Good quality social and networking scenes are key to any growing startup ecosystem. Just ask Jessica Lawrence, executive director of organization behind the long-running New York Tech Meetup. In fact we did ask her, in advance of her session on ‘Building Better Companies’ at The Next Web Europe Conference next week in Amsterdam.
Lawrence moved to New York City after a stint running a division of the Girl Scouts in southern California. “It was a wonderful non-profit organization in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t a very supportive place to work, it wasn’t very innovative” she says. After working to rectify that over several years, she was ready for a change and arrived in NYC’s startup scene at a New York Tech Meetup event where it was announced that they were looking for their first managing director.
“The most awesome stage”
Last year, Facebook's VP of Design thought the TNW Conference main stage was the best she'd ever been on.
Taking on the role, Lawrence says that she expected to be surrounded by companies with innovative employment cultures. “What I found… was that while things looked really different on the outside, a lot of the challenges were actually the same (as many other industries) in the startup space.”
That’s how she found the inspiration for her talk at next week’s conference. “A lot of companies have what they think makes great culture, which is oftentimes the pingpong table and the refrigerator full of beer, and it looks like a startup and they’ve copied the culture of companies like Google… What I’m talking about is this idea that startups need to stop doing that and that culture is something much deeper than the pingpong table and that they have an opportunity now to not only build better products but better companies.”
It’s telling that Lawrence has more examples of companies that do internal culture badly than do it well. She cites Zappos as a popular example of good company culture, but warns “Zappos culture works for Zappos – that doesn’t mean that it can be translated to another company.”
Connecting a startup community
Now 10 years old, New York Tech Meetup has accumulated almost 40,000 members. Lawrence says that this includes investors, founders, developers and people who support the startup community like marketers, sales and business development staff. Corporations like Samsung send representatives along to check out potential partnership opportunities, and employees in technical roles at ‘non-tech’ companies like car rental firm Hertz come along too.
The organization’s monthly demo nights are its lynchpin, attracting 850 people to watch live demos (not just PowerPoint presentations) from new startups. Lawrence has seen 360 different pitches in her three years with New York Tech Meetup. “I’ll be standing backstage and peek out at the audience and see how the audience reacts. It’s those moments when someone puts something onstage that literally causes the audience’s jaws to drop that always stick with me.”
An early demo from Rap Genius that “had the audience in hysterics laughing” is one stand-out that sticks with Lawrence. “And a company called Condition One did an amazing demo of their responsive video technology.
“More recently we’ve had companies doing hardware-software integrations. We had a company called Kinsa that has developed a thermometer that connects to your iPhone and – say you’re taking the temperature of a little kid – it gives them a game to play while the thermometer’s in their mouth. But it’s also a big data product – there are no personal details attached and they can start aggregate all these temperatures, tracking potential disease spread in an area based on the temperatures being read from the thermometers.”
In a city the size of New York, there’s plenty of competition for helping ‘startup people’ to mix. Lawrence tells me that there are now more than 1,200 tech meetup groups vying for signups. How does New York Tech Meetup stay relevant? It benefits from a “first-to-market advantage,” she says, noting that it was one of the earliest such groups and founded by founded by Scott Heiferman, who also founded Meetup.com. “It’s usually one of the meetups people hear of first,” she says, adding that it’s usual for 50 to 60 percent of the audience at any event is there for the first time.
Beyond its events, New York Tech Meetup is a non-profit organization that provides “a little bit of glue for keeping the community connected and (is) also that central point where everyone can find each other and connect their resources.
“We hear stories of people meeting their cofounder at the Tech Meetup or finding an investor at the Tech Meetup – I heard a story the other day about a woman who found her husband at the Tech Meetup. It’s mostly about helping the community connect with each other and support each other and fulfil all the needs they have to help grow their companies.
“I’m proud of how many members we have because a lot of those members give back to the community in significant ways. We’ve rallied volunteers to help the city after Hurricane Sandy, we’ve played a really important role in connecting these different components and draw attention to the fact that there’s a thriving tech community in the city.”
That community spirit is set to continue. Plans for the future include focusing on getting more children involved in technology.
Jessica Lawrence is speaking at The Next Web Europe Conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, next week. Get your ticket while you still can.