Interview for Gov 3.0

The below is my response to questions asked by Nicole Stratton, a graduate student at NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She reached out to interview me as part of her Government 3.0 class, the results of which will be published on their blog here. I’ve published my response in advance with Nicole’s blessing.

To get started, and before we jump into talking about NYTM and New Work City, tell me a little bit about how you got started in tech innovation? What skills did you have (in technology or otherwise) that helped you get started?

One of the important things to keep in mind is first to define terms. When we use the word “tech,” there are two distinct and crucial groups of people involved: those who are developing new technology, and those who are creating innovations around opportunities afforded by those new technologies.

My work falls into the latter category. Though I have a Bachelor’s degree in computer science, and came from a web development background, my work with the NYTM and in particular New Work City is decidedly old school.

I run a brick-and-mortar small business. The fact that it happens to house people who are all making their livings on the internet just happens to be an accident of the times.

How did you become involved in the New York Tech Meetup?

I went to my first Meetup ever, the Diggnation Meetup, in February of 2007. I found it by coincidence as I sat in my parents’ house on Long Island, where I was living after college. At the time, I had zero friends in New York City. Once I discovered, everything changed.

At that first Meetup, I met the organizer and his friends. They told me if I liked this Meetup, I had to check out the NY Tech Meetup. I went to my first one shortly thereafter.

How do you think it became the successful platform it is today? What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for NYTM, and where do you see it going in the next 3-5 years?

It was successful for several reasons: first and foremost, it focused on a simple idea that lots and lots of people could get behind. People love seeing new technology on display, in particular when it’s outside the context of a business model and especially when it’s been built locally. There’s almost a circus-like aspect to the NY Tech Meetup, in a really good way– every time you go, you go hoping you just might see some amazing feat that you’ve never seen before.

Several years ago, Bre Pettis got up on stage at the beginning of the event to demonstrate his new invention, the MakerBot, by setting it in motion and promising to come back later in the show. When he returned, he removed a freshly printed 3D object from the device to the amazement of the crowd.

Every single person in attendance was witness to the beginning of a manufacturing revolution that was still only in its earliest stages. That sort of thing is what makes the NY Tech Meetup so alluring.

In the next three to five years, I see the organization continuing to assert itself as the de facto representation of the interests of the people who are building and who are enabled by new technology in the city. Given our increasingly critical role as a massive part of the future of the city’s economy, the NYTM will be accordingly acting as an increasingly important link between this community and the rest of the city.

We’ll be involved in policy. We’ll have developed better ways for our membership to talk to each other and connect in ways that extend far beyond the capacity of the monthly event.

And we’ll be continuing to champion the incredible potential of the city and its people, as always.

What led to the creation of New Work City and how did you build the platform? How has this scaled?

It started out rooted in two communities: one was called Jelly, which is a casual take on coworking. Attending a Jelly in NYC was my first coworking experience, right around the same time I discovered Meetup. The other community was a new one being spearheaded by Sanford Dickert, whom I had met at the NY Tech Meetup. The new community, dubbed CooperBricolage, was aimed at having coworking every day in a cafe in the East Village. Between these two communities, the early nucleus of New Work City was formed.

New Work City emerged as the project to take the next step, toward a dedicated space. We were completely bootstrapped, with no institutional backing of any kind, and wanted to grow organically. We started with a sub-sublet from a startup that had extra space to spare, and used that as a foundation upon which to continue to build and grow the community.

When it came time to leave there, we sought and found a lease on a full floor loft space, which we’ve made our home ever since.

Moving forward, we don’t intend to open more spaces– our goal has always been to have one truly great community. We do, however, seek to find ways to advance the coworking movement globally by continuing to work to improve the experience for our members.

How close is New Work City to what you envisioned it being at the beginning? Has anything surprised you?

It is, today, finally very close to what I had originally envisioned. It took a very long time to get there, but I can say with confidence that the New Work City you see today is very much the embodiment of what I dreamed of when it all began.

While there are many obvious things about that, the real essence of the vision has been the fact that I was once sitting in my house without any place to go to work and connect with like-minded people. I didn’t need office space; I simply needed an opportunity to discover a world I might not have ever seen otherwise.

In that respect, New Work City’s vision has indeed become very real. Now, more than ever, members are advancing themselves in ways they might never have done otherwise, and most importantly, they’re contributing to the advancement of their peers as they go. It’s absolutely stunning to see all of the great things people are doing with each other in the community now.

How long did it take to go from the idea, to a minimally functioning program? If you don’t mind me asking, about how much did it cost to get it started? What can we expect?

There’s no simple way to answer this, because we always made maximum use of what we had at our disposal before considering a jump to the next level.

We started out in living rooms and cafes. We weren’t a business; there was no money involved. When we got space, we got a small space on very flexible lease terms and were a trip to Ikea away from the furnishings we needed.

The hardest part was making the jump to leasing and building out our own space. That was a hundred thousand dollar effort that took over a year to fully finance, and nearly killed me in the process.

But even then, I knew the community was not going to let it fail. And it didn’t.

It was a solid five years from when the dream first came to mind to when I’d say we really got to a healthy and sustainable place. When you’re running a small business, you’re never that far from disaster, but you’re almost always able to sustain yourself by sheer force of will. The hardest part is finding a way to stay above water and also do so in a way that is sustainable for you. We’re still refining things to get closer to that, but we’re doing great.

If I, or one of my classmates, wanted to go out and build a new tool to transform government or society, what are the first three things we need to think about?

1. What you believe. What you care about in your heart of hearts. Forget money, business model, mobile apps, whatever. Start with pursuing things you care about, whatever they are. As you go, you will get a better and better idea of what your purpose in life might be. As you increasingly become aware of that purpose, your work towards that purpose becomes increasingly meaningful and important. Building something you believe in from a strong core of inner purpose is, in my opinion, an absolute necessity.

And it makes up for everything else. When you become hellbent on something that you believe must happen, you can literally become unstoppable. Never underestimate the capacity of a man on a mission.

2. What other people believe. I care about a lot of stuff. I want to do a lot of things to make the world better. But if I try to build something that nobody else cares about, I’m not going to get very far at all. In fact, the very notion of trying to build something despite a lack of desire from others is doing it wrong from the start.

Your success is fueled by the desires and interests and pains of others. They are the reason what you build will have an impact, so don’t wait until launch day to bother to think about what people actually want– talk to people, listen to what they have to say, and recruit them to help you build solutions accordingly.

When New Work City first opened its doors for business, I had a pang of fear that nobody would show up. But I knew that fear was irrational, because our first customers had helped us build the tables and chairs the day before. They picked out the name and designed the logo. They helped choose the location. They were so woven into the process that there was little question we’d built something people wanted.

3. Consider all of the options, and what is best for you. There are a ton of ways to build something. More so now than ever. If you want to build something but don’t know where to start, or are intimidated, or think it would require investors or too much money, stop. Stop and refactor your thinking. No matter what you want to do, there is always a way to move towards that goal with what you have at your disposal right now. And how you define that goal should change over time as well– you might think you want to build one thing, only to discover that your motivation behind wanting to build that was rooted in something deeper that might steer you towards something else. Don’t sweat the physical manifestations as much as the deeper motivations.

And don’t beat yourself up too much to get there. Building a business is hard, but it’s also supposed to be fun and fulfilling. It’s okay to work hard and be stressed and afraid, but at the end of the day, this should be work you want to be doing. If you’re finding yourself not wanting to do the work you’ve chosen to create for yourself, take a step back and consider how to change that.

Because at the end of the day, this is all about us discovering our life’s purpose and seeking it out in all that we do. It’s about realizing our potential as humans and making our contribution to society with the brief time we have.

We’ll never be perfect at that. We’ll never have it all together. But we will always have the opportunity to practice getting better. That’s all we can ever really do, and when you adopt that perspective, it can be a beautiful thing.

  • Christian M. Macy

    Excellently insightful answers, Tony.