In a dreary economy, with record numbers of Portlanders unemployed and underemployed, the shared work space is hoping to tap into the city’s DIY sensibility to foster innovation, creativity and a new connection to work. But similar projects have tried here before --- and failed. Will ADX’s new approach pencil out?
Located on the edge of Portland’s eastside industrial district, ADX (Art Design Portland) occupies a 10,000-square-foot warehouse once filled by Apex Manufacturing. The warehouse has since been gutted and renovated, with the letters ADX printed across its façade.
Inside, the bright space smells of new paint and freshly cut wood. “It’s our first day” says founder Kelley Roy as we walk to the makeshift interview area — three wooden chairs set in front of the company’s gallery space. A slow-moving Labrador trails us and lies down at Kelley’s feet.
Kelley ticks through her professional history as if one gig could only have led to the next: Program Manager for Metro, green building developer, founder of food source and prep company Get Fresh NYC, author of Cartopia: Portland’s Food Cart Revolution, and now founder of ADX. “Everything I’ve done is about bringing people together over something I cared about,” she says. “Bringing people back together and giving them a place to work, to make their own jobs, do meaningful work. It’s just important to me.”
Her business partner, Eric Black, joins us a minute later. Trained as an architect, Eric spent the past seven years at the architecture firm Yost Grube Hall in downtown Portland. From there he moved on to found the first iteration of ADX, located in a 3,000-square-foot building on southeast 9th avenue. This first version of ADX was a shared workspace and shop for architects, with 1,000 square feet of gallery space.
The pair met when Kelly needed space to show work for a visiting artist friend, and ended up leasing the ADX gallery. It was then that they began re-envisioning ADX as a true cross-disciplinary work space. “We started to prototype the idea of what it could really mean within that space,” says Eric. “It was a nice test.”
The pair secured a $145,000 loan from Albina Opportunities Corporation and Mercy Corps Northwest to lease, renovate and equip their new building. The nonprofit lenders stepped in to support ADX because they saw its potential as a jobs catalyst, an objective not lost on Kelley: “We’d really feel that sense of success in what we’re trying to create if those jobs really thrive here in Portland. Take the bad economy and the lack of jobs and turn it into an opportunity.”
Shared builder spaces have popped up around the country throughout the last decade. 3rd Ward, a shared work space in New York’s Williamsburg’s neighborhood, was founded in 2006 by Jason Goodman and Jeremy Lovitt as a response to the city’s prohibitively expensive artist studio rates. The company has more than doubled membership in the past year, reaching1,250 members and bringing in over 200 instructors to teach everything from studio lighting to welding. It employs 20 full and part-time staff. 3rd Ward is currently expanding to the second floor of their building, adding 10,000 square feet of classrooms, a wood shop, tech and photo studios and more shared work space. The company has been growing throughout the recession, wrote Jessica Tom, director of marketing, “As people lose their jobs, we pick them up as freelancers who use our space as their company structure."
Early interest in ADX, to the pairs’ surprise, came largely from local creative firms, as opposed to the casual hobbyist. The firms signed up for ADX membership include The Official Manufacturing Company, Factory North, Hand Eye Supply, Build Design and Kate Bingaman Burt.
The success of these firms largely hinges on the fact that they actually make what they design. “I think people are so tired of the plastic nature of the way things are made” says Eric, “they want something better, and they see it can be better if people actually put their hand to it than if a machine makes it.”
The Official Manufacturing Company was in the process of tooling up their own shop when they stumbled across ADX and decided to lease the attached office. For Official Manufacturing, the access to space and tools made sense. “If we weren’t subleasing from them we definitely would have a business membership, and use the tools we wouldn’t be able to afford on our own,” says founder Fritz Mesenbrink.
For the weekend hobbyist or entrepreneur needing a little help realizing his or her concept, ADX has assembled a cohort of experts — designers, videographers, architects — dubbed the “Gang of Ten.” This group of experts pays for desks and access, and offers their consulting services at a 10 percent discount to other members.
The model has allowed ADX to diversity revenue streams: one third from memberships, one third from classes and workshops, and one third from the Gang of Ten fees. Once the space has a healthy community of builders, says Kelley, they’ll begin selling pieces from individual members under the ADX label. “Sort of like Ikea,” she laughs.
The numbers haven’t always penciled out for similar operations, however. TechShop, founded out of the Bay Area in 2006, opened several franchises across the country. One of these locations on the outskirts of Portland, in Beaverton, was forced to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2010 after low membership turnout.
But, Kelley notes, TechShop was in the wrong location (suburban Beaverton) and with memberships starting at $99 a month, was too expensive for the casual hobbyist. Kelley hopes ADX, with its multiple revenue streams, central location and affordable rates (starting at $25 a month) can be profitable within a year.
Rather than franchising, says Kelley, ADX is interested in partnering with existing maker spaces like 3rd Ward. “They did a lot of research to figure out what their community needs were, and they’re serving the needs of their community — that’s what we did here.”
In a dreary economic climate, the community seems to be responding well: ADX’s open houses enjoyed healthy turnouts, and Kelley and Eric report they are on track to meet their yearly subscription goals. “I don’t know if it’s tied to the recession, but I do think that people are getting over modernism, from a design standpoint,” says Eric “People are actually recognizing high craft.”
Kelley relates the rising consciousness around manufacturing to the organic and local food movement: “I think it’s the same thing with objects. It’s not mainstream yet, but there’s a certain sector of people who care, and care about the people who are making and designing things.”
“Think about it,” says Eric “A hundred and fifty years ago, everything in your life was made by somebody that you knew; that wasn’t that long ago.”
Written by Ilie Mitaru for Stake, a new business magazine set to launch this fall. You can read more and support thepremier issue here.