Photo: Coral Garvey

Jason Goodman: On Maker Culture, Hands-On Learning & the D.I.Y. Movement

If 3rd Ward had a motto inscribed over its entrance, it might read something like: “Learn. Collaborate. Create.” For these are the three ideals at the heart of the 30,000-square-foot, co-working space, where on any given day you can find industrious “makers” welding in the metal shop, working quietly on computers, conducting photo shoots, listening to lectures, sipping coffee on couches, or learning how to stone set a ring – all under one roof.

In 2010, the New York Times called 3rd Ward “a D.I.Y. utopia,” and today thousands of established and emerging creatives venture out to the Brooklyn space each day to make their ideas happen. I chatted with founder Jason Goodman about where the idea for 3rd Ward came from, why traditional college degrees don’t cut it anymore, and how he turned a party space into a creative campus.

You started grad school in Boston, but dropped out pretty quickly. What happened?

I went to grad school at Museum School. The reputation that the Museum School was founded on was that it’s a place for early career-artists to go and fine-tune what they’re doing, not really a place to go and just get a degree.

But when I went that wasn’t what was happening anymore; it had become more of a traditional university giving out bachelor degrees. I wasn’t fulfilled and because I’d already had a lot of industry experience, to go from working back to school, it felt like a step backwards. So I moved to New York because I needed to pursue my vision and not be in a classroom.

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Jason Goodman. Photo: Ellen Jong

You used to work in construction – how did that lead to 3rd Ward?

We called our construction business “Build,” and we quickly became known for taking on unique projects that weren’t easy. People would come to us if their project had some kind of crazy objective and time constraint because we were the kind of people that thought that was fun for some reason.

So, initially, we were solving a problem that was very personal. We wanted to make things and explore different materials, but there wasn’t really a space to do it.  We were looking for a place like 3rd Ward before we realized it didn’t exist. It seemed so obvious to us.

When we started talking to investors, we were shocked that they didn’t get it. In fact, they thought we were crazy. Today, you say “co-working space” and people know what you mean, but in 2005 you had to sit people down for ten minutes just to explain the concept.

Initially, we were solving a problem that was very personal.

Initially 3rd Ward was known for throwing parties. How did that come about?

We needed to make rent and we had this big empty warehouse. Plus, we needed a way to get people out to Bushwick. In 2005, people did not want to venture out here, cabs wouldn’t take you, and it seemed like a major trek. So we threw these massive parties, and we’d hand our landlord these brown paper bags of beer-soaked cash at the end of each month.

Why did the party era come to an end?

We always knew that the parties would only be temporary. I mean, it wasn’t what we started out to do. We wanted to make a space for artists, and we were just throwing parties to make money and get people out here. On Halloween of 2008 we threw a party. We planned for it to be massive, we took over 3 additional warehouses, each one with a different theme and we anticipated 3,000 or 4,000 people. We were shocked when over 8,000 people showed up along with the fire department. We completely lost control and we got into big trouble, and that’s when we knew we had to stop. It was the poetic ending we were kind of waiting for.

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3rd Ward’s Halloween party in 2008.

3rd Ward does all kinds of classes in woodworking, metalworking, jewelry making, etc. How did you build out the educational program?

We started the classes as a marketing tool to be honest. We thought it’d be a great way to get people out here and show them what 3rd Ward is all about. You don’t need to be a member to take a class, and we were blown away with how those took off. People were really hungry for practical classes that covered professional development and other skills. In the beginning I think we were a little bit blind to the demand for this type of really hands-on, focused type of learning experience.

When the classes first took off, we were resistant to it. When you have a clear vision, you can be blind to other things. We were really focused on having a space for freelance entrepreneurs and designers and artists to come and make things (and we still are), but the education program was growing quickly and there was this huge market. Looking back, I realize that I was making the very thing I’d hoped to get out of Museum School but didn’t. My short experience at grad school actually helped inform me how to build our program by teaching me what we didn’t want it to be.

When you have a clear vision, you can be blind to other things.

Instead, we created a place for creative people to go and make stuff and share stuff, without having to choose a major or be graded – which just seems so old-fashioned now. I didn’t realize that at the time though. Instead, I resisted having the class program become bigger than the membership program – because that wasn’t our original idea. Today the classes are bigger, way bigger, in terms of audience and revenue and 3rd Ward wouldn’t be the same without them.

Do you still consider yourself a “maker”?

To me when you’re running a company you’re still making something. I’m making new things at 3rd Ward all the time, but instead of working with my hands like I used to, I’m building a business.

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The wood shop at 3rd Ward.

The next 3rd Ward is going to be in Philadelphia. Why there?

Have you ever been to Philadelphia? It’s amazing. There is a huge maker culture there and it’s industrial and it has this amazing history. And there isn’t really a city center there. They need a 3rd Ward. It’s set to open in September or October of this year. We built the building to be able to do everything that we do at 3rd Ward Bushwick. We have a high-tech wood working shop and metal shop, but we aren’t going to open with the full range of classes that we have here. You can pretty much build anything or do anything, and like the original 3rd Ward, the offerings will expand over time.

What’s next?

Ideally, we’d have a 3rd Ward in every city one day. On a tactical level, we have a number of other projects lined up for New York, we’re talking about opening something in Manhattan and we’re moving into the culinary sphere. We do a few culinary things right now, but we don’t have the proper space for it. So we’re going to do an entire culinary-focused 3rd Ward building that’ll open within the next year, and we’re doing it with the EDC grant that we won.

Everything we provide for people, whether it’s a space, or a class, or a show, it’s all wrapped in play. At the end of the day we’re still running a business, so we want to expand and make money, but really we feel like we’re participating in something that’s so much bigger – this maker culture movement. People are craving this tactile, self-efficient practice and we give them a place to do that, a place to learn and connect with other creatives.

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3rd Ward exterior on Morgan Ave.

How have you stayed motivated through all the ups and downs?

You have to thrive on challenge. If you don’t, don’t start a business. I love making things and being creative, and I think a lot of that is born out of struggle and challenge. That’s what makes this whole thing interesting and gets me out of bed in the morning.

Jenn Godbout

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Jenn is the Associate Director of Partnerships for Behance, working with clients like Pantone, AOL, RISD and Wacom. Prior to joining Behance, Jenn was the Sr. Marketing Manager for The Drake Hotel in Toronto. Say hello on Twitter
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