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Archive for the ‘actually good things’ tag

Why General Assembly

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General Assembly is an urban campus for technology, design and entrepreneurship. I founded it last year along with Adam Pritzker, Jake Schwartz and Matthew Brimer.

As you go deeper into the technology community, it gets harder to remind yourself that the global economy is struggling. Every startup in New York and the Valley has open positions that go unfilled for months. Salaries for developers and designers continue to rise, and entrepreneurs are creating real businesses with real revenue.

It’s all too easy to forget that our nation still has the highest unemployment rate many of us have ever seen, especially among young adults. Over 15% of people aged 20-24 are without a job, the highest in more than a generation. Students graduate from college and often times spend their days fruitlessly emailing their resumés to deaf corporations. Clearly, there is a mismatch between what we are teaching our newest citizens and what they need to succeed.

Critical courses are absent from the state curriculum and given only token acknowledgment in higher education. Design and software development, two of the most relevant 21st century skills, are glossed over throughout our educational system. It’s in this context that we’re launching General Assembly, a new kind of campus to educate designers, engineers and entrepreneurs.

That said, an education is only meaningful in the context of an environment that reinforces its message and provides a community to stimulate ideas and growth. This is why we built General Assembly on the model of a campus. We’re crafting a curriculum and have created a physical space in the heart of Manhattan for hackers and designers to work, collaborate and learn. We’re trying to tackle a big problem, and we certainly can’t solve it alone. But we have to try, and I hope you can join us.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

February 5th, 2011 at 1:13 pm

The Game Design of Cities

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There’s an old adage in the game design field that good games are easy to learn, yet difficult to master. That is, a game should be simple enough for even the most uninitiated user to understand yet challenging enough for a master to spend years working to hone their skills. Chess is one oft-cited example. Picture of New York City, Wall Street

Cities operate by similar principles. Great cities are easy for visitors to navigate yet take years if not decades for residents to fully explore and understand. Cities can be too simple, like so many in middle America that bore their smartest residents into submission (or departure). And cities can be too complex for newcomers — New York, for instance.

This is why Adopt a Hacker is a great idea. New York is possibly the most fascinating city on earth to master — but it’s also one of the most difficult places for a newcomer to learn, especially when it comes to meeting new people. Adopt a Hacker NYC lowers the bar to get great hackers engaged in the city by lowering the learning curve. By pairing visiting developers up with veteran NYC residents, it adds a tutorial to an otherwise dense game.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

September 14th, 2010 at 8:42 am

The Future of Gaming

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I write a lot about where the gaming industry is headed — specifically as it relates to building game mechanics into non-game apps. Past posts have talked about serious problems in the current thinking about “gameification” and the next game mechanics to be implemented across the internet.

Next week, some of these thoughts will be brought into event format. The New York Gaming Meetup is partnering with the Y+30 to host a panel event on the Future of Gaming at 92YTribeca in New York City. Specifically, we’ll be looking at what gaming will look like in thirty years. If you’re interested, RSVP here. Panelists include Ben Feder (CEO, Take Two Interactive), Stephen Totilo (Editor, Kotaku), and Eric Zimmerman (CEO, GameLab). I’ll be moderating (read: desperately attempting to keep mental pace with the panelists).

It should be a fascinating event. Sam Lessin’s Y+30 always brings a unique outlook to these things by stretching the scope our projection to thirty years. In the words of Bill Gates:

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.

The Y+30 tends to be conscious of this quirk of the human mind — and accounts for it. It’s hard to project out thirty years without getting into the realms of sociology, psychology and philosophy (often in that order), so you have to be prepared for a wide-ranging discussion.

While I’ll save the best parts for those of you who attend the event, here are some topics I hope we’ll cover:

The future of the console. Will independent gaming consoles (or their analogue) exist in thirty years? Are full-body inputs the way of the future?

– Relatedly, what platforms will be most important to the gaming industry in thirty years? Will mobile gaming dominate?

– What features will be most important to gamers in thirty years? What trends will we want to read about?

Games and Society. Will the prevalence of online games for younger and younger children change the way those children interact with games (and the web, and society) as teenagers and adults?

The expansion of game mechanisms to non-gaming apps. How far is it going? Are we going to live in the world of Jesse Schell’s vision?

– Will people develop an immunity to traditional game mechanics? If so, how will this impact other aspects of life?

I’m sure plenty more will come up. Hope you can join us.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

July 13th, 2010 at 12:19 pm

NY Gaming Meetup: A Study in Iteration and Hockey Sticks

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The more time I spend working with startups, the more I find useful lessons for growing companies in random places. Take my gaming (industry) meetup, for instance. I’ve been running it for over a year, but only recently has it begun to “hockey stick”, in industry parlance.

NY Gaming Meetup RSVPs

The Opportunity: After running a gaming company in New York City for six months, I realized that there wasn’t a good place for people in the gaming industry to meet others in the gaming industry in an open, cross-pollinated environment. The International Game Developers’ Association’s New York chapter held regular events, but they were primarily focused on software developers, not the entire game creation ecosystem.

The Tactic: Create the New York Gaming Meetup, a (monthly) event where game developers can freely interact with others in the gaming industry as well as those outside the industry. Events would be regularly attended by investors, marketers, designers and others with a big role in making successful games. Meetups would be oriented around a series of demos of games built in the NYC area with networking before and after the demos.

Challenges:

(1) The NY gaming industry is highly fragmented with a focus on small (1-3 person) indie development shops. This isn’t Seattle or LA; there are only a handful of mid-sized gaming studios in NYC. It was critical to recognize that New York is a very different place and build a program that caters to those differences.

(2) There are few potential sponsors of such a meetup in NYC. This event would have to take root with minimal budget.

(3) Space in New York is hard to come by. The event would have to be structured and timed to let us take advantage of free space in bars and restaurants.

(4) As I’ve previously written, the New York tech landscape is very siloed, with little cross-pollination between verticals. In Silicon Valley, anyone working on a tech-enabled solution considers themselves part of the tech industry. In New York, we frame ourselves in terms of the particular vertical we are tackling — the “advertising industry”, the “gaming industry” or the “fashion industry”, for instance. This makes it difficult for events to reach across the social graph, and to this day I rarely see any Gaming Meetup regulars at other big tech events like the NY Tech Meetup or the Y+30.

Execution: For its first year, the event took place at Gallery Bar in the Lower East Side on Tuesday nights. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give the location a 2, the venue a 7 and the cost a 10 — it was a free (but good) space with AV equipment in a out-of-the-way Manhattan neighborhood. Don’t get me wrong, I love the LES, but it’s a suboptimal place to host an after-work event.

Initial Results: The Gaming Meetup got a decent but not overwhelming response. We had a fairly predictable number of attendees — 55 to 75 per meetup — over our first ten months. The event wasn’t really gaining traction, but it was establishing a good core of game developers and people who loved what we created. The content (demos from local game developers and entrepreneurs) was hit or miss. There weren’t enough games being developed in New York City for us to be truly selective, and for every awesomely cool and instructive game that took the stage we had one guy just trying to sell something to the audience.

Iteration: A few months after starting the meetup, I started iterating on the model. Here are some things we tried and the results we got. Since metrics are important, changes were evaluated on (a) the number of attendees we got, (b) how long those attendees stayed and (c) how people reviewed the event.

Moving it later: Most people would show up at 7:30 anyway, so our 6:30 start time didn’t make any sense — especially since attendees had to travel to the Lower East Side. Good change, kept it.

Focusing on networking rather than demos: The demos started to get stale after a while, so I created one networking-only meetup to see how people would react. Bad idea; many people will only travel for content.

Fewer Demos: This was partially out of necessity, but ultimately it proved to be a good call. Six demos is simply too many. Four is much better.

Themed Meetups: We ran our first themed meetup (on Mobile Gaming) in March, and it was a tipping point of sorts. As it turns out, there is a certain “optimal specificity” in this kind of stuff — make it too general (“Game Demos”) and people aren’t sure what they’ll get. Make it too specific (“Android Development Best Practices”) and most people won’t care. Something in the middle (“Social Games”, “Mobile Gaming”, “Innovation in Consoles”) is ideal.

Higher-profile speakers: Last month, Kenny Rosenblatt (CEO, Arkadium) came and spoke on the topic of social games, and our meetup got 2x the number of people we’ve ever gotten. I’m a bit surprised that I hadn’t gone the high-profile-keynote-speaker route before. I’m certainly capable of sourcing them, and they give me far fewer logistical headaches than half a dozen demoers (one of which will inevitably bring a mac without the right VGA adapter).

The Hockey Stick: As you can see from my chart of RSVPs, I’ve started to figure this thing out. Popularity, of course, is self-reinforcing — now that we’re getting real traction, we’ve landed a great venue at AOL Ventures in the Union Square neighborhood. And our May meetup already has 90+ RSVPs, which is well beyond what any previous NY Gaming Meetup has gotten by this point. Most excitingly, we’re lining up partnerships with other Meetup groups for this summer — for example, we’re getting together with the Y+30 to host a panel on the future of gaming.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

May 2nd, 2010 at 9:13 am

Coming of Age Among the Venture Investors

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Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published by Greg Costikyan on November 28th, 2007 and dealt with his experiences raising funding for Manifesto Games. I think it’s a wonderful piece that still rings true today, and I’m reblogging it with his permission here.

As a teenager, my subculture wasn’t “punk rockers” or “hippies” or “young Republicans,” but science fiction fandom. I tend to view other subcultures, therefore, from a sort of anthropological standpoint, noting similarities and differences from my own “native” culture. I understand “the science convention” as one of the cultural practices of my own tribe, and therefore perceive other similar cultural practices–such as the trade show, the industry conference, the acadamic conclave, or, in the case of today’s post, the venture conference–as interesting cultural variations on that basic motif.

Earlier this week, I attended the New England Venture Summit–my fifth conference of the venture-investing tribe as an attendee, my third in a money-raising capacity, and the second at which I presented.

As with conferences in other cultures, the focus of the event, which takes place typically over one or two days, is the agenda, a series of speeches and panel discussions. Unlike most other such events (e.g., the science fiction convention or the industry conference), the Dionysian aspect is downplayed–there may perhaps be private dinners sponsored by one VC firm or another after the day’s event itself, but the conceit of the participants is that they are there purely in the Calvinist pursuit of worldly wealth, so that open partying would diminish their own respectability in the eyes of the participants with whom they most desire to build social credit.

The organizers of these event are profit-making enterprises, who charge fairly stiff fees for participation, and target three sorts of potential attendees: entrepreneurs seeking capital; venture investors; and service firms. Under the rubric of “service firms” are included lawyers, accountants, headhunters, providers of outsourced HR services for small businesses, and the like. My impression, in fact, is that half or more of the revenues that such events produce are derived from service firms, both from the (higher) attendance fees they are charged, and through sponsorships.

The events on the agenda are of two types: panel discussions, usually among VCs, and usually moderated by someone from a service firm (who presumably has paid for a sponsorship in another context); and investor presentations.

Panel discussions are common to the conferences of all of the subcultures considered in our current study, but (in all cultures) they vary enormously in how interesting they are. In the worst case, you have as a topic for discussion something that has already been thrashed to death repeatedly at previous events, and a moderator who poses excruciatingly dull questions, eliciting rote answers from the panelists. Whatever your subculture, I’m sure you can bring to mind any number of these, from events you’ve attended. In an SF convention context, I would be very happy never to attend another panel on “Gender in Science Fiction” or “Breaking Into Print.” (Although even in these cases, creative panel members can overturn the conventions; I am unlikely ever to forget Michael Swanwick [writer] on a “Breaking Into Print” panel discussing his relationship with Gardner Dozois [editor], and saying “There’s a reason they call it ‘submission.'”)

The basic problem with the venture conference panel is that the conditions under which they are created mitigate against anything of the slightest interest ever being said. They exist to motivate the attendance of VCs, who may be flattered to participate; to reward service firms for contributing money (by allowing them to provide the moderators); and to attract the interest of entrepreneurs, who may reasonably be expected to find what potential investors say of interest. But the choice of topic is inevitably anodyne (“Emerging Trends” — can’t pass that one up!), and since the moderator is from a service firm, which has an interest in sucking up to both investors and entreprenuers, he is extremely unlikely to ask challenging questions, and is likely to stick to the equally anodyne. E.g., “Which is more important when you’re looking at a company–the finances or the team?” — a question at this actual conference, to which the only honest response is “Which are you, a moron or an idiot?”

(Oh, if you care –So let’s do a gedankenexperiment. 1. My team is Bill Gates, Thomas Alva Edison, and Henry Ford, and my business models is, we sell hot dogs at a loss and make it up on volume. PASS!

(2. My team is three heroin addicts who haven’t bathed in a week — but — wait! Billion dollar oppor… PASS!

( You tell me. Which is more important? The finances or the team?)

So from an entrepreneur’s perspective, there’s only one reason ever to attend these things: To put a face with a name, and know who to button-hole later.

The company pitches are the real meat of this kind of event. Typically, over the course of an hour or ninety minutes, a series of entrepreneurs get up, each allocated something between 6 and ten minutes, to pitch their company. The inevitable tool is the Powerpoint presentation (occasionally you’ll see someone using OpenOffice Impress, and good for them); this is jejune in its own right, and some day I’ll have the guts to do something completely offbeat, like hire a team of mimes and jugglers to provide visual representations of what I’m pitching.

There’s usually a ‘mandatory’ training session the day before, in which entrepreneurs give their pitch to a handful of venture-experienced people and get advice and feedback; this is actually useful, in many cases, since it’s surprising how many entrepreneurs show up under prepared, and quite often advice like “nobody’s going to be able to read 12 point type on your slide, no more than 4 bullets per, thanks” or “I still don’t have a clear idea what you do” is just what they need. For your ultimate six minutes of exposure, it’s a bit of a pain to take half a day off to watch painfully amateurish presentations from other entrepreneurs, but it’s still almost always worth it, even if you’re pretty polished. It never hurts to rehearse before a critical audience. (I didn’t take advantage of that this time, and it was a mistake not to do so.)

Watching entrepreneurs pitch is painful, because each of them has taken months of work and passionate dreams and a universe of ideas and tried to distill them down to six tight minutes. And it’s painful, because so much of what they’re pitching is jejune or just dumb; a minor tweak on the delivery of mobile content, a better way to sell real estate, a mechanism for making mobile games even less interesting than they are already by making them “free” and advertising supported. (Advertising supported inevitably means “dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.”) “Secure DRM,” hah. A mechanism for reducing cigarette theft at convenience stores.

All the kinds of things that maybe might make money, but my god; it makes you despair of capitalism. Is this the best that the Promethean creativity of the market can produce?

But to get back to the anthropological analysis, all conferences, of whatever type, have three purposes, though they vary on which they emphasize: to impart information; to build social ties; and to do business. For me as a teenager, the science fiction convention was first about information; it was an enormous thrill to hear the writers I admired speak, and I learned a great deal about writing, and the business practices of publishing. Later, it served a business purpose; promoting my work in the field, and establishing relationships with editors. And these days, on the rare times I attend one, it’s primarily social–catching up with old friends.

In terms of imparting information, I would suggest that “the venture conference” is a poor medium, except for very naive entrepreneurs. If it has any value as a social event, it is for venture investors (who often cluster and talk shop with each other, even as the entrepreneurs scan badges and try to figure out how to start a conversation with them–the entrepreneurs have little to say to one another). Which leaves the business function, and since these are events built around a business subculture, that is, or ought to be, their main purpose, redeeming the fact that they don’t do so well on the first two scores.

I would argue, however, that they don’t work particularly well in a business context, either.

Let’s start with venture investors. A typical venture capitalist spends the bulk of his days listening to pitches from entrepreneurs. Just as fiction editors are up to their eyeballs in slush, a VC has seen so many Powerpoints he has trouble remembering which is which, and probably has nightmares in which “the opportunity” and “go-to-market strategy” chase him screaming off a cliff, the jaws of negative EBITDA spreading threatening below.

Now let us say that you are, to pull things more or less at random, a VC who invests in, oh, the enterprise software space, specializing in expansion capital to already-established firms, located in Boston and almost never investing in companies farther than drive-distance.

Your expectation–and a reasonable one–is that anyone who has a company dealing with enterprise software, with some solid base of revenues, and within drive distance of Boston either knows you, or knows of you, or will ask around until he finds someone who does know you, and you will eventually see his business plan. Or if not, he can’t be a very competent entrepreneur, because he damn well should be able to find you.

So you learn of some venture conference, in the Boston area, where umpty-dozen companies will given a six minute pitch.

The basic thesis behind the venture conference is that you should be all excited to attend, because here you’ll get quick exposure to umpty-dozen potential investment opportunities, and all in the space of a day! Efficient use of time, yes?

No.

Out of those umpty-dozen, maybe two will fit your investment criteria, and if they were semi-competent, they’d find you anyway.

So… Maybe you send an associate. You certainly don’t go.

From an entrepreneur’s perspective, the supposed appeal to the venture conference is this: I’m pitching to a room containing maybe 200 people, all interested in venture investing, and even though there’s a fee attached (and maybe travel and a hotel room), and even though it’s a couple of days out of my (and maybe my senior staff’s) life, it’s a more efficient way to reach a lot of potential investors at once!

Right?

Well–no. That room of 200 people is maybe 25% other entrepreneurs waiting their turn or listening to other pitches to get a better sense of how to polish their own, and maybe 50% service folks who actually want to sell you stuff, and maybe the other 25% are investors of one kind or another. Of whom the vast majority would never invest in whatever it is you’re pitching. And of the handful who remain, almost all are so junior that unless they go back foaming at the mouth with excitement, it doesn’t really help.

You would be far better off staying at home, figuring out the right VC firm and the right person there, and figuring out how to network to them, so your submission doesn’t fly over the transom and land in the “slush”, but gets a sympathetic read.

As Michael Swanwick said, “there’s a reason they call it submission.”

***

Which is a nice pat way to end it, but leaves two obvious questions, I think. I’ll take them in order.

1. “So… How did you do?”

Ehn. I think the Powerpoint itself was pretty strong, but this is the first time I’ve tried to do this with a partner; Nathan took half the slides, and I the other half. We both floundered a bit, and were not as crisp, clean, and confident as you want to be in this context. We could have used another few hours of rehearsal to get it down pat. We didn’t, for two reasons; one, Nathan and I live in different cities, and our time for rehearsal was three hours the night before. And second, perhaps, I’m skeptical enough about the value of the whole enterprise that I didn’t make it enough of a priority for us to get together with time to do the work we needed to do. Penny wise and pound foolish; if you invest in the money and time to do this at all, you ought to do it well. I take responsibility.

Not that I think we made idiots of ourselves, but we could certainly have been better.

2. “Would you do it again?”

I think I’ve just made a strong argument for why this kind of thing is useless. But… Yes. And probably will. For two reasons.

First, the discipline of trying to distill what you want to do down to six minutes and a handful of slides of worthwhile–and refreshing, in its own way. More than that, distilling it down to a business case; it’s obvious, I think that I’m doing what I’m doing for a slew of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with a business case, and if I were doing a six-minute presentation for an audience of, say, game developers, it would look very different. But if I can’t make a strong business case, I shouldn’t be trying to do this as a business–an art project, perhaps, or a non-profit enterprise. But if I can persuade myself that this makes sense in a business context, that’s self-motivating–and an excellent framework to make a case to people–beyond the context of the venture conference–who are utterly motivated by monetary return, and don’t care as passionately as I about the larger issues.

Second… Even if, as I’ve argued, the venture conference is not an efficient fund-raisng tool, if you’re out looking for money… Well, it’s just one of the things you have to do.

Part of the subculture, you know.

Greg’s original writing can be found here.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

March 24th, 2010 at 9:53 am

WonderTonic

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It’s rare that I stumble upon a humor site that is genuinely, regularly funny. Many have glimpses or flashes of true brilliance, but few can do it almost every post. Say hello to wondertonic: http://wondertonic.tumblr.com/

At its core, WT’s humor “recipe” often implants the grotesque into the serious or mundane. See their latest post for a perfect example:

Give her a triforce

I, for one, know that my significant other would appreciate 4chan-themed tokens of my admiration.

And certainly don’t go without paying a visit to People Sighing on Twitter.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

February 21st, 2010 at 10:12 am