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Dot-Com Again? Behind the Scenes of L.A.'s "Twiistup" Networking Phenomenon

Twiisted: Macadaan, left, and Jordan
Orly Olivier

To the uninitiated, it’s hard to tell that the Twiistup party at Santa Monica’s Viceroy Hotel is a tech party and not a Hollywood premiere. When your eyes regain focus after the paparazzi flash at the wall of logos, one thought burbles beneath the surface of your consciousness, informing every martini sip and business-card sleight of hand: What if you’d been to a party like this back in the late ’90s, maybe a party not quite this cool or swank, but a party where a couple of college kids were looking for some money to fund their new company? And what if you happened to meet them, and you happened to get along — you’re geeks at heart, after all — and you went into business together in their funnily named start-up? What was it called again? Oh, yes, Google.

Twiistup, Southern Cal’s premier geek-chic party, has that electric feel.

All along the perimeter of the Viceroy’s swimming pool, there are start-up displays and demos. One company, Compulsion, produces software that makes video clickable. So, say, you’re watching Emeril Lagasse cook spaghetti sauce, you can click on his saucepan, and bam! — you’re taken to the place on the Web where you can buy the pan. Bookrenter, true to its name, allows you to rent books online. Minggl enables you to consolidate all your social-networking info. There are more, all fascinating, all cutting-edge, all sounding vaguely like Swedish furniture: Strutta, Twiidla, Phonevite, BigStage, Seethroo.

Somewhere in the lively swankiness, past the cute girls who’ve kicked off their stilettos to play skeetball in the GirlGamer ’80s arcade, past the shirtsleeved venture capitalists munching on tiny burger hors d’oeuvres in the plush venture-capitalist room, are the party’s organizers. Mike Macadaan, Twiistup’s founder, is schlepping bags of ice. Nicole Jordan, one of its promoters, is being invited out for drinks by more people than she has hours in the week.

“It feels like 1997 all over again,” Macadaan says, tentatively.

Yeah, but we know what happened to 1997, I say. Cue the scenes of the people scurrying out of abandoned offices, rolling away the ergonomic task chairs, NASDAQ swan-diving in the midst of the dot-com-bomb Geek Tragedy.

“We’re much more informed now,” he says. “The writers’ strike solidified the Web as where the future is. It doesn’t scare me. There’s not as much excess. Start-ups aren’t spending their money in crazy ways. They’re not buying llamas and monkeys and giraffes to put in their lobby.”

But they are throwing parties. When Jordan first moved to Los Angeles from New York by way of Northern California, she’d hit event after event, and people would tease her: “You’re quite the tech socialite, aren’t you?” Suddenly the SoCal tech scene had its “It Girl.” And there is something about her. Chipmunk-cute, blond, friendly, with a sweet face and pretty smile; everybody describes her as “charming.”

Jordan sends out regular dispatches from her Facebook page about parties, mixers, cocktail nights and coffees to attend; clubs to join; coffee, lunches and dinners to meet for. There are all kinds of gatherings — virtual and physical. Lunch 2.0, Mixergy, Digital Drinks, DealMaker, Mashable. There are not just social-networking groups but groups that meet to discuss the groups.

“It’s funny because it’s perception, right?” Jordan offers. “People are, like, how do you have time to go to all these?”

Now that the L.A. tech scene is edging toward critical mass, facilitating these meetings has become a natural extension of her personality.

“Does anyone ask me to do this? No,” she says. But Jordan, 32, is a tech blueblood. She was born in Silicon Valley, and her father worked for Intel, her mother for Qualcomm. When Jordan was 8, her mom said she should go into PR. She did. Notably for Apple, where she helped to launch the iPod and Mac OS X. More Plum Sykes than Paris Hilton, Jordan declares on her Facebook page, “I am sick of bullshit. And looking for people free of it,” and “I am a geek.”

“Just do me a favor,” she says, “be careful how you use the word ‘geek.’ Some tech people don’t like being called geek. They prefer ‘new media.’”

Macadaan, though, doesn’t fear the geek. “At our events it’s definitely geek chic,” he says. “In that ecosystem you have businesspeople, media, investors, publicists. The geek is one small subset, but they are the core. I’m flattered if someone calls me a geek. I associate the term with someone who’s hyperobsessive. Who breaks a thing down to its molecular level when he gets to know it. Nerd is not such a term of endearment.”

A few days after the Twiistup party, in the common area of her current employer, Rubicon, an Internet advertising company, Jordan talks about the way she overhears people saying that L.A.’s tech energy has suddenly taken off.

 

“But it’s not sudden,” Jordan tells them. “There are people like me and Twiistup’s founder, Mike Macadaan, who create these communities. It’s been strategic hard work.”

Silicon Valley always compares everybody to itself, she continues. It’s like the big brother who did everything right. The track star who won all the awards, the valedictorian. And all the other cities are the little siblings who are trying to live up to him.

Jordan met Macadaan at one of the Twiistup parties last year, back when the gathering was a baby event. “If we’re gonna do it,” Jordan told Macadaan, “let’s do it and blow it out.” A party of 300 grew to 600, with a waiting list of another 600.

As we talk, two Rubicon guys amble over to play pingpong.

“Hi, Nicole,” says one.

“Hi, Nicole,” says the other.

“Hi, guys.”

“Is it going to disturb you if we play? Will it be too noisy?”

“No, go right ahead.” She says she has stuff to do, otherwise she’d join them. As they play, they keep glancing at her and smiling like schoolboys.

Being a PR gal, she’s trying to get a beat on me just as I am on her.

“Why don’t you tell me,” she says, “what do you think a socialite does? If you think of a socialite as someone who doesn’t do anything, then that’s not me.”

Yet asked to define her role — it would be something like putting people together — she says simply, “I have no idea.”

Does she still go to a lot of tech parties?

“I do,” she sighs, “but at this point ... ” her voice drifts off. “I’ve been very visible. A lot of people are recommended to know me and to talk to me. So every time I go to an event, I have 20 people wanting to have lunch. I have to literally pull people into a corner if I want to have a conversation with them.”

There are people in the community who say nothing is being done. That it’s just mixers and mixers, but Jordan rejects that viewpoint. “I agree that there needs to be more substance around some of these events. Educational seminars and forums, roundtables, events with guest speakers, conferences, but to think that mixers aren’t helping to push the community forward is shortsighted. I know a lot of people who found new jobs, new clients, new business partners, VCs who funded their company, or some just made new, like-minded friends to brainstorm and collaborate with.”

Her BlackBerry chirps. She looks at it, then at me apologetically, and mouths, “Sorry! I have to get this.” The next day she’ll be sitting in on another tech-industry event panel titled “I Wish Someone Had Told Me That!”

Over in a generic conference room, in a Wilshire Boulevard shared workspace office you can rent by the hour, I find Twiistup’s Mike Macadaan settling in at a start-up he’s just become part of. A week before, he left his job at AOL, got an apartment in Santa Monica and joined the new company. It’s no longer news that Santa Monica has become a tech hotbed. Google and Yahoo are here. And clustered around those big whales are little start-ups in houses by the beach, or sharing upstairs retail space on the Promenade.

A year ago, Macadaan was working for AOL as a VP of product development in Los Angeles and looking for people to hire, but he didn’t know anybody in L.A. He figured he’d hit some tech events, his usual M.O., but there were none. So he started his own. Twiistup was born.

Macadaan’s Twiistups have the following skeleton: some showcase people, the attendees, the movers and shakers like Jordan, the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed start-up companies, the swanky venue, the libations, and then one special something — “the ‘twist’ in Twiistup” — to send it over the top. He brought in a guy to build robotic sculptures. One party featured Joseph Kosinski, director of TR2N. At another was Perez Hilton, who is rumored to make $40,000 a day on his gossip Web site. (BusinessWeek places Perez’s earnings at $110,000 a month. The $40K figure comes from what Blogads says it would cost to do a one-day advertising “takeover” of perezhilton.com.)

“Whether you like his content or not,” Macadaan says, “here’s someone who took an open-source technology and created an entire brand around his persona. He’s making bank. I thought Perez would be inspiring.”

Macadaan also brought in video-game fanatic Steve Wiebe, who attempted to break his own Donkey Kong record at the party. To Macadaan, all these guys represent the entrepreneurial spirit.

 

And people came.

The Web company Good Reads showed at Twiistup before it was named one of Time magazine’s Top Ten start-ups. So did GUI Media, which AOL acquired shortly after the party. Mint.com, a personal-finance site, went on to win first place at the influential TechCrunch40 party in San Francisco. TechCrunch emerged several years ago as a blog about start-ups and quickly turned into an empire. “It’s one of the most powerful blogs,” says Macadaan, with something close to awe. Its founder, Michael Arrington, is Web 2.0 royalty.

Normally, you’d spend a couple of thousand dollars on a pass to a convention and spend three days walking around, only to have the best part of it be when you’re talking in the hallway, meeting people. “Dial down on the exhibition. Dial up on the conversation and do it all in one night with food and cocktails? Love it! We’re trying to disrupt the conventions.”

Twiistup is becoming so well-known that it’s spawning its own curious phenomena. People are attaching themselves to the event and having smaller parties around it. They are merging parties around parties.

Silicon Valley parties are notoriously full of engineering nerd guys, and the people who throw the parties have been known to hire women from modeling agencies to attend. Or they contact singles agencies. Hey, ladies, we’re having an event with a bunch of rich technology guys. Wanna come?

“Not every engineer nerd likes that Hollywood-party feel,” Macadaan muses. “They think it’s too fluffy, or not underground enough. It is a concern.”

These parties are partly about recapturing some of 1997’s excess and sexiness. The Viceroy offered Macadaan a free pool cover, but it was, he says, an “ugly wood one.” Macadaan forked up $12,000 of his own money to cover it in transparent plexiglass. “My wife thought I was crazy. But when I found out they could do LED lights that changed color and glowed? Aw man, I said, I’m doing it!”

The next Twiistup will be in January, on the same day as Macadaan’s new concept, Mokkup, a kind of “get reacquainted with your creativity” series of workshops. He wants to put manager types in a room with creative types, storyboard artists from The Lord of the Rings, say, and give all of them paper and pencils and a problem to solve and see what happens. Afterward, the party proper. He doesn’t yet know what he’ll do to top the last one. Bring on the llamas.

 
Twiistup technology, media and entertainment parties, www.twiistup.com.


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