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Dividing Manhattan and Brooklyn is like splitting the atom: Phin Barnes

The New York tech ecosystem is surging because it is such an engine for growth. It's no time to split hairs about where it's happening first, says First Round Capital investor Phin Barnes. Instead, it should be time to support them all.

First Round Capital investor Phin Barnes speaks at a Northside Innovation Meetup
For all the discussion about the differences between the tech communities of Brooklyn and Manhattan, there’s so much more opportunity in embracing their similarities.

“It’s kind of like splitting the atom,” said Phin Barnes, the First Round Capital investor, passionate sneaker fan and Williamsburg resident. “I’m not sure we’re ready to have the Brooklyn versus New York conversation.”

While we’re at it, let’s stop the endless measuring ourselves to Silicon Valley.

“It’s like 10 shouting at 100,” he said. “The world will be flatter, not lumpier. It’s getting easier and easier to start a company from wherever, so save your breath.”

That means communities across the country, and increasingly elsewhere in the world, should develop the strongest tech sector they can without the comparisons.

“You need to know your unique advantage,” Barnes, 38, said. “In our case, if you look at the ecosystem in New York as a whole, it is distinct.”

Boston is strong in academic research and robotics, Philadelphia has grown in health IT. New York, he said, has a specialty in “the perpendicular intersection of industries,” putting a furniture designer and a Google engineer in a room and you have Warby Parker for furniture. That’s in addition to “the obvious strengths” in fashion and ecommerce and adtech.

“I think each ecosystem should look at their strengths and act on them,” he said.

For Brooklyn, as an anchor of the broad New York tech community, its strengths are in the creative class and its warehouse stock for production and for housing large teams — see how Kickstarter, which quietly opened Greenpoint headquarters, fits both.

Watch Phin Barnes give a lightning talk at a Northside Innovation meetup last year.

One thing that New York as a whole has is something that benefits much of the U.S. Northeast: density.

“This urbanism trend is a real cultural trend. Look at the sharing economy: people are getting more comfortable with not owning things but instead using them when we need them. We are coming to deeply understand that we live on a planet with finite uses,” he said. “An ecosystem of ideas can be so much stronger in a city. A denser network to support connectivity makes it more powerful.”

Tech entrepreneurship is also more than just a fad, said Barnes, who was first captivated with startups when he joined the And1 athletic apparel brand early after playing basketball at Haverford College outside Philadelphia. We’re at a time of growing income disparity that will define this generation.

“When you choose to be a founder, you’re choosing to take on income inequality yourself,” he said. That’s because we’re developing a system that can let good ideas flourish quickly.

“That’s why this appreciation for the craftsman is happening. If your craft is in the digital, it can scale differently than woodwork but even woodworking scales differently today than before because of the tools to communicate, learn and share.”

Barnes moved to Brooklyn four years ago, when Williamsburg still had “the mustaches, tight jeans, tattoos and piercings of Portland,” where he had lived previously. It was also a place, then, that he and his wife could afford to rent a two bedroom apartment, “before the Whole Foods and the Urban Outfitters opened.”

He takes the subway to his Manhattan office every morning, packing into overcrowded L trains.

“New York has every reason to have the best talent in tech, like it does in other sectors,” he said. “The important work is making Brooklyn a great place for everyone to live.”

Watch him on Bloomberg discuss the First Round ‘peer-to-peer’ portfolio learning network.


Companies: And1 / First Round Capital
Series: Brooklyn

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