Charles Adler is an enabler. That is, he’s a person who makes things possible. He’s most famous as a founder of Kickstarter, one of the first global crowdfunding platforms to focus on creativity. With Kickstarter, he enabled regular people to help other regular people to realize their entrepreneurial dreams. And then he scaled the process.
Today, Charles is again in the business of helping people turn their ideas into reality. This time, he’s moved from the virtual world to the physical, often finding himself standing right in the middle of people’s creative ambitions. As founder of LostArts, Adler is creating a business model that offers access to a local space that “blends laboratory, workshop, atelier, incubator, school and playground.” Starting with Chicago, he intends to master the particulars and then scale worldwide. It might prove a little tougher with a physical space than a virtual one, but he’s surely ahead of the game on research, walking and talking his way through his space each day, engaging customers and diving into the challenges of their process.
In addition to his full-time entrepreneurial action at LostArts, Adler is also a mentor at TechStars, on the executive board of the Chicago Design Museum, and on advisory boards for The Wabash Lights and the Active Transportation Alliance, a pedestrian and cycling advocacy group. He’s quite busy. But he still made time to sit down with dscout recently to discuss his newest endeavor.
dscout: You’ve launched a company! Does that mean you don’t get to design anymore?
Charles Adler: I would argue the process of building a company is literally the same thing as design. Like “little-d design” and then the "big-D Design.” I am designing a company. I am designing a team. I think this goes back to the heart of the People Nerds series, that it is all in service of people. It's all in service of our members. Both Kickstarter and Lost Arts are reflections of people and culture. And they're reflections of the gaps in culture and gaps in our economy that hinder human potential. We fill those voids and empower people through their potential.
How do Kickstarter and Lost Arts fill cultural and economic gaps and empower people?
Kickstarter is a platform that enables people and their creativity through access to capital and community. Lost Arts empowers creative people and their projects through access to tools, space, and, most importantly, community.
The way we handle memberships at Lost Arts is designed around the relationships people have with their projects. We see weekend members working on personal projects, as well as more ambitious but exploratory projects. Our Nights & Weekends membership is designed to allow more access as you become more obsessed with your project. And full-time usually indicates you've taken the plunge or want greater flexibility to access the space. We've seen members float between the various memberships over a series of months, which is awesome.
What kind of research have you done to figure out the membership structure for Lost Arts?
The conversations I've been having with members are about their usage and the space. I'm not a very academic researcher; I just want to have a casual conversation and talk to people. This is actually an experiment. Last year was an experiment in observing and engaging with people to understand their motivations and constraints for using the space or being interested in using it. We may completely blow up the current structure of membership, but we're effectively trying to optimize it for usage.
Is Lost Arts all about creation of physical objects? That seems like a departure from the digital realm of Kickstarter.
Lost Arts is about creative work. Creative work can look like what you do as a designer, engineer, entrepreneur or an artist, whether you’re on a laptop or running material through a table saw. It's all the same thing. The toolset of the space is composed of things that support physical creation of work, as well as digital creation of work. It's all blurring now. It's been blurring for a long time but now more than ever.
We have table saws, 3D printers, and laser cutters, but we also have fiber optic internet and 3D scanners. The scanner is one way to describe that translation from physical to digital. But even with 3D printers, CNC machines or laser cutters, you start with a digital file and make something physical. What is the difference?
What do people use 3D scanning to do?
I describe 3D printing and 3D scanning as being in the age of the dot matrix printer. We are in the early stages; the fidelity is not great and people are experimenting. There's a lot of work in 3D scanning around objects for preservation and archival documentation. You think about architectural spaces and objects or even designed objects that overtime are decaying. Another use is to recreate a part that is no longer in production. Instead of trying to replicate it through iteration, like in a CAD drawing, you just scan it.
Do you have a vision of this Chicago Lost Arts space as a model for something more?
I wouldn't be interested enough in creating a workspace like this if it was just solving a Chicago problem. I'm interested in generalizable problems. I’ve spent the last 15 years visiting other creative spaces—studios, universities, maker spaces and coworking spaces—around the world. The same problems kept coming up.
One is that most creative people end up working in some sort of limited isolation. Either you’re working at a company and the majority of your time is limited to working in their space, or, if you freelance, you're working at a co-working space, or maybe in your own studio. There's limitations around each of those.
Access to tools is difficult and tools are constantly changing, 3D printing and scanning included. There are tools you don't even know you need. We're trying to make the accessibility of those tools easier, whether it be for art, entrepreneurship or product design. It should be easier to traverse different disciplines: woodworking to laser cutting to metalwork to 3D printing, ceramics, sewing, soldering, programming—all that stuff.
Co-working in a modern sense is just a bunch of people with laptops. Individuals are hungry for space and tools. The consistent story is, “I want to get out of my apartment and I want to be around people.” At Lost Arts, they say, “These are my people. They get it.”
Co-working in a modern sense is just a bunch of people with laptops. Individuals are hungry for space and tools.
You did a pop-up version of Lost Arts before you had this space, correct?
Yes, we've really only been open since August. Our first version was a pop-up in 2015. I described it as my first Petri dish. I got ownership of a 4,000 square foot building that was going to get torn down, filled it with a bunch of tools and invited 60 people from around the city in different disciplines to use the space as they wished. I didn't charge them anything, and I told them upfront that this was an experiment and whatever they might do in the space is fine by me. I just wanted to see if there was enough activity and cross-pollination with the potential to pursue something bigger.
The first stage was to test the cultural dynamics between people of different disciplines that didn't really know each other. This second version has been to test operational and economic potential. How does a space like this run? Will people find it interesting enough to pay money to be a part of it? The first time, after all, they didn't have to.
It seems you are doing this as separate, sequential short-term projects.
There's effectively three-plus jobs for me to do. One is playing the researcher, observing the space to understand where it’s going and what the community needs. Two is growing the business: marketing the space and talking to members. The third is fundraising and looking for a new space when our lease runs out. Fundraising is a whole job in itself.
Being able to give an honest effort to any one of those activities, I wanted each to have a time constraint. The role of a project manager is to define that constraint. If you think about it simply, that's what Kickstarter is about—that time constraint.
For most of the people using the space, is the goal commercialization of ideas or is it just about the creative act?
I'd say both, and that’s actually part of the instigation for me doing this. I see too many spaces that are limited in one way or the other. Some spaces just want you to tinker, to do the creative act and others are purely focused on the commercial success, like accelerators, incubators, digital product development, or entrepreneurship hubs.
There is a need and a desire to cross those paths. We're already starting to see that happen at Lost Arts. In this short period of time, the space has entrepreneurs with the same energy as the artists. As they happen to work in the same space at the same time, we see this transference of knowledge.
Most co-working spaces, as you said, really are just rooms full of people with laptops. There isn't much opportunity to spontaneously interact. When you have people working on a lot of physical, visible objects, does it change that dynamic because you can walk up and look at something, point at it and touch it?
I hadn't honestly thought about it but I think that's actually really true. Even on the digital stuff, the stuff that you're doing on your laptop, we're starting to work through that. That part of the model is happening with events, which are free to members and open up to the public as paid events. We have this small but amazing community of members working on incredible projects. One of the mantras for me with Lost Arts is this idea of making the invisible creative, visible. Out of isolation. One of the ways we fulfill that intent is showcasing talents of the community.
For example, there's a guy working in the urban, organic agriculture realm. He's building a product that more efficiently and effectively grows a better quality mushroom. One version of his product would be for Whole Foods. An alternative version is for restaurants, so they’re growing mushrooms right in their kitchen. He's got a prototype sitting at Google's office because they have a restaurant in there. Another is a kit so you could grow mushrooms at home.
I’m watching him go through the paces and hearing all these reflections about what he's going through. These are the stories you don't often hear about. When it comes to start-ups, we hear about the stories of success. We don't hear about those reflections that this entrepreneur is making: does he go left, does he go right, does he go straight? I think those are important reflections for a whole community of people to listen to and engage in conversation about. So we are giving him, and other artists and entrepreneurs like him, a microphone to talk about and promote what he's working on.
What does your day-to-day look like? Are you at the space most of the day? I picture you being a mentor to these people that come into your space.
Being in the space, I'm constantly barraged by questions and people who want to chat, so one of my resolutions for 2017 is to spend less time in the space. Ultimately I'm designing a business that I want to scale, so I actually hire mentors.
I have a staff to help people on their projects. Maybe they need some orientation on a machine or want to just brainstorm a little bit. If you think of it as a gym membership and there's a personal trainer, it's kind of the same model.
Are your memberships limited to individuals?
The School of the Art Institute, Capital One, Truth Labs, Schawk!, Lapiz and others are all member companies. Each has things that they can't quite do in their own space. It could be a physical constraint, it could be political constraint. Lost Arts is the space to explore those ideas that you can't do on the day-to-day. It's really about allowing people to come to their own conclusions and then discovering new use cases.
Last fall, School of the Art Institute hosted a class at Lost Arts. University prices skyrocketed and they need to continue to prove their value. We are a creative and commercial space, and they are a creative and academic institution. A portion of their students are there to learn to do something that they can take commercial. We become a stepping stone for them. They hosted a class at Lost Arts that’s part of a program they call Adventure Studio. That's evolved into almost like a residency program that includes a Kickstarter element.
On the other side, you've got Capital One, which is experimenting. They've got a lab in the city that is focused on the future of retail, working with a number of clients on what retail looks like in an age of connected stations. They have this beautiful, amazing office downtown, but they have a staff of people that are makers, designers, and engineers who can't really prototype the future of retail in a lacquered office space. That is where Capital One discovered that Lost Arts could be a quick little prototyping space. We are effectively co-working for the corporation.
Has the experience so far changed your original vision?
With Kickstarter, the psychological barrier to solve was, “Are they going to trust this other party to handle a transaction for this other person?“ Or, “Is this person on the other end of the project going to fulfill their thing?” With Lost Arts, the question is still: What gets people to come in?
I’m still in a state of curiosity.
I’m still in a state of curiosity. The current membership is drawn in because they need to get shit done and are actively working on something or just innately driven to function that way. That's how they're wired. Other people are like, “My kid's running late for school, and I have to get to work, and I'm exhausted at the end of the day, so I'm not going to go to the space today, but I need an event or something that's going to allow me to escape my life for a minute and come into the space.” I would probably fall into that category if I were a member.
We recognize there are members that want to and should and could come in more frequently and yet probably don't, so the next layer of the experiment is how do we find our sweet spot with the array of events that we put on. Whether that is around design technique, or to get people over the technical hump with demonstrations about how tools work, or just a speaker series that gets somebody inspired by someone else's work. That's really the focus, I think, for the next six months.
Kari Dean McCarthy is a seasoned brand communications strategist, award-winning filmmaker, and gnocchi expert.