O’Donnell: How To Strengthen New York Tech/Media


SAI contributor and Path 101 CEO Charlie O’Donnell gave testimony to New York’s City Council today about how to further strengthen the city’s burgeoning technology sector.  Charlie’s prepared remarks are below.  If you have additional thoughts or suggestions, please let us know, and we will write them up.  Charlie, a former Union Square Ventures analyst, also writes the well-read This Is Going To Be Big.

I have been asked to deliver testimony to the City Council today on promoting the local tech sector, particularly with reference to ITAC’s recent report.

My name is Charlie O’Donnell and I am the CEO and Co-Founder of Path 101–a New York City startup focused on career discovery and development.   I am also the Founder of nextNY, a grassroots, participant driven organisation of over 1,000 up and coming technology and digital media professionals right here in the city.  nextNY is made up of entrepreneurs, designers, developers, investors, marketers, and media professionals–all integral parts of the local digital community.  Before founding my company, I worked for Union Square Ventures, a NYC based early stage venture capital fund and then for Oddcast, a local interactive advertising company, as a product manager…

In all of these various roles, I’ve had a unique opportunity to see the recent growth of the NYC technology community from both the startup and investment perspective–as well as from the perspectives of all of the ambitious people I’ve met through nextNY.

New York is truly coming into it’s own as a hub of innovation and technology over the past couple of years, but I say that knowing full well that innovation has been part of NYC for quite a long time, even long before the Late 90’s tech boom.  What’s happening now plays uniquely into NYC’s hand.  The technologies that once represented a strategic advantage for Silicon Valley and Boston are being commoditized and it is becoming more and more important to be close to your client and user community than to develop your technology in a particular city.  In today’s climate, a startup in the video space can and will be just as well served by rooting here in the New York media technology community as it would anywhere else.

Still, given the sheer volume of talent and resources available in the city, we have not reached our full innovative potential.  There are several points of friction that hinder the emergence of NYC as a paradise of business creation and cutting edge digital contribution.

First, much of our technological workforce has largely been trained to work for big companies.  Their jobs are often about maintenance, efficiency, and satisfying business objectives than they are about pushing the envelope, creativity, and true innovation.  They are compensated with lucrative cash compensation, as opposed to the upside that the equity ownership that incentivizes startups.  This creates an environment where joining a startup not only represents financial hurdles, but cultural ones as well.  It’s hard to tell your NYC friends that you’re tossing aside your job in the Goldman Sachs IT department for a startup company—people just don’t accept that as a legitimate job route compared to that being the norm in the Valley.

One of our best strategic advantages, creativity, driven by the city’s arts, multiculturalism, globalism, and critical mass of other creative industries, needs to be fostered and guided into these innovative technology fields earlier.  It starts with our education system, and we need to be telling students and showing them how to be the leaders and influential members of the digital community.  I grew up in Brooklyn, went to high school in Manhattan, and college in the Bronx–largely through the late 90’s tech boom and I had very little knowledge of the innovation and development going on right here in NYC at the time.  All I saw were bankers and lawyers.  The idea of putting my passions behind creating a company were as foreign as you could get.  There needs to be a significant amount of education around the extraordinary opportunity that NYC brings with it.  Students should be emerging from school with real ideas and real passions, not just jobs they found at the top of a help wanted list.  They need to have the skills necessary to see there ideas through.  We face a serious shortage of engineers, developers, and designers, and even fewer of what we have are proficient in the most cutting edge languages and technologies.  The ITAC report outlines new initiatives in Workforce Development and Education that would go a long way towards addressing those issues.

Information is also critical.  Groups like nextNY serve as a knowledge resource, but even our 1,000+ member collective knowledge is unfamiliar with all of the various grants, city services, and innovation friendly services the city and various independent organisations have to offer.  For example, when I worked at Union Square Ventures, I was constantly discovering new incubators at local universities–places I didn’t even know had entrepreneurship programs.

When cities want to encourage tourism, they often spend resources on creating a map, a booklet, and a website–all as exhaustive as possible in trying to advertise all of the possible tourist destinations anyone might want to see.  What NYC needs is a similar information dissemination program as detailed in the ITAC report.  Most importantly, it needs to be a living, breathing, open resource built on some kind of wiki-like platform where the members of the technology community can be just as responsible for its upkeep as various city services can be.

My final bit of support for what ITAC has recommended has to do with real physical infrastructure.  Over the years, those involved in technology innovation in small companies and startups have always made due with whatever physical places we could find to conduct our business.  We shared insider information about where wifi could be borrowed and where businesses wouldn’t mind if you worked at a table for a whole morning and just ordered a cup of coffee or two.  This has been highly inefficient.  While there are businesses like Sunshine Suites that have sprung up to service part of the need for startup companies to maintain a home, there exists a severe lack of community space–places where creative minds can collaborate freely and connect to each other.  A good place to start would be to incentivise as many cafes and similar gathering places to provide internet access free of charge.  Municipal wifi may be too difficult to implement, but a very workable, and less expensive substitute would be to make sure that every conceivable place where you would want to set up shop or meet with others, would provide wifi.  In the same vein, there should be incentives for other types of innovation support.  For example, my startup, Path 101, is currently living in two empty desks provided by another larger technology company called Return Path.  It was a favour done for me by the CEO, Matt Blumberg, who knew we were looking for space, but in all fairness, Return Path should probably receive some kind of tax credit for doing its part to support the local innovation community.

If there was one thing I would want to leave off with for all of those who are interested in supporting the technology community in New York City, I’ll tell you simply to join it.  Instead of asking us to come here and testify, which is great, don’t get me wrong, it shows your interest, show up at our community events.  Come to the a nextNY gathering, join our listserv, or a New York Tech Meetup.  Start reading the blogs of local entrepreneurs and blogging yourselves.  Get off the email newsletters and get on RSS feeds.  Join LinkedIn.  If you don’t use the same tools as the technology community and show up to our events (instead of just inviting us to yours), you are never going to be looked upon as a source of active support and your programs will fail to get traction.  Supporting a community is just as much a social undertaking as it is a management or financial one.