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The Death of the Fameball and the Evolution of the NY Startup Scene

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Entrepreneurship in New York City is evolving. Everyone is talking about it — at meetups, at conferences, at drinks with friends. While there’s a lot of (warranted) concern about the venture community as a whole, there is a feeling in New York of inevitability; when the dust clears, the City will no longer be playing second fiddle to Boston and Silicon Valley in the world of tech entrepreneurship. Having a NY office is the new hot thing for any east coast VC, and tech startups are increasingly looking at New York as a better place to set up shop for the long term. One could easily claim that NYC owns the hottest VC (Union Square Ventures) and the hottest tech company to launch in the past year (foursquare).

But there’s one symptom of the coming of age of the NY startup scene that people haven’t really been talking about. I was having a conversation with a friend at Gawker Media the other day, haranguing her about Gawker’s lack of coverage of the web celebrities that it lent such weight to just a year or two ago. The Julia Allisons, Jakob Lodwicks and David Karps of the world. Where are they? Yeah, I know, Gawker has been clawing its way into the mainstream; to do that, is has to cover mainstream celebrities rather than NY media darlings. But at the same time, no one has taken Gawker’s place. Even The Awl shies away from the kind of webutante-centric coverage that Gawker became known for.

Most may write this off as a simple shift in new media’s focus — or haven’t even noticed. But I think it is extremely relevant and symptomatic of deeper trends in New York. After all, bloggers write about the topics that get pageviews.

In other words, it is indicative of bigger things. It means that the NY startup scene is maturing. It means that we are focusing less on the media-crowned personalities driving “the tech scene” in New York City and (hopefully) more on the awesome things that tech startups are creating. It’s a democratization; It means that tech in NYC is coming out of media’s shadow. It means that Richard Blakeley’s Webutante Ball last summer wasn’t the debut of the NY web celebrity but its timely demise.

Two years ago, there were essentially no high-profile tech events in the city that weren’t dominated by “new media” (and even quite a few old media) brands and individuals. New media became synonymous with New York Tech. Even the well-known New York Tech Meetup was throwing events at IAC, in the belly of the media beast. Now there are too many tech events to count, headlined by the burgeoning Hackers and Founders — an event that came out of the Valley’s YCombinator and a refreshing alternative to NY Tech Meetup’s cliquish lecture class. New York Tech is growing up.

Of course, you still have celebrity entrepreneurs in California. But their coverage has been focused on — or at least cognizant of — what they’ve accomplished professionally. Even on Valleywag during its heyday. And I can’t really name any big California celebrity entrepreneurs without reasonably sized companies to their names. A year ago, the same could hardly be said about the NY scene.

Still, personalities are important, and it will be interesting to see which (if any) individuals emerge into the roles of successful celebrity entrepreneurs you find on the west coast. Some of the old guard, such as Karp (if you can possibly call a 23 year-old a member of the “old guard”), are good entrepreneurs in their own right. And I can see at least a few investors who are rising to take more prominent and vocal positions in the NY tech scene.

Then again, it is quite possible that I’m suffering from some sort of observer bias, as I’m reasonably integrated into the startup scene. What do people think?

Written by Brad Hargreaves

February 23rd, 2010 at 1:56 pm

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  • Nate Westheimer

    Ryan, I think you’re right. It’s a great observation and I think an important phase for NY tech. Who cares about the parties? Let’s get work done. There’s too much value to be created.

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  • Zachary Adam Cohen

    Gonna be a bit of a contrarian and say that coverage of the digerati in the trenches is still important and needs to be covered. While the minute by minute appearances and doings of these people are less important in focus, taken in total, they provide a nice blanked of coverage, which lends itself to the storytelling that is necessary to make sense of what these people eventually go on to do, or not do

  • Ron Mwangaguhunga

    Good stuff.

  • Greg Battle

    It’s a great insight, but also one that I think ignores history. If you worked through the Web 1.0 days in NYC, you’d know that these stages of visibility – excitement => excess => burnout => refocus – are really more cyclic than anything else. New entrants cause this cycle to continue as they revolt against the “crimes” of the incumbents. Today’s media machine is built around disposable heroes, however niche, with the shelf-life of milk.

  • admin

    @Zachary Adam Cohen I’m not making a broad argument against the coverage of digerati. Putting personalities to stories and faces to companies is extremely important; it allows us to relate to stories of success (and failure) and take deeper lessons from them. I am, however, arguing that mature tech communities focus that coverage on the accomplishments of individuals rather than the minutiae of their lives.

    @Greg Battle You may be right. I would unquestionably have a different perspective on these things if I had been around NYC during the Web 1.0 days. But sometimes a (relative) outsider’s viewpoint can be worthwhile as well.

  • http://siliconANGLE.COM John Furrier

    Love the NYC swagger in startup land. Thing about the east coast is that there is not tolerance for bullshit which in my opinion accelerates the reality of what is a good venture or not.

  • Dave Evans

    As someone who went to Razorfish and Pseudo parties with flaming midgets and lots of drugs circa 1996-ish, it’s great to see Silicon Alley get back on it’s feet.

    Not sure why you speak of celebrities, few care but the navel gazers. What, a bunch of kids with a zap of celebrity, and then what? Put down the camera and the blog and go build something is my motto. This kind of post would never get written in Boston ;-)

    I’ve been in Boston for 10 years. It’s a great startup community up here but we have our own problems and our Webinnovators is up to 1,000 people per event which is ridiculous. Everyone searching, few doing. At least the incubators are here to help people get started.

    Everything seems to be about social media these days, which is depressing because it’s just marketing, sheesh. But hey, I am going to speak about social media in New York next week (talking about foursquare).

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  • Charlie O’Donnell

    NYC is second fiddle to Boston? Really? Since when? :)

  • Julie

    Or in other words, the “old guard” Gawker used to cover was never important enough for the Valley to care about (and to Brad’s point perhaps Gawker’s audience stopped caring too, since they optimize everything on pageviews anyway)….

    But for all the rising NY tech scene buzz no media publication is covering the new NY digerati. And why is it Gawker’s torch to bear anyway when Valleywag is half-shuttered there are plenty of digital pubs from AlleyInsider to AllthingsD that should care more?

    The only personalities you see profiled are old guard in a different way, eg Fred Wilson who’s said repeatedly he could do without showing up at the top of every “who’s hot in NY tech” list. Everyone loves Fred, but is he the only one here?

    The new guard has plenty of personalities who have made enough startup business progress to warrant attention from NY at least if the Valley’s attention is still wishful thinking, and Kevin/Alexis/Alexandra at Gilt with their recent NYMag feature are the only ones that come to mind.

    What about Dina and Mike at; Anjula at Desihits; Naveen at foursquare; Avner at Boxee; Alexa at PaperlessPost, and beyond founders, people innovating media from the inside of the big companies, like Chad Stoller at BBDO.

  • Brad Hargreaves

    @Julie Great point. For bigger media outlets, it’s sort of a story without a hook, though — while there’s a lot of underground buzz around the NY startup scene, it’ll probably require a big acquisition of a relatively well-known NYC tech company for trend pieces to start flying. And by that time, everyone in the know will understand that big things have been afoot for a while.

    At the same time, SAI (where this piece was reblogged) is probably they closest you’ve got to a real attempt at covering NY Tech. But what is their headline story while I write this comment? Something about Twitter — a west coast company. I don’t blame them, they just don’t quite fill the need, as you note.

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  • dug

    You say NY Tech Meetup is ‘cliquish’ but Hackers and Founders seems to require an invite. Now that’s cliquish. By the way, how do I get an invite.

  • Brad Hargreaves

    @dug It doesn’t require an invite. Just follow @hackersfounders and they’ll tweet out the link.

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