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Let’s make stuff ‘and then set it on fire’: Brooklyn tech culture

The best and the brightest in Brooklyn's entrepreneurial sector come together to tell tech aspirants that they just need to start trying out their own ideas and to talk trash on Silicon Valley.

Entrepreneurship Symposium: Keynote Event: Tech All-Stars Panel. Photo by Brady Dale.
Does it really matter whether or not New York is as good a place to launch a tech business than Silicon Valley, as long as trying keeps working out for lots and lots of people here?

The keynote event for Tech Triangle U was an engaging panel featuring some of the best known leaders in Brooklyn technology, held Wednesday in the National Grid Auditorium at Metrotech Center. It was at the same time an inspiring session where proven leaders challenged basic assumptions about the means of ascent and also one in which New York’s anxiety about Silicon Valley was very much on display.

The program was led by WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi and featured MakerBot’s Bre Pettis, Huge’s Aaron Shapiro, Etsy’s Chad Dickerson and reddit’s Alexis Ohanian.

Pettis said of his experience getting makers together to found NYC Resistor: “When I came to New York, I was like, ‘let’s make stuff’ and people were like, ‘Yeah, and then let’s set it on fire.'” Shapiro also charged the crowd in a simpler way, saying, “You only live once. If you fail: get a job.”

Despite the spirited talk of action, the conversation kept coming back to the way Silicon Valley dominates the public consciousness about tech.

It’s true, but, we wondered, so what?

If you’ve been following this space, then you know that Kickstarter has seen over a billion dollars in pledges and is still growing. MakerBot sold for almost a half-billion dollars. Vice’s valuation is in the stratosphere. Etsy is established as a global brand and the biggest companies in the world are turning to Brooklyn creative agencies to get them to the next level.

In fact, tech is now the second biggest sector in New York City’s $1.4 trillion economy. It’s established that innovating is a going concern here, so why are we still worried about the Valley? Shouldn’t it be enough that makers can definitely make it here?

Some highlights from the event:

  • Sen. Charles Schumer opened the session saying he was working on creating new ferry and rapid transit lines to connect the most popular places to live and work for the tech community (such as Dumbo, Williamsburg and Roosevelt Island). It’s his “Nerd Bus” route plan. He’s also pushing a bill that would give a green card to any international student that graduates from an American university with a STEM degree.
  • Pettis pushed the crowd not to think of a degree as a way into the startup scene. While he acknowledged that college may be the way many students get access to technical tools, he urged them to make things that will impress firms (grades won’t). Crazy coding projects, tiny businesses. MakerBot wants to hear what you’ve done. “We read the cover letter,” he said, “If the cover letter is good, we want to meet people.”
  • Dickerson added onto that and said that some people may not be autodidacts, but there’s a whole new kind of schooling represented by Hacker School and General Assembly that can get people there outside of the accredited university setting. In fact, in Brooklyn, you have a chance to get that education for free.
  • Shapiro said his company is not interested in people looking for the straight path to success. They want to see people willing to try a lot of stuff, fail, try again. Pettis echoed that with a charge to the schools represented at Tech Triangle U, saying, “Create a culture of iteration. One that includes failure.”

The panelists listed some of the ways in which they see New York’s tech scene as different from Silicon Valley’s:

  • Dickerson said that when you are a successful startup in the Valley, you build a campus and wall yourself in. Whereas Etsy is doing well enough to provide its employees two lunches per week andthey get these lunches catered by local restaurants on purpose, to bring people inside and support the local economy.
  • Ohanian spoke to the public privacy of New York, saying “Riding the subway in New York is so valuable because most people don’t give a fuck about my tech startup.” Dickerson said this a little more gently, noting that people in his building just know he “works on the Internet” and so they ask him to fix their network connections. He does.
  • Shapiro probably spoke to New York’s most distinct advantage over other places: its economy is multi-faceted and resilient. It’s big in tech, finance, entertainment and advertising. That makes it a more dynamic place overall than almost anywhere else, no matter where each sector ranks. In fact, he suggested that there may actually be more technologists employed in Manhattan financial firms than in the innovation economy.

A lot of people we’ve seen out at Tech Triangle U events were out there looking for work. The big takeaway for that group, at this event, was this: if you have time on your hands, try making something. If you don’t know how, learn how. That’s what firms will really want to see. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. Zomorodi expressed some concern that tech is diluting the meaning of the word failure, but that’s what these tech leaders want to see you do.

Companies: WNYC New Tech City / Huge / Etsy / MakerBot
Series: Brooklyn

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