By Jim Flood
Last week Mayor Michael Bloomberg took considerable flak for his administration’s handling of the blizzard. The Departments of Transportation and Sanitation were roundly criticized by New Yorkers who found their streets unplowed for days and commuters who found themselves stuck on trains and buses. When it comes to basics like clearing snow and keeping traffic running, the people of this city have no qualms about holding government accountable. But not all city agencies have mandates that affect people’s lives so immediately and dramatically when they fall short of expectations.
The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) is a city hall agency that many NYC residents have probably never heard of, let alone interacted with. Its goal is to encourage economic development and spur job growth. A few weeks ago, NYCEDC sponsored a “Startup Exchange,” inviting tech entrepreneurs from a range of industries to interact with VCs and each other in a cocktail party setting. A subsequent thread on the nextNY e-mail list made it clear that several people who attended the event found it unfocused and unhelpful. In interviews and e-mail exchanges since then, a few of these technologists expressed frustration with the way the city has attempted to engage the Silicon Alley tech community overall.
Alex Poon, co-founder and VP of Data Modeling at Visual Revenue, thought the event was more about self-promotion by NYCEDC than helping to foster connections within the tech industry. “NYCEDC should spend more effort in seeking out people who are working in tech to invite to these events,” he argued. “This event was not mentioned on any of the top NYC tech mailing lists I am part of. This gives me the feeling that they weren’t reaching out to all the right people.”
Apar Kothari, founder and CEO of MyNines, suggested that she would have found the Startup Exchange more helpful if introductions had been facilitated and companies had been divided into categories. “There was no organization to the event,” she said. “You didn’t know who was who.” Among examples of more useful networking opportunities, Kothari mentioned the monthly Fashion 2.0 Meetup, where “you always learn something.”
The organizer of that Meetup, Yuli Ziv, founder and CEO of Style Coalition and co-founder of MyItThings, said she has approached NYCEDC about co-sponsoring events, but the agency seems uninterested in taking advantage of the existing community that she and other entrepreneurs have built up. Ziv said she would be glad to have city officials attend one of the Fashion 2.0 Meetups and hear the concerns and requests of members directly. “They need to listen first,” she said. “Then they could take that feedback into consideration when they do their planning.”
A spokesperson for NYCEDC president Seth W. Pinsky explained that the agency sees itself as a higher-level facilitator: given its broad mandate of encouraging economic growth in all industries throughout the entire city, its focus is on creating programs and providing funding, then letting the private sector take over. The agency convenes meetings with CEOs to find out what issues industries are facing. As evidence of efforts it has undertaken to make New York City a “hub of innovation,” she cited the information portal Venture Connect, business incubators such as the Varick Street location administered by NYU-Poly and the NYC BigApps competitions.
However, these NYCEDC programs do not seem to be fully resonating with a number of the people and companies they’re designed to help.
“I keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on, and if there are real initiatives from the city, I haven’t heard about it and none of my cohorts have heard about it either,” said Reece Pacheco, founder of Overtime Media. This sentiment was echoed by Mojo Talantikite, cluster engineer at Engine Yard, who said he is unaware of what the city is doing to help start-ups beyond what he called “symbolic steps” such as hosting occasional events and app competitions.
Nearly all the technologists who expressed dissatisfaction with the NYCEDC suggested that the city could make a bigger impact by taking a less top-down approach in its efforts to reach the tech community. “They should be coming to the tech events that we hold on our own,” Talantikite said. “By increasing their direct interactions with the entrepreneurs and hackers in the city, we’ll be in a much better place to know how we can help each other,” he added.
Similarly, Pacheco contended that the city should make more of an effort to connect to early-stage startups instead of just established players. “They know where Google is, they know where Gilt Groupe is,” he said. “If they want to know what’s going on, they need to listen from the bottom up, not just the top executives.” He suggested that the city could send representatives to the monthly NY Tech Meetup, which regularly draws more than 800 attendees from its 16,000-plus members, to solicit input.
The NYCEDC spokesperson said the agency is open to proposals on how to improve its interaction with the city’s tech sector. Among other ideas offered by the entrepreneurs interviewed for this story, Talantikite recommended that the city put its non-sensitive software projects on collaborative development site Github and assemble a board of advisors “culled from the startup community, not just the name-brand VCs.” He also mentioned Code for America, a program that according to its website “helps city governments become more transparent, connected and efficient by connecting the talents of cutting-edge web developers with people who deliver city services,” as an initiative that could benefit New York City, which is not currently a participant.
Pacheco said that providing more office space and attracting tech talent should be considered priorities in creating an environment where start-ups can thrive. He also believes that advocating for the so-called Startup Visa, which aims to ease immigration requirements on would-be entrepreneurs, would be helpful.
Along with all of his fellow technologists interviewed for this post, Pacheco expressed interest in cooperating with NYC’s government in ways that would be mutually beneficial. “I think people are willing to accept the help of the city, and work with the city,” he said.