The year the world stayed at home, hubraum became more international

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What you’ll learn after reading this article:  

  1. Why, even in an online world, physical location still matters  
  2. The biggest obstacles when running a program digitally  
  3. Why spontaneity is key to innovation

This May marked ten years of hubraum! To celebrate the occasion, we’re compiling a potted history: the milestones that defined hubraum, year by year. This chapter focuses on probably the strangest year in hubraum’s history — 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic meant that it was a year of working from home, online meetings and virtual events. And yet, in unexpected ways, hubraum flourished.  

2020 brought challenges for everyone. But it was a particularly tricky time to run a startup incubator based between three countries which collaborates with companies from all over the world. We spoke to Jurek Grzesiak, the head of hubraum Krakow, and hubraum’s Innovation Transfer Manager Holger Sbrzesny (who lives in Bonn) about how they kept their spirits high during a difficult time and if there were any unexpected positives to the year.  

Let’s start at the beginning. What were your reactions when you first heard about Covid-19?

Jurek: I remember seeing people wearing masks even prior to it being compulsory and thinking that this was an overreaction. But my reaction changed quickly! Soon it seemed very serious and deadly.  

Holger: Yes, it was more or less the same for me. At the beginning I didn’t realize two things: how serious Covid-19 would be and how long the pandemic would last. 

How did it affect work at hubraum?

Jurek: While being heavily affected, we were kind of prepared — after all, we are an international team, plus some people were already working full-time from home. However, there was a substantial transition to readjust our daily rituals to the pandemic.

What we do is basically collaboration, creative work, and innovation and that generally requires a discussion. Instead of organizing face to face workshops and brainstorming sessions we instantly moved everything online. Quite quickly we tested the best tools for that and developed our own skills. Having great facilitators on board (primarily Holger and Daniel!) was incredibly helpful.  

hubraum team on MS Teams

How were you able to keep team morale high?

Jurek: I’m not sure we did! It obviously affected all of us and our mental health. We created regular online meetings to chat, not just about official business but also about everyday (non-work) matters, which allowed us to kick back a bit.  

We had a lot of meetings and we tried to limit the time we spent in meetings. Paradoxically, I began to interact much more with my colleagues in Germany and Bonn because I was able to meet them every day online, not just in person. We experienced something similar in terms of programs and incubation activities — we started to have much more interaction with startups around the world, from the US, from Asia, since location was relatively irrelevant as everything was online anyway. Startups no longer needed to come to Krakow or Berlin for an incubation programme.  

This said, the physical space means we have the necessary technical infrastructure, like early access to 5G APIs, which is hard to give developers based remotely access to. Even this year, developers will still need to come over to Berlin for some tests even though all the program itself is online, so it’s effectively a hybrid model. We can function mostly virtually, but we’ll still use cutting-edge infrastructure and technology that’s available in the physical space that we operate. 

Were there other positives?

Jurek: Oh, definitely. Prior to 2020 we worked much more separately in terms of Germany and Poland’s teams. We started to collaborate across national borders not because of the pandemic, but because of a restructuring in 2020, when hubraum made us into one international team which is divided into skill-specific clusters, like programs or investments.  

hubraum team on MS Teams

Where the pandemic did have an effect was the fact that we didn’t need to wait until there was a physical meeting. We started to collaborate with our colleagues in Germany on a daily basis online and our priority became carrying out the projects that would have the most impact for the company. 

It’s interesting that it sounds like there were a lot of unforeseen positives to running the programmes digitally. What was the biggest obstacle to doing so?

Holger: It’s difficult to build a relationship with complete strangers. They didn’t know hubraum or us. So to really develop a good working relationship and also build some trust constituted the biggest challenge. Previously, we had these onboarding days so at the beginning of program we met for two or three evenings, had a beer together, and this allowed us to get to know each other a bit better.  

Jurek: Yes, I agree. It was difficult to build trust with strangers purely online. Plus, running events online was much worse. There were no spontaneous chats over a beer, unfortunately.  

Holger: That’s true! I think one of the first events we held virtually was the summit from the 5G Entertainment Program. It was hybrid, so we were allowed to have a limited number of people in the headquarters in Bonn and the event was then live-screened to everyone else all over the world. At least there were a few people there and I was also lucky to be there.  

Then, later on in the pandemic, I remember we had virtual team events like a wine tasting. Everybody had a package of small bottles sent to their home and then we all dialled into an online session and there was somebody who taught us about the wines and we sampled them simultaneously. It was great.  

Jurek:  I remember the industry of online get-togethers being incredibly in demand at that time — I recall the person doing the wine tasting told us it was his second or third session that day and he was going to lead another wine tasting after we finished. He was already a bit drunk after ours. It was an interesting time! 

hubraum team on MS Teams

What was the biggest source of stress that year?

Jurek: When you were in the office, the number of meetings that you had to do could be positive — it meant interaction with other people. But doing it via video was stressful and tiring — imagine a 9 to 5 full of video meetings. This isn’t a part of 2020 that I miss much.  

Did Covid impact business at hubraum?

Holger: Innovating became more difficult because that spontaneity was gone. It wasn’t the same as going to the canteen to get a coffee, running into people you know and suddenly getting an idea. It was also very hard to get the sort of information where you have to read between the lines and again, bringing people together in one room is a different thing to bringing people together in an online meeting, aspects like building trust and relationships were more difficult and affected our impact.  

Jurek: On the other hand, we found more startups for our programs, we started working with more international partners, not just startups but big corporates, and this has been accelerating ever since. And maybe it’s even easier because of that online collaboration. It’s easier to kickstart a call. Cross-corporate collaboration, innovation focus, bringing startups from all over the world is easier.  

Want to read more about hubraum’s history? Read about the opposite of 2020 — think: a lot of in-person rooftop parties and fun, in 2014 or go all the way back to the beginning and find out how hubraum Berlin was founded. 

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