Whither the Econocalypse? Scenes From L.A. Tech Month
If you think the most painful thing about a Sunday morning is nursing a hangover, then you haven’t awakened from four hours of sleep to battle it out in the rain with a bunch of Tech Paintball fanatics who may or may not have been Navy Seals.
Providing much-needed respite from the nonstop conferences, mixers and galas that populate L.A. Tech Month, the L.A. Tech PAIN(t)ball war between Team Tequila and Team Black at Hollywood Sports Paintball in Bellflower was organized by Lincoln Group founder Paige Craig and Black Card Circle Foundation founder Lotay Yang in order to vent frustration, fuel lighthearted rivalries and inspire some dirty social media–related fun.
The standoffs, barbs and endless jokes about “balls” between the teams were traded on Facebook, Twitter and Lalawag.com months before anyone got anywhere near a gun (or, in paintball speak, a “marker”). The team roster was a Tech who’s who that included Lalawag power couple Laurie and Sean Percival, Rubicon Project’s Nicole Jordan and BarCampLA’s Chris Darbro, as well as Digg.com’s Aubrey Sabala, who flew in from San Francisco with Gerard Ramos and Chad Seeger of Avenue Labs specifically to attend the event. More than half of the 35-plus participants showed up in their own camo, and we’re not talking skirts and scrunchies here.
Speaking as a paintball n00b, watching the mandatory Hollywood Sports Paintball Rules! safety video does not prepare you for the challenges and stress of actual combat in the mud, especially if it’s against people who have put in their 10,000 hours playing first-person shooter video games. The aforementioned Sabala got so stressed she had to pop a Xanax, and this reporter got shot in the face, twice. The video also doesn’t mention the pain and welts that come afterward, popping up like bites from the world’s most bloodthirsty mosquito, and so ubiquitous that they inspired their own Web site.
Ranging from “Apocalypse” to “Mad Max,” the movie set–inspired paintball fields played host to the ultimate team-building exercise. And the competition was intense, with military-level strategizing from both teams and cutthroat tactics culled everywhere from the boardroom to the gadgetspace (former Marine Craig wore a “Paintball Cam” throughout the scrimmage).
The welts nursed by many of the troops were not in vain, however; proceeds from the $60 tickets were divided evenly between the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and the Black Card Circle Foundation. As my fellow defector Jordan put it (and yes, I sat out the last part of the game like a wuss, preferring to munch the mango slices and granola provided by Scott Schroeder of Scottysnacks), the “good cause means I don’t mind paying $60 to play for 10 minutes and realize I don’t like paintball.”
How to Survive the Burst of the Hot Air Bubble Machine
Los Angeles and the Web business both boil down to how well you manage traffic, but in start-up culture there are no clear-cut metrics that involve getting from Hollywood to Westwood in under 20 minutes. Startonomics’ promise of a strategic approach to success with which to battle the hype surrounding the current economic contraction motivated me to spend a good part of my Friday morning stuck in a bottleneck on Wilshire and Robertson, trying to reach the daylong conference at UCLA Anderson School of Management.
Founded in October 2008 by Dealmaker Media CEO and Silicon Valley rainmaker Debbie Landa, Startonomics has found a home in L.A. — which speaks volumes about how much the technology industry is thriving here. If the 350 people in attendance all want to start or grow their companies, whither the econocalypse?
“I know what it’s like to be sitting in the audience with an idea,” says Jasmine Antonick, management consultant at Dealmaker Media, over the click-clacking of fingers on keyboards, the audience a sea of MacBooks and iPhones.
“I put together these conferences,” Landa says, “because I wanted a place where you could come and seal the deal.”
It’s true that with all the tech-world mixers and drinks and charity balls, it’s easy to forget that people are here to make money. Even though few attendees passed up the open bar and “make your own” burritos at the Mediatemple after-party, most came for sustenance of a different sort, absorbing real content on how to make their businesses more profitable.
“L.A. is all about making money,” attendee Alex Gonzalez says. “It’s much more advertising-friendly and has a drastically different philosophy from the Valley.” Antonick agrees: “All these big media companies — down here they’re all chasing the buck.”
“The industry moves so fast,” says Dan Mapes, president of Magnet Solutions, “it’s really good to come and hear [the updates].”
Whether it was search-marketing rock star Neil Patel taking us to SEO school, or DocStoc CEO Jason Nazar teaching us the seven ways to drive traffic (1. SEO; 2. Blogs/Press; 3. Soc Media; 4. Partnerships; 5. Viral loops; 6. Refresh content; 7. Solve a compelling need), or social-media guru Sean Percival proving his point by incorporating the use of Twitter hashtags into his “Social Media Is Dead” presentation, Startonomics played out like a crash course in the art of Internet business — a “one-day marketing degree, and engineering degree and MBA mash-up.”
As David Sacks, CEO of Yammer, pointed out in his keynote, the technology industry is the only one that has not asked for a bailout thus far (outlasting even the porn industry). In fact, as he succinctly put it, “We are the bailout.” Sacks maintains that the culture of sharing within Web 2.0 doesn’t exist anywhere in the economy. “Web 1.0 was about things, Web 2.0 is about people,” he explains, reminding me of the maxim “Love people, use money.” Shrewd advice when you consider that people don’t “bubble.”
Top 10 Tips for Surviving the Recession via Startonomics
10. “Solve a compelling need — tap into things we think about most, i.e., ourselves.” —Jason Nazar, DocStoc CEO. There’s a reason Facebook is valued at 3B and it’s not the “poke people” application.
9. “Learn how to flip burgers.” —Mark Suster, GRP Partners. Entrepreneurs need to learn to “flip burgers” or fill every role from head of marketing to secretary and gopher downward, because unless you’ve actually done the job, you won’t know if it’s being done right.
8. “Don’t take money from people who aren’t passionate about what you’re passionate about.” —Richard Rosenblatt, founder of Demand Media. It’s that passion that will get you through the long days when your only revenue is a $20 bill stapled to a coupon for Advil.
7. “Your avatar must speak for who you are and what you represent.” —Sean Percival, director of content, Tsavo Media. Social Media is oversaturated with static and noise, so build your brand with one cohesive and flattering image — which means no more pics of you in booty shorts dancing to “Single Ladies” at Señor Frogs!
6. “Obama won because people voted for him. The Internet works in much the same way.” —Neil Patel, director of marketing, KISSMetrics. The Internet is all about critical mass; build momentum through good content and smart SEO. (Another, more techie Patel tip: “Never underestimate that power of Google images, use alt tags, long descriptions, and make sure the photo has a high pixel count.”)
5. “Have a lot of friends.” —Nazar. Most people underestimate the power of friendship. Build your connections and use them to disseminate buzz surrounding your feature, product, business or company.
4. “Do more with less, do what you do best.” —Peter Pham, CEO, Billshrink. First you decide what it is you have — i.e., feature, product, business, company — and then work it. Twitter took the “updates” feature of FB and turned it into an empire.
3. “Don’t be afraid to suck in public.” —Mark Jeffrey, CTO, Mahalo. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but when you find them, fix them, and FAST!” The road to success is paved with failures.
2. “The day you start your business may be the last easy day of your life.” —Jim Benedetto, senior vice president of technology, MySpace. That’s why they call it work and not play — you’re going to have to put in your 10,000 hours.
1. “Have fun. ... We’re not saving lives.” —Frank Adante, CEO, Rubicon Project. When the “Business” section seems more like the “Layoffs” section, it’s very easy to forget this golden rule. Breathe; this too shall pass.
On the Precipice of Tech Revolution
Walking into Twiistup 5 is like walking into a tech-set Disneyland — the high security, the lasers, fog machines and neon props from Bladerunner adding to the surreal experience of being surrounded by the latest in groundbreaking technology. In fact, it might seem more like a test lab (or the Jetsons’ garage) than a party if it weren’t for the meandering Catwomen, cigar rollers and more than 1,000 polished revelers (the wait list topped out at 450). Inside a private airplane hangar in Santa Monica, the metaphorical and literal buzz surrounding the event, put together by Freshwata, and every single one of the “showoffs,” or Top 10 start-ups on the precipice of something revolutionary, is simultaneously overwhelming and energizing.
Technology geeks “deal with it” daily on an almost cellular level, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a phenomenal time while doing so — dressing up and snapping pics in the Clique mobile photo booth, playing Rock Band at the Girl Gamer table, getting their makeup done by expert Audie Metcalf at eHow, downing Twiistup-Tinis and eating what little they could find of Kogi BBQ before the mobs devoured the Korean tacos.
Started two years ago by Mike Macadaan, Tsavo Media VP of product and design, the bi-annual Twiistup (much like Tsavo’s newly unveiled semantic search function) focuses on the individual attendee. Macadaan sees the event as the ultimate design project, with emphasis on maximizing user experience. There are so many goodies and novel ways of interacting at the event (SMS scavenger hunt! Why not?) that attendees are bound to connect with meaningful content.
Although Macadaan aims to bridge “the gap between media, entertainment and the investment community,” he emphasizes that Twiistup is not singularly a networking event. “It’s an event to discover new stuff, new connections, new innovations, new jobs — the latest and greatest things,” he beams as he leads me around the somewhat chilly hangar for a tour of the “showoffs,” companies culled from more than 100 submissions. His enthusiasm is contagious. Working fervently and passionately on Twiistup for the past two years, Macadaan has earned the recent tech explosion. Twiistup 5 comes across as a laser-bright spotlight amid the looming clouds of depression hype. “Amazing things happen when you get those people together, creativity we haven’t even begun to see,” Macadaan says, then echoes the sentiments of many by stating: “I want to speed it up in my lifetime.”
Immersing people in a creative atmosphere is the best way to speed it up, as judge Brian Solis points out. “This thing is so much bigger than all the parties, it’s about the social economy, the one-on-one interactions between all of the entrepreneurs.” He speaks of a post-geographical need to contribute to something bigger. L.A.’s penchant for creativity makes it the perfect incubator, and the perfect location for Twiistup. Judge Sarah Lacy, whose thumbs-up is about as good as it gets in tech (she wrote the seminal Business Week article on Kevin Rose), explains it this way: “The [Silicon] Valley tends to look down on L.A., but location is irrelevant when you’re talking about ideas.”
Nicole Jordan, the fresh-faced director of communications for sponsor Rubicon Project, likens Twiistup to what is beautiful about the social Web: “Community exists as you define it.” In the Internet world it is the ideas and the meaningful content that define the space. “We’re all in the same battle,” Jordan says. “The people who get ahead are the ones who get it, and that’s L.A.”
After meeting the entrepreneurs behind Causecast (a site that attempts to bring nonprofits up to Web 2.0 speed), Cogi, eHow, FixYa (who gave out mini tool kits), GoGreenSolar, Meebo, RoboDynamics, TheScene, Viewdle (an app that recognizes faces in video, making it super easy to search the Web for your favorite viral vids) and Yammer, I’m transfixed by how many of them are running on pure passion, excitement — and toddler sippy cups of Petron provided by Totspot.
Lined up around the perimeter of the room to demonstrate their products and services, the event sponsors are just as industrious and even more unpronounceable, including (but not limited to) the aforementioned Tsavo, Chi.mp (a Web identity hub), Whrrl (which is giving out a free iPhone app), Mail Room Fund (the closest thing you’ll get to a hip VC firm), Rubicon Project, Scour and Zannel (responsible for the Catwomen).
As the “showoffs” vie to impress the extraordinary panel of judges (journalist Lacy, social-media maestro and PR 2.0 founder Solis, Somewhat Frank creator Frank Gruber, Citrusbyte head Will Jessup, Mixergy founder Andrew Warner and Heavybagmedia minx Jackie Peters), each start-up puts its best foot forward. The collective genius for talent spotting at Twiistup is high — past finds include Good Reads and Mint.com, both services I actually use, a lot.
Merited on whether they “meet a real unmet need, solve a real problem, and dominate in their space,” with bonus points for logistic successes like operating with a low budget or small team, Cogi, a phone-call transcribing service and winner of the Judge’s Prize, scores free workspace at Blankspaces, free hosting from Mediatemple and a meeting with Tech Coast Angels, a VC firm (i.e., possible financing). People vote for the fan pick online or at the event by dropping little gems into the companies’ respective bowls. Totspot, with its mommy-blogger niche appeal, wins the hearts of the crowd — the moms’ tequila-filled sippy cups don’t hurt, either.
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