(Photo courtesy of Morgan Berman)
$5,000 and $500,000. Those are, respectively, how much money we’ve spent building MilkCrate, and how much in donated time and support that’s gone into making this dream a reality.
But no amount of money could ever replace the collaborative nature of Philadelphia’s coworking spaces and meetup groups — creating a vibrant startup culture is far more valuable than any amount of venture capital.
After I developed my vision for MilkCrate in grad school, I set about finding a great team to help me turn an idea into something tangible. I started that hunt by attending Code for Philly and other tech meetups. There, I met amazing and generous people who eventually helped me find my CTO and cofounder, Jason Cox, without whom there would be no code and therefore no app. (MilkCrate, in case you aren’t familiar, is an app that is kind of like Yelp for sustainable businesses, so finding a great tech mind was a somewhat critical first step.) And now with Jason by my side, we repeated this pattern of finding new advisors, team members and friends in these wonderful spaces at the intersection of creativity, commerce, and collaboration.
Coworking and cohacking: These aren’t mere buzzwords; they are the midwives of today’s startups.
Hackers and tinkerers have always been at the heart of Philadelphia’s collective consciousness and economy. Groups with overlapping goals are using flexible spaces to create something greater than the sum of their individual parts.
We experienced this first hand over the summer during our time in the CoPhilly incubator at Impact Hub. It was an amazingly furtive time for us as we prepared for our crowdfunding campaign. Those long nights were frequently broken up with events and celebrations in the shared space, and helped bring back a sense of joy and basic human interaction that can get lost in the strategizing and coding.
In addition to the “work hard, play hard” mentality that was fostered, was the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with the other companies and teams in the space. What is coming — and, really, already happening — is the mutual amplification of these bright minds and creative personalities. At the core of coworking and cohacking are collaboration and connection: These aren’t mere buzzwords, they are the midwives of today’s startups.
His unexpected, sudden passing this summer was a huge loss for this community and all who had the pleasure of knowing him, but his legacy continues to grow today. His vision — bringing people together to pursue crazy technology-inspired ideas just for the fun of it, just to see what’s possible — has brought joyful widgets never imagined into our public spaces.
Similarly motivated coworking organizations are popping up all over Philadelphia.
Consider the guys at CityCoHo, which is focused on sustainability (where we had our rocking launch party this September), or the more traditionally non-traditional Benjamin’s Desk and Venturef0rth. And, of course, we have Quorum providing a home to the entrepreneurial spirit that lives in every corner of this city.
All of these spaces have left their mark on the MilkCrate team as we’ve moved through and grown in these spaces during meetings and events.
Technology plays a major role in connecting people, but the magic happens once humans are physically together in the same space. (Consider: 20 years ago, we thought the internet would put an end to face-to-face meetings; today, the value of real connections can hardly be overstated.) Crucially, the thoughtful design behind these spaces — accessible, beautiful, sustainable — maximizes the potential of the creativity within their walls.
I’ve had the accidental pleasure of helping bridge what has until recently been four very separate worlds of coworking and collaboration: geeks, designers, sustainability movement mavens and entrepreneurs. At first glance to my novice anthropologist’s eye (like most tech startup CEOs, I majored in anthropology), these felt like very different communities. Now I see how well these seemingly separate universes can interact with one another, complimenting and improving them all.
There’s the startup world, with it’s oft-articulated mantra of “move fast and break stuff” and the unspoken asterisk on that mantra “*in order to make buckets of money.”
Geeks, locked away in their dungeons and burning the midnight oil, toil to find and/or construct elegant solutions to things that may or may not be actual problems.
Through collaboration, Philly's tech scene can tackle important humanitarian and environmental issues.
Like the beloved geeks, designers share a passion for elegant solutions for more practical applications, but with a tangible, aesthetic consideration.
Which brings us to the sustainability folks (like me), trying to convince people to compost their banana peals, drink 100 percent organic kale smoothies while wearing only hemp clothes and riding a used fixie.
To solve the pressing problems of our time — climate change, economic inequality, and struggling schools, to name a few — these groups need the chance to work together quickly, economically and elegantly.
This needed approach is exemplified perfectly by greenSTEM, a local Philadelphia tech project that grew out of a Code for Philly project and now partners with the Philadelphia Water Department and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Coastal Resources Management Program.
These do-gooding tinkerers built the greenSTEM Network to connect students to the environment by monitoring and mining data from green stormwater infrastructure. They hacked together a prototype and wrote code through meetups in coworking spaces around the city and — with the help of designers, coders and civic engineers — built something that goes right to the root (pun totally intended) of several pressing issues in our city.
MilkCrate’s next step on this coworking path is joining another remarkable community, Project Liberty. We are thrilled to be working alongside outrageously ambitious and inspiring companies like ROAR and Fitly under the guidance and support of Interstate General Media (the owner of the Inquirer and Daily News) and Ben Franklin Technology Partners.
Opportunities and spaces like this are what can lead to major success for startups and their teams, but also for an entire city.
Through collaboration we can come together and use the strength and energy of the startup scene, whether profit-motivated, creative or sustaining, to continue to tackle these important humanitarian and environmental issues. We can achieve better, faster solutions.
Because from the fertile soil of all this thinking and designing together shall ultimately arise a more connected, generous and sustainable Philadelphia.