It started out as an initiative of six active (back then also young) Estonian startup founders.
They were all becoming tired of long workshops and boring conferences, where there’s a lot of talk and no action. Their goal was to prove, that lot can be done on a small budget and in a limited timeframe, as long as the whole team has a kickass, let’s get stuff done type of an attitude. First events were fully project managed and fundraised by the founders and on top of that, they also chipped in some of their own funds to make it happen. Slowly the hackathons Garage48 organized sparked more interest than we could have ever hoped for and more importantly, they really seemed to be working. We became an organization dedicated fully to organizing hackathons. Surely, the hackathons were not a startup factory as we might have perhaps hoped for ourselves in the very early days. But they definitely seemed to be working- being an excellent place where to pitch your business idea and work on it with fellow minded people.
I remember that even though, I wasn’t part of the organization back then, I watched and followed it all with great envy. As a young mom of two toddlers back in 2010, living in San Francisco Bay Area, far from my friends and support-network, attending these events and becoming more involved with the startup-scene, seemed like an elusive, Gatsby-kind of a dream. I felt envious when I saw some of the Estonian guests that visited us in the Valley, rocking Garage48 stickers on their laptops. And I watched and followed my friends hackathon-teams updates on social media (it was really just a Facebook back then), with an intense hunger, but again, with a tad of envy as well.
Don’t get me wrong- I loved being a mother- it felt absolutely empowering. In fact, it felt like being a ruler of two new countries. Both depended on me immensely. Surely it wasn’t easy, but the early years of motherhood gave me the challenge I was looking for and in a strange way, pushed me slightly closer to the edge that I always seemed to be yearning to walk on. I wasn’t a classic housewife at all (not that there’s anything wrong with it either). In these years of living in the SF Bay Area, I worked on my small logistics company, did a bunch of experiential event-marketing gigs for companies like Cirque Du Soleil, Thule, Facebook, Paypal, and many others. I practiced yoga almost daily, developed a love for Buddhism, took a course to become a yoga teacher and started teaching as well. Coming back to Estonia, I opened Estonia’s first Bikram Yoga Studio- yes I know that it’s the name you don’t want to spell out loud, but, heck, I still take great pride in helping to bring the 26+2 to Estonia.
Till this day though, when someone asks me a question about my biggest achievement in life, the answer would be a no brainer- my kids. Giving birth to them, raising them as well as I knew, while being just a young girl myself.
The biggest moving force in my life has always been an existential crisis. There have been times when I have turned passive towards it and shushed it down, but it has only led to periods of passive agony and a series of unfortunate events.
When I joined Garage48, I moved on from one of my kids- my beloved yoga studio. Due to the difference in the visions of my active partner and silent shareholders, I was no longer able to express myself freely and I felt absolutely trapped.
Garage48 gave me a new space to breathe freely, something I had not felt in a while. My thoughts were listened to, and there was so much opportunity to shape the work to be towards something you wholeheartedly love. I joined as a project manager, but after half a year, the CEO at the time, Kai Isand passed the throne to me. To this day, I have huge gratitude towards her trust in me at the time. It gave me the freedom to discover and roam freely, to get to know what the company was really about. Kai navigated that ship successfully for 3 years, working hard on the founding blocks of how we organized the hacks and cleaning up and restructuring the information in the back-office. Kai has project-managed, hosted, participated, volunteered and mentored at close to 75 events. Kai remains very involved with Garage48 until this day, working on new formats, mentor community and taking the stage as a host every once in a while.
Before Kai, there was also Krists Avots, the first CEO of Garage48, who took this role on a big leap of faith. He didn’t really know, that at the time when he agreed to the position, the company was very close to insolvency. The sponsorship pipeline was about to dry out, as in the early days some of the partners looked at these events solely for hiring not for innovation or networking purposes and as it turned out, they could easily lose their own employees there:) Krists fixed things up pretty nicely, doubling down on the international development cooperation projects during his time in Garage48 and taking some crazy projects in a heartbeat, like organizing a big hackathon in Palestine in less than 3 weeks. He also started working on some of the new formats- like student boot camps and ideations for corporates, embassies, and governmental institutions. Krists poured all his enthusiasm into the company for about four years (part-time mixed with full time) but left because he ran out of the energy of raising this back then completely non-profit child and needed some more stability in his life. When Krists left, he hired Karin Rand, who did an immaculate job on cleaning up the accounting and paperwork. Krists you can still see on our events in Latvia and in the Hardware&Arts series, right next to Priit Salumaa, one of the founders of Garage48, they are great buddies.
When I first took the role of the CEO of Garage48, it took me a while to realize, that I’ve started yet another chapter in my motherhood book. Being a CEO in a small company like this takes a lot of effort and compassion- you have to make sure that everyone gets fed (meaning enough work on the plate), is happy and motivated about work and if the kids fight, you have to step in and solve it by having a long, honest and truthful conversation about what’s really bothering both parties. We are still a small team, but we have grown almost three times in employee numbers over the course of the past 3 years and I really feel this is the strongest, Garage48 has ever seen. On top of the core team, we also have mentors, hosts and other cheerleaders, which means, that the organization is so much bigger than the official numbers show. For me, this network is another immensely valuable source, where I draw my strength from. To see all these people caring and believing in the work of Garage48, quite often without no financial narrative for themselves, gives me a boost of confidence and makes my heart melt, a feeling that is very hard to put into words.
My motto in business has always been to do good and to do well, which generally applies to almost everything in life. As an organization, we have to make sure that we grow financially because that organically, leads to a bigger impact as well. I really believe that this is the general trend in the world of business today. You can’t just focus on the revenue and profit, there has to be at least a hint of thought, that whatever you do as a business, benefits the greater society as well.
Garage48 has never been an organization, whose sole focus is money. In fact, I think in the early days, not caring enough about the balance on the bank account and fueling on passion only, was a bit of a problem. Making ends meet, led to low salaries and just a few employees on the payroll. This led to people’s enthusiasm and energy slowly fading away, because the workload was too heavy to bear and there weren’t enough resources to hire more employees. As a result of being overwhelmed, good people left the company and with that went their know-how and experience as well. I didn’t really understand it in the beginning, but onboarding new employees to Garage48 fully takes a long time. Even if the new member of the team adapts most of the everyday working tools and methods, they still might not have a clear understanding of the bigger picture- why we run these hackathons and ideations and in which ways, it impacts the startup ecosystems around the globe. Teaching values takes time. And values on their own don’t mean much unless they translate into behavior and are brought into life.
At the current moment, money is just a tool for us, to do more and to funnel our energy towards the right places. It allows us to hire new team members if we are struggling with the work-load or are looking into expanding towards new areas, which would create more impact. It gives the employees a chance to work on the projects, that matter most to them personally. It also gives us a bit more time to kick back and relax as a team- a perfect opportunity to get to know each other better and to realign our thoughts when they have been stuck. Even this blog post is being written in the middle of a jungle in the South of Thailand- after the rest of the team left from a shared company-vacation and I extended my stay one more week, to reflect back a little and do some goal-setting. Most of the Garage48 everyday-team taking a stroll in Khao Lak, winter 2020
While I’ve talked about the impact a lot, I haven’t exactly talked about what it means for us, as an organization and how do the different ways we search for impact look like.
An impact is an effect that blossoms through the work we do. It’s an abstract concept- like the feeling of joy you get, when you see young people giving their first 90-second pitch on a hackathon stage on Friday night, knowing that the event you put together, gave them this opportunity to share their ideas freely. An impact on an abstractive level, is knowing that the hackathon you organized was the place where two young fellow-minded people met, became founders and started the company at. It’s also going to places like Afghanistan and seeing the appreciation that the participants have towards you, for having had the guts to do that. It’s hearing or reading the feedback of the participants, which often says- “Thank You, your events truly inspire” or “Thank You. You changed my life”.
Impact is also a less abstract, more measurable concept which we have tried to keep a closer eye on over the past years. While we are not a startup factory, as already stated in the very beginning of this post- there are approximately two or three teams per year, that have managed to involve venture capital. Many more have grown a successful business out of the hackathons we’ve organized- creating an impact on their own by providing new jobs, or changing the lives of people in many other ways. One of the good examples of the hackathon that created an impact was Hack For Locals- a hackathon we organized back in October with UNDP to tackle the problems people in Donetsk and Luhansk areas are facing. Although none of the three winning teams carried a startup potential- all of them are still working on their projects, solving very important, burning problems in their local communities. A winning idea of this hackathon- Orphan Education Club- helps orphaned children to sell their hand-made objects (t-shirts, tote-bags with their own design) through the platform they provide. It helps the kids to unleash their creativity, boosts their confidence and entrepreneurial spirit already at a very young age and gives them pocket money to feel more like the other kids. Orphan Education Club is very active and you can chip in and help the orphaned kids by purchasing one of the hand-made items here.
Although we are proud of all of our startup success cases, the number of the teams that continue working 6 months, a year or for years after the hackathon, growing a real business out of the hackathon idea, is way more important to us.
While the numbers described in the previous paragraph come to our table through the participant e-mails, sharing their small or bigger victories with us, or through our own followup with the teams, we also rely on other data we collect on each hackathon.
Most of this data is collected to make sure that our events are for everyone, absolutely no discrimination.
We collect the data about the gender, IDP-status if it’s applicable, age, nationality, whether it’s the participant’s first Garage48 event and so much more. This data, if looked through more thoroughly, gives us both an indication that we are working in the right direction and guidance on how to do better almost daily.
For instance, we have learned that approximately 70% of all the participants in general hackathons are male, in some countries the number is even higher. The Empowering Women Hackathon series, which we started back in 2014, aimed to create a more gender-inclusive environment, that would encourage more females to participate. We wanted to see more strong girls in the leading positions- as the inventors, founders, CEO’s and managers. Numbers have proven that the approach works. More than 50% of the participants in Empowering Women events we have organized in Ukraine and in Estonia have been women. In Empowering Women Kabul, the percentage of female participants reached almost 70, something that raised eyebrows even among the local mentor community in Kabul. The Empowering Women Makeathon in Zapphorizhija brought together women only- many of them even brought their kids to the event as the accommodation, catering, and childcare were taken care of.
In many other areas, numbers show that there’s still a lot of room for improvement, mainly spreading the message among less privileged target groups.
A good example is the involvement of internally displaced people in Eastern Ukraine, as this is one of the target groups we want to reach- to make sure that they could benefit from our work. At the Hack-a-Train, only 10% of the participants marked yes to their status as an IDP and at the Hack For Locals, the percentage was around 25, but still not quite the number we were looking for.
Those are just some clear examples of how we use the data provided to us to improve the ways we work. There are some numbers that aren’t that straightforward or easy to read, but that give us an indication, that a hackathon only isn’t a unique, solve-all-problems kind of a formula to boost the local entrepreneurship scenes around the globe. Often the intervention is needed in other ways, to make sure that the teams that exit the hackathon, will keep working on their product after the intense 48-hrs as well. That’s where the follow-up mentoring and connecting the teams with early-stage online accelerators or even some early-investors, is much needed. Although we have done lots of work towards that “after the hackathon” gentle period already, we do realize that there’s still much left to be done and gaps to be filled. In fact, that’s something we are at most actively at the moment.
There are other motives that drive our everyday lives here at Garage48 as well, those, not that much immediate impact related. Most of us working here daily are drawn towards new, exciting technologies and innovative solutions they provide, often solving bigger problems. Digital governance, cybersecurity, edtech, open and big data, AI are just a few of the topic hacks we will keep working enthusiastically over the next years as well.
But even this enthusiasm about technology resonates back to the very reason for our existence, which sets us apart from the other professional hackathon organizing companies- the search for a greater impact. To do good. If new technologies give us a better way to continuously boost the startup ecosystems all around the world and help us to kickstart some of the local ventures that give back to the communities- we are all about embracing them!
Disclaimer. This story was written from my own personal point of view and is by no means an objective recap of Garage48 10-year long history. It is full of references to kids and affirmative words, that I’ve picked up during my journey as a yogi on numerous retreats, teacher trainings, hundreds of hours of sweating on the mat and through reading books about living an enlightened life.