Kickstarter and the view from the trenches of TechShop

By Richard Nieva , written on May 24, 2013

From The News Desk

Blaine Dehmlow, the general manager of the TechShop in San Francisco, describes what has become a tradition of sorts at the well-known building place that provides members access to tools and software: An entrepreneur sits down at a computer in the center of the second floor studio with a bottle of champagne in hand. She clicks a button, and launches a Kickstarter campaign for the project she’s been working on at the workshop. Everyone crowds around her and cheers.

This happens about twice a month, Dehmlow says. Then everyone will ask how the campaign is doing throughout the day as backers pile on. “It’s very typical,” he says.

TechShop is the beloved mad scientist’s laboratory for hardware builders. For a $125 monthly subscription, members can metalwork, cut wood, use computer-assisted design software, hold meetings, and take classes at the space. The first Square prototype was famously built at the original Menlo Park location. A few products – and Kickstarter campaigns -- born out of the San Francisco building include the Lumio lamp and the Oru folding Kayak.

Dehmlow is a builder to the core. And not even in the modern, wifi-connected Silicon Valley way. A sturdy guy with a salt and pepper goatee and deeply engraved crows feet at the corner of his eyes, he comes from a silver and gold mining family from Colorado. The building itself yearns for hardware manufacturing. It used to be a warehouse for repairing the broken San Francisco Chronicle depositories that hold newspapers and line the streets of the city.

Kickstarter has been wary of just being an alternative route to VC funding for hardware projects. After all, it’s stomached some negative press early on for campaigns missing their shipments, and the company has been much for comfortable with its ability to be an enabler of the arts.

But every hardware VC and guru I’ve spoken to tells me just how much of an impact crowdfunding has had on the ability to make hardware. That’s not news, but it’s even more meaningful when you see the affects of crowdfunding up close in the trenches – and TechShop is as good an example of the hardware entrepreneurial trenches as you’re likely to find.

Dehmlow says Kickstarter has even transformed the TechShop. He started to notice the difference about a year ago, when the scope of the projects came a lot bigger. The workshop’s clientele falls into three evenly divided categories: people from existing companies experimenting with new prototypes, artists and craftsmen, and entrepreneurs. He said that since the breakthrough of Kickstarter, the entrepreneurial set that frequents the place have become a lot more aggressive about the business ambitions of their projects. He can’t give a percentage of how many members have or are planning Kickstarter campaigns because it’s all anecdotal and the company doesn’t keep records of that sort of thing. But he says it’s a common occurrence.

The makeshift launch ceremonies at TechShop almost sound like the CEO of a newly public company ringing the opening bell at a stock exchange on IPO day. And while the scale is nowhere near the same, there are some parallels to the daunting challenges ahead for companies in both situations. For a newly public company, a new type of work emerges with your freshly issued ticker symbol. In the same way, when a Kickstarter campaign launches and – God willing – closes successfully, the entrepreneurs begin to fathom the mountain of work ahead after the dopamine wears off.

“They come in the next day and realize what they have to do,” Dehmlow says. They go from having to build a few units to building hundreds or thousands, and TechShop is no longer the place for them. But Dehmlow says he tries to make the transition as easy as possible. He gives those members advice on where they can buy tools to mass-produce, gives them tips on cheap places to rent out space, and shares contacts in TechShop's network.

He hopes that over time, TechShop can formalize that process. He says he doesn’t want to charge for it, but wants it to work in an organized manner. “We want to help them cross that chasm,” he says.