The Robot Garage: Building a Business One LEGO Brick at a Time

What’s a retired General Motors Corp. engineer doing at a birthday party for a couple of 8-year-olds who aren’t his grandkids? He’s helping them learn about robotics.

Walt Hickok (ancestor U.S. Marshall Wild Bill “is from the other branch of the family”) is one of several people who are assisting the youngsters -“ and occasional parents -“ in learning about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) before devouring pizza and cake at The Robot Garage.

Walt Hickok, a retired GM engineer and current robotics mentor.

Hickok is by far the oldest of the assistants -“ most are computer science majors at a nearby Big Ten university -“ as they help form LEGO corrals for little electronic critters called Hex Bugs.

LEGO plays a big part at The Robot Garage, which is in a converted garage in an area evolving from warehouses and commercial buildings into a home for innovative and entrepreneurial types whose businesses include a prospering swimming school, a high-end kitchen design firm and a refurbished furniture shop.

The Garage in Birmingham, Mich., is the creation of Jonathan and Sara Jacobs. While they both had attended the same suburban high school, they had gone their separate ways to college and jobs in New York City. A joint friend got them together, says Jonathan Jacobs. “I was online for a movie -“ not in line because this was New York -“ as was she and we sort of went on from there.”

After successful careers, she with Liz Claiborne and he with a firm that built computer systems for architects such as Michael Graves and Robert A.M. Stern, the Jacobs decided to come back home to raise a family near their parents. “We had watched our friends in New York with kids and they didn’t have back yards and they didn’t see their grandparents, so, although we were never going to have kids, we moved back home to have kids,” Jacobs laughs.

Johnathan Jacobs, c0-founder of the Robot Garage.

Jacobs says that the idea for the Garage was “a way to do all the things that I like -“ as a job.” Inspired by their older daughter, who had joined her middle school robotics team, the Jacobs’ thinking began to coalesce around a way to put the family love for LEGO building and robotics and, as it turned out, education, together in one workable package.

As he spent more time with the school robotics team, “I can’t say I was a mentor, I was just there all the time helping,” Jacobs explains, “I realized there were some holes in the robotics program. The school is part of the FIRST Robotic League (see Corp! interview with Dean Kaman, founder of FIRST: and the kids get a game which runs for the season -“ September to December, unless you’re successful in the competition process, in which case it keeps on going.”

“The kids focus on one game,” Jacobs continues, “and they build a robot to work it, but they don’t get a broad sense of robotics. They may build a robot that does something and follows a track -“ but if they need a robot that walks on four legs or six, or has treads or articulated arms -“ they never get to experience the many other things a robot can do. Part of this lies with whether the program is part of a school class or an after-school project or run by a community center. Part of it depends on the quality and experience of the mentor. If it’s a parent who wanted to have the kids have a robotics team but didn’t know anything about robotics -“ yea, Mom or Dad for putting in the time for doing that -“ but they probably don’t have a whole lot of ability to share with the kids what there is to know.”

Jacobs’ concern is what happens to the kids after the official competition is over in December. “If they’ve gotten the robotics ‘bug’ what then?” he asks. “Typically, they just wait around until the next season. We want the Garage to offer them a way to find out more.”

The Robot Garage is in a repurposed garage in a former warehouse district.

The Jacobs as a family attend a number of LEGO events, the biggest of which is the recently completed Brickworld in Chicago. There, says Jacobs, “They’ll have a series of games that last only a day instead of six weeks. You’re given a game, you build a robot to do that game on the spot and at the end of the day you disassemble the robot and start over the next day.”

In the school programs, Jacobs explains, the kids get attached to the robot as a thing instead of as a tool to accomplish a task. “We want to stop making robots so ‘precious’ (he inserts the vocal quotes) -“ ‘we worked on it, don’t touch it’ -“ it’s a tool, build it, see if it does what it needs to do, make adjustments, take it apart then build another one.”

“Our goal is to round out robotics education, to make it a full-year activity for people -“ and not just kids, but anyone -“ who’re interested,” Jacobs says. “It’s filled with other good things -“ like teamwork and scientific research projects -“ but the main thing is to make robotics accessible.”

“We want to infuse everything we do not only with STEM but also with the other education catchphrase, 21st century learning skills -” working in groups, solving problems, that kind of thing.”

“But, my number one goal is fun,” Jacobs emphasizes. “I want everything we do here to be fun. I don’t want anyone thinking that being in The Robot Garage is like being in school. I want it to be like the day in science class where they finally threw the potassium piece into the water and it exploded all over the lab, not the day when you learned why that worked.”

A birthday party in progress inside the Garage, with parents as involved in the building process as the kids.

“Some kids will go ‘wow! that was cool!’ and others will ask why it worked but my feeling is that it’s exposure,” Jacobs continues. “By exposing them over and over again to the cool things they’ll start picking it up. It’s not all fun and games, but it’s primarily fun. Sometimes we have to get into specific details -“ such as ‘this is the NXT brick and this is the switch that turns it on’ but we try to do that quickly and through experience rather than stand in front of the room, teaching.”

Creating The Robot Garage has been an educational experience for Jacobs, who has an Ivy League MBA in addition to his computer science degree. “Things we didn’t expect were just weird things. We have a very open plan, with walls that go up to the ceiling and needed footings that had to be four feet deep. We had the plans from the architect and then we’d get really big quotes from engineers and steel workers and we’d think, ‘oh, good thing we have a little cushion.’ The industrial floors took longer than we expected and the air conditioning units were installed in the rain.”

Unlike many entrepreneurial startups, financing for The Robot Garage is with a family member “who could get a better interest rate with us than with a CD,” Jacobs laughs. “Every bank we went to said if we wanted to borrow money we had to put money into an account with them that was equal to the amount we wanted to borrow. I, of course, said that if I could do that I wouldn’t need the loan.”

Are 4 legs better than 6 if you want to be sure your robot won’t tip over.

Jacobs talked to several existing companies that offered him advice, whether it was in the field of technology or children’s activities or companies that used robots in their business. “We’d tell them what we wanted to do and ask them to tell us why we were wrong, or poke holes in our idea.”

“One of the best things we learned in talking to people,” says Jacobs, “was that every time we did something we should make it a procedure so we don’t have to think about it the next time. Then, we can tell employees ‘this is what you do’ from mopping the floors to running reports at the end of the day. This isn’t so you can immediately open new stores but so you can figure them out, check them off your list and move forward. Sometimes we do 23 new things every day and we can’t find the time to write them all down, but we’re working toward that.”

Jacobs says that another thing they learned from observing other companies that are birthday party venues, is that there was little provision for the parents who had to come pick up their kids after the party was over. “When it’s time for pickup, the parents are sort of huddled in about two square feet of entrance way, trying to stay out of the way. It was important for us to have a lounge, with WiFi and a place to sit while they wait. It’s all those little things that we want to get right.”

“There’s this whole thing where you want to start a business and all of a sudden you’re doing things 24 hours a day that have absolutely nothing to do with what you wanted to start a business about. The people we have working for us are constantly coming up with great ideas and that’s a good thing because I don’t have the time. For our next robotics class I would love to build the prototype for what they’re going to use. Luckily we have people who can do that because I’m busy with the air conditioning and the punch-list we still have from construction. It’s the things you never know about or would ever think about. Even business school doesn’t teach you all that.”

Experiencing The Robot Garage can be compared to what it must have been like when Ray Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers. You can envision Garages all across the land, nestled in repurposed spaces with low rent.

All emblazoned with the Robot symbol. Ah, yes, the Robot symbol. No, Jacobs points out and everyone connected with the Garage is careful to echo, it’s not made of LEGO bricks. It’s made of pegboard pieces that you might find on the walls of any garage. “We’re all about pegboard and that garage theme,” Jacobs emphasizes. “It’s a robot that’s made of pegboard.”

(The robot needs a name and Corp! readers are invited to submit suggestions via our comments section at the conclusion of the article.)

The reason Jacobs is very clear about the robot is because LEGO is very careful about their trademarked bricks and other pieces.

The Robot Garage is an authorized LEGO retailer and is a licensed provider of LEGO Education courseware. In addition to holding classes and competitions, Jacobs has a retail area that sells, besides LEGO parts by the pound and hard-to-find special pieces, even harder-to-find parts for other robot makers. “If you’re on a team and you need a 40-tooth gear, you can’t go to a LEGO store and get it, you could order a parts kit from LEGO which costs about $200 and has thousands of pieces in it, but if you just want one gear -“ well, you can’t do that. So, one of our goals is to be not only a place where you can build robots but also be a place that supports the whole robotics community.”

If the processes and parties and classes continue to be successful there could be a Robot Garage supporting your community as well.