Hackerbay is Harnessing the Dark Arts – And It’s Winning

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If you press the buzzer at Hackerbay’s Berlin office, no-one comes to the door. Instead, its team have built a custom door-answering machine, with cantilevered arm and camera, that can check you out and let you in–“so we don’t have to get up,” says head of demand Roman Rittmann, who greets Red Herring with a gentle smirk of self-satisfaction.

It is understandable. In just 18 months Hackerbay has grown to become one of Berlin’s, and Europe’s, hottest young startups, providing a platform on which corporates and hackers can team up to negotiate one-off projects. The company’s clients already include Google, Twitter, Lyft and Skype: this year alone Hackerbay has completed 23 projects, using its pool of hundreds of hackers.

Part of the problem, Rittmann says, has been convincing companies that hackers can be a force for good. “Hackers are people who, in the past, were always doing damage but you couldn’t see them,” he says. “If a hacker hacks a bank account, obviously it’s really bad. But in the end it’s improving security.”

If you tag on other words to “hacking”–life-hacking, growth-hacking–you get something positive. As it is, most people are still likelier to associate hackers with election-tampering Russians or banking cybercriminals. “We’re trying to change that,” Rittmann says.

The company is going about it well. Twitter gave the firm its first big challenge, when it needed a foosball table at its Berlin headquarters to become interactive. Each goal scored would be tweeted, the company demanded. Hackerbay got it done in a day.

Subsequent gigs, like building chatbots and live tickers, haven’t come as quickly. But it is still Hackerbay’s speed, and proficiency with highly-specialized hackers, which makes it such an attractive proposition. Each project begins with an onboarding workshop to get management acquainted with “the hacker way,” as Rittmann puts it. “People won’t want to work with you if they don’t trust you,” he adds.

From there on, it’s about speed and skill. Hackerbay currently has around 200 hackers on the books, allowing it to cover all the major trends and technologies taking industries by storm today. “If you have a project with time and tech pressure, you can call the hackers,” says Rittmann. “They’re like firefighters.”

Projects generally follow the company’s ADBLE model: adapt, design, build, launch and evolve. This helps streamline work, argues Rittmann, while educating clients on a value proposition he or she may not initially understand.

It helps to have a gregarious and office-savvy team as a buffer, he adds: “You try to avoid that the hacker is talking to the client. This is the worst thing that can happen. Because on one hand you have the guy who thinks about business, who’s just talking about solving this, this and this without thinking of the value to be added. And you have, usually, developers who are trying to fulfill their requirements. And they don’t care if the requirement is shit or not, they just do it. With us, with our framework, we can position that right.”

Hackerbay was born out of Hackevents.co, a search engine for hackathons that is still going today. From there, its four founders were able to build a database of the most exciting hackers in Europe and beyond. “We knew who was attending all the hackathons, we knew who was winning them and we knew what was trending,” says Rittmann.

Today hackathons have become less about tech challenges than marketing schemes, Rittmann laments. So it was key the Hackerbay built its community when it did. But, he adds, “hackers are not entrepreneurs. They love the tech challenge, not the business challenge.”

Enter Hackerbay–which was initially to be named Build Me This App, before its founders embraced the task of changing people’s attitudes to hacking. IBM first coined the phrase “ethical hacking.” But there is still a long way to go.

Embracing the hacker ethic, however, was key in attracting Hackerbay’s first investment, from Silicon Valley incubator NFX. Knowing the Valley was such a competitive, closed market–especially to a young bunch of guys from Berlin–they decided to hack into the NFX website and change partner James Currier’s password. Then they told him.

It was gamble. And it worked. Hackerbay’s founders joined the NFX program last year, before receiving $220,000 in funding in September. By May they had already made the decision to move to San Francisco, the home of closest competitor Gigster. Part of the money was spent renting a giant apartment in the city, which is used as an HQ for visiting European hackers. At any one time, the company says, a dozen hackers crash at the San Francisco pad.

But seven team members have stayed in the German capital. Rittmann thinks it gives Hackerbay a distinct advantage over Gigster and others. “We don’t have this main focus on the Valley,” he says. “Of course, we still have people there. But it can’t be possible that a few thousand square kilometers is defining how the world is run. There is so much talent round here, and we still find them and extract their knowledge.”

And it’s not as if Silicon Valley isn’t desperate to reap European talent wholesale. “If you see a company in, say, Norway, that has done nothing and suddenly Microsoft buys it for $10m, you know there is so much talent there that Microsoft wants it for that,” says Rittmann. “It’s not even like the sharks are circling the water: it’s like the whole fishing area has changed, and you can’t just get the best straight out of university.”

Hackerbay’s office abuts Factory, the giant incubator and coworking space that has helped redefine the city as a leader in Europe’s tech industry. But, crucially, the company works across a strip of grass (that was once a “death strip” of the Berlin Wall) in a separate building. That’s the way they like it, Rittmann says: separate, and independent, but within touching distance of the corporate world.

Next up: scale. Hackerbay is currently non reliant on its funding money, but may soon look for funding with which to scale. It has a very small community in Asia it wants to expand, and claims it can step up from 200 to 1,000 hackers “with no problem.”

Then it can grow something truly global. But for Rittmann and co the main aim for Hackerbay “is not to have a specific amount of money. Our goal is to pay a specific amount to our hackers.” Empowering the former dark arts? There’s a mission statement you rarely see in Silicon Valley.