Mojave Makerspace – How to build a place to make cool stuff

What happens when rocket scientists get together in their spare time?

Michael Clive builds rockets during the day and makerspaces at night. And this is no ordinary makerspace, it’s in the “Silicon Valley of Space”..also known as Mojave, California. Find out how Michael gained support for this unique water hole in the desert and some unique challenges he faces.

Check out the Mojave Makerspace for yourself.


Steve:              Hey, everyone. Welcome to another episode. Today I’m talking with Michael Clive, who started the Mojave Makers Space, and we’re going to chat about how he got started, what he’s doing, and some of the things they’re working on and some advice he has for you if you want to start your own.

So, Michael, thanks for joining us.

Michael:          Hi. It’s good to be here. I’m glad that I keep running into people as excited about this concept as I am.

Steve:              Very cool. So, kind of a 30-second pitch, what is Mojave Makers Space?

Michael:          It is a place that isn’t a bar, work, or home where you can go and work on your projects and hang out with people that you know and like and do whatever you want.

Steve:              Very cool. And Mojave is the hot bed of the new space movement, but that’s really not just what it was made for. It’s really kind of like that other place for people to work on stuff that is engineering, but not necessarily aerospace related?

Michael:          Yeah. Well, here in Mojave, there are very few new aerospace ventures that do not have some kind of connection to Mojave. So, we’re kind of like a hub of . . . people have called us the Silicon Valley of aerospace. I’d be inclined to agree, except Silicon Valley had better restaurants.

So, what this place is all about is really to kind of give people an outlet. When I was doing computer graphics for a living, I really needed a place to get out and get my engineering side expressed, because I was all day trying to express my artistic side and all day trying to, you know, my assignment was to make stuff look cool and whatever.

I joined a hackerspace in Culver City called Crash Space, and that really changed my life and I got a chance to express a lot more of my technical side. When I moved to Mojave, I kind of wanted to continue that, but I do highly technical stuff all day. So I wanted a place where I could express more of the creative side and kind of less goal directed development that I like to do, you now, the stuff I do for fun.

Other people take it in many different ways. Like the way I see it is that I provide . . . we, Mojave Makers, provide a canvas, and you bring whatever paint you want and you paint on it and we all kind of get together and have a very organic agreement process where things get done. But I, for one, I’m engineering a space to be a comfortable place for me to do my non-goal directed development. There are other people that want to develop companies. There are other people that want to tinker around with airplanes or build rockets or whatever. I’m happy with all of it. I personally enjoy being around people that are productive.

Steve:              It’s kind of all over the place, but, yeah, it’s a really cool spot to go and meet other people who are technical savvy and want to do cool stuff.

Michael:          Yeah.

Steve:              So, when did you get the idea for this Makers Space? Is this something you’ve been thinking about for awhile, because it’s fairly . . . it opened recently. But is this something you’ve been working on for some time?

Michael:          Well, so, what happened is I moved out . . . I was heavily involved in Crash Space down in L.A. I was involved in that for about two years. I was the Facilities Manager. I had a lot of tools there. I spent a lot of time there. A lot of my friends came from that circle. When I moved out to Mojave after I got this job here at XCOR, I was lacking that in my life and the nearest hackerspace was 100 miles away and I did not like that.

So, it’s always been in the back of my mind to start one here, but I didn’t know . . . I just needed somebody else to say to me, yeah, let’s do that and that somebody was Ethan who I met, interestingly enough, and here’s my favorite part about hackerspace, the tools and the machines and that’s fine, that’s helpful. I build these places because of the people.

So, I found out about Ethan through my buddy, Jerry Isdale, who runs hackerspace in Hawaii.

Steve:              Okay.

Michael:          And he was reading a blog that says this guys coming to visit Mojave because he got an internship there and he’s a major member of another makers space in Alabama, Makers Local 256. So I got a heads-up about another maker person showing up in Mojave from a guy who runs something in Hawaii. I’m in Mojave, this guy’s coming from Alabama, and I invite him to a party. We hang out. He and I kind of start energy it takes to get the team together and make it happen.

So we got a team of five folks together pretty early on, about January I would estimate, and we started meeting every week and kind of moving forward on stuff, and our big break came when we presented to the East Current Airport District Board and we convinced them to provide us a great deal of assistance in securing our location.

They really love it. They love the idea, and they loved the idea of anything where you have the young engineers in Mojave actually having something to do in Mojave and not immediately driving off to Lancaster.

So, yeah, the one thing people who are listening to your show don’t know is that Mojave has a population of 3,000 people, and the most exciting nightlife is at Denny’s. So we have the world’s most sophisticated aerospace program all around us, and we’re the cultural equivalent of . . . I mean, Breadbasket, Texas, was more culturally situated I’d say. Although, we are in the shadow of Los Angeles, which is great advantage.

Steve:              There are lots of cool tools, but then the social life is a little lacking?

Michael:          Yeah. Yeah. We’ve lots of cool stuff to do at work, but even then it’s not like we can really talk about what we really, really do at work because a lot of it is secret. XCOR is decently secret, but they’re clearance people at other companies here that can’t even begin to talk about what they do. So, by nature it becomes a very isolating place. It was designed to be isolated, in order such that we could do the kind of things that we do. I’m like, that’s fine. We can be isolated, but let’s not be isolated from each other.

Steve:              That’s a really good point. So, how difficult was it to convince the airport to help you with this?

Michael:          Actually, easiest sell in the world. This was seriously like the easiest sell and like [inaudible 06:32] a few of my advisers and people have been saying, oh, we need to prepare this and we need to do this and we do all these things.

But I always kind of knew that when you strike a match, you set a fire. So, you know, I walked into the head of the airport office, his name is Stu Whit. He’s a great guy. I barely got like three words out of my mouth when he had to take a phone call, and by the time he’s off the phone call, he told me, “I’m on board. It’s fine. Yes, we’ll do this.” I’m like, “Is that all?” He’s like, “No, no, no, there’s a little bit more, but pretty much, yeah, that’s all.”

So, we went through the process. We presented to the airport district. We have a quorum. We have a board of directors from all different [inaudible 07:21] companies. I’d name names and labels, but I don’t know, some people don’t want the actual company they are associated with exposed, so I won’t do that.

Steve:              Fair enough.

Michael:          It was incredibly easy.

Steve:              So have the companies, themselves, in Mojave been supportive of what you’re doing?

Michael:          Kind of. I mean some of them have been very supportive. Some of them are looking at us with a weary eye because they are concerned of us being a clearinghouse for the kind of secrets they don’t want to get exposed or get out.

Basically, there are lots of companies here that depend upon IP and secrets to survive, and that’s fine. I have no interest having anybody share that or anything. They’re just concerned that because there’s a bunch of people from other companies hanging out here, that, of course, people are going to talk and, oh, no, their precious company secrets will be exposed. I’ll just say, “Well, that’s called personal responsibility.”

Steve:              But it’s like you said the last thing that you guys want to do is talk about work when you’re not there. You’re not at work. So you guys want to talk about anything but what you’re doing at work?

Michael:          Exactly. I really have no interest . . . and I have a roommate who’s an aerospace blogger and I work in the industry and I run a lot of events and I’m just knee deep in space stuff and I kind of get really tired of it. I’m all about like talking about anything but here.

Steve:              Yeah, that makes sense. You have gotten some equipment donated. From when I saw your presentation, you had like a big CNC machine and all that stuff. Have you gotten more stuff lately?

Michael:          Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, we’re actually getting to the point where we’re getting a little bit packed. I’m looking around both rooms. We’re going to very, very soon have to start kind of throwing stuff out almost or organizing more aggressively.

Our big equipment donation, there are kind of two sets of equipment donations and there’s all the stuff that I had done at Crash Space, which is milling machines and lathes and etc., and I brought them all up. Well, I didn’t bring them all up. We got our team together, and we went down there and we loaded up the truck. We headed up here and we got them all over here.

Then, I have a buddy at Union Swiss Machining Company who, by serendipity, happened to have a very powerful machine that he was willing to give us. It’s a Daiwa Puma 10S lathe in decent condition. Very old machine, but still very effective. So we got that donated. We also got a whole bunch of equipment donated from another member, Matthew. Andrew’s donated some electronic stuff. We’ve gotten stuff from the local Board of Directors of the Eastern Airport District. You know the guy that runs the Radio Shack has given us a lot of stuff.

We have first-class airline seats that Stu Witt donated to us. We have parts of a 747 sitting around. We have couches donated by my buddy, Ryo Sakaguchi. We’ve got tons of shit, basically. And we haven’t even been around.

That’s the thing I need to state. We haven’t even officially opened doors. Official door opening should be tomorrow. But we had what we called a soft opening a few times and we have collected a few members in the soft open period. Kind of the first month of us sort of being in the game is going to be May, meaning tonight I need to get the door lock working.

Yeah, we haven’t even begun to begin, and we’re already very, very well off, as far as hackerspace is concerned. So, I’m pretty happy and pretty confident about us moving forward.

Steve:              Which is really cool. It seems like you don’t have the normal problem of opening a space, then getting people. It was like the will was there, the need was there, and like you said, you lit the match and now you’re just dealing with the fire.

Michael:          I wouldn’t quite say it’s that simple. We do have an issue in that we do need to bring up paying members to a certain level by a certain date or else we won’t be able to pull it off for much longer. I have to say I am concerned about that, and it’s mostly because of two factors. Number one, Mojave salaries are not the same as L.A. salaries. Number two, the population of Mojave is lower than L.A. So, in L.A. you can sustain three or four hackerspaces, and in Mojave I’m trying to sustain one. I’m thinking I hope I can leverage a self-selection of the kind of creative people that kind of like to work here against that.

All told, I really would like to have 20 members, 20 to 30 full time, significant members. Like right now we’ve got about five or six that steadily show up, which is cool. I want that kind of energy where I can show up and it’s people that I barely know in the space, not people that I’ve worked with for awhile.

Steve:              So, are you self-sustaining at 20 or 30 paying members, is that kind of at the point where you guys are good?

Michael:          Yeah. Yeah. At about 20 or 30, we’re covered, I believe.

Steve:              Okay. Very cool. So, have you been getting the word out? Has it all been just word of mouth? Have you done any official marketing, anything like that, or is it just sort of wait and see and kind of see how it goes?

Michael:          We have marketed heavily within Mojave. Mojave’s not a very big town, so it’s very easy to market here. You, basically, go to the one sandwich shop and put flyers around. One of our member’s girlfriends made cupcakes for a bunch of the different companies and we packed flyers in with the cupcakes and delivered them to various companies.

We’ve gotten word out in the newspaper. We’ve done Facebook advertisements. That’s how we’ve gotten a lot of our equipment donation that I even forgot about, like the hydraulic press. We sent an advertisement somewhere and some guy found out about us and decided to come.

So, yeah, we have marketed. I would say that we have done about half the marketing we could. The next step of marketing is physical marketing where, basically, we put signage around the building and directing toward the building, and then that’s when we will start sucking people in by just being here, which is kind of the ultimate way to gain members is going to be having people just drive up and be like, “I’ve heard about this place and I want to see it.”

The airport’s not that big. There are 2,000 people working on it and about 12 companies of note, probably about 50 companies total. The word’s out fairly significantly, but as it moves forward I hope we can get more.

We’re also going to be engaging in outreach at the high school. I’m going to a meeting with a bunch of high schoolers.

Oh, yeah, we’ve also been selected . . . I don’t know if I should talk about this, but, yeah, we’ve been selected for a few more interesting things which will get us a lot of press soon.

Steve:              That’s good. That’s good. And Space Frontier, which organization is helping . . .

Michael:          I’m sorry. It is the . . .

Steve:              Space Studies Institute?

Michael:          Space Studies Institute. Robin Snelson and Lee Valentine have been a wonderful help through this whole process, and helping us out and kind of getting it started. As soon as we’re an organization, we will no longer be under their umbrella, but right now we’re being . . . our existence is kind of under their aegis.

Steve:              Right. So, how did you get them involved?

Michael:          Personal friends of Robin Snelson.

Steve:              Okay.

Michael:          If you wanted some advice for people that want to start hackerspaces, the number one you need is social capital. If you have social capital, then you can get away with anything. The second thing you need is actual physical real capital. That is important. You need something around three to five grand to really get one of these off the ground.

If you’re starting from nothing, you need more. But if you are starting from something, about three grand outlay, expect that as kind of a minimum. A lot of people like to start slow and kind of . . . I don’t really believe in that philosophy. I like to go big or go home.

I segued into this because you had the whole social capital thing. Pretty much all the wonderful good things that have happened has been because of social networks, which a space like this is designed to re-enforce those exact kind of networks.

This is where people meet each other. This is where people hang out. This is where people become closer friends and allow future endeavors such as this one to actually happen.

Steve:              So, was it a tougher sell to the Space Studies Institute than it was to Mojave? Did they need some convincing, or was it you had the connections and they really loved the idea so they just went for it?

Michael:          Really, there’s been absolutely no sales involved on this thing. Basically, everybody’s . . . I don’t think you quite understand how starving Mojave is for any sense of community. Robin, I told her about the concept at one of my parties. I usually throw these parties every month. She was all over it, and she kind of from the shadows manipulated things such that by the time we were presenting to the Board of Directors, they were already were behind it. So, she did some stuff that I have no idea what she did, but we are forever grateful for it because it made it such that there was no sale. We showed up, said this is what we want to do, and everybody on the Board was totally on board with it.

It was very, very simple to get this to happen, which is as it should be, because I don’t think there really is, you know . . . the complaints that you could have about such a place do exist, and some of them are valid. But it’s one of those things where you balance it out against what the benefits are. Your costs are so much lower than the benefits of a place like this.

Steve:              Yeah.

Michael:          Yeah.

Steve:              Which is really cool. If I could change tact for just a second, because I saw the panel where Tim Pickens was talking about the DIY Space Hacker Movement.

Michael:          Sure.

Steve:              I was really curious because I know that the question on that panel was:  Are hackerspaces ready for an orbital venture?  But I was really curious kind of looking at what you have seen from hackerspaces and working in industry, do you think the tools are almost there such that a hackerspace could actually create, not necessarily an orbital venture, but a cubesat, a space craft, a [inaudible 18:13]? What are the things they could do now that weren’t even possible 10 years ago with that kind of equipment that you guys have?

Michael:          Well, the issue again is we’re missing the point in that question, and that was kind of the issue I want to make. What you’re talking about here is a . . . there is a technical component of that, right, and if you want me to answer the question can the equipment of, say, our hackerspace build a cubesat, I would say give us three months of fixing our equipment and we could. We’d have the ability to make a cubesat. Could we build a cubesat? I would say, probably not, and that’s a social issue and that’s a financial issue. Because, basically, when you are dealing with a loosely knit or confederacy like this, to get everybody in the group involved in a top-down structured effort is challenging and only usually happens when there’s a very decent financial payout for the space or for shared resources or something, which is a point I made during the panel, which the one time I saw it happen at Crash Space when everybody teamed up and everything was when we had about five grand on the line for the space. So, we all teamed up. We all did what we needed to do.

As far as the kinds of things that I have seen hackerspaces produce very, very well is sophisticated small electronic widgets that are usually the brain child of one or two members, because we are talking about something where . . . I don’t know if you are familiar with the 80/20 rule?

Steve:              Pareto. Yeah, Pareto’s Law.

Michael:          Yeah, the 80/20 rule applies in all levels of life and specifically in places like here. The application of that is let’s say you have 100 members, you know only 20% of those people are actually going to be productive and able to do anything on the project that you are thinking about, right? So, even a fairly large hackerspace like Crash Space or like Makers Local or whatever, the 80/20 rule applies and then take that now on top of that and say within the 80/20 rule those 20% have their own projects to work on, right?

Steve:              Yeah.

Michael:          So, it’s very challenging to get a hackerspace to unite on a project. I would say that that is . . . now, at the same time, if an already existing team of people wants to become members of a hackerspace and use the resources of said hackerspace to do it, that is an appropriate course of action. It’s kind of like the difference between like a college and a company, right? A company exists to make a profit, but in a perfect world a company exists to make a good product, right?

Steve:              Exactly.

Michael:          And a company would be a company. Hackerspace is more like a university or a college where the purpose of it is to really let people study and play around with what they really want to do in that there is no top-down directed goal of the college. Although, some hackerspaces, like Null Space Labs, research intensively, do a lot of work in surface mount electronics and digital analyzers. They have a whole lot of really cool stuff come out of there.

We have two products coming out of Crash Space. We have a bunch of products coming out of Null Space Labs

So, I’m not answering your question, am I? The answer to your question is . . .

Steve:              I should probably ask it better. Let’s assume you don’t have . . . this isn’t like a organization-wide project. You know if you had, like you said, a team of a small dedicated, maybe two, three, four people, do the tools exist such that they could work on a cubesat, an orbital project, I mean something, kind of taking . . .

Michael:          Oh, yeah.

Steve:              . . . the organizational aspect of it? Like the tools are that good now?

Michael:          Yeah. You get three guys who are smart and 50 grand and assuming they can . . . it always comes down to an issue of capital. I know the question you keep trying to ask, and the answer to that question is absolutely yes, these spaces do have the capability to build these kind of things. Some parts do have to be shopped out to more sophisticated machine shops. The most sophisticated hackerspace, I imagine, is Tech Shop, which isn’t quite a hackerspace in my mind. They are a business

Steve:              Yeah

Michael:          So, the community aspect of Tech Shop is not as important. And I know there are people that are working out of there, Team Phoenicia is one that is doing an entire lunar lander challenge style flying robot out of their . . . it’s Will Baird is in charge of that project. They’re doing a fairly good job at a TechShop. Effectively, any of these small companies is effectively a hackerspace.

Armadillo Aerospace had no more equipment than we did when they were getting started. We’re only a few . . . we’re only about $50,000 to $60,000 behind XCOR as far as capital equipment, say, in our space.

Steve:              Wow.

Michael:          The equipment isn’t really the issue. It’s a capital and personnel issue. Equipment is cheaper and better, and the used market is always a good place. In hackerspaces, it’s a place where you can go ahead and make that judgment call between is it worth it to buy an old one and fix it or just get a working new one. If you want a project, you will get the broken one. If you want a part, you will buy the fixed one.

Steve:              So, in your mind, like the equipment is a non-issue. Yeah, the equipment exists to do that, you can get it, hackerspaces have it, TechShops have it, but really it’s about the capital and the people available to work on it. Those are the two stumbling blocks now?

Michael:          Yeah. The biggest stumbling block behind . . . and the will also to do a lot of these kinds of things. Paul Breed is a very unique example because Paul Breed basically used his own personal inertia to do his entire project, right?

Steve:              Yeah.

Michael:          Amazing guy. The equipment that he has is just a little bit better than what I have right now. Basically, the point is that it will show you that being clever and dedicated and having a little bit of money will cover for anything, but it’s really that dedication aspect that I have seen is the biggest stumbling block to anybody completing any goal is that they just don’t have the follow-through to push through and actually dedicate the time to it.

So, you’ll start seeing more kind of projects out of these kinds of spaces of significance when people start becoming more dedicated about working on their projects. Again, that social issue, the best we can do is give people the ability.

Steve:              Right.

Michael:          Yeah.

Steve:              And it kind of goes back to your space is intended to be kind of a watering hole, cultural center for Mojave. Whether people create businesses or they just work on a personal project, that’s completely cool. Your goal is just to get that conversation started.

Michael:          Yeah. I, basically, want to get all those people in the room working on stuff. If people just want to show up and have a beer and then leave, that’s fine. If people want to go on and work on the milling machine and make a sophisticated part for their little private jet that they’re building in their garage or, hopefully, here, I’m okay with that too. If they want to start a business out of this space, up to a certain point, I’m okay with that. Once they start making money off of it, that’s when they need to spread their wings and fly.

Generally, the purpose of this space is to provide capability. Capability is what I’m all about, because in active development programs what kills you is not having ability. When you leave momentum, even a little bit of momentum . . . like, for instance, right now I’m installing this door. If I just had a cut-off tool or a grinder or something, I would have been done with it a half hour . . . I would have been done even before I was on the phone with you, but I didn’t have that capability. So I’m muddling through it with chisels and files and just bullshit, basically. It’s because I didn’t have that capability. So, the more capability you have in a space like this, the more quickly people can achieve their goals.

Steve:              That’s a really good point

Michael:          Yeah.

Steve:              Well, thank you. I appreciate your time, and thanks for speaking with me.

Michael:          No problem, man.


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