Digging into Sandbox – the entrepreneurial society for under-30s who “want to change the rules”2013-02-14 3
Uniting trailblazers from around the world, Sandbox is fast becoming the go-to community for entrepreneurs under 30 – looking to make the big time. And you don’t need to be a tech-head to join. In fact, you don’t need to be anything in particular. No degree, proven A-grades or impressive track record is guaranteed to get you in: “We just have a strong preference for people who are doing things. It’s not so much about whether or not it can be achieved, it’s more about mindset,” explains co-founder and CEO Nico Luchsinger, 30, from his base in New York.
We’re after hackers. Not in the sense of people who break into computer systems but people who prefer to change the rules. People who make the system work in their favour even if the system’s not set up for that.”
From documentary-makers and opera singers to investment bankers and chefs, “we’re incredibly diverse,” says Luchsinger. “It’s all about bringing innovators together and helping them be successful throughout their lives.”
Since its launch in 2008, there are more than 800 Sandboxers from over 53 countries worldwide. Berlin consists of around 50 members and – together with London – makes up the crux of Europe’s membership base, with Dublin not far behind. Headquartered in Zurich, with offices in London, New York and Singapore, 25 ambassadors represent their respective cities or Sandbox’s “local chapters”.
The organisation only began gaining in popularity over the past two years with ongoing classes, demo days and meet-ups organised across each city. It joins other entrepreneurial societies such as Kairos – that have sprung up since the financial meltdown of 2008. What makes Sandbox different however, is its refreshingly liberal approach to who qualifies as an “entrepreneur”.
We joke about how the worst thing we could do with Sandbox is to make it for white male tech entrepreneurs”
“Talk to Lady Gaga, South African street artists and someone who knows Somali pirates”
“We have two Sandboxers who are working on a book about black-market innovation… they wanted to talk to Lady Gaga, South African street artists and someone who knows Somali pirates… None of them are Sandboxers, but the authors connected with these people through other members,” says Luchsinger.
While there’s no set criteria for what makes a Sandboxer, gaining membership is still hard-won. With more than 25,000 people having applied, under 3.5 per cent made the cut. Applicants are put through a selection process that involves filling out an online questionnaire, gaining a formal recommendation from a Sandbox ambassador, and “wowing” head organisers with creative constructions: “It could be anything. Something digital, something written, a song, a picture, a combination of these things, but it can also be something physical. You can send your ‘wow’ to our offices or actually show up at our office and perform it… it gives us the best insight into how a person thinks and who a person is,” Luchsinger explains.
On the organisation’s blog – a Who’s Who in the Sandbox community, with people such as Zach Hamilton who sold his first company before the age of 18 and spoke at the White House about entrepreneurship, and Sarah Cross who founded a vegan chocolate company in the US. And they, along with fellow Sandboxers, are connected to leaders of Fortune 500 companies, leading innovators and heads of state. Mentorship is key.
Luchsinger says that Sandbox also played a role in growing tech education network General Assembly to a global company. “They (GA co-founders) joined at the very beginning when their first base in New York was a construction site. That was two years ago and now they have have employees in about a dozen cities around the world.
“We provide a quick strong network on the ground and in places you haven’t been to before. You can set foot in a new city and already have a group of close friends. That can be nice, and in the case of GA – it really helps you get things done.”
Calling all female founders
Currently, men make up about 65 per cent of the Sandbox community, “we want the ratio to be 50-50,” says Luchsinger. But how does he plan on balancing the scales? “Broadening our base is a way of encouraging more women to apply. We also want more female ambassadors. Unfortunately, all co-founders of Sandbox are male which can be a problem. But we really strive to bring in female ambassadors and we see how much of a difference that makes in encouraging more women to join. There’s a lot of things that start to happen organically.”
“We never anticipated it becoming a big thing”
Sandbox hit the ground running when Luchsinger and fellow Swiss co-founders Antoine Verdon, Fabian Pfortmüller, Severin Jan Rüegger and Christian Busch were in their mid-20s: “We started it with the idea of it being something we’d do on the side because we were all in school (in Zurich) at the time, but it kind of took on a life of its own,” he says.
“We wanted to be entrepreneurs and we wanted to talk to people with that similar desire to make stuff, the desire to change the world… In the beginning we never anticipated it becoming a big thing.”
Getting down to business
“Even if Sandbox isn’t aiming to make tons of profit, we’re still aiming to think of ways to be a business model because we still need to finance our operations. We bootstrapped our way to now, we’ve done a lot of consulting and partnerships with corporates. For the first time, we’re preparing to receive contributions from our members which will be completely voluntary… We’re also looking for corporate partners to carry us financially over the next years.”
And as for the under-30 rule: “we don’t kick people out when they turn 30, which is why I still get to run the show,” he laughs.