MAKERVERSITY | LDN
FACTORY - ON - THAMES
CO-FOUNDER | DIRECTOR
Makerversity is a making and learning company that provides work and education space for start-up making businesses, and applied learning opportunities. Our home in the belly of Somerset House in central London provides access to a range of fabrication and prototyping facilities, spaces, events and learning opportunities. We exist to support emerging practice and start-up businesses as well as learning and employability opportunities for young people.
You can read about our three year strategy here.
The process of getting started
We were approach by Somerset House to consult on some disused and dilapidated spaces that were empty since HMRC, the former tenant had moved out. Based right in the belly of the building, these spaces were a mixture of old post rooms, storage spaces and server facilities. The 35,000 sq ft of space were compiled of big expanses spaces, as well as tight corridors and walk ways like a rabbit warren. They were filled with rubbish. Damp. Asbestos. Mice. Weird and whacky props and 30 years of smoking embedded into the walls and ceilings. Very Unloved. But, looking past that, packed full of charm and character.
Plans and Prototypes
There were no plans or budget for this space. Somerset House was looking for ideas that were more in keeping with their cultural and social values. We went back with a 1 page proposal that outlined what we wanted to do with the space - bringing together our interest in cities, creative work and process, learning, digital technologies. We had three main objectives:
Make a living through making things.
To build an affordable membership organisation for people who make a living by making things. Bringing people, who are often pushed to the edges and outskirts of cities, back into the centre.
Prototypes over plans.
To provide a facility of shared resource, workshops and fabrication facility. When you leave university, you rarely have the luxury of being able to sit at your desk thinking about ideas then get up, walk 30 feet and make it. We believe that style of practice enables really creative and pragmatic work.
Learning through making.
To combine the knowledge and capabilities of our team and members, with our facilities to develop learning and employability opportunities for young people in London. This would range from one off workshops to much longer term programs and work opportunities with our members. This is not about coding for kids, and more often than not we focus our efforts on teaching young people about how technologies can be applied to their interests - whether that be music, skateboarding or making their own furniture.
We ludicrously titled it 'Makerversity' - a title that has now stuck. We also were the only proposal that suggested we didn't want any money to do the work - but instead wanted to build an organisation that would eventually pay money back into the trust. Instead we wanted the space and time (12 months) to give us the runway to make it happen. The trust were incredibly supportive and open minded and gave us a shot.
Passion, Punk and Parties
We didn't take any external investment or funding at the start of the project. We didn't want the project to be on other peoples terms - we wanted to keep creative and business control for as long as possible. We also were trying to do our small part to counteract some of the dominant themes in our industry as well as the wider economy. We had a set of principles we were working towards that were our battle cry and hooks to build a sense of camaraderie around. They helped us build our gang.
Below are some of the initial copy notes we had that set out are stall.
More on the principles and approach in this talk.
This meant we did a lot of the initial renovation work ourselves. We roped in friends and family. Put our mums on rollers. Dads on their knees with drills. Long suffering girlfriends on endless tea runs. It also meant we put all our focus on inspiring and building a membership community. We had no services. No wifi. No furniture. This meant that the membership we were building had to be imaginative - you had to believe in what we were trying to do. We built the initial membership based on having diverse sets of skills and interests as well as people who we felt had strong affiliation to our goals and ambitions. We were also forced make money from the start to keep us going. We ran and sold events and parties. They often flooded.
Factory - on - Thames
During this time we were also developing our brand voice and style. We found that from a communications perspective there were both pros and cons to doing such a wide range of activities. The positives were that we have managed to gain interest and build relationships with people across a wide spectrum of industries - in tech, education, culture and business communities. Our interests and projects touch on a wide range of areas and therefore we always found it relatively easy to build creative partnerships. On the less positive side, it was a communication challenge. We risked being pigeon holed if people were not looking at our activities in their entirety and lacked focus for people to latch onto. The breadth of our activities and our membership made simple effective messaging a challenge. Therefore, we pushed those things to the front and centre, making the members the brand. Rather than be too persciptive about what we did- we pushed our membership and their work as a way to craft a narrative about what we were building.
Additionally, we were always open to the business growing in a variety of ways including through licensing models, and therefore we needed to ensure the brand was strong, but was transferable and flexible to adapt as we grew.
We have now been running in London for 4 years. In that time we have largely delivered on what we set out to do, as well as trying many new things in the process. Currently we have a membership of around 150 based in Somerset House that ranges from architects to animators, product designers, industrial designers, interaction designers, sound makers, game designers etc . Many of our membership have gone from plucky start ups, to mature organisations- including Unmade .
We have a team of around 10 staff who run the business operationally, and have a board of executives who have helped us mature and grow the company. We have been recognised by The Observer as one of the 50 most radical organisations actively changing their communities for the better across the UK, and by N.I.C.E as Europe's most innovative social enterprise.
Social goals into the model
Our business model and organisational structure has also consistently evolved as we have grown the business. Due to our emphasis not only on independence, but in having social and cultural ambitions alongside financial goals - we have thought and iterated extensively around our model.
We built the business model around a "70/20/10" principle. This broke down as 70% of what we would do as a business would need to be revenue generating and commercially focused. 20% of what we would do would be subsidized, and 10% would be free. These principles were aimed at being applied across the entirety of the business - from providing memberships at subsidized and free rates for those who needed a leg up, to event placements, to how our staffs time and focus would work. This has been through a number of iterations, with us constantly challenging ourselves to find clearer and more measurable ways to ensure the model has the desired impact.
Within our agreement as owners and shareholders, we have also built in provision to never allow us to lose sight of those social and cultural aspirations. We can never profiteer from any site. We have a dividend cap of £25, 000 per director, per annum, per site - building incentives within our agreement to ensure we keep money in the business and consistently use our resources to explore new opportunities. This means when things have gone well, we have invested in the space, equipment and new ideas and when things have been tough (as with every small business who is trying to grow) we have had resources we can use to get us by.
Over the last four years we have been lucky enough to feature in a number of publications including Wired, The Financial Times, The Times, The Guardian, The Evening Standard, Design Week as well as being featured in BBC's 'Back In Time for the Weekend' episode on The Future.