Rising rents present new threat for Hacker Dojo

Organizers consider moving out of Mountain View

Hacker Dojo, Mountain View's one-of-a-kind laboratory for start-ups and makers, could soon be in need of a new home. For the past three years, the nonprofit and its community have hacked, coded and tinkered out of a leased 16,000-square foot space at 599 Fairchild Drive, a prime spot in the heart of the North Whisman tech community. But that office building may soon become too pricey if the rent rises to market rate when the Dojo's lease agreement expires next year. Hacker Dojo organizers say they could be paying about triple their current costs for the space, making it a challenge to stay there.

Hacker Dojo organizers say they don't begrudge the property owner for making what they see as a fair business decision. But they say the news puts the organization and its board of directors in a tight spot for the near future.

"Our landlord does like us and what we do, but that doesn't mean they'll subsidize our operation," said Jun Wong, Hacker Dojo's membership coordinator. "If you have to blame something here, it's that people around here are so successful."

Some would argue that Hacker Dojo plays no small role in that success. On any day of the week, the Dojo's main room is filled with coders glued to their glowing laptops, plotting the next start-up. The group regularly hosts a packed calendar of events, including a variety of programming classes and "lightning talks" for members to practice delivering pitches. The community of users is described as an eclectic mix of moonlighting professionals, aspiring entrepreneurs and a surprising number of foreign visitors just hanging out. Organizers say they want everyone to feel welcome working out of the space.

Among its success stories, Pinterest, now based in Palo Alto, got its start operating out of the Hacker Dojo in 2009. The Pebble smartwatch company for a time used the space as its West Coast base of operations. And too many apps to list were conceived in the workspace.

But for a community embracing start-up culture, Hacker Dojo resists the pull to operate like other tech incubators or a hard-nosed business. The nonprofit runs on a thin margin, deriving most of its funding from staggered tiers of monthly fees from about 500 members, yet it rarely excludes non-members from using the amenities or attending events. The printer, Wi-Fi, and pretty much any spare parts lying around are free for anyone to use. An "honor code" among the regulars dictates you replace anything you use up, whether its printer toner or the beer in the fridge, Wong said. Many users go further and volunteer to maintain or upgrade the space. Nearly all the furniture inside was donated.

With the prospect of higher rents now hanging over Hacker Dojo, the nonprofit's directors aren't sure what kinds of changes the community will undergo over the coming months. It now seems like a "50-50" chance they will be forced to move to a new building, said Hacker Dojo board member Waleed Abdulla. He and other organizers have visited other sites with a real estate agent, but most available spaces in Mountain View are just as expensive as their current location will become. Moving to another city may be their only option, Abdulla said.

"It's something we considered. But if we go too far, most of our members won't be willing to come anymore," he said. "We just haven't found the (right spot) yet."

This isn't the first time Hacker Dojo has had to search for a new home. The nonprofit originally operated of an abandoned warehouse at 140 South Whisman Road. As its community grew, city officials discovered in 2012 that Hacker Dojo was operating without a permit and its building had a variety of code violations. In response, supporters mounted a successful Kickstarter campaign to bring the space up to code, which raised more than $250,000 and included donations from many local tech giants. Hacker Dojo organizers ultimately decided it was a better idea to relocate. At the time, they described the new Fairchild location as a "diamond in the rough" for its low price about $14,000 a month as well as improvements over the old space.

That deal was such a bargain because the building's former occupant, who had signed a long-term lease, agreed to continue paying half the rent while they sublet the space to Hacker Dojo, according to the landlord. When that lease expires next year in May, Hacker Dojo would have to cover the full amount, as well as any increase in rent.

The good news is Hacker Dojo has plenty of sympathizers among them their landlord, a family trust operated out of Grass Valley. Mik Bajka, a member of the trust, said his family has a great relationship with Hacker Dojo and wants to find a way for the group to remain there.

"Right now, we're still kicking ideas around," he said. "But bottom line: we'd love to have them stay. They seem like a good group."

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