Noise in the data: Why the NYC government will struggle to be an innovation catalyst (and why it probably doesn’t matter)

Last week I testified on entrepreneurship, for the third year in a row, in front of the NYC Council Technology Committee.  For my testimony, I responded to what some others had said during their testimony and basically said some of this and I’ll add more:

New York City is a *thriving* innovation community right now.  It is unquestionably the best place to build a web technology or digital media company on the east coast.  There are more and more experienced entrepreneurs launching their second and third companies, coming back as angel investors, and mentoring young startups.  Everyday and every night there are opportunities to network, collaborate, and learn from other startups—not just to party but to build lasting connections that drive real business value.  There is also more venture capital activity than their ever has been—and the amount of venture funding this year, in terms of companies funded, will wind up being nearly half that of the Valley.  That is, relatively, the best we have ever been.  Given the size of our startup community, utterly amazing.  In addition, Boston VCs are flocking to NYC in a big way (Polaris hiring Steinberg, Flybridge hiring Westheimer, Beim moving to NYC in March, etc).  There is a growing and tightly knit community—one that is, unlike the Valley, open and encouraging.  No one will ever look down on you for not having worked at Facebook, Google, or PayPal, and if you get venture funding, we don’t raise an eyebrow if it’s not from the right VC. 

What’s even more amazing is that we’ve gotten here largely in the absence of any kind of top-down, institutional support.  There’s no school here pumping out startup professionals en masse (ITP is relatively small).  There’s no city program we all came out of.  We built this ourselves, as a community, organically. 

After testifying, I then tried to put myself in the shoes of the average council member and digest what I heard from others, and what I would think of the NYC tech community if this was my vantage point.  Most of what people talked about was money and desks.  That’s when I realized that the city is getting *horriffically* bad data on what’s really going on with the NYC tech community and what it needs.  By failing to participate in this innovation community, the city and its affiliated entities lack firsthand knowledge of what’s going on, and instead depend on the often random, misguided hearsay of those who aren’t really in the trenches of the Big Apple’s recent success. 

Here’s an example.  Baruch College measured that the average city has about 19% of its population that identify as entrepreneurs.  NYC is down at 15%, so they conclude that we’re 4% behind.* 

This makes no sense whatsoever.  There’s no “steady state” for entrepreneurship—no systematic reason why that number is anything other than randomness—and it doesn’t apply here.  Every city is a unique mix of people and jobs, mostly due to underlying demographics, geography, and maybe even culture.  Is Kansas short on investment bankers because they don’t have 3% like the rest of the country?  Is NYC overweight people in the tourism and hospitality industry?  Guaranteed we have more people in that sector than other cities—simply because we take on more visitors.

Misguided statistical analysis without real world, in person feedback is why folks from the city keep asking “Why are we so behind other cities?”

The feedback they most often get is that we lack startup capital.  Probably 9 out of 10 entrepreneurs in this city say that access to capital is a problem.  Funny enough, 9 out of 10 startups don’t get outside financing at all—and that’s across the board.  Why?  Because most startups just aren’t based on great, well thought-out ideas.  In fact, many entrepreneurs that start out who fail to get access to funding are often forced to iterate on their models—usually revamping the entire idea.  Many folks would agree that their first iterations would not have worked out as equity investments and that they were better off going to market to try and generate revenues when they couldn’t get financing. 

Other startup ideas simply don’t have capable founders.  It’s not that they aren’t dedicated, but they may not have the right skillset or experience to lead a company. 

Think about it this way:  Would you put your own personal savings into any more than 1 out of 10 of all the ideas you’ve ever heard people come up with in your life?   I certainly wouldn’t—and I definitely don’t want the city moving that ratio up significantly either. 

Outside equity capital simply isn’t appropriate for most startups—sometimes because of their model, sometimes because of their expected size, and other times because of the lifestyle priorities of the entrepreneur.  If you don’t have the intention or capability of building at least a $50 million business, then equity capital is probably not for you.

I’ve said before we could use more smart, dedicated capital—and we’re getting that with the addition of a First Round Capital office in NYC.  No doubt other venture funds will follow.  The last thing we want to do is to compete with the city’s capital, raising the price of deals and distracting the market. 

So, if you work for the city, beware any entrepreneur who tells you they can’t raise money in NYC and that funding is a problem.  For every 9 of those people, there’s one who had no problem raising money from experienced investors because they had a big vision, exemplary skills, and a great execution plan—if not a great product already.  Many raise money from relatively unsophisticated investors—because NYC is full of money and it’s really not that hard to find someone with an extra few grand to put to work in what might sound like a promising idea to be the next big thing.

There’s another real downside to an increased percentage of startups getting funded.  There is, in fact, a limited supply of good talent—not just in NYC, but everywhere.  Great people are hard to come by in life, simple as that.  It’s hard here, it’s hard in the Valley and it’s hard in Boise, Idaho.  When ideas get funded that otherwise wouldn’t, those lower potential companies pull talent out of the market and get them working on less promising ideas—ideas less promising than those that already have customer and financing traction.  When less savvy money funds a company, you effectively raise the price of talent and distribute it inefficiently. 

But, if you’re sitting on the New York City Council, how would you know?  All you hear in these testimonies is how hard it is to raise money.  It’s the same with office space and how expensive it is.  Meanwhile, I spent the day last Tuesday going around to Sunshine Suites and TechSpace and found huge communities of growing companies—probably over 2500 people working at startups in total across these places.  We’ll be visting them during the First Round Startup Trek on January 5th.  They’re loving life there and I don’t hear a single complaint that the rent is too high.  I mean, sure, if asked, would I love my rent to be lower?  Of course.  Do I still live here?  Yes.  The fact is, if you have the revenues or the investment capital to pay someone, you undoubtedly have the extra cash to put them in a desk somewhere.  People costs are always much higher than rent in a tech business. 

The problem is that when all these folks come to testify, you have policymakers that use these hearings as their sole source of information.  They have no way to vet the perspective of any of these entrepreneurs either.  I had a guy after me testify from the NY Tech Council.  Sounds pretty impressive, only…  who appointed them New York’s tech council?  Who do they represent?  Anyone can ask a law firm or a big company for a few sponsorship bucks these days, slap a few logos on your site, and make it seem like you speak for a mass audience.  Most of the work in the community these days is being done by people who aren’t asking for money, titles or any kind of recognition.  Not surprisingly, this person’s testimony about how NYC has failed to build an innovation community couldn’t have been further off the mark.  I wondered where he had been for the last five years and nearly fell out of my chair when he said it.

People from the city government and its related entities don’t know that because they simply DO NOT PARTICIPATE in the innovation community.  We’ve been inviting city council members to the NY Tech Meetup for years, same with nextNY.  At the hearing, they asked the NYCEDC who helps entrepreneurs with business and tech questions and got little in the wake of answers.  Meanwhile, Nate and I are smacking our heads in the crowd because we know where those questions are going—to us and the other visible entrepreneurs in the community.  The answers are on Twitter, and blogs, and listservs and events.   

As one attendee to the City Council’s talk put it, listening to all this random testimony—and also to other governmental orgs who couldn’t quite get all the data that was asked for or wasn’t at liberty to share—was like seeing through a cheesecloth.  I wondered if I was living in the same city as everyone else was.  Companies talked of the lack of places to ask about healthcare, compensation, technology issues… apparently they’ve never been on the nextNY listserv before. 

Here’s a sample of just a few recent questions asked about startups on the nextNY listserv:

Pre-Alpha Release Best Practices?

Best Bank for Startup Checking, Finances, etc?

S corp or LLC

Need Web dev shop experienced with Spanish mirror sites

 

So before the city goes and commits millions of dollars to reinventing the wheel for the startup community, maybe they would be better served pointing to all of the existing resources out there that some of the newbie entrepreneurs they talk to just can’t be bothered to find.

Over the next few years, the city is planning on running events, opening incubators, connecting professionals, and injecting more capital into the system just as the community and private enterprise is doing the exact same thing—and they’re doing so without the basic relationships, experience, and context to do this successfully.  For once, I’d like to see the city support the proven, existing efforts, rather than recreate the wheel:

>> They should give tax breaks and subsidies to Sunshine Suites and TechSpace rather than get into the real estate market themselves. 

>> They should be getting venues and focusing their PR efforts for nextNY and NY Tech Meetup events, rather than competing against us for the mindshare of the community. 

>> They should encourage public participation of key stakeholders in social media (and lead by example), getting local academics on blogs and Twitter, before spending money to build a big research database no one will ever use.

But they won’t do that, because they need to own everything and get credit for it come election time.  One of the city council folks wanted to hear about the next incubator to enter her district—and she didn’t care about the new one opening in Queens.  One NYCEDC rep told me that it was “off topic” when I brought up the EDC’s lack of participation in existing community activities during a small group breakout about their planned slate of events.  That’s so far from the norms of the great NYC innovation community already being built that it will prevent the city from gaining much traction in their efforts. 

In the end, does it really matter?  Regardless of the city’s activities, the startup community will continue to grow.  Dominos are falling and it’s doubtful that anyone can stop the chain reaction now.  Can they help?  Maybe the city can help existing efforts as it does seem to be good at getting PR for itself—but if all it does is listen without participating, reinventing wheels, and duplicating community and private sector efforts, I’m not particularly bullish on what it’s up to.

 

 

*I had mistakenly attributed this stat to the Center for Urban Future prior.”