These days, it's kind of hard to miss what's going on in the NYC startup community. Every night, hundreds of people pack all the various meetups, there are hackathons and startup weekends, and it seems there's a new venture funding announcement everyday.
It wasn't always like that, though. The NY Tech Meetup, for example, used to meet in the back conference room of Meetup's NYC offices. There were 30 of us the first time I went back in 2005.
It didn't much matter because there wasn't much to go to besides the NY Tech Meetup anyway.
Meetup.com had no listserv at the time either--so if you weren't meeting people in person, you weren't connecting outside of just a handful of bloggers. Twitter hadn't been invented yet and there were no co-working spaces to run into anyone at--real ones like General Assembly and WeWork, or hacked ones like The Ace Hotel.
That's why the early efforts to build NYC's community were so impactful, even if the people who are just joining the ecosystem today don't realize what came before.
Two key efforts really set the tone for the community we have today. First, the fact the Meetup.com was a NYC company and that the founder, Scott Heiferman worked with Dawn Barber to create the NY Tech Meetup was really significant. That made it more than just some random meetup--it was *the* meetup. It was *the* NYC tech event right down to the ones and zeros that ran it--held first in the offices of a real live NYC startup. On top of that, Scott and Dawn were some of the few important connections to the late 90's startup scene there that remained. Most of the community had picked up their marbles and went home to other industries, but seeing Scott and Dawn signaled that you could build your career in technology in NYC, even through tough times. I don't think we'd have the same meetup culture here had anyone else kicked things off.
Not long after I got involved in the meetup, I met Tony Bacigalupo. If you're sitting in a co-working space in NYC right now, you can pretty much thank Tony for bringing co-working here. Sure, there were places to buy a desk, but taking the idea that spaces could be more than just desks mainstream, that's what Tony imported here through his connections to the founders of SF's Citizen Space and other co-working efforts elsewhere. He setup New Work City in whatever tiny little closet would have him, got pulled in every which direction by city government's initial attempts to "help" and finally bootstrapped his way to a real space. Nowadays, you can get city grants and even venture funding for such entrepreneurial spaces, but I don't think it would have happened without Tony breaking his pick.
It's interesting to see how the community has matured and how some of these original pieces fit today. General Assembly has taken the physical space concept to another level--one that might have sounded crazy two years ago and now is a huge cog in the NYC innovation machine. Way more people go to the hundreds of other startup and tech meetups collectively than the monthly NY Tech Meetup--even though it's still the biggest single non-conference event. It serves as more of a water cooler now than necessarily the place you're going to see something first or find the most specifically relevant thing to what you're doing in your job now. You catch up with friends and have something communal to talk about. It's a celebration just as much as it is any kind of demo night.
And New Work City thrives in its own way--not the biggest space or the shiniest, but it keeps on like a classic ballpark. You'd never trade its exposed brick for whatever the co-working equivalent of a luxury box would be--so while it gets the occasional A/V upgrade, it remains an important physical connection to more bootstrappy times.
Finding roles for these early community efforts is important--and it's something I've struggled with regarding nextNY. nextNY was a community I launched in February of 2006--starting with a kickoff event at Antarctica. It was, for a long time, the way you met your peer group both online and offline as an up and comer in the NYC tech scene. We kludged together a Google group listserv, gathering over 3,000 members with monthly events--from Startup 101 to a "Going to the Mattresses" event in the fall of 2008 to talk about how to survive in the startup nuclear winter.
I couldn't possibly run all of the events, though... and there was a decision made that really opened things up for the community but left nextNY itself a little bit cast aside--but in good way like a butterfly cocoon or something. I tried to encourage as many people as possible to run their own events--on whatever topics of interest they cared about. I didn't care whether or not they took place within nextNY or not--I just wanted to see a community of as many people sharing knowledge as possible. In fact, not only did I not care about whether or not they took place within nextNY or not--since nextNY was never a business or anything more than a gathering mechanism--I never built the infrastructure for that to happen. So, when young VCs wanted to get together, they launched NYCVC. When I was approached about connection up vertical communities around innovation in fashion and art, I pushed them to get started. After a while, for nearly any niche you wanted to connect up with people about, there was someone who started off in nextNY creating a meetup.
That begged the question--if the NY Tech Meetup was the water cooler at scale, and then you had all of the individual specialized meetups thriving, what was nextNY?
It kind of drifted, but I never thought of that as a failure. It launched so much community activity, both directly and indirectly that it was easy to just let it go and say "It served its purpose."
Recently, though, I had been thinking that perhaps the community has come full circle and that maybe there is, in fact, a role for nextNY. I've been working with Laura Temel on a relaunch. We figured out that the original purpose of nextNY was to get you started in the tech community because there was hardly a community to get started in. It bootstrapped the activity while introducing you to it at the same time. It was never built to be a layer on top of such a thriving ecosystem. Nowadays, the issue isn't lack of community--it's how the heck are you supposed to jump into the fray? Where's the door? Where do you start? That's the question we're hoping a new nextNY can answer.
Laura has done a lot of work to wireframe up a new site and help think about community structures and we think we have something great. We're looking for someone to help rebuild the site. Maybe it stays on PBwiki, maybe it goes to Wordpress or Drupal. We're not sure... but anyone who is an expert in CMS's and community sites would be of great help to help take this idea to the next level and make it last. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org