Bartoloměj Holubář: From a bachelor's project to a company with global reach
Only occasionally does a bachelor's project find a real use. How do you remember your studies?
I am from Ústí nad Orlicí, a small town in the foothills of the Orlické Mountains, where I did freestyle sports and biathlon. Studying design at the Faculty of Architecture of the CTU was something new from the beginning, it opened up the world of production processes to me. Perhaps the biggest benefit was that we had to make models, ideally in the scale and material in which the product we designed would be produced. The bachelor's project came very quickly.
However, study is often detached from real industry.
The school is operating on a safe theory and you cannot go wrong. But I admired our studio head, Jan Jaroš, for how much he manages to get done. He enjoys 20th century furniture, and we discussed cars and other things. His support made it possible to make the product happen. The topic of dispensing boxes may seem trivial at first glance. But he understood that I was moving towards launching a real product on the market, and so the smallest details would have to be addressed.
Did you tell your studio head straight away that your bachelor's project is also your business?
I told him, but it was not business at the time. The customer was nowhere in sight. We met Alex Studnička, the software wizard and co-founder. Boxes were supposed to be a response to a problem we had noticed and believed that boxes could be interesting. We enjoyed start-ups, Elon Musk and others are our kings. I filled in something generic in the bachelor's application and the project gradually progressed.
Have you experimented with business before?
Since I was a freshman, I went to evening lectures at VŠE, Oliver Dlouhý from Kiwi or Martin Hausenblas with Liftago were there. School during the day, lectures in the evening, good program twice a week. I wanted to create something real and not do things in a drawer, as it was the previous semesters.
However, how to find the necessary resources to start a business?
We met with investors who also backed other start-ups like Spaceflow (their app allows you to manage buildings efficiently – ed.) and built a design-build company Capexus. We saw the same problems – reception desks lined with mountains of packages and employees chasing a courier senselessly.
Who is your customer?
We have three main client groups. Firstly, the owners of office buildings who place our box in the entrance of the building and it is a partner for their tenants. Then we have the companies themselves with boxes up behind the turnstiles in their internal environment to automate their own logistics. The third are e-shops that want to speed up the dispensing of orders in store and save time so they can give quality customer advice.
I find it appealing that the box is not only filled by couriers, but that colleagues can also send documents through it.
You do not want to leave your keys or documents for a colleague on your desk in an open space anymore, especially when he is on home office for two days. Employees often do not even have their own desk to work at anymore. The best solution is to store things in a box and lock it up. The other person gets notified and reminded. Blocks will also back you up when you come into the building for an important meeting and need to watch your gym bag, for example.
We also automate the dispensing of equipment to employees. Dear IT experts then do not spend time on administration and writing emails. We want to be like a cloud storage for physical things and automate complex processes in companies.
You started at the height of the covid crisis, when people disappeared from the offices. How did that disrupt your plans?
At first, no one knew what would happen. Orders were stopping. But developers also wanted to offer better services. We were told that colleagues were no longer meeting at work because they were alternating the office with the home office. The boxes are contactless and time-independent. Employees started sharing desks and also needed a secure place for their belongings. The convenience that Blocks brought has helped the return to the office.
You have managed to find great craftsmen to make the blocks for you. But you want to break away from the physical product and deliver more of an idea.
We do not shy away from preparing the boxes themselves, but we are not woodworkers or metalworkers. There is no point in doing something that other companies can do much better because they have years of experience. And the pitfall is also logistics, supply, materials. How do we transport the product from the Czech Republic and assemble it locally? Many variables affect the final quality.
From the beginning, we try to build a product local to the country it is in. If an American client wants it, it will be a box made in America, with our Czech heart. The challenge for us is to prepare design rules, we keep an eye on ergonomics, composition and reach distances, for example.
Do you know how to code?
No. I am fascinated by the IT world, but the development team is completely under the thumb of co-founder Alex. The architecture faculty is in the same building as the IT faculty, but the students do not really talk to each other. However, the collaboration between the two disciplines is a great way to make great things happen. No one from design wanted to come to IT events held in the atrium, which I did not understand. Yet there was such great catering! A friend from Ústí, who went to study computer science, took me to a lecture sometimes. Once I was even called up to the blackboard.
You have had a booming business, investors expecting good numbers. But you did not drop out, and you finished your master's degree...
We knew that the start-up of the project, combined with the creation of a physical product, would take a year or two, which was quite doable with further study. But the combination with school and personal life was still hectic. So, I tried to link the studio and other projects at least partially to the company. Alternatively, it was a glimpse into somewhere completely different – I surf, so I did a design for a board wax remover, for example.
And why did you choose iPad accessories as your diploma project?
Blocks is often controlled by the iPad, it is a great product with unparalleled responsiveness, and co-founder Alex has also been developing apps for Apple devices since he was 11. iPad can be used almost anywhere – in offices, transportation, stores. But you often see a minimalist iPad in a tacky holder. So, I had an inner urge to do something about it. At the same time, we were working on digitizing corporate mailrooms, which can run on just such a device.
NTK has a great book, Designed by Apple in California, which breaks down their iconic products down to the smallest nuts and bolts. You can see the detail of the milling in fractions of millimetres, which I found fascinating. The diploma project also had a lot of analysis of the marketing of these big players in it, which also helped me. I was combining activities so I would not burn out. The first rest was after the diploma project.
What is it like to study design at the Faculty of Architecture?
We have some subjects in common – art and architectural history, which I really enjoyed. Not because of designing houses, but in terms of how architects approach problems.
But do not today's schools produce more workers?
The school does not encourage naivety, my studio leader thankfully does, but he must have seen that I was deeply immersed in the problem and shifting every week. Across the year, where there are about thirty of us, we all know each other. Some people run off to graphic design or other fields. But design entrepreneurship has finally taken off nicely in our class.
I just came back from a party at Honza Kulhánek's giant slide, where we meet regularly. Anežka Juhová is a great jewellery designer, Prokop Hartl started the Anýz brand, Klára Janypková the Monotropa brand and Vilém Brýdl has a company for custom interior design.
Who is trying to take your place in the business?
We observe various efforts, but thanks to the commitment of the whole team and the technological lead, we resist. Sometimes people compare us to the boxes of shipping companies, but that is not our competition. They have a different customer and are mainly concerned with savings on the delivery of their shipments.
We provide a multifunctional buddy for buildings and make life more pleasant for the people in them. The design reflects this. In contrast, the boxes of different players scattered around the world do not work with the composition of the boxes, for example. At school, for example, I investigated whether the tried and tested rules of harmony, such as the golden ratio, were used in their design. Unfortunately, I have not discovered any such boxes.
I loved the Marilyn Monroe freckle in your bachelor project. You are talking about the display that is the only one that breaks the unity of the boxes.
And that is exactly what is missing. There is not even a need for companies to adhere to any uniform taste. But they need to try to speak through design and resonate with you. It is a shame that they are otherwise more like billboards.
I am looking for a user benefit, for the box to be a sidekick that frees you from local and temporal dependence on physical things. I do not want to dedicate my life to circulating packages in offices, it is about valuing the time and environment of all of us.
Through your business, you are trying to improve the space we move in every day.
I am also a patriot in that. I walk in my hometown, and when I see a problem area in the public space, I try to address it at City Hall. I enjoy discussing with people who are not consistently involved in design like me and looking for better options.