The Columbus Idea Foundry Suits Up, With Some Growing Pains
In just a few years, the Columbus Idea Foundry has become a Franklinton staple.
Creatives like welders and woodworkers craft on the Foundry's bottom floor, while people using the co-working space upstairs sip lattes and type away on laptops. People walk around with graphic tees and safety goggles, while others stake out open tables with machinery.
“I took over a little less than a year ago, and I was sort of warned at the time, I would love to be able to phase some of these changes in gradually, sort of warm up the water before we all dive in,” says Idea Foundry CEO Casey McCarty.
McCarty started at the Idea Foundry as a COO and was promoted to CEO last August. She says she only had a few months to make some drastic changes.
“Maybe it’s a little less fun in the moment,” McCarty laughs. “It’s certainly less fun as a manager.”
The for-profit LLC in Franklinton is celebrating a decade of radical innovation, offering the largest community "makerspace" in the world. Their headquarters offers artisans a cheap place to work, as well as shared office space for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
But the company that began as an experiment is undergoing some growing pains. Recent changes made by the new CEO, which she hopes will promote financial viability, have been welcomed by some and shunned by others.
McCarty says that in 2018, the Idea Foundry was headed nowhere fast. It had up to a $20,000-per-month deficit and could not pay bills on time.
The space is comprised of 60,000 square feet: The first floor is a workshop with a variety of equipment and tools for trades like welding and woodworking. The second floor space is dedicated to co-working, with a mixture of open desks and private offices. The third floor is a mezzanine with nooks for private work.
“The second floor experience was not making money, it was losing money,” McCarty says. “And that sort of violated the mission behind this space. The makerspace shouldn’t be subsidizing corporate tenants.”
So she made changes. Some staff were cut, others moved around. McCarty declined to go into details, citing personnel privacy.
Other changes were less obvious. McCarty says she’s worked to transform the organization from a "clubhouse culture" to a more professional environment.
Employees and regulars have noticed the shift. An Idea Foundry member who does freelance video production spoke with WOSU about it, but asked to remain anonymous for fear of financial retaliation.
“At the end of last year,they had sent out an email right before Christmas that was like, ‘Hey. The co-working you have now, it’s gonna be $100 for all of 2019, and at the end of 2019 we’re gonna go to $200 to be comparable to other office spaces in Columbus,” the member says.
WOSU confirmed those price increases with multiple members and the Idea Foundry’s site. Next year, co-working memberships will jump from $100 to $200 a month for current members who have a six-month commitment to the Idea Foundry. Workshop space, meanwhile, jumped from $35 to $65 a month.
“They’re raising the rates upstairs to put them on par with other co-working spaces, but those spaces don’t have a loud workshop underneath them or tours coming through every other day,” says the Foundry member.
Responding to online complaints, McCarty acknowledged the price hikes in a Reddit post, saying that co-working was hemorrhaging money with the old price structure.
"Straight up we were in a crisis of a financial situation last year," she wrote. "We're not now."
She says there are anywhere from 700-800 Foundry members at any given time, and that about 60% of the members consider themselves small business owners.
“People were costing up in real dollars more than they were paying,” McCarty says.
Even so, this Idea Foundry regular says he may cancel his membership because of the price hikes.
“If a lot of people are thinking like me and their lease is up at the end of the year, and that’s when they want to flip all this sort of stuff, it feels like the blanket could be pulled out from under them,” the member says.
Signs Of Life
Eric Lanese has also noticed changes at the Foundry. He’s been a member for seven years and teaches some woodworking classes there.
“I first joined because I was looking for a space where I could work that wasn’t my patio, to where I would have to put everything back in the garage if it rained or at the end of the night,” Lanese says.
Using the Foundry's tools and space, Lanese has made furniture for local bars like Seventh Son and Antiques On High.
“It’s a lot busier here than it used to be,” Lanese says. “I could go in and leave a project on a work table all week and it was never in anybody’s way. And now there’s a constant stream of people coming through.”
He says the increase in staff has allowed him to focus on more project-oriented courses.
Amanda Murphy has only hung around the Idea Foundry for a couple of years. Her company Compass Experience Labs pays for her co-working membership, and she appreciates the reforms.
“We’ve seen it go at least towards improving WiFi and like stronger connections to actually do our work and be surrounded by so many people doing work as well,” Murphy says.
Communication with the front desk has also improved, Murphy says.
“It’s just such an interesting space,” Murphy says. “And it does have a more relaxed feel than like a cubicle world.”
Even considering the mixed feedback, McCarty is confident the Idea Foundry experience is improving on the whole for both members and its investors.
“When you take other people’s money, you’re beholden to expectations about that,” McCarty says.
The Idea Foundry isn't out of the woods just yet. The company doesn’t own their building, and McCarty says rent is set to increase by 23% next year.
“I’m not imagining it’s done, we’re good to go,” McCarty says. “We’re gonna start refocusing our attention now on the workshop experience, it was sort of prioritized based on where things were going the most wrong.”