Category: brooklyn

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.

Laundry List

Now that I’ve been thinking about the Brooklyn Startup Scene for a while this is the list of what I’m going to try to do help push things forward:

1) I’m going to create a pitch deck about the New York startup environment highlighting its strategic advantages and strengths, opportunities as well as what still needs work.  Actually I’ve been working on this for a while (just slowly).  I’m going to post this pitch online and allow anyone to use it or modify it for their own purposes.  I think some perspective, some statistics and a little framework can be help in understanding why this environment is thriving right now.

One thing the pitch probably will not describe right now is how things feel.  I read a blog post the other day from an entrepreneur moving his startup back from SF.  He said the New York scene “feels like a movement”.  It’s one of those times when you can feel something happening and you just want to be a part of it.  I agree with that sentiment.  I hope that this is one of those special times that people will look back on and think ‘wow – that was a pivotal’.

2) I’m going to work to centralize some of the resources that are available.  I’ve recently heard from entrepreneurs that they didn’t know where to look to find office space or startup jobs in Brooklyn or where to go and what to read to get plugged in.  There are a lot of resources out there.  There are a lot of great companies that write interesting blogs.  There are a lot of great VCs that cater to startups at this level.  At the very least I’m going to create a couple lists of links on that can serve as a resource for people who are just getting their feet on the ground. Hopefully I can evolve this blog into a more centralized site that covers this type of stuff in more detail.  My revolutions are currently limited in that respect.

3) I’m going to try to figure out a way for the community to invest in itself.  What I’m thinking of is something like a Founders Fund.  Those that have been successful here, or those that are passionate (hate that word) about the Brooklyn Startup Community to  invest back into companies that startup in Brooklyn.  I’m thinking about seed stage investments and some mentoring and introductions to give some companies a boost.  A way to let these entrepreneurs know that the community is invested (no pun) in their success.  I haven’t fully figured this one out yet so I’ll let you know as I incubate this idea.

The three legged stool is: great entrepreneurs, great talent and capital.  If we can elevate the levels of these in the community we can continue to foster development.

Don’t get me wrong.  This kind of ground work is currently being laid in Brooklyn by a number of folks.  I want to contribute to it.  And while I’m on the subject, I would like you to contribute as well.  If you want to get involved, please reach out.  The reason for the ‘Laundry List’ is to start a dialog for those who can contribute.  Thank you.

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.

Digital Community

There has been a bunch of discussion about the differences between East coast and West coast tech.  One of the things that West coast transplants often talk about is how welcomed they were into the community when they arrived.  I’m not bashing the community on the West coast, but what I have experienced here, is a particularly welcoming demeanor at Tech Meetups or startup events.  Conversely it feels a little competitive at similar events in the West.

The people you meet in this community want to provide introductions to their contemporaries.  They want to welcome you in as a productive resource.  They want to know what you are working on.  Entrepreneurs want to lift up other startup entrepreneurs so that they are successful.  There is a feeling that everyone is in this together. It’s electric.

To me, one of the keys to building a vibrant environment is there needs to be a place that people want to work, a problem people want to solve, and a community of people that want to help others be successful.

Sometimes that means skill sharing and best practices.  Sometimes job referrals.  Sometimes that is spending social time together.

Last night I went to the 3rd Anniversary of Digital Dumbo.  Significant is the fact that this has been done two other times before.  It means that this has been a community almost since it was able to be.  Literally, there weren’t enough tech people here to have a community prior.  I was proud that I was able to walk down the street to an event like this in my neighborhood.


There were multiple hundreds of people in attendance.  There were business development folks, hackers, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists.  In short an ecosystem.  I met tons of new folks.  I saw a bunch of people I know.  The folks at Creative Carrot, have been the driving force behind this community and Digital Dumbo.  They also happened to be the sponsor for the evening (although they are able spread the bar tab around to different sponsor at different events).

My view is that this is only the beginning in nurturing a community.  I really think that we ought to be talking about and developing and action plan regarding:

  • what we need to be successful as group and as a company
  • what our shortcomings are and how we can overcome them
  • what our strategic advantages are and how we can exploit them
  • what we can do to help each other

I want this blog to be a good place to do that. Please leave a comment.