When Kelly Malone moved back to Pittsburgh a year and a half ago, she wasn’t sure her idea for a business — where people could learn to make things — would take off as it did in San Francisco.
But her do-it-yourself school in Garfield, Workshop PGH, is doing so well that it moved to a new location with a long-term lease at 5135 Penn Ave., and recently obtained a $5,000 Kiva loan. The space includes room for a retail store for indie makers and teachers from Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
Malone estimates at least 1,000 people have taken one or more of the casual, one-night classes in Pittsburgh, and some students have become teachers.
“We teach classes and we do events, fun team-building parties, but our main focus is hiring different makers that want to be able to quit their jobs,” she says. “It’s kind of an informal incubator. We’re working with them on how to teach, or they use this to pursue their art or design or whatever.”
She pays employees $25 an hour and has sent some to San Francisco for training. People sign up for classes online with new classes added monthly. Classes include supplies.
Malone, who grew up in Ligonier and then Philadelphia, spent about a decade in California. Through various jobs, she learned the basics of human resources and merchandising — “any position so I could learn how to have my own business,” she says. She opened Workshop SF eight-and-a-half years ago and a business partner still runs it, providing a small salary for Malone to cover her rent.
“Our maker residency program in San Francisco has helped 30 to 40 people quit their jobs,” she says.
And that’s the goal: Teaching people to make things, whether for a hobby or for an eventual business that enables them to quit their humdrum jobs.
Malone funded her Pittsburgh startup through savings — making an initial investment of around $20,000 — and continues to funnel money into the school by taking on various jobs.
“I feel like the maker movement, in general, has been a little slower to get support here,” she says. “It’s been tough for a lot of entities to make ends meet. TechShop just closed, but they’re going to open a new space.”
TechShop declared bankruptcy in November and closed all its U.S. locations, including one at Bakery Square. Its owners say they’ve reached an agreement to transfer the company to a group called TechShop 2.0, LLC.
In Pittsburgh, a nonprofit started by a group of TechShop members, has found new space for makers at 214 N. Trenton Ave. in Wilkinsburg. There’s also Prototype, a feminist maker space, and HackPittsburgh, the city’s oldest maker space, as well as Monmade, which connects people with producers of specialty goods, and Handmade Arcade, Pittsburgh’s first and largest independent craft fair, which partnered with Workshop PGH this year.
“We tend to be a little more low-fi, whereas some of those spaces are high-fi, a little more aligned with technology,” says Malone. “We do simpler classes, where you could buy the equipment on Amazon or at Home Depot — sewing, leather working, basic woodworking, plant classes, fiber arts, knitting. We’ve been adding new content as we notice the community needs it.”
Workshop PGH’s classes are meant to be informal and fun, Malone says. The cost ranges from $40 to $100, depending on materials needed. Most classes are under three hours, although a couple require two nights, such as knitting a blanket.
“A lot of people come in and try something,” Malone says. “They may or may not be good at it, but it’s a good chance to test out a skill before they go and take a monthlong pottery class or something. We do have a few people who have taken over 10 different classes.”
Malone chose Garfield for her maker space and her home because she likes the neighborhood’s energy.
“When I moved here, I fell in love with First Fridays, the creative environment here and the number of artists in the neighborhood,” she says. When Workshop PGH moved its location across the street last year, Malone shifted her business model to include the retail space for goods made by some of the teachers and other local craftspeople.
“We’re leasing it now, and hoping to buy,” she says.