At Hacker Dojo, Silicon Valley techies build toward success

Since August 2009, a funky industrial space in Mountain View, Calif., has become a home away from home for more than 200 people looking for a community of like-minded techies.

Since 2009, Hacker Dojo has become a home away from home for a wide variety of Silicon Valley techies and entrepreneurs looking for a hacker space with a sense of community. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Every day around 10 a.m., the five employees of YourVersion show up for work. Since hackers tend not to be early risers, their favorite workspace is usually still available.

As a former TechCrunch 50 People's Choice winner, you'd think that the company would be well ensconced in plush Silicon Valley offices. But YourVersion, a personalized content aggregation service, is into "extreme bootstrapping," said its CEO Dan Olsen. So rather than blow thousands of dollars each month on rent, he and his team gather here each morning in a funky industrial building with a decidedly hodge-podge interior aesthetic.

And they're hardly the only ones. Indeed, YourVersion is joined daily by a wide variety of other techies and entrepreneurs at the Hacker Dojo, one of a growing number of so-called hacker spaces popping up in and around Silicon Valley and elsewhere. And it has quickly become a fixture in the lives of the 250 people who pay $100 a month for membership, many because the place offers members a quiet place to work, free coffee, and, perhaps most important of all, super-fast, "hundred up/hundred down" Internet service, said Katy Levinson, one of its five directors.

Stopping by the Hacker Dojo on a gorgeous afternoon, as I did on Thursday, you could be forgiven for looking around the mostly empty rooms wondering how the place could have 250 people ponying up $100 each month. But according to Levinson, a software engineer at Google, and fellow director Brian Klug, an entrepreneur, the building is often hopping with hackers, especially in evenings and during its weekly happy hours.

All around the two-level space--where every room looks different, yet where there's a common college dorm-type of feel--there are tables set up for people to hack away, whether it's individually on personal projects or in teams on the next Facebook. A few first-come, first-served "cubby" offices fit one person each, and a couple of giant rooms with very high ceilings can seat a couple of dozen people and their laptops.

In it together
Trying to sum up what exactly Hacker Dojo is, Levinson says the place is "one-third event venue, one-third co-working space, and one-third big social living room."

Being daytime during my visit, the space is mostly being used by people working on various projects. Here and there, individuals, teams of one or two, and larger groups, like the five from YourVersion are sitting at various tables, tapping away on their laptops and trying to get their work done.

YourVersion was founded in Olsen's Palo Alto garage. But when he had a new baby, it became clear that "you can't do two start-ups in one place," said his co-founder Chris Haase.

Forced to move, the team went in search of co-working space somewhere in the Valley. But other hacker spaces cost too much, Haase said, and were even a bit too buttoned-down for the team's tastes. When they finally found Hacker Dojo, they knew they'd found their home. "The Dojo had it all," Haase said, "space, close to CalTrain (a regional commuter train), food, coffee, and [high speed Internet]."

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At the same time, Haase said he and his team value the sense of community they found at the Dojo. On the one hand, members seem to take it upon themselves without being asked to give tours to visitors. And on the other, he said, there's a very real sense that regardless of the project they're working on, the members are all in it together. And given how well connected everyone is to many Silicon Valley tech powerhouses, that can play out quickly in tangible business help.

Haase recalled that the YourVersion team was looking to expand its mobile offerings to Android tablets but didn't yet have one. At that time, the Samsung Galaxy was the only such device. When they put the word out about what they were looking for at the Dojo, it turned out that another member worked at Samsung and was able to quickly make a connection to just the right person in the company. Before they knew it, the team had a loaner and was able to start the testing they needed.

Event space
While some find the Dojo is ideal as a work space, others members see the key offering as being able to host events. Klug said that on average, there are two per week, everything from Startup Weekends to Random Hacks of Kindness to Security B-Sides to Bay Threats. Use of the space for such events is free of charge, so long as any member can attend without paying. The five directors of the Dojo maintain the right to veto any event that is sales-oriented.

And while Hacker Dojo is beginning to find stable financial footing, that hasn't always been the case. Opened in late summer 2009, it has always relied on the cooperation of members to take care of routine maintenance--Klug said there are monthly "fix-its" where members pitch in to "do whatever needs to be done to keep the place together. But only now, thanks to the growing membership and the resulting income, is Hacker Dojo able to finally spend some money on improving the building's infrastructure, Klug added.

In fact, that's a crucial element. Hacker Dojo doesn't have a team of high-paid employees. Rather, it's up to all the members to make sure things keep working. It's what some might call a "do-ocracy." If something needs to get done, someone inevitably steps up to do it.

"We're a whole bunch of members," said Klug, "who come together to pay rent, keep the place clean, and build cool stuff."

Geek features
Although the Hacker Dojo isn't home--guidelines prohibit members from staying in the building, which is open to members 24/7, for more than one night--there's little treats all over the place that are reminiscent of what geeks might put in their own houses, if only they had the space.

Hidden high on the walls in one of the two giant event rooms are several virtual-reality cameras that together are part of a video game development platform. Levinson pointed to the outline of a big blue "box" on the floor and explained that anyone inside the box can wear a special antenna on their head that can communicate with the cameras and tell a nearby computer where they are in the 3D space. The computer then feeds a projection to a pair of special glasses where you can see where you are, she said. The idea is that people can make their own games and use the system to test how movement works in 3D space. The system was installed by a member who didn't have the space for it at home.

There's also an electronics room, complete with a CNC machine, as well as three 3D printers. These are expensive items that the Dojo could never have afforded on its own. Instead, like the video game/virtual reality system, the devices were donated by members who had had them in storage. "'If you [keep them] here,'" Levinson recalled the donors saying, "'will you give it a life?"

And tucked against one wall is a small button with a label: "More cowbell." If you push it, a mechanism is activated that, invokes Christopher Walken's geek-famous battle cry and yes, rings a cowbell installed near the ceiling. As well, signs everywhere of a truly geek bent: stickers reading "Danger: No civilian access. Live fire ahead" and "Success+pony=dojo," a Frisbee painted to look like the Google Chrome logo, a Linux shark, giant Pac-Man ghosts made from Post-Its, a copy of the complete "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

Making money
While there's obviously a sense of shared community at the Dojo, it's OK for members to turn the projects they work on there into true money-making ventures.

Already, said Levinson and Klug, several companies have already "graduated" from the Dojo--meaning they've turned the project or products they worked on there into real-world successes and have moved on.

A couple of examples include Word Lens , an app that can auto-translate foreign language signage on the fly, and Kuplia, a shared shopping service that is now in beta.

There's also been teams working toward the Lunar X Prize that have called the Dojo home.

This book is evidence of what some want to be spending their time on at the Hacker Dojo Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But even for those who haven't made it yet, the Dojo seems like a place that can help get them there. In the Dojo's library, I find dozens of computer books, and, tellingly, a copy of the "Director of Venture Capital" left out on a table.

Levinson said there are groups that spend time at the Dojo that push each other to work hard and to get better at what they're doing. She recalled some folks who would push each other to build a new app each week, and others are good about getting together regularly to compare business goals and help each other see if they're meeting them.

In other words, while the Dojo has some of the trappings of a geek play house, it's really not that at all. This is a place where people come to do real work, and to build real products. If they happen to make friends and feel part of a community of like-minded people while they're there, then that's obviously a bonus.

As I'm leaving, I run into Haase again. He tells me a few more things that he likes about spending time at the Dojo, but I want to ask him about the idea of "graduating." What happens if YourVersion gets to the point of growing too big for the Dojo. After all, the office that the team snags every morning at 10 a.m. seems like it can only seat five comfortably.

"That," Haase said with a big smile, "is a problem we'd love to have."

 

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