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Best New York tech meetups of 2013

By Dennis Clemente

Let me introduce the best New York tech meetups of 2013, my extremely biased assessement of the best New York City had to offer from its startups, investors and tech meetup groups last year. I do hope you can give me some leeway in terms of my choices. After all, I was in more than a hundred tech startup meetups, fairs and other similar events.

It’s also what I could call the 2013 Reimagine Tech Awards or how I spent my night life attending one meetup after another. All in all, I wrote, mentioned and talked to more than 650 startups and investors (angel and otherwise) from these meetups–the ones who make it possible for many of these startups to get funding, of course.

I also logged in some hours talking to lawyers—those who offered their services and those who threw in the towel to join startups. It’s interesting to point out how so many of these so-called secure jobs are not just secure anymore.

So many professions are being disrupted. Jobs are scarce, as operations are being automated. And those who can’t get into entry-level jobs find themselves—what else?—transformed as entrepreneurs, which can be a good thing, if your startup makes it.

Different people from different parts of the world were in the meetups—either to pitch and present, lurk or watch closely. How are these startups doing now? We’ll just have to wait and see how they emerge a year or so from now.

Here are some of the best I’ve seen last year in New York’s tech meetups, not counting those pricey trade fairs I can’t afford to go to, although I managed to make it New York Tech Day and NYC Big Apps with Mayor Bloomberg in attendance.

BEST MEETUP GROUP. Hatchery’s Are You Serious meetup. You want honest-to-goodness feedback on your startup, business model and presentation style? You’ll get it here. Guest panel of investors from venture-backed firms are regulars and are familiar with the five-year long structure of the meetup. Host Yao Hui Huang runs a tight ship.

BEST MEETUP TALK: Steve Blank at Startup Grind. The native New Yorker who made his name as a Silicon Valley giant was entertaining and engaging to listen to. Runner-up: Joe Meyer, former CEO of Hopstop now with Apple, gave us valuable startup advice in a talk that lasted more than two hours—the longest by any one speaker last year.

BEST VC TALK: Fred Wilson. You can divide VCs into two categories. Those who don’t crack open a smile but are very helpful and those who smile but are not really helpful. Wilson managed to be both accommodating and helpful, but he certainly had more bite to his talk, giving a no-holds-barred opinion on NY and its tech startups. The other VCs were just too guarded, most likely because they get wooed all the time but hats off to Shai Goldman of 500 Startups, Adam Quinton of Lucas Point Ventures and Charlie O’Donnell of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures for their amazing fireside chats.

BEST ANGEL INVESTOR TALK: John Ason. Last year, there were so many of them who taught us so many things about how to get funding, but Ason was very candid and generous with his time. He didn’t have the stage for himself, but as part of a panel, he stood out. He’s also very approachable.

BEST MEETUP MODERATORS: Helman and Horn. It’s a tie between Michael Helman of Startup Nation and Jeremy Horn of The Product Group. Helman, host of Startup Nation and co-founder of WILLiFEST and Crowdzu, is a great interviewer with just the right pace and structure to his gentle grilling. Horn, on the other hand, is able to make nearly all 400 of his attendees speak up.

BEST MEETUP TALK SHOW: Startup Grind. Hats off to StartupGrind’s Brian Park for having the most important people in the tech world open up about what it takes to succeed as a startup—or in the world in general. Guests have included Steve Blank, Gary Vaynerchuck and Chet Kanojia.

Best venue. Skirball Theater, NY Tech Meetup's home.
Best venue. Skirball Theater, NY Tech Meetup’s home.

BEST VENUE. NYU Skirball Theater, home of NY Tech Meetup. With its cavernous 700-seating capacity, it’s even bigger than most Broadway stages with balconies and boxes, and huge after-presentation mixer on another floor. Runner-up: Queens Tech Meetup is on the top floor overlooking Manhattan’s skyline.

BEST AUDIENCE. Startup Grind’s. It won me over for having the most engaged audience. Others have the most number of attendees for their venue but with Startup Grind, no matter where it holds its next meetup, the audience just keeps on coming.

BEST TIP OR QUOTABLE QUOTE. It’s a tie between John Ason and Shai Goldman. When pitching to Ason, you need to do the following, in order: “Entertain. Engage. Inform.” Goldman had this to say, “All startup teams need 3Hs—hustler, hipster, hacker.” Runner-up: Mike Bloomberg, on not joining 2013 NYC Big Apps contest: “I didn’t join because it would be unfair to everyone here.”

BEST STARTUP. It’s hard to determine this from more than 600 startups I wrote or talked about last year. Besides, what would the criteria be for that? Instead, I have the BEST STARTUP PITCH OR PRESENTATION: The Lux Animals team and Dennis Crowley of Foursquare. The Lux team came in full force at the Microsoft Building to talk in detail about the many facets of its gaming business and advertising work. On the other hand, Dennis Crowley of Foursquare proved to be an engaging storyteller about his beginnings and his success now.

One final award goes to the MOST GRATEFUL STARTUP, because they took the time to say thank you for my write-up even with just a Tweet. It’s a tie between Lux Animals and Warby Parker. They thanked and tweeted me profusely for the blog write-ups. Thanks, guys.

Silicon Valley giant Steve Blank on demo days, pivots, entrepreneurship

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By Dennis Clemente

How much evidence do you really need before you launch your startup? The person at the receiving end of that question responds: “That’s like guessing how much sex is enough. I’ll let you know when I get there.”

The crowd of about 200 people burst into laughter, hoots and whistles. That set the mood for Startup Grind’s event at Alley NYC last September 23. The man speaking was Steve Blank, the pre-eminent Silicon Valley entrepreneur, author of several books (one of which launched the lean startup movement), an educator and the man that continues to remain in most top 30 influencers’ list in technology even after more than 33 years in the tech world.

True to how he espouses his ideas and the way his highly organized mind works and because he’s a teacher at heart, he responded, “But who are you building it for?” Blank said more and had the audience hanging on his every word.

On demo days. “An incubator is like the Miss Universe contest.” He decried how many are graded by how well they pitch instead of whether their startups are a good product-market fit and if they have run enough experiments with customers, citing even VCs are getting burned down (sic) on demo day.”

“It should be more of ‘how we got here, where we are and what evidence we have’ about where we are going?” He thinks there should be a “Lessons Learned Day” than the continuous Product Demo Day.”

On thermometer of success. He tells the story from 30 years back when NASA and the Department of Defense decided to come up with a Technology Readiness Level. “Level 0 could be demonstrated the principles, Level 5 and 6 could be you have something working. Level 8 or 9 could be you have reached nirvana.

“What we never had was the Investment Readiness Level? But there are some criteria on that now. We may now be able to play Moneyball with startups,” referencing the book where a small team was able to compete against the New York Yankees and their payroll by relying on data—and hiring players who could gets base hits than most other players. “We might be in the beginning of a discussion that could lead to Investment Readiness Levels.”

On rising number of incubators/accelerators. He acknowledged the help these incubators and accelerators provide, which is a long way from just the sharing of physical spaces back in the old days. “What we’ve had last five years are the mentor-based, equity types. We have Paul Graham’s guru-based Y Combinator who mentors, demos and gives you partial funding. We have Tech Stars in multiple cities with community mentoring. Are there too many? “We need to think past existing models. We need to make way for a new model. Accelerators may (want to consider) a curriculum.”

On when to pivot or stick to your vision: “We used to pivot by firing executives. What we’ve learned is that instead of firing executives, we’re going to fire the plan first.” But these days, Blank said pivoting has also been done to the extreme. He said he told Eric Ries (his student and the one who coined it in the book, Lean Startup) that he draws the line somewhere in pivot.

“The problem is that now, it has given rise to its (misuse) by founders with attention deficit disorders. Pivot should not be…like someone told me something yesterday I’ll turn the company upside down.”

On existing markets and new markets. “A small startup is nothing like a large company with its existing markets – how you can find out about size, competitors, pricing and customers. Customer discovery is really easy in existing markets. You can get sufficient data and pivot.

Talking about how startups get started, “Attacking the incumbent (existing market) can be suicidal, but what others see or not see is that there could be a niche (in a new market). But what is a new market? With a new market, you don’t (have data). It’s about seeing something no one else sees. Now you have to go outside and ask the bigger question, where is the world and what do you see?”

On intellectual property. If you’re in the web, mobile or cloud, unless you have a really novel product, it’s going screw your head. What matters most is velocity of learning. Instead of talking (and having it in your head), you can go out and listen (to your customers.)

On gaining the vision to see what’s out there 3 years from now. Rephrasing the question, Blank said, “Can you teach entrepreneurship? We have been asking the wrong question for a hundred years. Of course, we can teach entrepreneurship.

“We can teach it but the question is, who can we teach entrepreneurship to? Yes, we can teach it to those who passionately volunteer… If you desperately want it, we can teach it. If you think it as a job, you’re through. We are now in the renaissance of teaching entrepreneurship. We (eliminate) stumbling blocks and prevent people from doing the wrong things we used to do.”

On why the closest thing to a founder is being an artist. “What we missed for a hundred years is that the closest thing to a founder is (being) an artist. Who are they? When we see a blank canvas, they see a starry night. When we see a block of marble, they see a theater. When we see nothing, they say, ‘Follow me, it’s here.’

On his young self, some 30-plus years ago. Blank is a native New Yorker. He was born in Chelsea, grew up in Queens, and lived in the Bronx for awhile. He went to the University of Michigan, dropped out after the first semester, and joined the military in Vietnam. “I had the lowest GPA. I was ‘thrown out’ with a .5 grade point,” he said. After Vietnam, he went to find work in Silicon Valley in 1978. “I was surprised to see 48 pages of job ads for engineers alone in California.”

Blank worked the night shift at military intelligence systems supplier whose location, to this day, he has not disclosed. Because there were no close vaults during his time, covert manuals were just within his reach. He said he read them because he loved to read, admitting he wasn’t too bright at 24 to think how risky it was for him to do so. He even took notes.

When someone found out and grabbed his notebook, he was told, “You’re not cleared to write this. Wait, I’m not cleared to read this.”

He was told 3 days how it cost the company a lot of money to keep his notebook in a safe place. Telling this story humorously, he was asked and told because there was a cold war between the U.S. and Russia, “You’re not going anywhere, are you? We do have your passport? Do you mind taking on another hobby?”

Blank said he was not a CEO in his younger years and his “career was more of incremental apprenticeship.” Still, he managed to retire from Silicon Valley at 45, so he could see his kids grow up. And take on other hobbies, like writing books and teaching young people to build their own careers as entrepreneurs.