Silicon Valley Techies Fight to Save a Popular but Illegal Haven
Hacker Dojo is equal parts shared office, lecture hall and after-hours salon for a variety of tinkerers, software coders and entrepreneurs who intend to reinvent the future. The idea for Pinterest was cooked up here. The makers of Pebble watches used the space as their West Coast headquarters. Today, however, it is threatened with extinction. City officials in Mountain View have ordered Hacker Dojo to comply with city regulations for offices or move out.
And so the inhabitants of the cavernous warehouse in a city of office complexes have found themselves scrambling to raise money, not for their start-ups, but to save their start-up space. A Kickstarter campaign to raise money expires Friday. (Contribute $256 and get “a box of hacker stuff.”) They have already held a charity run through Mountain View — in their underwear. A continuing charity auction offers, among other things, sex advice and financial tips for start-ups. The Dojo is an example of the new work spaces that underlie the start-up culture of Silicon Valley. Coffee shops around here can be packed with coders, huddled over glowing Macs for hours at a time. Technology incubators are sprinkled across the valley, but getting into the hottest ones can be as hard as getting into business school; besides, many of them, like Y-Combinator, just down the road from here, extract equity in the start-up in return. Some shared offices are upscale, providing on-site bookkeepers and full-service cafes. And then there are hacker spaces like this, with distinct identities of their own. Noisebridge in San Francisco calls itself a “space for artistic collaboration and experimentation”; Ace Monster Toys in Oakland offers a laser cutting machine.
The Hacker Dojo is part office, part school and part after-hours salon for tinkerers, coders and entrepreneurs.
The Dojo is among the largest and fastest-growing of these shared hacker spaces. It has leased 13,000 square feet of abandoned warehouse, though it is currently permitted to use barely two-thirds of it. You’ll find the usual office supplies: staplers, printers and copy machine. But in the pink-painted electronics room, you’ll find a brand new three-dimensional printer and trays full of diodes and silicon chips. Perks also include a bike rack, high-speed Internet, a cabinet of cellphones on which to test out applications and, on evenings and weekends, classes on things as diverse as patent law and machine-learning. Inside, Tim Sears is building a mobile application to let consumers compare grocery store prices. V. S. Joshi has spent the day at a library table upstairs, refining a Facebook tool for dating. At sundown, Chris Agerton ambles in; he is designing what he calls a “wearable polygraph test.” The Dojo charges members $100 a month. “We pride ourselves on our community,” said Katy Levinson, a robotics engineer who now works full time to raise money for the Dojo. “It’s more fraternity dues than rent.” The warehouse used to be a stained-glass factory, and some of the old samples still shimmer on the walls. What it does not have, according to city officials, are things that would make it an office. It doesn’t have enough fire exits, sprinklers or wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, as required by city regulations. “If they can’t comply, they can’t use the building as they want to,” said Anthony Ghiossi, the chief building official for the city. Hacker Dojo opened without a permit, Mr. Ghiossi pointed out. It is currently prohibited from hosting events that draw more than 49 people in any one room, he said. That means no large classes or overly enthusiastic happy hours, which are a regular feature on Friday nights. Ellis Berns, the city’s assistant community development director, was eager to point out that Mountain View, which is home to tech giants like Google, did not wish to evict Hacker Dojo. “We try to be as supportive as we can,” he said. “Businesses spin out of there. We are not at all interested in them closing down.” But retrofitting the space will cost upward of $250,000, according to the Dojo’s estimate. It has so far raised $173,000, including donations from its neighbor, Google. Its members say they treasure it for its network of like-minded technologists as much as for the equipment and spare parts. Mr. Joshi, the dating-app maker, comes every day to sit upstairs at that long library table, with mismatched chairs and a view of an oak tree outside the window. Some of his partners have day jobs; they come when they can. “I found my graphic designer over here. I found a database consultant here. You meet different people with different skills,” he said. Mr. Sears stumbled into the Dojo soon after he moved to nearby Palo Alto two years ago and attended a machine-learning class. He considered working at home but found it isolating. “Just the environment is vastly more stimulating,” he said. Once he looked up from his makeshift cubicle and asked for tips on where to find an FTP server to ferry large files. “A guy down the hall set it up,” he said. “It took about five minutes.”
August 24, 2012