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EMF Camp brings lots of makers, hackers and hackspace members together for a long weekend of skill sharing, installations and well deserved geeking out. As such it meant there would be a high concentration of directors and trustees, current and former, who would be willing to share a bit about their corner of the world. So we gathered around a round table style discussion with a few agenda points organised on the UK Hackspaces Foundation forum.
I will try to summarise the recording for those impatient enough but please have a listen as I’ll be skipping some of the details.
Participants included EOF Hackspace (Oxford), London Hackspace, Milton Keynes Makespace, Making Room (blackburn), Hackburn, Build Brighton, Swansea Hackspace, Leicester Hackspace, Oxford Hackspace, Totnes Makespace, Hack Oldham, Barclays Eagle Labs, Newbury Hackspace, Weymouth Makerspace, Cambridge Makespace, MitteLab (Trieste, Italy), Hacklab.fi (Finland) and OpenWorkshopNetwork.org.
After the introductions we discussed about membership and how to increase it. The first suggestion is to not hammer becoming a member since that scares people away before building the community. A lot of members in the community pay without using the space. It’s important to have tools that people don’t have at home. Hackspaces have a catchment area and people don’t travel more than one hour to visit. People come via events and weekly see the space events on meetup. The first 20 members take on a lot of responsibility and losing those members can be quite detrimental. Board members can take a lot of stick when things go wrong which wears them out. If you must move, consider where your current members are.
How do you encourage newer members to take ownership? The original members have a huge sense of ownerships, so including others is hard. One way to help is to have small tasks they can help with such as showing people around. People who co-work tend to tidy up the space a bit.
London Hackspace had lots of “squatters” who used the space without contributing to the maintenance and paying minimum membership. Co-working brings quite a bit of money in. At Eagle Labs they have lots of co-workers that expect the space to look good. Once you put a high value to it people are willing to pay.
After having a fixed fee and then moving to a pay-as-you-like, one hackspace didn’t see a change in the average membership paid for a few years, then it started deteriorating. The average seems to drop with an increase of members. A lot of people paying the minimum use the space the most. There are people who use the tools and prefer to be banned than pay for the usage. People who pay the minimum sometimes cost a lot more since removing the projects when you have to move will cost dearly.
Get the council on your side when you’re starting. Community is the magic buzz word. There are profits such as Meanwhile Space who find spaces for non-profits. Local councils always have buildings they’re tearing down and you can use them. Make the councillors feel good about working with them. If you say makerspace, that’s very hot in the press. Another word that funders love is outreach but that usually implies metrics attached. Local housing associations like to rent out space that they’re paying business rates for. Find landlords who would rent the space with short notice periods. It helps both them and you.
Oldham offers extra benefits for a higher membership, such as secure locker, then offer them for free to people who put in a day a week of helping out with the space.
How do people stop hackspaces from becoming e-waste repositories? You have to enforce rules and lose friends over it, if needed. Some people treat it as an extension of their home. If you can’t be horrible, you shouldn’t be a director. You also want to make space for projects and it’s a fine line to walk. Defining how much people can store draws a line where people can say you’re being excessive. What obligations might we have to people’s property? We don’t hold property for other people. Anyone who stores property with us without valid storage requests, are items that have been dumped, as long as you show that you’ve done a reasonable job of contacting the people. People will still get upset. Anything outside your storage box that’s not labled or in the system is free for the taking. We haven’t learned how to say no to donations. If we want a donation, we will buy it for £1 otherwise the original owners have come back asking for it. We now offer a receipt.
The community had started imposing rules on itself to patch problems that were arising. When we started our makespace we instilled a different culture. After visiting other hackspaces or being members of others you see what the problems were and try to instil a different attitude. We have always told people not that the answer is no, but it’s “ask the directors”. Membership costs work the same. Say the regular membership cost and offer discounts if needed.
The rules at London Hackspace are for 150 and have not changed with the growth. Makerspace London has the directors in charge. Members are voting shareholder members with company voting rights but that’s it. They can vote the directors out but otherwise the directors have vetos. In hackspaces loud people can rule the space. Other places there’s a long discussion on the forums, then someone puts in a proposal to the directors which they then rubber stamp.
For storage the european hackspaces have very detailed “do not hack” stickers including hack but put it back.
A lot of the storage and behaviour issues come down to culture. We have to recognise that there are different levels, 1.0, 2.0 etc. London hackspace is a 1.0 and they have to deal with a lot of legacy. A lot of other spaces at the table are 2.0. With every wave, people learn from previous mistakes. Culture is better. The do-ocracy has died or been quarantined as it is sometimes hard to manage. It has burned out a lot core members. Noisebridge sorted out some of their problems and did a big restart party.
No one gets storage as part of their membership. They get charged for the initial build of their storage cube of a fixed size which interlocks with the others, then they charge per year. Sometimes the standard lease doesn’t allow for this since it is considers subletting. We have a system that prints name tags (since no one can remember each-others names) but that system has been repurposed for item storage. There’s an important distinction regarding storage since the membership is a contribution to a member system whereas if you’re taking money for a service such as storage, that’s taxable. There’s also VAT on rent that’s used for storage.
We would also like to charge for training, since there are so many no-shows. London added that and the no-shows had been reduced considerably. There’s no readily usable storage system. There are python scripts. These are really interdependent with the OS of a hackspace. I started modules that talk to each other that can be readily integrated, and has QR codes and a webapp that can read them.
You got two kinds of people, the ones that would like to learn something and the other the ones who want to use the tool, hack together and enjoy the company. The second one usually tries to stick around since they need tools. The first one can be easily lost once you finished a workshop, so we have to keep doing workshops. Workshops were for members only since in Italy it has to be for members otherwise you risk losing association status.
We charged for workshops for materials and a bit, then we had some asking for non-members fees. We decided to charge a bit more than the costs + membership for the duration of the workshops thinking no one would pay. It turned out some did and that became taxable in the UK. It’s something to be careful of.
What we’re trying to do now is part workshop part working on a real project and we’re doing this with our storage. We’re teaching and practicing on something real.
Does anyone employ anyone? We contract a company to do some work since having an employee is a minefield. That can be for cleaning, tools maintenance, etc. There might be implications of seeing a contractor as an employee if they’re performing their duties in the same way. The case described was as and when needed so it applied less. Being self-employed to run a hackspace is probably not a very profitable endeavour. There is a part time admin in some hackspaces.
There was a discussion on the hackspaces forum that instead of people building their own systems, you can use CVCRM which has everything anyone might have thought including accounting. It doesn’t have a front end but you don’t have to build backends for your service. MitteLab uses Triton.
There’s a few hackspaces that have a sponsor. We had to run a prototyping service. We managed the prototyping service, with technicians employed by the sponsor. Never do that. All the things that can go wrong will and the benefits are minimal. Responsibility and incentives lay in all the wrong places. Don’t hire your own members. Definitely do it via freelancers. If you’re in a position where you have to manage a service but you can’t manage the employees, you’re in a bind.
How do you convert people who already know about you? The environment and the equipment. The grand vision. You convert people to makers by showing them how fun it is and how to make money out of it. Have a clean space (mop floors, empty the bins). Professional demands clashed with maker messiness and directors get trapped in the middle. In terms of diversity, especially women, stay away due to the state of the space, smells and air quality. Jen Lewis from University of Sheffield talked about barriers of inclusion in makerspaces. Your regular members won’t see the problems. The co-workers tended to leave pretty quickly after they realised the space was dingy. The only people who stayed were a group who rented a room for themselves. They would leave for higher rents. We don’t let anyone use machinery without being inducted and that requires membership. A lot of you may have Export and General as your insurer. They will not insure you if they’re not a member. We ask people to make a donation if they come to a meet-up, and we recommend you pay £1-£2. Just for non-members.
Anyone who comes in gets a keyfob to get them in the mindset that they’re participating in something. We link it to their email address and they get an email on how to become a member. We open up the space to meetups, as long as the space is free, on wednesday nights. We do collaborations with other organisations in town. Do you get conversions from those events? We get a lot of people coming back. It’s hard to tell. With the festival of making, it definetely spreads the word about us. For university cities we try to get in the freshers fairs with a stall with a message “you can’t fit a drill-press in your accomodation”. Social media really works, you pay 3 euros and you get at least 2-3 new people.
Insurance. Who’s your provider and how much does it cost you? What are the hurdles that small spaces might find? You must have public liability insurance. It’s not optional. If someone comes in and hurts themselves due to your poor restrictions setup, your hackspace is gone. You have to read the insurance and it is suitable for what you are doing. It’s the most boring thing about your space. There are a couple who are more favourable to hackspaces. You mention the word hack or make and they will put the phone down. You can’t even exagerate to an insurer. The term that seems to work is community workshop. Read every document page to page and have a few others do the same. Make sure you all agree and make sure that’s over 1 million plus. They will include and exclude stuff and they’ll claim it’s just standard stuff and it’s mostly lies. You have to make sure it’s tailored to you. Theft sometimes is not covered if there’s break and entry or vice versa, or violence. If you can’t read it pay a solicitor. In terms of getting an insurer you call people and explain what a hackspace is, the next time you call them they’ll have forgotten. Lauren from Oxford Hackspace is willing to discuss with others about the process via email. The insurance provided for Makespace London seemed like they were never insured as it was and they weren’t going to refund what was paid. That was a charity insurance designed for communities. Tennyson won’t insure you. Lauren and Damian have worked on group insurance for UKHF, and have a long-term project to make what is and isn’t covered clearer and more sensible. Remember that as directors you are personally liable if someone gets hurt due to negligence. Waivers are not legally enforceable. OldHam are with Zurich. They have monthly health and safety audits and they have it on their website and has been invaluable. It helped with insurance, since we have to follow all of these. They start to consider looking at what a hackspace is. Is that Zurich Charity, since that’s what Tennyson was? No they are not.
The majority of cost was building and contents insurance, not even public liability. Don’t insure things twice since you void both policies. You can get into a position where you may seem insured and they’ll do anything to wiggle out. Make sure it’s written in the contract, not even if it is part of an email chain. Make sure you talk to a solicitor if you’re not sure. Some work for very cheap for hackspaces. Getting it in writing doesn’t count if it’s not in the contract and it’s hard to get it in the contract. Some written emails may be valid as long as it’s written in the contract that they are taken into account. Public liability insurance doesn’t cover theft.
Do you have employers liability insurance? Every company tries to sell you some, but you most likely don’t need it. We were told that directors are considered employees. No they’re not, it’s another step in insuring that you don’t become personally liable due to lawsuits. If you need legal advice and you’re a non-profit you can apply for free legal advice from Woolworths. If volunteers are doing work for the space that would otherwise have been done by an employee then insurance might interpret them as employees. If the work is done under the direction of the space, the space is responsible for their wellbeing. When we had lots of site work we treated it as a building site and anyone on site was treated as an employee.
If you want examples of reasonably sized spaces Swansea is 40 people with Export and General and we pay around £300/year, and we think we’re covered. £270 for 60 members. If you do have building insurance and don’t have contents insurance, be careful with the type of contents that’s been covered. Contents over a certain value must be named. Assets that have a value and have been donated should be evaluated and accounted for and take into account depreciation. Sometimes you can set that limit yourself but you have to keep it consistent. After it goes under that limit it depreciates immediately. You need a receipt or a certificate of donation.
What should people focus on first? Is it good to start with lots of members meeting in the pub or find a space then attract members? We got people meeting in borrowed spaces and pubs. When we got a space painted it nicely. OldHam met in a pub then got a garage after you cleaned it up. You have to get that diversity early otherwise you get a men’s shed. We had monthly or bi-weekly meetups. Do we have enough people to start a space? We had feasibility meetings. After we found a location we had people pour in. So have a feasibility assessment before getting a space. Did you have enough members to pay before you signed it? Yes, we checked if we had enough people to be committed. Some were borrowed spaces that required us to have public liability insurance. When we first gained a space we had a sign up fee which gave us an influx of cash, which we stopped after a year. Met in the pub then rented a small space. Starting a hackspace is not something one person can do, you’ll get massive burnout. You have to have people you give jobs to otherwise you do it for a few months solid and die inside. Is it the community’s hackspace or is it someone’s space that allows the community in? 2 people have the energy of 3 people. We started with a mailing list. You have to build the community first otherwise you are renting a space. Go and look at the hackerspaces design patterns. One of those is 2+2. 2 people that fully commit and 2 people that can give a hand. We started in 10. In Finland every year we have a hackerspaces summit. Would that be something the UK could do? Makerfaire was one. Collaboration between hackerspaces was discussed and set up a basis of rules for a new hackerspace. Yes don’t do it on your own, but you have to think about the future. If your space does work you need to think of the roots. Make sure you have a diverse panel of director or trustees because they will flag things you didn’t think about. If you have conflicts between directors then you’ll be ignoring each-other and once you have a group of people that want this to happen you need to start with a vision and after you have that you can point new people to that. By the time you’ve grown people wouldn’t know what we’re about otherwise. You can change that written down document if needed.
We have a church in Wales that we bought and we’re struggling to get people in. Why not build a sustainable business model and buy a space then we don’t have trouble with the landlord? Unless they’re run by a corporation you can’t really afford such a thing. We want the independent lifestyle. you’re all welcome to visit, it’s called AstralShip.org. We should try to make these live-in hackerspaces, also called hacker bases and we should try to live together not just meet every couple of years.
On initalising a community, it is certainly possible that great community ideals to grow into something extremely toxic, at the same time try to be inclusive and I don’t know how to deal with it. I suspect writing your ideals at the start is a way. I’ve been on the other side and my answer is at some point someone has to leave. There’s a great article by Jenny List on HackADay, saying every director burns out at some point. There is an alternative, you can remove that person from the space. If the others directors support you. This is an incredibly important point. Directors never agree and there’s a point where you have to say consensus needs to stop. It will burn people out since reaching consensus expends energy and you have a certain amount. You will burn out and the hackspace will be worse off. X person might not have broken the rules but they’re taking so much effort to deal with on a constant basis and the space would be better without it. You’re trying to please the community not the individual. It’s not fun and you have to do it early. Make sure your articles allow you to do that. Put that in your articles. If the directors are in agreement, that person can be removed. You obviously have to have a secondary grievance procedure. This has been added to the Finnish articles. Some articles say you should have a public meeting but that’s sometimes unfair on the person being excluded. There have been cases where someone wanted to face their accuser and sometimes ethics need to trump fairness.
I hope we’ll have more of these, the latest would be 2020. You’re all welcome to see the open workshop network meetings.
That’s a brief summary of the discussion. I hope you’ll find it useful!