If you are doing what you love success will follow – Estonian tech startup guru

Liis Linn. Courtesy.

In the build-up to Transform Africa Summit 2019 slated for next week, Garage48, organizers of international startup-boot camp events promoting entrepreneurship and startup culture in Estonia, Northern Europe and Africa, will co-host their first Hackathon in Kigali, from May 10-12.

A hackathon is a 48-hour brainstorming marathon during which tech ideas are transformed into a working prototypes.

Liis Linn, Project Manager at the Garage48 Foundation, will be part of a big Estonian delegation coming to Rwanda for the Transform Africa Summit 2019.

 She talked to Business Times’ James Karuhanga about hackathons, the Estonian experience, and much more. They invited inspiring minds, designers, developers, marketers, project managers and forward-thinkers to join the Re-Invent hackathon in Kigali.

The event will be jointly organized with Compound55, a local social enterprise that harnesses the power of connecting people and communities for social impact.

The excerpts:

First, tell us all about the concept of  hackathons.

Well, this would be our first hackathon in Rwanda. And we are so excited about it. Garage has done hackathons mostly in Europe, but also in the Middle East, and we have some amazing success stories.

For example, in 2015 in Belarus, the team that won the hack; their idea was bought by Facebook four months later for 100 million. The guys in Belarus invented the face filter mask we now all use in our Facebook messenger.

Garage48 is trying to provide the space, good mentors and the energy for ideas to blossom and to help to make their dreams come true. Within eight years, we’ve been in more than 20 countries. And by that time, we worked out a really good “recipe” for turning ideas into prototypes within 48 hours.

In simple language, what is a hackathon?

We define it as an intensive hacking marathon where you can turn your idea into a working prototype, with the help of smart and tough mentors, other people, organizers and so on.

How many participants are you expecting in Kigali?

We aim to have around 70 to 80 people for this hackathon.

Let’s talk about your idea of how hackathons help to invent the future.

When Garage48 started nine years ago, the whole idea was to help to invent the future. Our six founders saw how in a changing world, people actually do have so many ideas how to improve different areas of life. But they hardly ever go further than just having this idea. So with hackathons, we provide future thinkers and people with entrepreneurial mindset the right space, right mentors, and right conditions for them to really work on their idea.

With Garage48, we really see that in the end of the event, there are already prototypes built and it is quite easy for teams to actually continue developing it further and, who knows? Maybe becoming a unicorn company one day. Another good thing about hackathons is that as there are so many talented people with different skills together, it creates this magical vibe and energy.

To sum up, we in Garage48 really see that hackathons are those events, where you can turn your ideas into prototype, maybe come up with other solutions, than you even didn’t know about. And as we quite often offer after-mentoring for the winners and put them together with investors, this is all a great opportunity for participants.

What are your expectations for the hackathon in Kigali?

This is our first time in Rwanda and we really hope to meet the local startup people, developers, designers and business people. It doesn’t matter how old they are. The energy is what is important. We hope to meet all those people who want to get things done. So, it’s really about problem solving attitude and great energy. We hope that we can bring a little change and show to the participants, how it is actually possible to make a change within 48 hours.

What, according to you, would a country like Rwanda need to do to have an ideal, or thriving, ICT startup sector?

It is hard to say, as unfortunately, we are not that familiar with the startup-scene in Rwanda yet.  I know Estonian E-governance has made many business trips to Rwanda and to the area and they talk highly about the blooming entrepreneurial environment you have. Unfortunately, Garage48 doesn’t have an experience yet. But it is about to change.

Last year, in Estonia, you had what you called a successful digital country hackathon where the government came up with different problems and teams solved them. What good ideas came out of this hackathon?

The Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication is really working hard for boosting the entrepreneurship in Estonia. So they decided to bring public and private sector together by having a digital country hackathon.

It was slightly different than our usual 48 hour hacks, where people come with their own ideas. For this hackathon, the ministry also talked with all other ministries, with other government organizations and mapped out their problems. So together, we chose 15 challenges, which were given to the participants. These were the problems that our country really needed to be solved.

For example, the idea presented by the Ministry of Justice: a chat box for legal help; the question about possible automation of the state asset sales process; the social insurance board’s challenge on how to simplify the process of applying for parking permits for a vehicle servicing a disabled person; the Estonian Emergency Response Centre challenge on finding out how to get real-time pictures and videos from the (accident) scene, and so on.

The ministry was really pleased with the outcome. The teams did not only solve real problems Estonian government institutions have. It also brought public and private sector people together for 48 hours to work on one goal. Quite often, the public and private sector don’t understand each other. But with this event, both sides got to know the other better and see how they work. The private sector understood better what the government is asking for. And the government realized how private sector actually works. The next Digital Country hackathon is happening in end May.

What specific success stories do you have with teams?

We have more than a dozen examples of successful teams who have pursued their dream and continued the hard work after the end of the hackathon.  Some have successfully involved venture capital but so many more of our alumni teams have developed their prototypes into fully functioning businesses.

Some have successfully involved venture capital; MSQRD, Timbeter, Shipitwise, Goworkabit, VitalFields, to name a few. But so many more of our alumni teams have developed their prototypes into fully functioning businesses. We are really proud of all of them and consider them as our friends and family.

But some of the stories tend to stand out a bit more than others. Take the case of 2015 in Minsk, Belarus, where MSQRD, a face filter App that everybody now knows through Facebook Messenger, was invented.

This was already at least the fourth Garage48 hackathon for these young guys, but they didn’t give up. And this time they won the hackathon and with good mentoring and with their own passion, they continued working on it.

During the first month after the release of MSQRD, the App got more than one million downloads, and the user base grew as a snowball to 10 million in the following month. Of course, it attracted both investors and other companies. So Facebook acquired the App four months later with 100 million [US] dollars! We highly appreciate the co-operation we now have with Facebook (and Facebook Messenger). We also had a hackathon in Belarus last year and are planning to work together on next ones.

What about Shipitwise?

Then we have this Estonian team Shipitwise, a platform for travellers to book shipping for their sports equipment and other belongings around the world. The founders attended Garage48 Tourism Pärnu 2015 hackathon and started to build something with the draft idea they had. During the hackathon, the team already found their very first customer, a guy who needed to transport his bike from Germany to Estonia. That was all the validation and motivation they needed to continue working on their idea!

From there, they applied to Startup Wise Guys accelerator and got accepted. After that, they got a €7,000 grant from Prototron, a fund that gives out equity free cash, and started their first crowd funding campaign on Funderbeam. They visited many tech conferences in five different countries and helped to initiate the motorbike season in Estonia. They raised their first investment worth of €176,200 in a very short but effective time period.

But what I personally like the most,  when we travel with Garage48 or even here, in Tallinn, Estonia, when we see that teams continue after the hackathon and they come up to as and thank us for all the connections, mentors and people we put them together with. Maybe it’s the same idea they continue working on, maybe it is something else. But what Garage48 tends to do is to bring people together, network and boost the innovation.

Do you envisage a Rwandan team winning big or being noticed by big investors and companies such as Facebook? What would it take for a Rwandan team to win that big?

In the hackathon world, we all have the same opportunities. You have to come out of home, meet new people and be persistent. Just don’t give up! If you are doing what you love success will follow. And you will get noticed.

So, there’s nothing extra a team from Rwanda should have to win and go global for example, compared to a team from Estonia or a team from Ukraine.

Big things can come out of small chances, usually when you least expect them!