Business

Feb. 1, 2011 10:00 am

Ben Kessler: Philly has “a lack of leaders looking to take the risk to start a company”

This is Exit Interview, a weekly interview series with someone who has left Philadelphia, perhaps for another country or region or even just out of city limits and often taking talent, business and jobs with them. If you or someone you know left Philly for whatever reason, we want to hear from you. Contact us. […]

This is Exit Interview, a weekly interview series with someone who has left Philadelphia, perhaps for another country or region or even just out of city limits and often taking talent, business and jobs with them. If you or someone you know left Philly for whatever reason, we want to hear from you. Contact us.

In September 2009, Ben Kessler was having trouble getting work.

After a Drexel co-op in San Francisco the summer before, the new graduate and Unbreaded co-founder was living with his parents in Yardley, waiting for what was next. The Great Recession was hot then, but even still, Kessler, now 25, was getting bites in the 67th ward. By that October, he had moved up the Jersey Turnpike to New York City.

Philly has an ugly reputation for retaining its college graduate, but that trend is moving dramatically the other way. Still, we asked Kessler for perspective from  a college graduate who loves this city but hightails it for one with a job for him.

What is the primary reasons you left Philadelphia?

A job, seriously.

I spent some time looking around Philly, but I was looking for something very specific – a technology, specifically Internet, startup that was in early growth stage and looking to hire. Honestly 2009 was a terrible year for the job market, just getting out of college I found it hard to find a position, and the new New York startup scene itself was still somewhat nascent at the time.

I decided to take a position with LaunchSquad, a public relations firm I interned with in San Francisco that was looking to grow its New York presence. I never really intended to take up a career in PR, but it’s the kind of work and clients that LaunchSquad does, and the fact that the company really operates like a startup itself, that drew me to it. The people are great, and the clients were great. I helped launch some incredible companies including Vook, EPIX, SCVNGR, and my current employer SeatGeek.

Was there a specific event or moment that you realized you had to/wanted to leave?

There wasn’t a moment or reason that pushed me to leave Philly. I was honestly looking for work, and found it. I’ve always been fond of the idea of trying out a new city – I fell in love with San Francisco when I was there, but a move like that was out of the question, I’m too close with my family and girlfriend to go that far. The explosive tech scene in NYC seemed like the perfect fit – especially because I’m only a BoltBus away from the city I grew up in.

“I found it ironic that the tight knit community that did such a good job at planning events, meetups, etc., has such a big problem building a product, a service, a business.”

Was there anything that could have been done differently to keep you?

There are a lot of things I love about Philly that make me miss it: the food of course, the tight knit technology community, the incredibly vibrant beer scene and more. Unfortunately there is a lack of innovation in Philadelphia. No, maybe it’s not a lack of innovation, but a lack of leaders looking to take the risk to start a company.

There are standout companies in Philadelphia — Venmo, WizeHive and others come to mind — but far too many bright minds are working at large companies or doing freelance development or design work. I found it ironic that the tight knit community that did such a good job at planning events, meetups, etc., has such a big problem building a product, a service, a business. Of course I’m being very hypocritical — why didn’t I just start my own company in Philly? At the time and still to this day, I don’t think I’ve hit the right idea, nor do I have the level of expertise that I really want to be at before doing my own thing.

Do you think you would return to Philadelphia under appropriate circumstances?

I’d love to return to Philadelphia, especially to settle down and buy real estate. I really would like to say that I want to build a startup there, but the lack of investors in the city really puts a dent in those plans.

When someone you meet from outside the region asks about Philadelphia and its tech community, what do you tell them?

Philly cred: Ben Kessler

First 10 years in the Northeast, near Bustleton around Red Lion and Verree

Attended Pennsbury High School in Bucks County, Parents live in Yardley

Drexel University, Business Administration, 2009

Formerly lived in West Philly and Spring Garden

I tell them there are amazing people in Philly, a really tight knit community. I urge them to bring their business and/or engineering talent to the city and build something incredible there – to this day, no one has taken me up on that advice.

What is the perception you most often find of Philadelphia?

Those who have never been to Philadelphia really don’t have a basis to develop an opinion of the city. Haters try to say it’s a dirty city with too much crime, too small of a technology community. Those people have often spent a weekend at most in Philly. My response is that Philly may not compare to NYC or San Fran, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Boston.

What’s the latest you’re up to that we can plug or look forward toward?

I’m currently at SeatGeek and we’re working on building the absolute best product to help fans easily find tickets at the best prices. We’re working on some cool new product releases that we’ll hopefully announce soon, and we have some exciting partnerships in the pipeline.

-30-
Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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  • bob

    Hey Ben, sweet frames dude.

    • http://twitter.com/kessler Ben Kessler

      Thanks! They were purchased at Modern Eye in West Philly…

  • http://www.punkave.com Geoff DiMasi

    Interesting exit interview.

    Hey Ben, you did a recursive interview by pointing out that you left because you didn’t “take the risk to start a company.”

    But, if you had started a company you would have stayed and then there would have been more leaders taking risks, but that would have required you to stay and take a risk, but…

    • Jujubee

      I have to agree with the last comment…why not
      “be a leader” and build your own start-up. I’m the first to admit that Philly isn’t always the most welcoming to new ventures, but I attribute that to city bureaucracy, not a lack of investor funds. Money is everywhere, and the Philly community is supportive and creative (bureaucracy notwithstanding).
      Good luck in New York. Sounds like that’s a better environment for you right now.

    • http://twitter.com/kessler Ben Kessler

      Thanks for the feedback guys. If you read the last sentence of my second answer:

      “Of course I’m being very hypocritical — why didn’t I just start my own company in Philly? At the time and still to this day, I don’t think I’ve hit the right idea, nor do I have the level of expertise that I really want to be at before doing my own thing.”

      Besides the lack of investment, which is not just about money, but mentorship and involvement from the investors themselves, I forgot to mention that with the amount of people fleeing to NYC and SF, it would be exceptionally hard (IMO) to find engineers/developers to work with.

    • http://www.punkave.com Geoff DiMasi

      I hope you are where you need to be, but I think it is important to note that your reasoning sounds like a cop out to me.

    • http://twitter.com/kessler Ben Kessler

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on that Geoff. Feel free to shoot me an email or IM any time: benkessler (at) gmail.

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  • http://vrm.me TedC

    Starting something, anything, is like forming a good band, it’s really hard. If the players don’t gel, the dip may not be worth crossing, and timing is key. So I’d say good choice to jump the Philly ship, but remember the coolest thing about Philly folks, we love to welcome folks back. BTW… There are investors in Philly, they’re just not throwing money w/o a good business plan and seeking them out is hard work.

    Good Luck!

  • http://jonathanfinnegan.com haveboard

    Ben,
    in your comment:
    “it would be exceptionally hard (IMO) to find engineers/developers to work with.”

    in your interview:
    “but far too many bright minds are … doing freelance development or design work.”

    Which is it?

    • http://twitter.com/kessler Ben Kessler

      Good catch Finn. I guess I meant that the few developers that are around are doing freelance work or working for corporations. A large majority leave to pursue careers in other cities. Shit, it’s been a challenge finding developers here in NYC. There is such competition and they seem harder and harder to come by.

  • http://www.buchananpr.com Anne Buchanan

    Thanks for this very thought-provoking interview. I’ve been in Philly longer now than my native Pittsburgh (OK, not a booming tech town, either), and I’m still trying to figure this place out. It seems like we have a lot of really great ideas — but aren’t as strong on the execution of them.

    Ben, I appreciated your thoughtful examination of why you left. I hope we get you back someday.

  • http://www.geekadelphia.com Eric

    I miss Ben Kessler. He completed me.

  • barryg

    Ben, what about the sandwiches?

    • http://twitter.com/kessler Ben Kessler

      The sandwiches are so much better in Philly, no question.

  • Pingback: Exit Interview series on Technically Philly « Christopher Wink

  • http://www.buzzybeemarketing.com drew

    Yep, I do freelance work in NYC because… No one is going to tell me to work 12 hours a day for 60 grand a year. Then I can take on more projects. And I am not going to pay 50% of my income in rent. I will live part time outside NYC. You should see how many companies offer 60k to actually live in NYC. It’s a joke.