. And for safety reasons, for supervision.

Yep. But also just I think for the way that the adults use the space is different. They wanna focus on their work. 

Jim: I’ve had guys say to me, I come here to get away from my kids. If I wanted to be with kids, I’d stay the hell home. So they’re individual contributors for a reason, and they’re very opinionated about what makes them.

Dale: It gets to the management of a space is trying to figure out how to meet all the different needs and they’re not one and the same. 

Jim: No. In fact it, the robotics program and the makerspace friction got so bad in NoVA Labs 2 in Reston, I went to the complex manager and said, Hey I need something. He goes, I ain’t got any money. I don’t need money, dude. I need space. Space I got and he said, listen, because you’re renting that, I’ll give you X amount of thousand square feet for free for the robotics and they moved to a building that was catty corner off. So they could still come over and use our shops supervised, but when they were running around crazy and being kids, they were over here, not in our facility and it helped a lot.

And now we’re, we’re back to that same problem where we’ve got the mix and it’s hard. 

The Administration and Management of Nova Labs

Dale: So talk about the administration. How many employees do you have and volunteers? 

Jim: Volunteers. So members, we have over 700, but that includes about 100 volunteers who do nothing but volunteer work for their membership. We have a board of nine now, or moving towards nine. We have three part-time personnel, and that includes our community director whose job really is to listen to the community and basically get the word out to the community of not the rumors, but the truth. Community members come up to me and go, I heard we’re doing this. What the hell are you talking about? We also have an education director. We have a high turnover of members. Our membership is still growing every month, but we have a higher turnover than we like. The reason we have a higher turnover is people come, they’re interested in the woodshop, they take all the sign off classes. So we’re trying to get more project classes. Come in three straight Saturdays and leave with a table, right? Those are harder. There are a lot more work for the instructors. We are working on beefing up those. We have an education director to do that and to make sure that all of our classes, signups included, are up to our standards.

And we have a halftime facilities person. That’s three new employees since we last spoke. We also have two seasonal summer employees that run the maker school program and one seasonal person who runs the robotics program. 

Dale: Do you have an executive director? 

Jim: No. No. No, we don’t. But. 

Dale: That’s interesting. 

Jim: We do have an operations committee. We have tried very hard to move the board towards the strategic planning. The board was, and still is, to some extent, very tactical. For the first time last year, we did strategic planning for each of our five areas. Innovation center, skills development, robotics, summer camps, and the actual makerspace.

We’d never done them before. Never. We’re actually recruiting three new board members who bring a lot of strategic experience into our board now. And we’re trying to leave the day to day to the community manager and the operations committee. I want the board trying to figure out how I’m going to pay for and how I’m going to get 20, 000 square feet because I don’t want 120 kids in my robotics program. I want 1200, of which half can’t afford to be there. That’s how I can make a difference in Fairfax. I don’t want six to eight apprentices in my program. I want 50 or 100 so that they can make a difference in the city of Fairfax where they live and pay taxes. We need additional space. We need money. We need to go after bigger grants.

For the first time, we’re getting our books audited. Dale, we brought in 1. 3 million dollars last year. We’ve never been audited. Never. We got our loan for the building without being audited. I don’t know how, but we did. 

Dale: But you have ambitions to have more impact. 

Jim: We have ambitions to have impact in and around our community because that’s where our members come from is the community. We’ve talked about this as a board. We could, look, screw it, not offering any of these programs. We’re a makerspace. We’ll be profitable every month. We’ll go buy great tools. We’re done. That’s not what any of us believe is the right thing to do for the community.

So we have big ambitions to make changes within the community for the positive beyond just offering a space for people to come and make things. 

Dale: That’s wonderful. Both to hear it and the fact that you’re doing it.

Jim: It’s hard. It is hard. 

Dale: I was going to ask a little bit about interfacing with the schools. 

Jim: We’re lucky. We have three schools around us and they all have– they don’t call them this, but a social worker who is responsible for kids from underprivileged families.

When I go and go, listen, here’s all the summer camps I got. Can you get me kids? I can take up to 50 free. They’re like, no problem. We got it, Jim. Or Hey, anybody want to be in robotics? They might, interested in science, technology, engineering, math, art, science, can’t afford it. They’re just wonderful to work with. Absolutely. 

Yeah they’re really wonderful. The city has been great to work with. We have a great relationship with the city. When we were in Reston, the fire marshals used to come through, once every six weeks. Maybe yeah, move that fire extinguisher 30 feet that way. You guys are good. We know you guys. You’re good. 

The new fire marshal is you guys want to do what? He made us put up a tin ceiling. In the 12 foot high ceiling area so we can do welding. Okay, that’s what you need us to do. We haven’t even talked to him about blacksmithing inside yet. We’ll get there.

And our plan in five years is we have a space where the tenant parks a big forklift. And we want to make that glassblowing. But glassblowing is ovens 24/7 and yeah, in the next five years of building a relationship with the chief, we’ll actually be able to get there to where we might be able to say, yeah, we want to do this.

 Having a relationship with the schools, having a relationship with the city government and having a relationship with the community is all 

The Importance of Donors and Partnerships

Dale: and donors. 

Jim: And we’ve done a terrible job of donors, absolutely terrible.

Dale: You’ve done better than most. 

Jim: We thankfully have our Google donor who, comes in once a year. He asks a bunch of questions. Guys, you’re ticking every one of my boxes, here’s your $50, 000 donation this year. We’ve now got Amazon up to $30,000 a year. So that’s helping. 

The Return of Maker Faire and its Impact

Jim: We’re going to bring Maker Faire back next spring. 

Dale: Yeah, tell me about that. I’m really excited to hear that.

Jim: We have been talking and talking. Is it the right time to do it? Is it the right time to do it? And we got a call one day from the city of Alexandria. It is the city of Alexandria’s 230th birthday next year and they offered to co produce it, co host it with us. They produce a bunch of large events, so tents, walkie talkies, food trucks, electric, all the logistical stuff is basically handled. We have the school in the city of Alexandria, which is huge, for free. We have the park next to it for free. They’re going to run a trolley bus up Duke Street in Old Town from the Metro to the school and back. So it’d be free. That’s all. All that was big expenses for us. All paid for.

Our job is get the makers in, program it, sell tickets, and go have a really good successful program, right? The outdoor folks like the blacksmiths and stuff. They’re taking care of the food trucks, so we’re really excited about it.

What the Maker Faire does for us is two things. One, we get a bump in members, always, but the other thing it does is it fills every class we have for the next six months. 

Dale: Yeah that’s so right. I wish more makerspaces took that on. I remember when I visited you. Classes have always been your secret sauce. You really put the energy into it. Some places when they say classes, they mean intro to 3D printing. I remember that you had a guy teaching carbon fiber fabrication with that. It’s a way to tap the talent in the community on one hand but it’s also a way to keep a different fresh revenue source 

Jim: The reason for that when we move from Nova Labs One now. You have to understand Nova Labs One started out as 650 square feet with 13 members. A guy showed up and said, I got a wood shop in storage and I’d like to colo it here until you guys can buy it from me.

We went to the quonset hut people that we rented from and he was like, Oh yeah, just take the next one. And we actually had. In order to get to the wood shop, you had to go through the back of the classroom, which I was teaching intro to Arduino classes, and guys were running through the back of the classroom to get to the wood shop.

But when we moved to Nova Labs Two, so we went from 1,350 square feet to 10,000 and I was the treasurer back then. I was panicking. I said to Brian, the president at the time, you need to do two things. Fill these offices with incubation center folks so I have a steady stream of revenue every month. Two, everybody needs to start teaching classes because we need that revenue. They’ve always been a big source of revenue for us.

Dale: As you mentioned, it also relates to membership. There’s a lot of people that are interested in makerspaces that don’t know what they want to do, or they don’t have the skills to do anything. It’s like going to a gym and you need to exercise, but don’t know what to do. Someone walks you through the machines, 

Jim: Exactly. So you have a personal trainer to guide you. Just taking the sign off classes, big deal. Now, what do I do? And then they wind up leaving. While we’re growing every month, we still have a pretty high turnover every month.

So we’re trying to, hey, come take this, we now have a blacksmithing class. It’s four sessions, but you leave with a chef’s knife. Handle, sharedpen, the whole bit. We’re lucky that we have members who are willing to continue to do that. 

Dale: It gets to the core mission though, which is sharing these skills and then help to get more people able to do things that they want to do. 

The Power of Community in Makerspaces

Jim: So I’m going to tell you a quick story. Do you know Rob Cosman is, right? YouTuber, woodworker, Canada. 

Dale: Yeah.

Jim: He’s big into veterans and if you’re a veteran, you can apply. He’ll fly you up to Newfoundland and put you up for the week, feed you for the week. Train you for the week in woodworking and you will leave with a basket of tools that have been donated by his suppliers. He’s made a bunch of workbenches for those guys to work on.

So, like everybody during the pandemic, we expanded our house and I had room for a hand-tool only woodworking area. I bought his plans to make a workbench right? I watched the videos a hundred times. So I’m at Nova Labs, I’ve been there all day Saturday, cutting shit, gluing shit. Sunday morning I’m there and they have these big trestle legs. And he says, listen, you gotta make sure the top and bottom are parallel, but you’re cutting something on table saw that’s wider than it is long, which is problematic. By the way, you got staples in here. ’cause you put staples in so that the glue could dry. You’re gonna have to take the safety off your Saw Stop.

I’m lining this all up and everything. Forgot to take the safety off. Bam. Saw Stop goes off. Every member knows you owe us $275 if you set off the Saw Stop, right– blades, probably toast and I’m torqued, right? And so we use Slack. So I go on Slack into the woodworking stewards channel.

I’m like, Hey guys, I just set off the thing. I’m really sorry. I’ll charge myself the $275, but just, one of the two, we now have three Saw Stops, but one of the two is down. And I went three doors down and had some lunch and I came back and one of our stewards is there and he said that Jim, it’s all fixed. Don’t worry. It’s not a big deal. I said you didn’t have to come in. He goes, I’m now I’m not far. It’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it. Base sets off once in a while, by the way, what do you make?

What were you cutting that you did this and I just pointed to the trestle leg and he goes, oh my god You’re building Rob Cosman’s workbench, aren’t you?

Yeah, how the hell did you know? 

He goes, I built it three years ago. He goes, did you get the vise that comes with it? I’m like, yeah, he goes, dude, you’re gonna love it. Come on, let me show you the next three steps. 

That is what’s cool about NoVA Labs. Not the equipment we have, it’s the people and their skills and their dedication to helping members and non members alike that makes it cool, right? So that’s a personal story. 

Dale: That’s a good place to stop is a good story. I appreciate your time today, Jim. 

Conclusion: The Success and Future of Nova Labs

Dale: I am so happy to hear you’re doing Maker Faire again. I’m even happier to hear your community efforts and your ability to raise money and develop a community makerspace that is successful and thriving. So congratulations to all of you. 

Jim: We got to 700 members, Dale? It’s crazy. 

Dale: Yeah, that is crazy. 

Jim: It’s absolutely crazy. We’re just, we’re so fortunate. 

Dale: I just did a story on us on Happy Labs in Vienna. They have about 1,200 members or so, and, people have come. COVID did shut down some makerspaces and things like that, but others have continued to go. And some of those have gotten the other side of it and they’ve figured out how to raise money and they’ve figured out how to grow their membership. And more importantly, keep this sense of community together. 

If people could understand that more, the power of it, and that’s why I feel like, just having done Maker Faire here in the Bay Area, man, when you’re around all these people, good things happen. When you’re home alone by yourself, grumbling about the world, it’s like, nothing’s gonna get better.

Jim: You’re a hundred percent right. It’s a lot of work, but we feel it’s worthwhile work, so we’re lucky that we can do it. 

Dale: I’m really glad to talk to you today, and good luck to everyone at Nova Labs.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


Maker Faire Bay Area 2023 - Mare Island, CA

Escape to an island of imagination + innovation as Maker Faire Bay Area returns for its 15th iteration!

Buy Tickets today! SAVE 15% and lock-in your preferred date(s).