Sharing During Pandemic

09.08.20 10:49 AM Comment(s) By Tim Willison

How TTL is dealing with C19

The world changed in March of 2020, in a way we are all familiar with.

In my years as a business-owner, I have rarely, possibly never, seen such a sudden disruption to operations with such far-reaching effects on revenue streams. Most organizations that are built to last incorporate a certain amount of diversity into their offering, and the same is true for the Toronto Tool Library and it's sister-org the TTLMakerspace.

Despite that diversity, pandemic hit every revenue source at all locations with full effect and without warning. TTL was coming off a record-breaking February - a cause for great celebration, given that this cold month has historically been the slowest month of the year, and TTL typically operates at a loss, counting on revenue generated from the warmer times of the year when people are more active and building projects.

Much of that success was built on a growing membership, and the addition of popular courses and workshops running out of TTLMakerspace. The plan was to leverage funds from those activities into repeating some of our successes in other locations, which up to that point were limited in their number of revenue streams, essentially reliant strictly on memberships to pay for essential overhead like rent, parts-replacements, staffing and so forth.

That plan went straight out the window with the coming of the shut-down order. We had in fact shut down a week prior, at the request of our volunteer base, many of whom felt uncomfortable venturing out with the growing incident number for C19. This reluctance matched what we saw happening in the Makerspace - at the end of February we saw member numbers declining for the first time in a year, and in March this grew to a precipitous drop, too large to be ignored. Our seniors in particular were not coming out, even long-time regular builders.

So the situation became dire. But C19 isn't going to end TTL the way it has so many other local businesses. Here is what we're doing to firstly cope, then reverse the situation.

Emergency Measures

We applied to multiple funding sources this year, including those introduced specific to the pandemic like the "Ontario Together" funds that we applied to on two levels. Unfortunately none of those applications were accepted. Our best success has come from applying to emergency loans introduced by the government. These loans are not free money - they will need to be paid back. That means we have to be very very careful with how we use them, and we can not afford to overlook any holes in our operation. But they also give us the time needed to "right the ship".

Infrastructure Fixes

C19 provided an incredible stress-test for the plumbing that TTL runs on, and frankly leaks appeared everywhere. From communications to waste-disposal to deliveries - everything was affected in a way that made it apparent we would need significant improvements to operate efficiently in our rebuilding phase. One example among many: the software we use for inventory and loans, called "MyTurn" has had much-requested features for more than two years, like reservations and the ability to complete signing up online. But the logistics of rolling these out across multiple locations while actively in operation were daunting. It's comparable to tinkering with an engine while driving the car. Today those features are enabled and working. 

These kinds of plumbing-fixes conducted during C19 shutdown are extensive - moving to better hosting for our site, updating our mailserver to address spam issues, introducing inventory for our consumables, vendor-management software, the list goes on and on. All of this is going to be critical in the time coming, and is long overdue.

Partner Relationships

This time was not just disruptive for TTL. It was disruptive for our partners as well, the community we rely heavily upon. Some of our programs have not survived, notably our weekly workshops with the Alzheimer's Society of Toronto. Likewise the "Junior Worldbuilders" youth workshops were cancelled. All production with StopGap, the amazing people producing access-ramps, was suspended. But it isn't all bad news.

During this time a new initiative organically began - the C19 Response initiative. A group of Makers banded together online to meet the need for protective gear for local hospitals, expanding to long-term care facilities. Out of this came a glimmer of a new direction, the capability to do actual production out of our facilities, and to tap into the wide array of skills and experience in our network.

Fast-forwarding an amazing series of events, we're evolving what we learned into a mutually beneficial new kind of partnership, starting with our most steadfast supporter - the Center for Social Innovation.

Currently the Toronto Tool Library is administering the production, through TTLMakerspace, all C19 protective gear for the larger CSI community, including custom-designed "sneeze guard" shields, signage, protective face-shields, N95 mask comfort bands and more. It is a large undertaking, but we've been able to keep up, supplying multiple locations. This is true sharing-economy stuff, partners helping partners, in a relationship that goes far beyond a landlord-tenant situation.

Diversifying Revenue Streams

By now, hopefully a picture is clarifying of TTL adjusting to ensure not just a swift resumption of operations, but a plan to ensure the longevity of our service and our community. It has been a massive strategic undertaking, a classic example of the "pivot" exemplified in organizations that survive and thrive in tough times. At the most basic level this has meant fixing systems. From there it has meant seeking new opportunities. And close on the heels of this comes adjusting models to take advantage of those opportunities.

In the days coming we will (hopefully!) be announcing new partnerships we are currently negotiating. The Makerspace will be resuming operations, albeit with changes to address C19 recommendations. Based on our newfound production capability we are launching a marketplace for products produced right here by TTL members, and a matching service for finding capable members of our community to assist on tasks from yard-care to product prototyping.

Expanding Community

Just prior to C19 we had our first "working groups" meetup - an concept formed to explore options on expanding and diversifying the role of volunteers with the Tool Library. Up to then, the volunteer role at TTL was quite standardized to librarian responsibilities - obviously a critical role for a library. Prior to the shutdown we recognized the opportunity to offer a more diverse experience. In today's environment, and with the significant upgrades happening at TTL that principle of diversification is going to prove even more crucial. There will be more roles available, pending putting in place the systems to properly administer those roles for the best experience on the part of our generous volunteers.

This is indeed an exciting time for the Tool Library and for TTLMakerspace. Change is never easy, and it has to be done with an emphasis on respect for what has come before, matched with a willingness to re-examine everything. There is a balance to be met. That balance is made easier by the incredible community of self-starters, makers, helpers and fixers that comprise the TTL and TTLMakerspace communities, that I am thankful for every day. Thank you for being awesome. Thank you for standing with us when our activity outpaced our communication channels. With this blog, a new site, dedicated help-desk, and a revised communication plan I hope we're addressing any concerns our members have had. The TTL is by no means guaranteed of success - no organization ever is - but we are making the right moves, and are dedicated to not just surviving C19, but coming out stronger.

Tim Willison

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