Hacker spaces are not a new concept, but they are definitely enjoying a renewed surge of popularity.
I was involved with the formation of two hacker spaces. The first was for the ColumbusFreenet.org wireless project (web site is defunct; see the archive.org cache instead.) This was a lot of fun, but it did not have organizational longevity. It was a valuable learning experience for us.
The second was Freeside Atlanta, which seems to have grown very strong legs.
The most difficult test for a hacker space happens when the people who started it leave. I left Freeside in October of 2009, and other key founders left around the same time. To its credit, Freeside is now happily entering its second round of leader elections since I left. It continues to thrive as a responsibly led group, with many enthusiastic and creative members contributing actively to its overall success.
How did we all manage to pull that off?
Each space is different, and has different environmental factors and different member motivations that will present unique challenges. Below, I'll attempt to summarize what Freeside did right for our particular set of challenges.
We learned a lot of the following by doing things right. The rest we learned the hard way.
Most of us long for a "free as in beer" culture, but money is important if you want to maintain a physical space.
Before anything else, get realistic move-in costs and 3 months of operational overhead in the bank. Once you're settled in the space, aim for 4-6 months of operational cushion in the bank so you can ride out any trouble. (Think: recession, major theft, or some large member exodus.)
People will complain about dues. Give them access to the budget so they can see for themselves why dues are important.
Talk about the savings cushion often, until everybody understands and agrees that it's necessary.
How much do you charge for dues?
Make a conservative estimate about how many members you can attract. Make a liberal estimate about the space you need and the monthly operational cost for maintaining it. Divide the second one by the first one.
Or, just multiply the average person's cable television bill by 1.5. That's probably about right.
Freeside borrowed the "starving hacker" concept from Noisebridge, and reserves 10% of the membership slots for college students at a 50% discount.
Frequent meetings are important to maintain momentum.
Freeside met every week, on Monday night, at a popular neighborhood bar. Alcohol binds.
Tip your server well; you'll be glad you did since you'll be coming back every week.
We continued the weekly meeting tradition at the space after it was up and running. It was a habit by then.
It's okay to talk about some of the same things week after week.
Your mission is not to cover a specific agenda as efficiently as possible; your mission is to get a group of people to know each other and facilitate the beginnings of trust among friends. Give a basic historical synopsis at the beginning of each meeting to reduce redundancy, have new people introduce themselves, and then let the rest happen naturally.
Your agenda for the first few months will probably gravitate toward dues, budget, and finding the right space. But be ready to discuss every minute detail ad nauseam.
Get as good of a place as you can afford that's within your operating budget... but make every single penny count! Freeside fanned out across the city and evaluated more than 50 properties against a weighted list of criteria determined over the course of several Monday-night meetings. We looked at favorites two or three times. We left the city's real estate agents exhausted.
If that seems like too much work to be worth it, consider this: Freeside secured 5,500 square feet of flexible warehouse space that met the vast majority of our requirements for $1450 per month. This was remarkably cheaper than anything else on the market. It would not have happened if we had been eager shoppers.
Be wary of leasing a really shitty (i. e., structurally unsound) place to save money.
Some will argue that a "fixer upper" is in line with the hacker spirit, but they'd be surprised how quickly the hacker spirit is broken when people are doing nothing but mundane construction work for several weekends in a row. My first attempt at creating a hacker space failed, and this was the primary reason.
There are notable counter-examples that have worked out just fine, however. You'll need to objectively evaluate your path of least resistance; usually, that path is to charge dues and lease an already viable space.
Note: Freeside had plenty of build-out work to do in the beginning, but within the first month the space was suitable enough to get power, work-areas, and bandwidth available for members. This was important to maintain our momentum.
Frugality doesn't stop with the lease signing.
It will be incredibly tempting to rush out and buy supplies, equipment, and furnishing.
Put somebody with willpower in charge of the money. That person should always say "Could we easily do this ourselves for much cheaper?" A good example from Freeside was finding tables for the space. We initially thought buying cheap plastic folding tables for $90 each was a good deal. We decided instead decided to build our own, based on a design we saw at Makers Local 256. It saved money and became a fun project that was in turn passed on to others (Curious Inventor.)
If people solicit the budget-czar for things that aren't strictly necessary or are not beneficial for a majority of members, be firm and suggest the requesters donate the items instead. If it's a borderline case, suggest a 50% subsidy from the budget to match donations.
In a short period of time, Freeside members became just as frugal as the treasurer. It helped drive creative solutions.
You need to be open to new ideas, but don't be afraid to tell people to simmer down when they're not being productive. Geeks love to argue, and sometimes they need a reminder that it's not always the best use of everyone's time. You can do it in a non-hostile way that encourages respect for the group instead of anger or frustration.
You can't lead by trying to please everyone.
Try to make a majority of the group happy, and then help the rest understand the value of compromise.
Stick to basic, positive principles, and don't take things too seriously.
Be ready to invest a significant amount of your own personal time, money, and sweat.
Do not martyr yourself by doing all of the work; ensure that others are pulling their weight. But you should definitely be setting the example for earnest commitment.
You should pick a legal organizational structure to protect your membership.
We went the nonprofit route, but it's not for everybody. There's no short-cut advice here; you're going to have to study the requirements and benefits for the different alternatives you have available. This is part of the "sweat" (mentioned above) that's going to be required of you. The Nolo book was useful for us to get basic nonprofit incorporation with the state. (Freeside's federal 501(c)3 status is still pending, last I checked.)
Make sure you draft explicit policies defining acceptable behavior.
This is anything from obvious legal issues (e. g., no hostile network activity on external or non-designated internal systems) to general social behavior toward others (Freeside advises members: "Don't be an asshole.") It may be useful to collaborate on a manifesto for your space in order to set the spirit for your policies.
Buy any insurance that seems remotely relevant.
It's generally very cheap and worth it.
Go out of your way to show that your space is a productive member of the immediately local community.
Fix your landlord's computer. Help out the neighbors. Host charitable events. You get the idea. You can't buy good will, but you can earn it.
Your space is full of people who probably grew up on the Internet. If you're not showing off your creations on the Internet (general blogging, YouTube videos, technical journals, etc.) then you are missing out on an opportunity to give your space notoriety and pride. Why should you care about that? Because it attracts new creative members, and gives people a sense of accomplishment.
This isn't an easy habit to get into, honestly. Freeside started off slowly on this, but has recently put priority on member blog posts to highlight projects and events.
It's hard to do for the same reason geeks don't like to write documentation; it feels mundane, and it's less fun than doing the actual projects. But it's a valuable discipline to build.
No space will be just like Freeside. We were fortunate in some ways, and challenged in others. Your scenario will be different, so stay flexible and use your best judgement.