Birmingham Welcomes Its Lego Robot Masters
The Robot Garage got its start in the way that so many businesses do: by finding a need and figuring out how to build on it.
In fact, the key word here at the Robot Garage
, a family-centered business in Birmingham that turned one on June 2, is build. The owners are building a business that is expanding into new venues all the time. The customers - mostly kids but plenty of adults, are building all sorts of creations with Legos - the regular kind of blocks and special Lego systems and software that can move, light up, be powered by solar energy, replicate world-famous architectural sites - the London Bridge and Leaning Tower of Pisa - and more.
The success coming to the Robot Garage's husband-wife founders Jonathan and Sarah Jacobs might build hope in a worrisome economy that has many questioning job security.
"We've watched so many friends in their 40s and 50s lose their jobs. We wanted a little control of our futures," Sarah Jacobs says, standing amid dozens of creations that make you say, Legos can do THAT?!
The couple lived in New York for several years, went to college, got good jobs, met, married and finally decided to move to Michigan to be near family should children come. The children came, three daughters now 13, 11 and 9, and it was through their eyes the Jacobs saw the vision of a business.. and its customers. All they had to do was look to their daughters, their daughters' friends and even kids they'd never met but had seen on robotics teams and at competitions.
It was partly their experience with birthday parties that got them to thinking how else could kids be celebrating or spending their free time.
"We did it in response to being parents of daughters who aren't typical girly-girls …They kept getting invited to birthday parties they didn't want to go to. They were very girly or hip-hop or something like that, " Sarah Jacobs recalled. "We wondered what kind of parties do boys have? What else could be done?"
About the same time, after having become involved with a local robotics teams, they noticed a lack of fraternity for kids whose role model is Robotics guru Dean Kamen.
"Tennis kids have a tennis bubble, a place, a group they can belong to off the courts," Jacobs says.
The combo birthday-robotics community void they saw convinced them - well, only initially - that they could build their own business to fill a need. "We were really looking for a way to support our family and do something we are passionate about," she explains.
When the Jacobs decided to go into business for themselves Sarah was vice-president of development for an art center. Jonathan, who she describes as a big kid, was a project manager and developer of his own website, and the family as a whole, most especially engineer dad and daughters, were seriously into Legos and robots. They were introduced to robotics competition through Cranbrook Academy
, where they go to school.
"Everything kind of crystallized for me after a state robotics competition where you see these kids in their element, happy, productive, energized. I thought where do these kids go after this is over," Sarah Jacobs remembers.
She shared her thoughts about a business with her husband, and after some doubts and discussions they started building on what would become their livelihood.
"I told him I have an idea. He's been rolling his eyes at my ideas for 18 years," she says, laughing.
So for six months they talked about it, talked to people in robotics and in other businesses, an array of professional friends they could count on for sound advice and honest assessment. "We asked them to tell us why this won't work," she says.
They got no good reason against it and begin their search for a place to open a business that went by the working name BUILD. The name changed after the plans to open were cemented and a name was desperately needed.
"I sent an email one morning and I said, 'This is it. We need a name. Two friends, one in San Francisco, one in New York, sent lists of names and both had Robot Garage. So that was it."
They picked an unused mess of a warehouse that had churned through several businesses. It was the building's location, 637 South Eton, in Birmingham's Rail District, a part of the city known in part for kid-focused businesses such as Goldfish Swim School, a karate school and dance academy - that attracted them.
The Robot Garage itself is an example of creativity in building. Architect and friend, Adam Weintraub of Koko Architecture + Design
, came up with the building that is multi-functional and makes you want to play.
As the name implies the Robot Garage is indeed a garage with big roll-up doors that come down to divide rooms, or bays, to accommodate how the rooms are being used day to day. It has an industrial, modern style with a soft, friendly feel because of the brightness, white paint and glass used in the design. The Legos add much of the color as do the Lego creations on display. Up front is a gift shop that keeps growing as it's become clear that it is almost a destination - both in person and online - as the building itself.
It only took a few months for the Jacobs to realize the adage: if you build it they will come.
"We felt there was no brick and mortar place where you could go to build," she says.
It is the kind of place that makes you say where was this when I was a kid?
The Robot Garage offers after-school classes, summer camps, workshops, drop-in building time, and its expanding into more field trips and on-site school visits.There are 25 part-time and two full-time employees running it all, and more will be hired in coming months.
Among the employees are their daughters who do everything from sweep to test products before they go into the gift shop and handle the collectibles. They have offices upstairs.
They employ Walt Hickok, a retired General Motors Corp engineer and robotics teacher and mentor who's taken hundreds, possibly thousands of engineering-minded, robot-loving kids to new levels and in the process helped make the interest an extracurricular activity as much as any athletic pursuit.
"We're very fortunate to have him" she says.
He works with the students who come through the big rolling garage for after-school programs, camps and birthday parties and also at FIRST Robotics contests locally and nationally.
Instructors from high school and college, many engineering majors from U-M, Lawrence Technological University and other schools are on staff.
Besides the summer camps, workshops, after school programs there is drop-in time, $12 on weekends and $6 on weekdays, a brisk business in birthday parties that have guests teaming up in pairs designing their creation on a laptop with special software and building a party favor like few others.
Like successful businesses, the Robot Garage has followed what customers say they want. "I had so many calls and questions about birthday parties before we even opened" she says.
And drop-in, a time to just stop by and pull up a chair to one of the big white tables in a room with bin after bin of Legos, became a daily offering in response to requests. As it turned out the grownups sometimes like it as much - or more - than the kids.
The Robot Garage expects to see huge growth in field trips and school visits. "Science teachers are calling to see if can we offer a field trip on force and motion," she says.
It's an "amazing thing to see," she says, referring to one after-school program to build a car-like bot, "when you have second graders talking about rack and pinion steering."
"We looked at this when we opened it as a laboratory," she says. "We thought we'll give it two years to get all the systems in place, we'll be flexible in the meantime, respond to customers. That's what nice about being a small business and running your own business, there's no bureaucracy. If we want to change something we just change it."
Kim North Shine is Metromode's over-achieving Development News editor and a Grosse Pointe-based freelance writer.
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography