The sandbox logo at the global summit 2012 in lisbon

What we have learned from building the Sandbox Network

Lessons and mistakes from the last six years

by Fabian Pfortmüller and Nico Luchsinger, Co-founders of Sandbox

Two weeks ago, more than 120 Sandboxers from all around the world gathered in the Poconos in Pennsylvania for the Sandbox North America Retreat. For the two of us it was an incredible experience to observe the excitement, the passion and the genuine friendships of Sandboxers, old and new.

But it was also a great moment to look back. What had started as an idea at Fabian’s kitchen table in Switzerland has come a long way. As Sandbox transitions to new leadership and ownership, it seemed like a great moment for the two of us to reflect on the last six years of building this organization. We had a great conversation with many Sandboxers about our insights at the retreat and want to share some of our thoughts here. The following thoughts aren’t universally applicable rules, but the personal views and reflections of the two of us from six years of building communities and being surrounded by incredible people on this journey.

Sandboxers Sebastian Lindstrom and Phil Kaye at the Poconos retreat (Image by Kyle Kesterson)

Part I: How it all started, a long long time ago…

The two of us have been working together since we were 15 years old. And that’s when the idea of Sandbox first emerged. While we were in high school, both of us as well as Antoine (who would become a Sandbox co-founder and its first CEO) were deeply engaged in Swiss student politics. Together, we organized a series of workshops for student activists from across the country. At these workshops, we met a lot of people like ourselves — full of ideas and ambition to build things and create change in the world.

After graduating from high school, we continued to work together, and became more and more interested in entrepreneurship. We ran a bar on a boat, organized job fairs at our university, and eventually started an event management company together. At a reunion of our student politics friends a few years later we realized that many of them had taken a similar path. The raw ambition of the high school years had turned into actual projects. People had started companies, gone into politics, taken over leadership positions. They were shaping the world around them. And we felt that they would continue doing that for a long time to come.

This is when the idea of Sandbox was born. We realized that the active young doers of today will probably still be active 30 years from now. And we asked ourselves: what if we could create lifelong friendships with the fellow misfits of this world and build things together for the rest of our lives? What would the world look like if the leaders of tomorrow would meet now instead of 30 years from now?

A community by accident

We had an event management background, so our original plan was to organize a large conference with corporate sponsors, who would pay for amazing young people to come together — like a World Economic Forum for the under-30 crowd. There was just one tiny problem: we started working on the conference idea in 2008, just as the financial crisis was unfolding. It soon became clear that our plan was not feasible. We had to find another way.

Instead of organizing a large conference, we started putting together small, informal dinners in Zurich for inspiring people we knew. We also made a point of hosting such dinners in places we’d travel to. Soon, friends of ours organized similar events in their cities too. We wanted to make sure that everyone attending these gatherings could connect to each other, and to have some control over who would get access. We developed an application process, and a simple online platform — and before we knew it, the Sandbox community was born.


Part II: What we have learned about building a community

Starting a community — even though it was more an accident at the beginning — was the best thing that ever happened to us. Here is what we have learned while doing it.

  • Communities are not networks; they function more like families.
  • Members share values, and relationships are based on trust. Communities work best when there is a clear beginning and end of the experience, and when there are strong rituals in between.
  • Technology is only a means to an end, and local, face-to-face interaction is absolutely crucial for an active community.
  • And figuring out the business model for a community is really, really hard.

A community is not a network — it’s a family

We learned over the years that there is a huge difference between a community and a network. A (human) network is a group of people that have connections to each other. These relationships often exist for a specific reason, for example to exchange best practice within the same industry. A community, however, is something different: its members come together around shared values and ideals, and they build a common identity. It’s about deep and meaningful relationships, not connections or “contacts”. In short: a community works in many ways like a family.

From left to right: Sagarika, Kalsoom, Kane, Niamh and Cynthia rocking their saris at the Sandbox Global Summit in Lisbon.

Successful communities are built on trust

Communities are way more powerful than networks because members trust each other. Trust is the strongest enabler of deep and lasting friendships. People are willing to open up more. They are willing to help each other more. They want to spend more time together. They will trust other members of the same tribe, even if they have never met. And they form more meaningful relationships. While there are plenty of organizations that provide monetary capital to bring young doers forward, we believe that trust is just as valuable and powerful as money in order to bring a person and their idea forward.

Creating trust is the most important and yet hardest task of any community builder. It comes from measures such as a consistent and clear application process with equally high expectations of all members. It comes from clearly outlining what members can expect and what is expected from them. It comes from consistency and rhythm. It comes from being transparent and clear about the goals and vision of the community. And it comes from sharing genuine values.

The Sandbox Global Summit in 2012 (Video by Sebastian Lindstrom and Alicia Sully of What Took You So Long)

Values make all the difference

There are many communities out there that have members with amazing achievements. How is Sandbox different? Many members have told us that it’s our focus on values and how much we emphasize them. We like to describe Sandbox as a family and believe that, as every family, we need a shared set of beliefs.

Since starting Sandbox, the two of us have tried to infuse the community with the following values: humility, vulnerability and “don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously”-ness. Why these? Everyone at Sandbox is extraordinarily accomplished. Everyone is a hustler and working hard on their next big idea. But in order for us to truly connect and bond, we have to leave this behind and just be human. We have to listen. We have to pay respect to the other humans in the community. We have to stay curious. And we have to accept that sometimes, we say and do totally ridiculous things.

Strong communities have a beginning, an end and strong rituals

When we started with Sandbox, there was no beginning and no real end to the experience of being a Sandboxer. As a result, the initial excitement of Sandboxers would decrease over time and lead to the disengagement of members over time. To address this, Niamh Hughes, our dear friend and long-time NYC Ambassador, and Fabian pioneered the Sandbox class model in NYC in 2012. It’s very simple: Sandboxers are accepted in classes of around 20 people every 12 months, instead of on an individual and rolling basis. We realized that as a community we could learn a lot from the classic model of a university: We start with a kick-off event, followed by three years of shared experiences, including local retreats and global summits. Finally, members will “graduate” from Sandbox. Since introducing the class model in NYC, we have started to implement it in more of our hubs, and think it has worked very well so far. What we haven’t answered yet is the question of what happens next. How will members who have graduated from a class continue to be involved in Sandbox?

A dance workshop at the Sandbox Poconos retreat (Image by Kyle Kesterson)

The Micro-Global Community

Initially, our community grew organically all over the world. We accepted members wherever we found amazing people. Until we realized that even a global community needed critical mass on a local level in order to thrive. We decided to only accept applications from “hubs” — cities we already had a presence in (or wanted to build one). This allowed us to provide both global relationships and a local community at the same time. Clay Shirky termed our approach at a lunch with Sandboxers “micro-global”. While every member feels like they belong to a global family, they create their strongest relationships on a local level.

With Clay Shirky at the Sandbox lunch in NYC

This approach of global and local (or top-down and bottom-up) is also at play in other ways: Sandbox has global headquarters with a full-time staff which provides constant activity, support, and communication. They coordinate applications to make sure the members are on an equally high level across the globe. On the other hand we have a wonderful group of local Ambassadors who run their Sandbox chapter on a volunteer basis in their cities. We found that having two to three ambassadors per city allowed us to create an intensive experience for our members on the ground. This balance of top-down and bottom-up has worked well so far, but there is a constant negotiation process between the two. As Sandbox becomes more mature as an organization, we expect the bottom-up part to become stronger.

The more informal, the better

Organizations, including communities, tend to become more formal in their interactions over time — it’s perceived as an expression of professionalism. We believe the opposite to be true, and have tried to encourage less formality whenever possible. People interact very differently in an informal setting. Informal is more human. We encourage our members to host events at their homes. We discourage the use of name tags, business cards and anything that reminds us of traditional “networking”. We want our members to discuss not what they do, but who they are, what they want to achieve — and what challenges they face on their way. This helps to make conversations more focused and meaningful: people discuss actual issues, instead of collecting connections.

The first Sandbox retreat ever.

The power of true diversity

Fabian likes to joke that the easiest community to build would be one for white male tech entrepreneurs. They are very easy for us to find. But we realized early on that true diversity is incredibly powerful. No matter if the entrepreneur is female or male, no matter if they are working in politics, academia, design, social entrepreneurship or tech, most young doers are facing the same challenges. Different perspectives allow them to grow faster and open new horizons. It also makes it easier to focus on building true friendships versus “professional” relationships.

The more interesting the audience at an event, the more interactive it should be

We suffer from conference fatigue, and it seems many other people do, too. We don’t want to listen to mediocre keynote speakers for a whole day, while being locked into a conference room without windows at a hotel near the airport. When Fabian organized the Sandbox Transamerica Expedition in Mexico in 2011 — our first larger event — he wanted it to be as interactive as possible and developed an event format that has become key for our events worldwide: we ask every participant when registering to suggest a one hour-long session that has to be interactive — about whatever she likes. From all these suggestions, we curate an offering of sessions for the final agenda. In addition, we prefer activities that encouraged participants to work together (such as cooking, setting up camps or making a bonfire). Again and again we have been blown away by the human creativity possible when you let your audience lead parts of your event. At our 2012 Global Summit in Lisbon the topics of sessions ranged from comedy improv and how to pour a perfect pint of Guinness beer to how to write love letters, Finance 2.0 and the history of advertising.

Decidedly not a conference.(Video by Sandboxer Jonathan Olinger)

For communities, technology is a means to an end

For a long time we thought that we had to create our own online social network that would serve as the single way of communicating within the community. We first started out with a customized community on a platform called Ning — and failed miserably. Nico likes to call this the “Facebook fallacy”, and we believe that many organizations similar to Sandbox suffer from it too: because Facebook is the predominant social network, there is a tendency to develop platforms that mimic how it works, but for one specific community. This approach almost never works — competing with Facebook on a technological level is impossible. And more importantly: getting people to use yet another platform (besides all the ones they are already on) is very difficult.

At Sandbox, we eventually realized that we should allow for interaction on whatever platform is already used most by our members — and that there would never be a unified platform. Instead, Sandboxers today use a combination of Facebook groups, mailing lists, Whatsapp groups and even good old e-mail to stay in touch with each other.

This is not to say that communities should not run their own platforms at all. They should — for the simple reason that it’s crucial for most of them to have good data on their members in order to maximize the value that is created. This particular insight came to us way too slowly — partially because neither of us has a tech background. As a result, Sandbox doesn’t have very accurate data on its members, which is annoying for the members themselves (e.g. it’s hard to find everybody who is in the same city as you), and a huge problem for the organization.

The Business Model(s) of Communities

Over the past four years, we have tried and discussed many business models and revenue streams for Sandbox, and while some of them have worked well, we have not yet managed to make the organization financially sustainable for the long term. That is partially because we spent less time on this issue than we should have — wrongly believing that a successful community would inevitably lead to financial success. But it’s also because few people have figured out how to create sustainable business models for communities.

Every organization that is not entirely volunteer-run needs to have an income; and we believe that there are several viable business models that can be built on top of the Sandbox community. The most important aspect of any such model is that it doesn’t exploit the community and doesn’t create any biases towards certain members (e.g. older members, members who are starting companies, etc).

Option 1: Membership contributions

We have both come to believe that members should contribute financially and we wished we had started with membership fees from Day One; doing so sets the expectation among members. But when we started, we simply lacked the self-confidence to ask people to pay for what was — at that point — an unproven model. It was only earlier this year (2013) that we did a successful test and found that voluntary monthly membership contributions are a great way to go. Members can contribute according to their financial means, and according to how much value they are currently gaining from the community. Additionally, encouraging contributions will increase the perceived value of the community as well as the activity of individual members.

Option 2: Innovation consulting

Instead of soliciting contributions from members, Sandbox started with a consulting business model that Nico developed together with one of our key advisors and then board member, Thomas Sevcik of Arthesia. For several years we supported companies, mostly large multinationals, in developing innovative strategies. After initial research, we would assemble a group of Sandboxers for a workshop with the client, and then provide a final report with results. The participation of Sandboxers was of course always voluntary (and paid). This model worked very well — among many others, we consulted with Volkswagen, UBS and Frankfurt Airport — , and under Nico’s leadership Sandbox became profitable.

But the consulting also came with significant downsides. We felt that the consulting projects were drawing our time away from what actually mattered: creating value for the community. Thus, we eventually decided to stop consulting and focus fully on community building. In retrospect this was not a smart decision. Granted, there were some issues with the consulting: It required a lot of time commitment from our headquarters, and only involved a small subset of members. But if you’re a startup and you have a business model that works, you should stick to it until you’re certain you’ve found something better.

Sandboxer Mike Radparvar (in green shirt) teaching a workshop at the Lisbon Global Summit.

Option 3: Event partnerships

Given our background in event management we hoped to replace the revenue from consulting with revenue from events, and began working on our first Global Summit. This worked quite well, and we found great partners that supported us financially, easing the burden on our members. But big events usually need a consistency of several years to become profitable, and so far, Sandbox events have not become a major source of income.

Other options and the way forward

Over time, there have been many additional ideas for revenue sources for Sandbox — from an investment fund to a speaker agency to an educational initiative. Some of these have definitely potential, but none of them is a “silver bullet” — the one solution that will provide all of the revenue. Most likely, Sandbox will rely on several revenue sources in the future. From our experience, we think that they have a good chance to be successful if they follow three basic principles: 1) They are aligned with Sandbox’ vision and mission. 2) They add value for members and the community as a whole, rather than taking value away (e.g. this would be the case if Sandbox sold data of its members). 3) They are simple to implement and don’t require massive additional overhead.

Sandboxer Robyn Scott talking to Economist CEO Andrew Rashbass during a lunch in London.

Part III: What we’ve learned about building a startup

Sandbox is also a startup, and much of what we’ve learned can be applied to other startups (whether they’re communities or other organizations) too. The quick summary first:

  • If you want to build an organization that is around for a very long time, think about the right structure and suitable governance.
  • Looking back, we think we should have started Sandbox as a non-profit.
  • Sandbox’ vision has changed significantly over the last years, and we think it will continue to evolve.
  • We’ve struggled to attract and retain top talent.
  • And we lost time and energy managing a team of part-time people scattered around the globe.

Sandbox should have been a non-profit

We started Sandbox as a for-profit because we knew how to do that, and figured it was easiest this way. But we had always wanted Sandbox to be an organization that would be around forever, and didn’t spend enough time thinking about the opportunities and constraints of a for-profit versus a non-profit structure. Knowing what we know now about funding options and hybrid structures, we’d begin by building Sandbox as a non-profit and potentially add a for-profit arm at a later point. Starting as a non-profit would most likely have limited our access to funding early on, but it would have allowed us to focus on our core mission of building an exceptional community, to create more stable governance structures, and to involve our members more deeply in the process. That’s why we are excited to see the new team experimenting with different ways to get member input.

A workshop at the Global Summit in Lisbon.

We struggled to attract and retain top talent

We were and are incredibly lucky to work with a series of amazing community managers over the last five years. But we struggled to attract and retain top talent for Sandbox beyond the founding team for a long time — even though we had access to an amazing community of incredibly talented people.

We think there were several reasons for this: First and foremost, we lacked the self-confidence to believe that all the amazing people who wanted to join Sandbox could also be interested in working for us. As strange as this may sound now, it took us quite a long time to realize that the best way for the organization to grow was to recruit from within our existing pool of fabulous members.

Secondly, we didn’t do a very good job in managing expectations of people we brought on to the team. The things we’d emphasize — financial rewards, stability or decision power — we could often not deliver on. For the first two, this was simply because we were a struggling startup; the last one was owed to a complicated set-up of the founding team: We had brought on four additional co-founders, which made it hard to extend decision power to even more hires.

We eventually did come around to bringing Sandbox members onto the team: Daniel Karpantschof, who had been a member for several years, worked with Nico in New York, and today Sandbox is lead by two former Ambassadors: John Egan and Alex Terrien. They have done tremendous work in their hubs (Dublin and Paris, respectively), and we are very proud to see them spearhead the organization today.

You need a full-time team working out of the same location

For a long time, the Sandbox team was working from as many as four different locations, and most team members were working part time. There were several reasons for that: some founders had other projects and companies they were working on; and we weren’t able to pay everybody to work full time. And being a global community we thought that the more globally spread out the co-founders would be, the better.

This turned out to be a mistake. It took us too long to realize that distributed teams don’t work when you’re building a new organization. Everyone has to be in the same room at the same table. Having people in different places, and not working full time means there is not enough commitment, but too much entitlement. It means that the decision-making process is slowed down, that people feel left out and become territorial. A lot of time is spent on making sure that everybody has the same information, instead of focusing on building new things. With a team as distributed as ours, it was hard to build a good working culture. When we finally moved operations to one place (first Zurich, then New York, now London), we got things done a lot faster with a lot less manpower.

There are investors who like you, and there are investors who like your business

The first group tends to be friends and family, who believe in you and want to personally support you. The second group includes the “professional” VCs — angel investors and VC firms — who see potential in your idea. They have very little in common. Obviously, both groups have an interest in making a profit off of their investment, and thus want to see the company they’re investing in succeed. But the first group is mostly concerned with seeing constant progress and development. They are interested in what happens at a monthly basis at your company; but they have a very flexible time horizon for their liquidity event. The professional investors, conversely, are mainly concerned with their path to liquidity. Showing them just “activity” doesn’t work — what is needed is a clear long-term view to sustainability and profitability. If you can’t offer that (yet), you should hold off on bringing on additional investors. Taking someone’s money is a bit like getting married: It can be a wonderful thing, but it is also a serious commitment — and once you are in, you have to make it work.

The way forward

Over the last five years, we’ve made many mistakes, and there are several challenges for Sandbox we have not figured out yet — from how to become sustainable to finding ways to engage members over longer periods of time. But we are still incredibly humbled (and a little bit proud) to see that so many amazing people have joined Sandbox and have turned it into a unique community. And we are thrilled to have, with John Egan and Alex Terrien, an exceptional leadership team that knows, lives and breathes Sandbox.

Thankyou thankyou thankyou!

We didn’t build Sandbox by ourselves. Building this community has been a huge collaborative effort, and we are forever grateful to the many people who helped us on our path. We have tried to list them all here, but as we are getting older, we keep forgetting things, so already in advance apologies to all the incredible human beings we left out.

Niamh and Kasper engaging in the typical Sandbox greeting

First and foremost, we want to thank the many Sandbox Ambassadors. We’ve met most of you in a coffee shop somewhere in this world a few years ago, and since then you have turned into wonderful friends. We are so excited to spend the rest of our lives building amazing things with you guys and we are incredibly thankful for all the hard work you have put into making this community what it is today. You have made this dream reality. Thank you.

Thank you Niamh Hughes, Kane Sarhan, Erica Berger, Mattan Griffel, Kalsoom Lakhani, DJ Saul, Neil Shah, Allie Armitage, Bjoern Lasse Herrmann, Paul Gleger, Melissa Richer, Sarah Peck, Michelle Lim, Hugo Van Vuuren, Tony Pino, Katie Tsouros, Will McQuillan, Kyra Maya Phillips, Rand Hindi, Mathias Holzmann, Rainer Scheerer, Hans Raffauf, Franziska Krüger, Lina Anne Lustig, Rahaf Harfoush, Tia Kansara, Robyn Scott, Manouchehr Shamsrizi, Mariam Georges, Andreas Brenner, Alan Frei, Sunnie Jay Tölle, Tim Rutten, Roger Heijsters, Per Jonsson, Alex Budak, Marion Cortina, Carlos Mondragon, Constanza Gomez Mont, Achyutha Sharma, Mark Kaigwa, Jonathan Kalan, Sebastian Lindstroem, Daniel Goldstein, Yael Wissner-Levy, Gwendolyn Regina Tan, Zhihan Lee, Fereshteh Amarsy, David Haddad, Leon Chen, Jay Lee, Alice Wang, Zach Hamilton, Ines Santos Silva, Joao Costa, Bel Pesce, Tomas Laboutka, Sagarika Sundaram, Fred Fous, Riwa Harfoush, Meshal Lakhani. (Phew — we hope we haven’t forgotten anyone here. Apologies if we did!)

As you have read above, we have made plenty of mistakes. It was a group of amazing advisors and mentors that prevented us from making even more. A huge thank you to Susan Kish (Bloomberg), Bruno Giussani (TED) and Hansueli Maerki (formerly IBM) for your invaluable feedback and encouragement from the very beginning, when Sandbox didn’t even have a name yet. If only we had listened to your advice more, the list of learnings above would be much shorter.

Thank you to Thomas Sevcik, the founder and CEO of Arthesia,who immediately offered his help when we told him about our idea in his Zurich office, and went on to become an advisor, board member, mentor and close friend.

And a very special thank you goes to Tony Tjan, the founder and CEO of venture capital firm Cueball. We have no idea where we would be without Tony’s support today. His wisdom, experience and kindness have shaped Sandbox, us and our future paths in more ways than we can express.Thank you for your guidance and leadership!

Thank you to our early investors, who believed in us and our idea, and provided the capital and support we needed to start building: Marc Bernegger, Adrian Locher, Tobias Gemperli, Ruth Rump, Karim Zekri, Herbert Pfortmüller, Hanswalter Huggler, Patrick Liotard-Vogt, Thomas Sevcik and Matthieu Carrel.

We already briefly mentioned the amazing community managers Sandbox was lucky to work with over the years — Johanna Mischke, Sara Usinger, Cathrin Lesslhummer, Katrin Winiarski, Lilly Bussmann, Wladimir Nikoluk, Noor Bin Ladin, Nathalie Saidler, Ines Silva, Richard Hylerstedt, Tahnee Prior and Brendan Coffey. There simply would be no Sandbox without them.

We also want to thank our other co-founders Christian Busch,who helped many Sandbox hubs around the world get off the ground, and Severin Rüegger, who kept an eye on our finances when we started out. A special thank you goes to co-founder Antoine Verdon, who stepped up and committed to Sandbox full time when there was no money and no structure and just a crazy idea. We owe you big time! And we will never forget your moonwalking skills :-) Also thank you to our dear old friend and co-founder Noé Blancpain without whom we’d probably still be talking about hosting a yearly conference instead of just building a community.

Daniel Karpantschof has shaped Sandbox in innumerable ways during his time as our Head of Global Affairs in New York — many of which will only become apparent in the future. And Mathias Vestergaard’s coaching and guidance have helped us clarify Sandbox’ vision, and have made us better leaders too.

We would never have become entrepreneurs, and would surely have never started Sandbox, without the constant support and love of our parents: Christine Luchsinger, Martin Blocher, Patrick Halbeisen, Megy Pfortmüller and Herbie Pfortmüller. Thank you for everything, in good and in bad times. We are incredibly fortunate sons.

Sandbox is built on the simple idea that trust and friendship will bring us forward when shaping this world. To see our members living this idea each and every day is incredibly gratifying and humbling. We thank you. And we can’t wait for all the amazing things we’ll be building together in the next decades.

Thank you to Mathias Vestergaard, John Egan, Tara Yip-Bannicq, Niamh Hughes, Sarah Peck and Kane Sarhan for reading drafts of this and providing valuable feedback.