Four years ago, Roger Floren, 39, took a job in the technology department at Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows and moved to Tahoe from Bend, Ore. Although it was the first in a series of bad winters, Floren, who has a degree in computer science from the University of Washington, stayed because of the rare opportunity to work full-time in his field for a ski resort. Due to the poor winter, however, Floren was asked to take the summer off.
As a result, he picked up odd jobs such as laser-etching champagne flutes for hotels in Squaw, making Burning Man camp swag, and working special ticket sales for the resort. Fast forward to today, and Floren is the owner of Tahoe Wood Maps, a hugely profitable business with a production facility based out of a large-scale makerspace in Reno.
Perhaps you have seen his maps around town — they are 3-D maps made up of multiple pieces of wood mimicking the topography of Lake Tahoe. Flooded with success, Floren has since expanded his production to include maps of the Grand Canyon, Bay Area, Monterey Bay, and soon of Squaw Valley. Floren’s maps are produced on a large CNC wood mill, a computer controlled cutting machine that he built himself.
Able to employ six full-time staff, including himself, Floren has found a way to turn his artistic skills into a profitable business, all in the span of a few years. Trunk Show, an art gallery and store in Tahoe City, was the first retailer to carry Tahoe Wood Maps in December 2014.
So how did Floren manage to go from working odd jobs to owning a successful business in such a short period of time?
The answer has a lot to do with the growing, tech-influenced DIY makers movement, a rapidly growing trend throughout the country, in which people are opting to make, rather than buy, things they need. Maker is defined by Ad Week as a “Term for independent investors, designers, and tinkers. A convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans.”
The maker movement is setting down roots in Truckee in the form of the Truckee Roundhouse — a nonprofit makerspace corporation, located in the 3,400 square foot hangar E3 at the Truckee Tahoe Airport, offering the space, facilities, equipment, and teachers needed to create in fields such as welding, metalwork, blacksmithing, woodworking, ceramics, electronics/technology, and textile arts.
“We want to encourage people to be inventive,” said Grant Kaye, treasurer at The Roundhouse. “It is an open space for people to be creative.”
BUT FIRST, RENO
In February 2015, Popular Mechanics magazine named Reno one of the 14 best startup cities in America. This accolade is due in part to makerspaces such as Artec, The Generator, and Bridgewire — just three of numerous locations scattered throughout the Reno/Sparks area providing people with a space to work.
“Although startups […] make up the majority of new businesses in Reno, the city also caters to makers, with an arena-size makerspace and artists’ studio called the Generator,” the article stated. “Between 75 and 300 fabricators, painters, sculptors, metalworkers, carpenters, and craftspeople head there each day — especially before Burning Man, when the giant studio is used to build installations for the festival.”
But the Reno makers community is about so much more than the Burn. Floren, along with some peers at the Reno Collective — a collaborative workspace for designers, creatives, technologists, entrepreneurs, freelancers, rocket scientists, and startups — created the 5,500 square foot Bridgewire, a nonprofit makerspace/hackerspace/workshop in Sparks that opened in October 2011.
Bridgewire is where his wood maps idea was born and where Floren hand-built the original CNC mill used to cut his maps. It was thanks to his computer science background and lots of ingenuity that Floren was able to create a machine that would have cost him $50,000 new.
A true makerspace, Bridgewire is flooded with tools, parts, and large format machinery such as CNC wood mills, metal band/cutoff saw, a CNC plasma cutter, full wood shop, and electronic shop with diagnostic equipment … the list goes on to include enough stuff to, well, make just about anything.
“We get a large majority of our supplies from the community,” said Floren, noting that they once even had a Reno woman donate her late husband’s entire impeccably organized tool bench.
Artec is a similar, but larger-scale facility at 60,000 square feet. Owned and operated by Reno resident Ryan Adams, the space is the current home to Tahoe Wood Maps. Floren, along with a handful of lucky tenants, pay rent to Adams or work for his company Debowler. Artec has also been known to host build crews from all over the world when in town for Burning Man.
A few years ago, Karin Johnson, board member at The Roundhouse, began taking metal working classes at the Sierra College campus in Rocklin because she couldn’t find what she was looking for locally.
Johnson, an architect at MWA Architects, commuted 80 miles, each way, once a week to develop her skills at her new craft, but was disappointed when she ran out of courses to take. Her metal work practice was at a standstill without the necessary tools. She scoured the Truckee/Tahoe area for a place to continue practicing in the field and came across a placeholder website for Roundhouse, and her involvement began.
“It was the community part that was missing,” Johnson said of her time after the course had ended, “and I knew there were other people out there like me in the community, because our community is so creative.”
Now, thanks to the board of directors, whose members each bring a unique set of experiences to the mix — Morgan Goodwin (chair), Emily Vitas (secretary), Grant Kaye (treasurer), Chris “Chief” Gregor, Karin Johnson, Stephen Hoyt, and Robert Suarez — the movement is coming to Truckee.
“It all sort of clicked,” Hoyt and Kaye said as to how the idea that had been in the back of their minds for a while came to fruition, thanks to a critical mass of people coming together. It was then that they broke ground on the project, with the generous help of the airport renting the space to them, and community members donating their time and/or materials. Additional community partners include Truckee-Tahoe Lumber, Porter Simon, Sierra Business Council, and MWA Architects.
The nonprofit’s mission is to support the teaching, learning, and practicing of a wide variety of crafts, skills, technologies, and arts in the Tahoe/Truckee community. “People here are different than people anywhere else in the world,” said Kaye. “They are unique, strong-willed, and figuring out a way to make it work.”
In addition to being a place for current community members to create, Kaye sees the space as a reason to encourage people to move to the area. “We are a mountain town that we want to not be focused on a weather- and tourism-based economy,” he said.
For current members of our community Johnson explained the desirability and marketability of The Roundhouse in terms of the 1/3 space idea — the concept of having space outside of work, home, and school to call your own. “It takes the pressure off the need for a large home,” she said. “It [The Roundhouse] could be a catalyst for a new business and would therefore be a huge economic benefit to our community.”
NUTS AND BOLTS
The makerspace will be made up of five main shops: metal, wood, ceramics, technology, and textiles. These were chosen based on a survey conducted by The Roundhouse asking community members what shops they most wanted to see, leading to more than 300 responses.
Each of these five areas will have a volunteer in charge of managing its facilities and the associated tasks. Maybe you know some of them? Judi Morales-Gibson (textiles), Chris “Chief” Gregor (metal), Grant Kaye (wood), Maggie Hargrave (ceramics), and Stephen Hoyt (tech). Equipment for the space has been both purchased and generously donated. Kaye estimates the ratio is about 60/40.
Until they are able to hire an executive director, The Roundhouse will be staffed by volunteers required to work at least two four-hour shifts a month. For more information on becoming a Roundhouse volunteer, visit truckeeroundhouse.org/volunteer.
“The synergy that happens from these spaces is amazing,” said Johnson, who sees The Roundhouse as a hub and catalyst for bringing diverse communities in our area together.
One of the driving forces behind a makerspace is that the co-habitants are required not only to hone their own craft, but are also encouraged (and often required) to work together with people with different talents in the same space.
“We want to look over and see a retired person helping someone making skis,” Kaye said. “What we want is that cross-pollination, you-teach-me/I-teach-you mentality.”