(Photo by Folkert Gorter for Electric Objects)
Maybe we’re happiest with our homes when we think they represent us well.
In 2011, Jake Levine made the switch from Manhattan to Brooklyn, mostly because his friend network migrated there but also for its relative peacefulness and famously creative flair. Last week, his company, Electric Objects, began shipping a tech-art mashup that aims to bring calm to a cluttered world of monitors and software. There is excitement among its backers.
“Our mission is ambitious. We want to bring beauty into people’s homes,” said Levine.
"The internet is arguably the greatest engine for creative expression ever invented."
The product is essentially a web-connected flatscreen computer monitor hung on a wall with works of digital art displayed, with the help of a platform for artists and consumers to buy and sell media and an API for developers to integrate with the available screen. You’ve seen repurposed desktop screens before, but this is meant to be a committed effort at modernizing how we share art.
“When you hang a piece of art on the wall, it changes meaning over time,” he said.
Levine is an alumnus of betaworks, that quirky network of associated companies and capital that is being shaped into something of a modern media company.
Levine was most recently the general manager of Digg, leading the social sharing platform betaworks has resuscitated. He fits the part: A thoughtful 29-year-old with glasses and the occasional hoodie. On a recent phone call with Technical.ly Brooklyn, he took a moment to think about whether he moved to Brooklyn (Williamsburg first and Brooklyn Heights for the last three years) for anything more than that’s where his friends ended up.
“You want to be somewhere that represents the person you want to become,” Levine said. Back in 2011, “I thought, ‘I can see future Jake being a Brooklynite.’”
And it worked. His friends are here, he likes the place and there’s a community of interest around his work. Of course, he said, Brooklyn will change. Brooklyn has always changed. It’s the very nature of cites, with their flow of people and clustering of ideas. Levine knows. Not so long ago Levine’s apartment lease was up, so he decided to look around and see his options.
You know how this ends: He couldn’t find anything he was willing to pay anywhere near where he wanted to be. So he stayed.
As new interest continues to grow, “Brooklyn will get more and more expensive. That will change who is here,” he said.
“Brooklyn means something very different for you than for me. There’s a global brand for artisanal mayonnaise and tight jeans and nice beards but that’s really shallow,” he said. “This place shapes you.”
And, of course, Brooklyn is still being shaped, too. Despite as many as seven of nine Electric Objects employees living in Brooklyn, the outfit’s offices are at Bowery and 4th in Manhattan.
For Levine, the commute works, he has friends here and an apartment he’s willing to afford. Much of everything else he likes about Brooklyn would be familiar to nearly anyone living in any worthwhile city — great food, culture, things to do. So it’s not that Brooklyn was his only choice, just his best choice today.
It may help that his company fits the Brooklyn narrative — a creative pursuit with enough technology to warrant venture funding, including a $1.7 million round from notables like RRE Ventures, SV Angel and First Round Capital. Then came the $787,000 Kickstarter campaign that tested market interest last summer. It passed with flying colors.
The first 120 units were already sent to beta users — one is hung in First Round Capital’s Philadelphia offices — and the other 2,800 units claimed during the crowdfunding campaign will be distributed in the next four to six weeks.
The experience of shipping the product has influenced how Levine sees his work.
“We’ve narrowed our product but widened our vision,” said Levine. “The internet is arguably the greatest engine for creative expression ever invented.”
And he wants to capture that “creativity and beauty” and put it on your wall.
To do it, his team has established a supply chain. The product, using components from South Korea, Arizona and the ReFactory in Gowanus, is assembled in Mexico and shipped to fulfillment centers in California that distribute to customers.
Levine grew up in Cape Cod and did his undergraduate studies at Wesleyan, after which “your choices are to either go to New York or San Francisco.” He took an investment banking job focused on tech coverage for Morgan Stanley and hung around the Upper West Side, then the east, before finding himself the last of his friends still in Manhattan.
“I realized my friend network were in Brooklyn and that Manhattan was terrible,” he said of moving in 2011. He’s learned more than that during his first few years in bringing tech to market.
“Treat venture capital and crowdfunding and the entire entrepreneurial experience as just one way to bring something new into the world,” Levine said.
“Too many people aspire to build a company to raise venture capital because it seems exciting,” he said. “Instead, start with what you want to create and then figure out how to bring it to market.”-30-
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