The Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse is a non-profit runs a variety of human powered boating programs for both kids and adults on the Brooklyn waterfront. We have a free kayaking program that puts nearly 4,000 people on the water. We have over 100 volunteers and in any given week, we might have 25 or 30 people staffing our program.
That presents quite a coordination problem that is only going to get worse as we scale--manually gathering responses, filling holes in our schedule, etc.
We'd like to great a simple tool that attaches to a gmail account that gathers replies by e-mail into a Google Sheet, and updates volunteers on our current staffing status.
Here's what would happen:
1) A note will go out saying "Hey, who wants to volunteer? What times can you come by?" We could either have specific slots that they could pick by number, or they might answer "Thursday, 5pm-7pm."
2) We'd like to gather all of their names, e-mails and phone numbers into a simple calendar page that shows a Gantt-like chart of the volunteers, and when they're staffing the program, and how many are present at any given time.
3) It would be amazingly cool if the chart were available in an image, so if someone got the e-mail on Monday, but ignored it until Wednesday, they'd see how many people have already signed up just by reopening the e-mail.
This would save our volunteer coordinator hours and hours, and undoubtedly be useful for lots of other volunteer coordination efforts. Any hacker interested in helping out over the next couple of weeks?
Back in 2006, when I started working on putting together some community groups for entrepreneurs and tech people, I looked for a better name to reference this collection of people. "Tech community" seemed too much about people soldering things together and writing code. Not only did I want it to include people working on the future of digital media at ABC, but I also had in mind the roll that other types of creative people have in the inspiration of a city. I wanted someone who was experimenting with computer controlled LEDs as an art form to feel part of the community as well--which is why I started referring to it as the "Innovation Community". Anyone who was doing something new and cutting edge should feel connected to each other--whether or not they are building a venture backed startup.
It's even more relevant now that I've started the first venture capital fund in Brooklyn--Brooklyn Bridge Ventures--and invested in four Brooklyn based companies. This outer borough community is fueled by the creativity of an even wider assortment of innovators--and what I find most interesting is where they do what they do. Commercial space is a problem in Brooklyn--there just isn't enough of it in the areas where people are building interesting companies, and the amount of it is shrinking. It's a lot more lucrative to convert a warehouse into a condo building--especially if it's anywhere near the city--but it's those areas where innovators are creating economic opportunity as well, and where they need commercial space to thrive. That's why I thought it fitting to feature some of the key buildings where people are innovating in Brooklyn, or where they soon will be, and helping ensure Brooklyn's future as the preeminent destination for creative entrepreneurship.
Picture: Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
The definitive article about 33 Flatbush--the kind of commercial building you would drive by a million times without thinking twice--was written in the NY Times a few years ago. It depicts the building's owner, Al Attara--a native Brooklynite and a Parsons graduate--as a creative visionary:
"When Al Attara bought a former bank on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn 32 years ago for under $250,000, he envisioned it as a complex in which artists, architects and furniture designers would work side by side and share ownership of the 45,000-square-foot space...A menagerie of creative entrepreneurs occupies the seven-story building, now known as the Metropolitan Exchange, or MEx, including biotechnologists, ecologically minded architects, organic fashion designers and even miniature-cupcake makers. Most came in search of cheap rent — which runs to around $400 per desk per month — and a place to hatch their start-ups. The open floor plans, communal kitchens and Mr. Attara’s philanthropic nature have made for an unusually symbiotic work environment, tenants say."
What makes this building special is that you've got an owner that is sympathetic to the needs of creative entrepreneurs--and one that understands that it doesn't take much more than a roof over your head and to be surrounded by other inspirational people to form a great workspace. I've been there to visit the DIY biolab Genspace and what struck me was how it seemed like everything in the building just seemed like it was always there--like some very thoughtful people took a roomful of junk and said, "Hey, we could create some cool stuff here, learn science, change the world... anyone using these barstools and this old printing press?" It's the kind of place you just don't find in Manhattan, and definitely don't find in Silicon Valley.
10 Jay Street
Name the building in New York City that played host to Run-DMC's last show that also gave birth to three companies that got venture funded in the last year. Give up? Look no further than 10 Jay Street, a building that once held the kind of raves that sound like a Stefan joke on Saturday Night Life--where you might fund "propane fueled games of Simon".
According to its Wikipedia entry, by day, the Lunatarium was an electronics refurbishing company; by night it served as a free rehearsal space for the fire spinners who performed at events. Party-goers took the freight elevator to the ninth floor and watched pyrotechnics in the well-loved loading-dock / “shanty-town” area behind the building. Constructions such as inflatable plastic lounges(photos here and here ), giant see-saws, and art projects involving flame throwers provided entertainment for the 800 to 1500 partygoers that showed up each weekend night.
Nowadays, the building functions as Brooklyn's version of Building 20 at MIT. The seemingly temporary nature of the building has allowed its residents to organically grow--often right through the walls of the building.
At the centure of this quirky building that houses an advertising school, a yoga studio, and video production companies is Studiomates--"a collaborative workspace of designers, illustrators, bloggers, writers, and developers" run by Tina Eisenberg--perhaps better known as Swiss Miss. By curating a community where the filter is ostensibly "creative awesomeness", she has not only built an interesting place to work, but she is powering a significant economic engine that is now being fueled by venture capital dollars. Three companies from the Studiomates community--Sherpaa, Tinybop, and Editorially--received VC dollars in 2012. On a per resident, annualized bases, that's tops for any kind of co-working or incubation space in the city--but, unlike in similar setups, that's not even the goal of the space. Tina simply desires to facilitate a great place for creative people to work--and it's sort of a microcosm of the borough. Creative people want to work here--and they'll do so given simple, flexible setups, and it doesn't matter if the spaces are shiny or new, so long as they can be made into something for innovators to call their own.
When Joshua Rechnitz purchased the Brooklyn Batcave on the Gowanus for a reported $7 million, you might have thought to yourself, "Perhaps it's cheaper than I thought to be Batman." Turns out, it's not that kind of lair. A former MTA power facility, this building has also played host so some of the wildest parties the city has ever seen.
Interior of the Batcave, 2006 (Jake Dobkin / Gothamist)
The new owner isn't going to be putting any tech startups in the building--he's going to make the space more inhabitable for artists and their work. By supporting the borough's creative class, the building will be an important part of an ecosystem where the line between entrepreneurs and artists will undoubtedly be pretty blurry--and that same front end developer working on the next big web startup is likely to also be freelance coding on some kind of interactive transmedia art piece.
55 Washington Street
If you're going to have a real startup community, the pundits say you need a billion dollar exit. Right now, the odds-on favorite to do that first in Brooklyn is Etsy, the global marketplace of individual craftspeople and makers. Etsy is headquartered in 55 Washington Street, which is owned by Two Trees--the real estate concern that pretty much created the DUMBO we know today.
I have a special relationship with Etsy, because I was at Union Square Ventures, the VC firm that backed the company, back in 2006. I got to be part of the first meeting between Fred Wilson and founder Rob Kalin--we took the subway out to Brooklyn to meet with the team of four as they were working out of a Fort Greene apartment. It was the first time I got to visit a Brooklyn startup--and so it's that much more meaningful for me now that I'm getting to invest out of the first Brooklyn-based fund seven years later.
Perhaps Etsy will be known as the Paypal of Brooklyn--as it has already started to throw off startups created by former employees, like Clockwork--the HR software brainchild of Isaac Oates, who built Etsy's payments system.
The Pencil Factory
Kickstarter has been one of the most transformational companies in the creative landscape. Last year, the company crowdfunded more money to artists than the National Endowment for the Arts.
After starting out in Vinegar Hill, the company will be returning to Brooklyn to their new "permanent" location in Greenpoint--an old abandoned pencil factory that they're currently renovating. (Check out how fantastic the vision for this building is...)
Kickstarter's duel role as an interesting startup and a source of capital for the creative community makes it's headquarters in Brooklyn an epicenter of innovation--one that will impact generations to come.
Should VCs publicly denouce companies?
To be honest, I'd love to live in a world where everyone was just upfront and honest with each other--where if you didn't like something or someone, you could just say it, and it wouldn't be a huge tweetstorm. The reality is, we know that there are people out there that don't like us or don't believe in what we do--some of them are justified and some will have to eat crow when we eventually succeed. In the meantime, it's really all just talk, and, personally, I'd rather get the feedback as the recipient of the complaint. I'd rather someone voice what's in their head to me or in public, because they're probably saying it privately and at least I can deal with it when it's in public. Whispers are hard to deal with and eat away at your credibility without you even noticing.
However, two things...
One, we simply don't live in that world. Public criticism isn't ever taken well. Some companies are seemingly fair game to kick in the teeth (Monsanto?), but it's not always clear, and if you say something bad, people will think you are a jerk. Even if you justify it, someone's still going to think you're are a jerk. In fact, someone always thinks that you're a jerk, even if you're not--just more people will think that when you pick on a startup in public.
Two, and more importantly, negative commentary and what we've seem from Keith Rabois and Dennis Crowley isn't a good use of either of their time. Keith is just starting a career as a VC, so he has a unique opportunity to build up a reputation as to what kind of investor he wants to be seen as. In the long run, it probably serves him best right now to be a relationship builder and a listener, and to stay positive.
In the same vein, Dennis has a more than fulltime job as CEO of Foursquare--working on his fundraising, helping direct the product vision, and turning Foursquare into a viable business that will justify whatever the private valuation of the company is. Responding from the hip to criticism on the web probably isn't a good use of his time and doesn't do a lot for the company's PR. I support the company because I like him, like his team, and I still like using the product--but if I was an investor, I would have cringed at his responses. I would say either actively maintain a transparent and public dialogue about the company's vision and strategy, or keep your head down and ignore it. Going halfway, PR strategy by way of reactive public tweets not vetted by anyone on the communications team of the company--that's just at minimum a distraction and at worst, a recipe for disaster.
Either way, it really doesn't seem like minutes spent pushing the company forward. A while back, I posted a thought piece about Foursquare's product direction from the perspective of a user. I thought it might create some interesting dialogue with the folks at the company. There was none. No one at Foursquare responded to it. It got lots of retweets and created a lot of interesting conversation, but the company was silent. Silence isn't a good sign when when an early and active user puts some time into publicly thinking about the product. Then, seeing a response when, in a lesser moment, someone who obviously isn't a user anymore just makes a callous, offhand snipe, makes me feel like their communications are in a bit of disarray. Who should Dennis and Foursquare be talking to most right now? Who needs to hear from them? The driveby "haters" or the early users who are still hanging on hoping for a win? I don't think it does anything for Dennis or the company to react to Keith with equal negativity.
On the other hand, jerk or otherwise, Keith IS one of the most experience startup execs in the country, and he's seen several mutli-billion dollar companies get built. What if the public response to his negativity was, "Hi Keith, as you know, there are always successes and problems in the life of a startup, and we're no different. We clearly have lots of work to still do, and you seem to have some strong opinions on where we are. I'd love to sit down with you to chat about what you would do if you were in our position."
What happens then is that the ball is now in Keith's court to make a choice--be helpful and prove out that he is, in fact, a very experienced guy who can add a lot of value to a startup company, or ignore it or turn down the offer. In the latter case, his criticism would ring hollow because he would just be a complainer unwilling to do anything about the situation. Either way, Dennis would come off as pretty mature and thickskinned and it would be a PR win. Nothing about this episode is a PR win for anyone. At best, maybe Keith could actually be helpful to the company. I'm sure he probably could be, but instead, now they're fighting like two kids in a schoolyard about to break out into a "Yo Mamma's so fat" competition.
Engage the people who love you, listen intently to the people who hate you--and reach out further to the latter category with respect, and an open mind. They might be right, and if they're wrong, it won't matter anyway--but either way you'll win.
And on the other side, just treat people how you would want to be treated--especially if you're already successful and they're going through trying times. Over the last year and a half, in any situation where I'm tempted to respond to something that gets to me, I think about how I can be that much less of an asshole and how I might be able to turn the situation into a positive. It has paid enormous benefits.
When I was 13, they split up my Little League into the "A" Team and the "B" Team. I got put on the "B" Team, mostly because I sucked. I didn't suck as bad as some of the other kids--I tried to swing, wouldn't swing over my head, but I certainly never really hit the ball. The team was terrible--we went 0-14--but I took it upon myself to really work at my hitting, learn how to play other positions, and try my hardest. I succeeded. In fact, not only did I start hitting, but I played well enough to earn a spot on the "A" team over the second season later that summer. I did even better then, leading that team in batting average. I couldn't wait to join the upper level team the next year.
Except, they didn't invite me back. I couldn't have been more disappointed. I worked so hard to improve, showed I could play with the top kids, and yet I still was left off the list.
I know that's how a lot of us feel when tech sites put out "top" lists of "influencers" or "startups to watch". You feel it when you don't get a VIP invite to a party to a startup that you feel like you really helped out.
But lists are bullshit, right?
Except, they're not. We say they are, but the reality is that there's an important social and professional standing that furthers our careers. If I'm gathering "top" tech people together in a room full of 100 people to meet with Jeff Bezos, I've got to cut that list off somewhere--I'm bound by the laws of physics. Instead of running a series of interviews of everyone in the NYC tech community, I'm going to use proxies--media lists, suggestions from others. Being on those lists and getting into certain events has real impact on your opportunity set, and that's not bullshit at all.
It gets worse when you work hard to climb those ladders and wind up on those lists--because then you're keenly aware of other lists that you didn't know about before. You're in a different network of peers and they're getting some invites that you don't. Of course, you get invites that they don't either, but that's not exactly bothersome to you.
And it's frustrating--more frustrating when you're right there on the doorstep. I don't expect to get invited to the White House anytime soon, so that doesn't bother me--but if someone's putting together a group of the top seed investors in New York, I'll be the first one to admit that I'm bummed not to be included.
Why? Who cares? Well, I care, just as anyone does, to be appreciated. It's a natural human instinct to want others to acknowledge your social standing--so, like it or not, I'm part chimp and I want to be on that list. Plus, it's a feedback signal. Maybe I'm not working hard enough--and then the frustration becomes not at the person making the list, but at myself. Did I miss an opportunity to get to know someone that I should have taken? Could I have been more helpful to others so that they, in turn, would suggest that I be included? Where did I make that wrong turn?
In the past, my first instinct would have very well been to pour all of my frustration into a biting blog post that attacks the very nature of list creation, and the bullshit nature of velvet ropes. It would have garnered a lot of crowd support, and that would have made me feel "right".
But what would it have accomplished?
Well, it would have made the person trying their best to do that event or write that article feel pretty bad about it--and probably glad they didn't invite me. Who needs a jerk like that anyway?
But that's pre-executive coaching from Jerry Colonna, pre-yoga, pre-five more years of maturing into being a partner at my own fund. New Me took a breather, thought about it, and came up with five things to do related to "getting in" where you want to be that are more productive than starting a flame war:
1) Just ask.
Every year I run an event at the Shake Shack. I curate both personally and from lots of suggestions from others as to who should be there. Inevitably, someone misses an invite or gets left off the list unintentionally. Like I said, the people who it bothers the most are the people that perceive, accurately so, that they should be there. I've run into a few people that were hurt that they didn't get invitations and, honestly, I had no idea that they didn't. I just assumed they couldn't make it. Running a big list for an event is hard and it's really impossible to make sure you have the right invites going out. A few people asked beforehand, I faceplanted, apologized, and put them right on the list. No big deal. So, before you think there's some big conspiracy theory keeping you out.
However, if there is one, you should know about it. If the real answer is, "Well, people just don't feel like your company is that interesting," that's actually good brand feedback. You need to know that to figure out how to tell your story. If the answer is "People think you're kind of a raving lunatic," that's also good feedback and perhaps something you should work on.
2) Work harder.
Every year, the baseball world votes for who gets into the Hall of Fame. There are some candidates that there is much debate over, and others where there is no debate at all. Why not just strive to be the candidate no one would ever say no to? Who wants to even be a borderline invite? Aim to be the obvious invitation.
3) Tell your story further, wider.
Self promotion when you've got nothing to back it up rings hollow, but if you're doing great work, it's incumbent upon you to make sure your story gets out there and people know what you're up to. Building yourself into a great product alone isn't enough. Marketing is a key component of any product strategy, especially when that product is yourself. Often times, the problem is that everyone in your own circle knows what you're up to, but you're preaching to the choir. Reach out and make sure you're known outside of your little circle.
4) Create your own list.
If you're not happy with not getting an invite to something someone else did, then you should just create the event that you want to participate in, and make it happen.
5) Make the kiddie table the fun table.
Big fancy tables with china and nice wine glasses usually aren't conducive to food throwing--hence they're less fun. If you wind up in a place that isn't exactly the most curated, high level, "influential" place in the world, you're only going to make it worse if you gripe about it. Have an awesome time and make sure everyone else--the aspirationals who you feel like you were three years ago and short have progressed past by now--are also having a fantastic time. Make the environment such a great place to be that the influentials start following you to the places that you go and trying to get invited along, as opposed to vice versa.
Just a couple of quick thoughts on SXSW '13...
Last year, people seemed pretty disappointed, because of where their expectations were. They still wanted to take in the whole conference, but it was just too big to do that, so it felt overwhelming. This year, there seemed to be a dozen little splinter conferences and threads--Edu, Social Good, Startup America, and so people just punted on the idea that you could swallow the whole thing in one bite. Gone are the mass texts, tweets and checkins of "Where is everyone going?" because this year, it's more about who you're with now and where you are at the moment, and making the best of it. In some ways, it's better--people seem less worried about missing something else, and more willing to get to know the person at hand.
In some ways, it's worse. Gone are the days when every single person you met left you with the feeling of "I can't believe I met that person." The conference has scaled and you're statistically more likely to run into a an assistant social media marketing intern from Unilever as you are to run into the team behind that awesome thing that inspired you that you use everyday.
For those that are already well tapped in to their industry, that means that you're more likely to stay close to home in your own circles--and hangout with friends. In a way, it's an analogy for what's gone on in the world of social media over the last year or so. We realized that being superficially connected to everyone isn't as meaningful as having a few close ties to people we genuinely want to get to know--and we tend to know a lot of those people already once we go deep into our passions.
When you've got people more focused on partying with friends, the invite lists don't go as wide, you wind up with more, smaller options, and even a huge party like Foursquare or Mashable seemed a little less #epic. Even a GaryVee secret wine party didn't quite carry the same buzz to it.
In fact, the diffusion of scale seemed to dull a lot of the potential for conference-wide buzz. Without a lot of cross- pollenation, you didn't get the sense that anything could break through and take over the whole conference from an app perspective. People relied on the tools we used last year--Foursquare, Groupme, Twitter, perhaps with a bit more of Instagram mixed in, but nothing really that new.
The keynotes seemed pretty compelling this year--lots of people were talking about Elon Musk and a rare public speaking gig from Swissmiss was a real hit, but the conference failed to help channel folks to the best non-featured panels for them. That is, unless you wanted to spend two hours researching. I felt like people wanted to go see some panels this year, maybe because there were so many new folks, but the user experience behind sorting through them was a disaster. Panelist names weren't even in the mobile app. I might want to go see a 3D printing panel, but it's really going to depend on whether Bre is giving it, or it's Abe Vigoda. SXSW needs to do a much better job of exposing panels--maybe a Twitter/LinkedIn integration where I tell you who I am, you give me a slider on how exposed to new things I want to be, and you recommend a series of panels for me. You tell me who I know that is speaking, who's speaking on the topics I tweet about, and then throw in a few sex hacking panels to broaden my perspective. That would have been something.
As I biked back to my AirBnB last night, I was telling my friend that I had met a potential startup investment, a potential fund investor, and had some awesome meals with cool people. That's enough to get me back--but that doesn't mean that SXSW is the same. It has matured, stabelized, and it seems that it will now forever be something you know what you're getting out of, versus something where seemingly anything could happen that would affect the rest of the world.
That isn't a bad thing. It's just different, so pour one out for SXSW '07 and come back next year.