Category: community

Lessons From MCA

On Friday Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys died of cancer.  He was 47 years old.  In my case, the drag is that this is one of the bands that was just starting out when I was in college.  It is a stark reminder to me that the clock keeps ticking.  I guess were are reminded about that all of the time.

In this case there are a number of things worth recalling about the Beastie Boys when they came on the scene and learning from.

Foremost, the Beastie Boys were completely revolutionary.  A bunch of white guys fusing rock and rap – it almost didn’t make sense.  And yet they connected.  They did something completely original and found an emotional level that has resonated for more than three decades.  A lesson that completely translates into Entrepreneurship – be original, do something that gets to a base need – duh.

Maybe you don’t know this, or maybe you did – for the first couple years, the band couldn’t play a note. It took MCA and the boys a couple albums to acquire those chops.  They relied on producers, studio musicians and samples of other peoples music (which was hugely popular at the time).  As we translate this into Brooklyn Startup speak, I wouldn’t go as far as to say ‘no technology, no problem’, but I do think building a demo or a mobile app can be outsourced for a short time until technical talent is brought in house. Initially, (for some companies) that’s just not the most important part.

Let’s finally touch on talent.  I wouldn’t call them talentless, but come on, “you gotta fight for your right to party”?  And the truth is they weren’t exactly melodic. It sounds like kind of barking into a microphone.  They essentially made something out of nothing.  At first they did it by force of energy and enthusiasm.  They did it by perseverance.  They did it by hustle.  Then they backfilled. But the thing is… they did it.  They took a chance. They had a vision.  If you have a vision – now is the time because the clock keeps ticking.

And finally, the Beastie Boys were (and are) from Brooklyn.  They were proud of it.  They were the epitome of that gritty, tough, smart, working class and creative class that we often brag about today.  They are part of the identity of Brooklyn.  That’s plenty.


Mounting Obligation

If you follow the New York startup scene (and Brooklyn in particular) you probably know the today was a big day.

Mayor Bloomberg announced an academic and private-sector consortium to create the NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress (aka CUSP) in Downtown Brooklyn at the old MTA headquarter building.  Over the next five years, 370 Jay Street will be reconfigured into a research and science campus.  Approximately 150,000 square feet of the space will be designed for classrooms, offices and laboratory space, with an additional 40,000 square feet programmed for the creation of an incubator for businesses spun off by CUSP or CUSP-related research. The remaining building space may be used by NYU for the future expansion of CUSP, other academic uses or for commercial tenants who are seeking to locate near CUSP.

The academic partners of NYU and NYU-Poly are City University of New York, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Toronto, University of Warwick, and Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.  The private industry partners include two Lead Founding Partners – technology giants IBM and Cisco – who each will provide $1 million a year in financial and in-kind support. There are also four Founding Corporate Partners – ConEdison, National Grid, Siemens, Xerox – who will provide $500,000 a year in financial and in-kind support to CUSP, and three Founding Consulting Partners – AECOM, Arup, and IDEO -who will provide up to $150,000 per year of consulting services at cost.

First classes are in a year in a Metrotech leased space.  First classes in the refurbished building are in 2017.  Today’s press conference is here and the press release is here.

You have to admit that this in combination with the announcement of a Cornell Engineering campus on Roosevelt Island (made this past winter) is a serious commitment to engineering, entrepreneurship and technology.  And… it’s not clear that the Mayor is finished working deals with other interested Engineering schools.

Also today the results of a survey done by the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, in partnership with The DUMBO Improvement District announced the results of a survey they took.  They have identified over 500 innovation firms (I have no idea what that means, but I guess that they have some technology or startup type affiliation) in the the Brooklyn Tech Triangle.  They also figured out that of the commercially zoned real estate in DUMBO (the heart of this area) only has 3% vacancy.

This brings us to the mounting obligation in the title.

We, as a tech community, have an obligation for build an ecosystem worthy of the talent that is being home grown.  We have to build great tech companies where these newly created engineers can learn the ropes.  We need to have an entrepreneurial culture that makes the best talent choose to come and stay in NYC. We must be able to match the access to capital, mentors and industry leaders that the best technology centers in the world offer. It is on us to do this.

More importantly the political leaders have created an obligation to provide the environment for startups to thrive.  That means:

  • Infrastructure – high quality access and connectivity to the cloud.
  • Favorable tax treatment
  • Good public transportation
  • Commercial zoning for technology companies
  • etc.

How could the local government make such a large investment in becoming a technology education center and then let that talent go someplace else, because the condition weren’t right to start their company?  The answer has to be –  they can’t.  With the announcements of the last couple months, promises have essentially been made that must be followed through on.  To not do so would be a shame and a waste.

I do think that elected officials know that they have promises to keep.  And I think they intend to do so.  But I also think that we have an obligation to make sure they follow through.

DUMBO Events On Wednesday April, 25th

This coming Wednesday, April 25th there are two Venture events in DUMBO.  I’m psyched to be going to both.

The first is D3 – DUMBO Demo Day Hosted by Digital DUMBO & NYU-Poly, Sponsored by Turnstone.  As you can see from the extra long group of hosts and sponsors, the first one of these events was a hit and more affiliates are getting involved.  This event starts at 6:15pm and goes to about 8:30pm.

The companies presenting are:

I think the best part, besides the company presentations, is the networking that goes on afterwards. Unfortunately for me I have to duck out early to get to the second event.

The second is DUMBO Startup Lab Open House Event.  The reason why I’m so concerned about arriving on time is because I’m the guest speaker.  In case you don’t know what DUMBO Startup Lab is, it’s a new co-working space , but with a bunch of programing to help entrepreneurs get their hands around what it takes to build a startup.  In think the aspiration is to be Brooklyn’s version of General Assembly.  This event starts at 8pm and goes until it’s finished.  You can get a free ticket to this event here.

However, in case you can’t make it, I’ve decided to preview my short DSL talk on this blog post.  So here goes:

1) Why NYC is a great place for startups
From my perspective, the inputs required for building an innovation center that fosters startups are the following:

  • Intellectual Capital – a source of creativity, a source of academia, a source of ideas
  • Technological input – access to engineers, data scientists, business development skills
  • Financial Capital – Angels and Venture Capitalists willing to put money to work on good ideas (also continuous flow of funds into the the community on infrastructure)
  • A base of industries/customers that can provide revenue and mentoring to startups
  • An ecosystem of successful companies to support new entrants and be a big brother to newcomers.

I think it is easy to see that New York has all of these inputs in spades.  I’ll spend part of my discussion going over who and what those are.

2) Why Brooklyn is a good area for tech concentration
From my perspective Brooklyn has the right personality to be a tech hub.  Brooklyn is cool and unpretentious.  Brooklyn is cheaper to live in.  Brooklyn is for people who think things out.  Manhattan is for MBAs in suits.  Brooklyn is for smart engineers who realize that what you are wearing doesn’t impact what you are capable of creating.  Brooklyn is chalked full of creative people which are the driving force of innovation.  Brooklyn is younger and has more energy.  Brooklyn has access.  Brooklyn has space.

Honestly you don’t need to be told why Brooklyn is the right place, because intuitively you know. I know I do.

3) What I think we need to do to foster the environment
Lately I’ve been telling this to anyone who would listen.  I think we could benefit from the following:

  • Some centralized resources (ex.  job board, a blog roll of startups in DUMBO, a community calendar).  I’d put this all in the same place.  I’d let everyone contribute to it in a controlled fashion.  I publicize the heck out of it.  I think that if you want to attract people here, then they have to know that there is a ‘here’ here.  People from Philly and Boston and Austin, kinda have a sense that Brooklyn is a cool place to go to start a company, but they don’t know how to get plugged in.  In general there should be a resource to help them.
  • A political effort of some type.  Guys like our Mayor, Mike Bloomberg (and Rachel Sterne in his office) and our Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, etc they want a thriving tech community.  They want to build a perpetual startup ecosystem.  Someone has to let them know what we need.  We need space zoned and tax configured for technology companies.  We need cutting edge, high-speed, fat pipes with no down time into these buildings so startups can access Amazon’s or Joyent’s or Rackable’s or whoever’s cloud.  We need good take-out.  We need good public transportation in.  If we want people to come we need to work with our elected officials to lower the barriers to entry.
  • More homegrown sources of capital.  Yes, Manhattan VCs invest here.  There’s even a Brooklyn VC.  But I think we need to show greater commitment.  We need to ‘eat our own dog food’.  Brooklyn should have it’s own source of capital for investment is startups.  Whether it’s a founders fund, or a city fund, or a privately run Brooklyn focused fund – there needs to be more than there is.  Capital is an important input.  I think we could use more.

4) Specifically what I like to invest in and what I look for
This is going to be a little plug for me and RTP Ventures. I’ll spare you the details for now, but I’d really like to see is some deeper tech.  I’m super psyched about the first day trading results and valuation of Splunk.  Maybe the only thing better was if Splunk was in Brooklyn.  I’ll get into it more on Wednesday.

Hope to see you there.

D3 (DUMBO Demo Day)

I went to my first Demo Day in Brooklyn. It was a source of pride for me. It was sponsored by NYU-Poly Incubator (who else).

What I liked about it was probably what others in the audience liked. It had a less formal feel to it. These companies weren’t pitching to raise money. They were pitching to let people know what they are creating, and that they are hiring, and that anybody that wanted to be involved should get involved.

The companies that pitched were all Brooklyn companies (nice right?). They included:

Knodes – a social data analysis company. The CEO, Ron Williams, killed it as he laid out the company’s plans to build an infrastructure of users and developers around what the company is doing. As an ‘analytics guy’ I can see plenty to business models and I can’t wait to see which one is optimum.

Docracy – a crowd sourced document availability and management company. I first saw the co-founders John and Matt at Techcrunch Disrupt last summer when they were still fleshing out the idea and getting ready to take the leap away from project based work. It was nice to see the progress made as well as the roadmap for new services.

HowAboutWe – a venture backed dating and relationship site. The management presenters were just the right amount of quirky as they talked about the sign up process and challenges of national expansion.

I did miss one presentation, as I had to leave early.

All these three have successfully raised funds – Knodes has support from Quotidian Ventures, Docracy also has support from Quotidian Ventures as well as RRE and HowAboutWe has raised two sizable rounds from RRE and Khosla Ventures.

I though all the companies did a good job. The venture capitalist in me wanted to hear more about the business model and the challenges and opportunities for growth. But, at least so far, that is not the Brookyn way.  These guys seem to know that if they make something cool they will be able to take it to market.  And I’m sure I’ll get to ask my questions at some point.

I’m already looking forward to the next one!

Work To Do

Before I begin, let me tell you that I just read back through this post and realized that there are a bunch of anonymous companies, people, etc.  The reason is I don’t want to out anyone or make anyone uncomfortable.  I just want to point out where there are opportunities for the community to improve.

So as one with a vested interest in the community I try to come into contact with as many entrepreneurs in the Brooklyn area as I can.  It’s always interesting to hear about their businesses.  I try to ask what they like and dislike about Brooklyn and what could help out their situation.  More often than not I am told how great the environment is and how most employees prefer it to Manhattan because they live in Brooklyn anyway.

This week I heard a couple anecdotes that let me know that things are not all beer and skittles particularly here in DUMBO.

No Damn Space – I was talking to a CEO of a company that recently moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  I figured the story would be that this company had graduated to the ‘big leagues’ and wanted the prestige of a Manhattan address.  Couldn’t have been further from the truth.  He told me that as his company had grown he needed more space.  He was looking around for nearly six months and couldn’t find a good deal.  He felt forced into Manhattan.  And this particular entrepreneur is plugged in.  He knows many of community leaders and landlords.  He suggested that not only was there not enough space zoned for commercial, but there was also some brinksmanship around which properties in the neighborhood would be developed and when.

I’ve heard conflicting stories about the amount of space that is currently available for startups and what is planned to be zoned for commercial and when.  What I do know is that this is not the first time that I have heard this issue come up so there is either some truth to it or some confusion that needs to be clarified.  What I’m going to do is try to figure what is available and post something about it.

Plugged In – The other morning I had breakfast with the CEO of a startup who’s company is just ready to lift off.  He’s got a great product, good technology and many happy customers that are of decent size.  Plus, he is just closing his seed round to expand his business.  This is exactly the type of entrepreneur that Brooklyn could use.  I have no doubt that this company is going to be a job creator over the next couple years.  When I asked when he was moving in he was hesitant.  I knew he had been looking at a couple options here.  What he told me was that he was drawn to Brooklyn because of the reputation for being a tech hotspot, but he wasn’t sure because he couldn’t figure out how to plug into the community easily.  Without that, there wasn’t as much value.  In truth, the only thing I could offer him was to introduce him around.  I heard this same issue raised the other night at the Brooklyn Bridge Ventures event Making Brooklyn: A Community Roundtable on Brooklyn as an Innovation Center and the point is a good one: the community as a whole could benefit from making it easier for new companies to plug in.

Let The Right Ones In – I was reading this guys blog the other day and it reminded me of a similar story from a Brooklyn networking event over the holidays.  Let me start by saying if you are interested in the startup community you probably have heard of Frank Denbow.  He curates The Startup Digest.  He is a regular at General Assembly.  This is his twitter. He’s awesome, not to mention a good person to have involved in your startup community.  I had the privilege of meeting him for office hours a couple weeks ago.  I told him about my blog and what I was hoping accomplish.  He said, “yeah I came out for a Brooklyn event last night.  I was waiting in this crazy long line. When I got to the front they wouldn’t let me in.  I ended up just leaving.”

This is a tragedy and a blunder.  This is the equivalent of not letting Pete Rose into a baseball memorabilia convention.  He’s the guy you want to be there.  He’s the guy that can help move things forward.  I’m not saying that anyone who throws an event has to do it in any particular way, especially one so successful that people can’t get in (that’s a nice problem to have).  I’m just saying, let’s not leave any money on the table.  If people want to be involved let them.

Self-reflection is always valuable.  Even more so when it is acted on.  I’m going to do what I can.

Steps On The Path To Community defines community as a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.

I’m particularly excited to write this post because the group I’m interested in fostering, those focused on developing Brooklyn Startups, took what I think are some great steps on path toward community.

Charlie O’Donnell of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures sponsored a gathering of entrepreneurs, community leaders, city government folks, techies, creatives and a host of other people for a discussion entitled Making Brooklyn: A Community Roundtable on Brooklyn as an Innovation Center. The number of people in attendance spoke volumes about the passion of those involved.

To me the key steps were 1) being able to look around the room and see who makes up the community and 2) being able to have a valuable exchange about the goals and the path forward.

What I heard were ideas about protecting the creative class, building cool technology, taking pride in Brooklyn as a brand and defining the inputs for success. Anyone making notes would surely have realized that the discussion for building the Brooklyn into an innovation center was advanced.

What I also heard was a willingness to continue to foster community.  That means more meetups, more communication, more help from community leaders in making certain Brooklyn neighborhoods startup friendly.  Issues from transportation and real estate to good infrastructure and good takeout where on the table.

How could one not come away from this distinct confirmation of common culture with a sense of excitement and optimism.

From my perspective, the inputs required for building an innovation center that fosters startups are the following:

  • Intellectual Capital – a source of creativity, a source of academia, a source of ideas
  • Technological input – access to engineers, data scientists, business development skills
  • Financial Capital – Angels and Venture Capitalists willing to put money to work on good ideas (also continuous flow of funds into the the community on infrastructure)
  • A base of industries/customers that can provide revenue and mentoring to startups
  • An ecosystem of successful companies to support new entrants and be a big brother to newcomers.

There is a lot that can be done to make the lives of entrepreneurs easier.  And to the extent that the community continues to do these types of things it will enable the competitive advantages that Brooklyn already has to really shine.

I can’t wait until the next discussion.  Thank you Charlie!

Talent Shortage

The tech industry in DUMBO (Brooklyn) is growing fast.  But it could be growing faster.  Like a lot of places in the country seeking technology talent – the right skill sets are scare. US schools are not turning out enough engineers or programers.

A push by city officials to bring talent to NY is well documented.

  • Cornell University and Technion- Israel Institute of Technology won a New York City contest to build an engineering campus with a grant of land on Roosevelt Island and $100 million for infrastructure improvements.
  • NYU-Poly is working with New York City to get access to the MTA Headquarters on 130 Livingston Street here in Brooklyn to expand it’s engineering school.
  • The city has even organized an academy (high school) for software engineering.

Of course this won’t help solve the scarcity issue for years.  And by the time it has an impact, the problem is likely to be way bigger.

Computer software engineer employment is projected to grow by a whopping 32 percent between 2008 and 2018, representing much faster job growth than most other occupations in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For instance take my tech sector of choice – Big Data.  McKinsey Global Institute projects that the U.S. needs 140,000 to 190,000 more workers with “deep analytical” expertise and 1.5 million  more data-literate managers by 2015.  And that’s just a single data point.

But back to right here, right now.  The Business Improvement District in DUMBO says there are now 17 tech company’s trying to fill some 329 Web, app and gaming tech-related jobs.

Take Huge for example.  Their Washington Street headquarters has grown from eight employees 6 years ago to 350 today.  They currently have 50 open jobs. Or Wireless Generation, and educational-software company and one of DUMBO’s largest employers – who claim to have 150 openings.  DUMBO’s flagship company Etsy has 50 openings.

These businesses are just a few of the more than 65 startups operating in the five-block hub of digital office space in DUMBO.  Publicly acknowledged or not I would wager most of the rest are hiring as well – if they can find talented people.

To attract talent, companies are adding unique benefits to really good salaries.  Certainly they are allowing flexible hours and working remote.  I would argue that Brooklyn specifically and New York in general are good selling points in their own right.

My question to the blogosphere is “what does it take, these days, to get the right person?”  Please leave a comment.

DUMBO Tech Breakfast

For several months now I have been randomly attending the DUMBO Tech Breakfast. The great thing about it is I meet new people every time I go.  And they are great.

Some people work in DUMBO, some take the F train in from the city just to have breakfast.  Some are entrepreneurs, some are what I affectionately call the ‘hacker class’.  These guys and girls are coders working on everything from UIs to mobile apps to backed-end systems.  They have skill with JavaScript, Python and  Ruby on Rails – you name it.  Some know how to use Hadoop and MapReduce which kind of blows my mind.

The conversation is different every time as well.  I’ve found myself talking about how to find a technical founder, the best way to structure a convertible note for angel investors, and which are the best shared office spaces in Brooklyn.  You get the low down.

The sappy point I’m making is it’s community.  It’s  chance to get to know who is here, what they are doing, what they need.

This group that shows up every other Friday has grown quite nicely.  It’s gone from being able to stick a bunch of tables together to pretty much taking over the entire restaurant.  You can chose where you sit and everybody pays for herself.

If you are in the startup community I hope to see you on the 24th.

Founders Card

By now most founders seem to know about this.  In case you don’t, this card (FoundersCard) seems like it makes good sense to me.  FoundersCard is a membership organization for entrepreneurs and innovators. Launched in January 2010 by Eric Kuhn, FoundersCard provides access to members-only networking events as well as access to travel, lifestyle, and business benefits. Membership, which offers opportunities for both personal and business use, provides Members access to more than 150 exclusive travel, lifestyle, and business brands such as American Airlines, W Hotels, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and Rackspace.  In addition, FoundersCard features a collection of opportunities with select emerging companies, generally founded/created by a FoundersCard Member.

BTW – you can use code FCLAW377 for 40% off the annual fees.