published 27 Oct 2014 by Anna in Austria 7 minutes to read

On the road with Robo

On the road accompanies an Austrian startup that went from a hackerspace in Vienna to a hardware accelerator in China to develop a new generation of educational toys.

The journey of Robo started last year at the Pioneers festival in Vienna. This is where Rustem Akishbekov, student at the Technical University of Vienna, inspired by all the amazing stories of world-famous entrepreneurs, decided to go for his dream. He wanted to encourage young people to become creators and inventors of future technologies and came up with the idea of Robo: a modular robot kids can build themselves. Rustem and I  met at the festival and he shared his idea with me. I got instantly inspired by his vision and did not hesitate long before joining him. 

At Pioneers we both attended the presentation Cyril Ebersweiler, the programme director of Haxlr8r, the world’s first hardware startups accelerator based in Shenzhen, China, and San Francisco. Who would have thought that in less than a year we would be participating in that very program?

Soon after the Festival we started spending long nights working together in Metalab, a hacker-space well known in the tech community and located in a basement in the center of Vienna. In the following months we pitched the idea of Robo in Berlin, Tel-Aviv and Split, where we met Semyon Dukach, Managing Director of Techstars Boston who became our mentor and advisor.

Shenzhen, team Robo is coming!

We applied to Haxlr8r in May of this year, had two interviews in June and the invitation to join the programme arrived only three weeks before it started. It was pretty sudden but this is startup life: you have to be flexible and committed. So here we go: essentials packed, China is calling! 

Shenzhen met us with heat and rain: July is the hottest month of the year but despite the heat, we were amazed. Everything is so new and well planned: the city was built in the last 25 years, after the special economic zone on the border with Hong Kong was established. Public transportation is great and the many parks make it feel like a city of the future. 

On a less positive note: despite all the amazing infrastructure, it looks like the city needs some more time to develop a distinct identity. With all the skyscrapers and broad avenues, our eyes searched desperately for a sign of history; it was hard to find anything built before our lifetime!

China is not cheap, China is fast

We were struck by the pace of life in China: it took us two days to find the apartment where we live now, half an hour to open an account with a local bank, one evening to set up an Internet at home. On the third day after the arrival, we already had a meeting with potential partner factories. This was something we both came to appreciate in China: people are hard-working and they make things happen quickly.

And then there are these stereotypes… Most people seem to think, that in China everything is cheap. We also thought so, but reality proved to be different. In Shenzhen there are innumerable shopping centers and their prices are comparable to the ones in Europe and sometimes even higher. Quite a surprise, right? What we discovered later: if you want to get a good deal, you should shop online. The famous Taobao (Chinese equivalent to Ebay) is among the 20 most-visited websites globally. You can buy almost everything on Taobao, in most cases with next day delivery. The founder of Taobao, Jack Ma, is probably the most famous Chinese businessman (especially after the recent IPO of his Alibaba Group).

Manufacturing capital of the world

The biggest benefit of being in Shenzhen lies in the sourcing of the components for prototyping and the proximity to future manufacturers. Yep, we came to work here, not much time to do sightseeing. Candace, a graduate of UC Berkeley, Haas Business School, has joined our team here in Shenzhen and we are working seven days a week. We joked around about not noticing the air pollution because we spend most of our time in the Haxlr8r office working on our robot.

The Haxlr8r office is located in the district called Huaqiang Bei Electronics Market, where every building is a skyscraper with a huge assortment of electronic products. So, often if we order something on Taobao, it can be physically delivered from one of the numerous supermarkets of electronics in the buildings around us within a few hours. Shenzhen feels like prototyping heaven. 

And it is not just prototyping: in Shenzhen you can find many factories that manufacture products of world famous brands such as Intel, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Apple. We have visited a factory that makes taillights for Lamborghini and factories that are happy to work for smaller clients. Despite some communist motivational posters we have seen, the general impression of the project managers and engineers we met was very positive. Their work ethic and their energy explains much of the success of Shenzhen specifically and China in general.

Your network is your strength

The acceleration programme is not just about building a product; it is also about building relationships. Here in the  Haxlr8r we are ten teams: six from North America, three from the EU and one from China. Being a startup is quite challenging and sometimes you feel like people around you do not understand what you are currently struggling with; it is almost as if you live in a parallel universe. Having people who are exactly in the same situation makes it a totally different story. With all the amazing mentors we have, a huge learning effect comes from being in the same space with others, brainstorming on current challenges together, sharing experiences and challenging each other.  

Then there are all these amazing people you come across. One Sunday which we were hard at work in the office, we got a surprise visit from Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn and the person who introduced Mark Zuckerberg to Peter Thiel. Another time it was Eric Migicovsky, founder of Pebble, who visited Haxlr8r and got the chance to play with our Robo. 

Acceleration: challenge yourself every day

Haxlr8r promises to help teams transform themselves into functional companies by providing mentorship, seed funding and immersion into an intense startup community of like-minded entrepreneurs. This is exactly how we experienced it: the team gets an immense push, both in terms of support and in terms of pressure to deliver results. Weekly mentor meetings help you keep track of your own progress. Being away from home and from your social circle eliminates also a number of usual distractions; it is nothing else but a 100 per cent concentration on your project. 

Haxlr8r was both an awesome and very challenging experience. You have to adjust to the new environment, find your way around in a city of 15 million of people, get used to Chinese food (this deserves a separate chapter), find out how to work with the people who not only do not speak your language, but also have a totally different mentality. Overcoming all these small and not so small challenges makes you not just a better entrepreneur, it makes you a better person and helps you develop a more tolerant and open attitude to the word around you. The journey of building your dream is not just about that thing you want to create, it is also about you and your own development.  

This was the journey of the last 12 months of our lives and it is only the beginning. With our Robo, we want to make learning to code and to work with robotics fun and easy. Our dream is to inspire a future generation of kids to engage with technology and actively create it instead of merely consuming. On 28 October we will be pitching our idea in front of the investors at the Pioneers Investors Day. It will be very exciting because this is where our idea started last year and it feels as though we are coming full circle.

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