Announcing nextNY Fellows: An Innovation Community Leadership Initiative

Five years ago, I started nextNY with the idea that it would be participant driven--that the community would take an active role in managing itself. I think that we've done a decent job with that, and we have a number of examples of individuals who have used it as a leadership platform, but it isn't as much of a leader factory as I had hoped. With that in mind, I tried to come up with a structure and set of incentives to make it easier for new up and coming faces in the crowd to step up and make a name for themselves by making a positive impact on the innovation community.

I am excited to announce nextNY Fellows--a program that will support four new community leaders in 2011 build on what we already have and make it better, all while building their own skills and network.

The details of this program are below. EnergyHub, an innovative Brooklyn startup in the cleantech space, has already signed up as a sponsor, and we're looking for three more.

Here's what they will get:

- A $500 stipend for 2011 to be used on leadership development. This can include classes, training, books, conferences, Meetups., etc.

- Monthly small group lunches with leaders in the innovation community--like venture capital firms and successful entrepreneurs.

- An opportunity for visibility--press & PR, community awareness, networking connections.

Their responsibilities:

- Maintain a digital presence (Twitter, blogging) that represents the NYC innovation community in a positive, professional manner--highlighting
events, people, projects and stories of interest.

- Run two nextNY events (e.g. community conversation roundtables, meetups, conversations, networking events) on any specific topic of interest.

- Adopt a nextNY "structural value" project (e.g. fix our blog, improve leadership/job opportunity listings, launch calendar, etc)

- Encourage active participation on our listserv.

Part of the thinking behind this program is that I've seen a lot of instances where Meetup co-organizers don't work. They wind up doing lowest common denominator work, and only when they're asked. They don't take initiative, because that seems to get left in the hands of the organizer. Perhaps instead of thinking that we're asking too much of them, I thought perhaps we're asking too little, and giving them even less in return. Sometimes half of something isn't anything.

Applications are Due on Thursday, January 20th at 11:59PM.

Apply here:

250 Developers

Back in the 60’s, JFK make a bold proclimation that we were going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  The details of exactly how this was going to happen were a bit sketchy, but having a big hairy audacious goal galvanized the innovation community into achieving something spectacular. 

In today’s world, one of the bottlenecks we have to innovation is the lack of software development talent.  This is particularly acute in New York City, where you have several industries undergoing serious disruption, a critical mass of creativity from the cross pollination of ideas, and lots of capital.  It’s not so much that we have a shortage of talent as much as we have an overabundance of opportunities for innovation.

There have been some pretty good grass roots efforts at creating more development talent in the community—but they’ve been on smaller scales and heavily reliant on the volunteer efforts of a small number of dedicated people.  I’ve heard a lot of ideas floating around from different people trying to solve this problem—but haven’t seen any real movement.  What I’d like to figure out is how we can create a much more sustainable and much more robust pipeline of developers into the NYC innovation community and I’d like to propose a lofty goal to inspire some solutions:

Let’s add 250 new developers—roughly a little more than one at every new venture backed startup this year—to the startup workforce this year.

I like starting with the big goal, because it then naturally leads to the most critical questions:

  • Are we talking about educating new developers?
  • Are we moving them from other workforces?
  • Are we moving them from other cities?

My sense is that it would be most interesting and most effective over the long term to think about educating new developers.  Bringing skilled developers in from other cities or moving them over from banks is also helpful, but I think it’s the kind of thing that skilled recruiters can also do a good job of.  Plus, my fear is that there are barriers in those areas that may be difficult to scale—namely salary and lifestyle.  If you’ve already got someone that optimized for making the most annual salary, joining a startup might be a difficult sell.  Even if that’s not what they were going for, if they’re already on that track, it might be hard to get them to delever their life.  Furthermore, if you have a developer who lives in Wisconsen, I really don’t want to get stuck explaning to them why they can’t have two spare bedrooms at a reasonable cost in the West Village. 

Not only that, but addressing the existing developer pool doesn’t really solve NYC’s most major human capital barrier to innovation—that it’s too easily to wind up mindlessly tracked into being an accountant with a CPA in a NYC school than it is to wind up a moble app developer.  I see it all too often—that if you don’t really know what you want to do, the default tracks that have the most suction pressure aimed at warm bodies are the least innovative fields.  We send scores of college kids who have no clue what they want to do into dead-end jobs.  At least if we empowered them with tools to compete in the most dynamic and growing fields, they’d have a greater chance of finding their niche.  When you live in a world on the verge of a smart device in every pocket and a tablet in every home, you’re doing young people a disservice to train them all to account for and pass dollars around in financial jobs instead of actually pushing the envelope in the innovation world. 

I also suspect that if you exposed young people early to small teams of people trying to chance the world through technology, integrating them into the social graph of the innovation community, they’ll be more resistant to hedge fund job offers down the line.  I’d bet anything that fewer students that participate in hackNY—will wind up in finance jobs relative to their computer science peers who just follow existing recruiting tracks. 

So where to start?  Here are a few key to do’s:

  • Identify what’s possible: How many actual hours of learning, and with what resources, would it take to get a developer up to speed to be usable as an entry level employee?
  • Find the target market: I think I’d like to go after computer science and MIS grads who have prior inclination towards technology, but haven’t yet gained enough applied training to be usable to a startup—taking someone from a few school JAVA projects or maybe even nothing more than IT management courses to Ruby proficiency.
  • Create a model for learning that is both effective and economically efficient.
  • Try not to reinvent the wheel—use the learnings from existing programs and try to leverage the work of those who have already attempted solutions to this problem. 
  • Find a small group of technical advisors to oversee syllabus creation, program structure, etc.

I may not be technical myself—but after working with Jean Barmash on CTO School, I’ve learned a lot about finding the right technical people and enabling successful education by and for the more technically inclined innovation community.  If you’re interested in helping out, or have ideas around this, let me know. 

And yes, I’ve heard of the NYCEDC’s initiative to develop a new engineering and applied sciences campus.  They’re taking answers to an RFP from the very institutions that have failed to educate enough technical innovators in the first place—and then they’re going to stick them in a big building somewhere.  I figure by the time the NYCEDC gets through just the vendor selection process, we’ll already have 2500 new fingers pounding away usable code.  That’s the lesson the city needs to learn from programs like hackNY.  If you take a small group of the right people with limited financial resources, they can accomplish a lot more without a lot of structure than you can through an official government programs. 

Speaking of hackNY, you might as whether or not what I’m trying to do here overlaps or relates to what Hilary, Chris, and Evan are doing.  To me, I’m trying to increase the number of people in the top of the funnel—to get more students to switch from being book publishers to mobile developers and from accountants to Rubyists.  hackNY takes the best of the students that have already made decision and connects them to the startup community for employment opportunities—bolstered by educational events.  This is absolutely critical—and if I’m successful, I’d like to flood hackNY with applicants next summer.

At the same time, I’ve already promised the hackNY founders that I would help them get the necessary funding and resources to become a more sustainable entity.  If folks like the NYCEDC have access to dollars aimed at growing the tech base of the city, they absolutely need to be funding programs like hackNY and even more importantly, getting out of their way.  It’s really important that the key institutions surrounding our community—the VCs, the big tech companies, the government, etc.—get behind the efforts that are native to the community itself, as opposed to recreating wheels.

Anything is Possible (in a Startup)

I know you're out there. I can feel you now—corporate recruiters at career fairs, sending offer letters to work at banks and consulting firms.  I know that you're afraid.  Google is.  You're afraid of startups. You're afraid of change.  You’re afraid that students and young people are going to realize that you’re not the best place for them to learn, grow, or gain in responsibilities.  I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin. I'm going to publish this post, and then I'm going to show these people what you don't want them to see. I'm going to show them a world … without you getting in the way of their amazing careers.  A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to them.

Students, there's something wrong with your career. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. You are seeing a career set in motion before you but somehow your eyes are still closed—winding up in internships you don’t care much about, applying to grad schools because you can’t figure out what else to do.  If you don’t make a drastic change soon, you’re going to end up so hopelessly dependent on the system that that you will fight to protect it. 

Do you think the lawyers at the RIAA suing music fans weren’t teenagers at one time?

Free. Your.  Career.

It’s time you were shown the world *they* don't want you to see--the dream world that has been pulled over your eyes to hide you from the truth.

What truth?

That your career is a prisoner—in a prison that has been constructed in your mind to keep you contributing your energy into the system.  It's a prison that limits your ambition, clouds the path ahead of you so you don’t even know what jobs are out there, and keeps you in line with everyone else--mindlessly marching to careers in banking, law, consulting and accounting.  The prison walls are built with career fairs, campus job boards, and industry panels--all seemingly meant to help you but, in reality, sending you down a path that makes you just another battery in the system. 

You feel it when you print your resume, put on a suit, or sit down for a big company interview.

Open your eyes to the truth--the desert of the real if you will.  This bustling corporate landscape where you made your way up the ladder, learned a ton, and retired happy, rich and fulfilled ended years ago.  Now, these mindless corporate careers live in a world where the light of the sky has been blotted out, where the dead hopes and dreams of those before you are liquefied and fed shamelessly to new recruits, and control reigns supreme.

There is, however, hope.  There is a city deep underground in New York where people who have been freed from this prison gather--a Zion, if you will.  They work at small, innovative companies like Foursquare, Tumblr, Meetup, and GroupMe.  They are passionate about what they do, excited to come to work everyday, and just as excited to stay late surrounded by awesome people solving interesting problems.  As my friend once said, “I never hugged a co-worker until I worked at a startup.”

This city is the thriving New York startup community, and if you’re willing to unplug from the Matrix—the cattle driving process of big corporate recruiting—you can join in.  We’re fighting the good fight against the machines.

To enter this Zion, you need more than just code (although being able to code helps). 

You need to know kung fu… to be a ninja—to be the kind of worker that takes initiative, learns what they don’t know, goes the extra mile, and asks for forgiveness, not for permission.

Do you think that’s air you’re breathing? 

If you’re willing to wake up, unplug, and explore the idea that you don’t have to work for PWC or go to law school if you’re not ridiculously psyched about it, start now.  Show up for a startup event.  Join communities of innovators.  Start blogging about what you *are* excited about.  Don’t try to reverse engineer your resume to try and figure out who would hire you.  Follow awesome startup people on Twitter.  Put down the job listings and show up at the companies doing things you care about and find out what you can do for them that they can’t live without.  No kung fu skills?  Learn them!  You’re in school right?  Most of you have at least six to eight months before you graduate.  Pick up a ruby book and learn some code.  Take a sales training course.  Learn how to drive traffic to your blog using Google keywords. 

You don’t need an idea.  You don’t have to be a founder.  You don’t need to learn to code (but it does nearly guarantee employment).  You just have to be willing to reach out, build relationships, and make yourself useful.  Start participating and creating value.  Go make a list of 25 innovative companies you’d like to work at and have at it—reach out  on LinkedIn to founders, their investors, people who work at the companies.  Innovation is a ground war—house to house—and so should your career development.  Get out of your dorm rooms, off campus, and start showing up… or just be a battery for the machine.

I'm trying to free your career, but I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it.

Creating an Awesome Conference: Brooklyn Beta

You probably didn’t hear about Brooklyn Beta before Fred wrote about it:

“This is my kind of conference. There was one other VC in the room, Charlie O'Donnell, who makes it a practice to be everywhere something is interesting happening. The rest of the room was filled with designers, coders, and especially designers who code. That last group is a special breed and the heart and soul of many of our best companies.

It was a great group, in a cool space, talking about building web and mobile web services. I saw Kevin Cheng (@k) talk about product managing the creation of#newtwitter. I saw Marco Arment talk about building Instapaper on the side while he was CTO of our portfolio company Tumblr. And I saw a bunch of demos of beta services spliced in between the talks.”

You didn’t hear about it, that is, unless you followed some of the most innovative designers and developers in Brooklyn.  That’s kind of the point.  You see, the crowd here was part of the event—and while sure, there isn’t a single entrepreneur who wouldn’t like to hear about the birth of Instapaper or #newtwitter, if you actually put everyone in the room who would have wanted to be there, you’d have the New York Tech Meetup.  That’s kind of a different animal—a completely different vibe.  The diverse perspectives of the technical and creative class of NYC created a great experience for all who were lucky enough sit huddled close together in a chilly Brooklyn warehouse, nearly on top of the speakers.

While I’m a big advocate of open access, I think there’s something to be said for scarcity and hurdles to discoverability.  Anyone could have signed up for this conference, but since it spread through word of mouth from the most excellent organizers Cameron and Chris, you probably wouldn’t have found it in time if you weren’t in the designer and developer ecosystem.  With this kind of social self-preselection, the result is the kind of crowd you’re not going to get at startup events broadcasted far and wide. 

I hope next year’s event is the same size, with most of the same folks.  It doesn’t need to grow. 

The New York ecosystem needs these events for the most innovative practitioners just as much as it needs open, educational events for newbies.  These are the crowds, when brought together in a critical mass, push the envelope of awesomeness, creativity, and style, carrying the reputation of the whole community on their shoulders.  That’s going to get dulled if half the crowd is made up of idea people looking for technical co-founders or VCs who think every person they meet is only worth the number of deals they can source from them.  There are places for that, and this wasn’t it.

What the NYC innovation community needs is more smaller, targeted opportunities for like-minded, and similarly experienced locals can get very specific about solving their needs in an in-person collaborative setting.  There are tons of opportunities for taking the lead on these kinds of activities.  No one asked Cameron and Chris to put this all together—they just wanted to see it happen and they made it. 

So, before you complain about other people’s events not having the right mix of people, not enough capacity, or not covering what you want, realize that it is absolutely within your power to create the kind of community you want to live and work in.  It just needs some hard work, vision, and execution.

@Shakeshack 3 Recap

Wow…  So, where to begin?  This year’s @shakeshack event, nextNY’s third annual party in Madison Square Park, was undoubtedly the best ever.  There are so many people to thank and there’s so much to say about it.

First off, we had a fantastic crowd.  From regulars to newbies—to local goverment celebs like City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.  Taylor Davidson provided photos of many of the notables as our on-site photographer.

The event also marked the end of voting for the first nextNY Community awards, made possible by the generous sponsors of the event.  When the votes were in, here’s how things stood:

Top NYC tech recruiting firm Winter Wyman sponsored the award for Best Company Culture—citing the importance of understanding your own culture and maintaining a healthy environment as keys to hiring.  Betaworks took the to spot with 54.3% of the vote versus Foursquare’s 32.9%.  Buddy Media and Yelp had single digit returns.

The Most Valuable Angel had co-winners—tagteam Josh Stylman and Pete Hershberg beat out Chris Dixon, 44.2% to 28.8%.  Steven Messer brought in 15.4% of the vote, with David Rose and Jeff Stewart rounding out the top five.  NY Angels sponsored this award, continuing in its campaign to educate entrepreneurs on the importance of bringing on experienced investors.

The next category of companies really mailed it in if you ask me.  BuyWithMe edged out Scoop St. 48.8% to 32.3% for the Best E-mail Driven NYC Startup, sponsored by Experian Cheetahmail.

GroupMe blew out the competition for most Buzzworthy startup, gaining 63.1% of the vote.  This category was sponsored by Brew Media Relations, whose presence at the event was buzzworthy in its own right.  The girls from Brew set the tone by quickly getting everyone wristbanded and checked in to the event—efficiently and with a smile.  Thanks Brooke & company! came from behind to overtake Hunch for Best Technology at a NYC Startup, winning with 47.3%.  Tech development shop Pivotal Labs made this award possible—as did the millions of shortened links managed by the pufferfish caretakers.

The largest gains in the polls came from the Cooley sponsored Entrepreneur of the Year award, where Dennis Crowely beat out Anthony Casalena from Squarespace, as well as Nat Turner and Zack Weinberg from Invite Media.

We had support from our other sponsors as well—RRE, Spark, and First Round Capital.  These firms believe in the “rising tide” theory that events like this need to happen in a thriving community and that such an ecosystem benefits them in more ways than just on the spot visability. 

There was also a giveaway—Winter Wyman gave away an iPad to the person at the party who tweeted the worst interview question they ever got.  That came from Jeremy Morgan.  Jeremy is deaf, and an interviewer once asked him "So do you Sign or read Braille?"  Ugh.

I can’t thank the staff at both the Shakeshack and the Madison Square Park Conservancy—without their efforts, I couldn’t put this event together.  They make the whole operation incredibly turnkey from my perspective.  Lizzie Honan and Leah Milton in particular are amazing to work with.

I think the best part of this event is the  fact that the doers actually make it out for at least this one night out of the year.  It’s not hard to find the Assistant Social Media Director of some agency or the junior analyst/intern at some investment firm at a party, but the people that actually make this community work—the real innovators and most accomplished folks, make it a point to carve a spot for this in their schedule.  These are also the folks that never run into each other, because they’re so heads down in building their own businesses. 


My hope is that it became very apparent to Speaker Quinn that we have an incredibly thriving community here—full of success stories that she should be telling wherever she goes.  I introduced her to Dennis Crowely, Andy Weissman, and Anthony Casalena among others. 


I hope last Wednesday’s night in the park—the only night it didn’t actually rain in NYC, was as fun for me as it was for our 300 attendees.  You can thank Howard Morgan and his long range weather forecast subscription for picking the right day, because it gave me an accurate weather prediction two months out.