Harnessing the Political Moment

Each month the largest Meetup event in the world takes place in New York City, where local innovators show off their latest work at the NY Tech Meetup. Over 800 people come each month, and hundreds more now watch live at simulcast events.

Andrew Rasiej at NYTMThough there were some excellent demos last night (CartoDB and Scroll Kit stood out), this month the most important presentation was a speech by Andrew Rasiej, Chairman of the NY Tech Meetup and founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, as well as a longtime entrepreneur and investor in the local tech community.

Rasiej (pronounced ra-shay) first recounted the community protest on January 18, when the NYTM community organized a protest of over 2,000 people at the offices of Senators Gillibrand and Schumer to put a stop to the highly controversial SOPA/PIPA legislation. As he recalled, the legislation “would have significantly dampened the growth of and investment in tech startups here and elsewhere.  More dangerously, the bill they were supporting would have irreparably damaged the Internet’s ability to act as a open conduit for free speech and their advocates around the world.”

The New York Tech protest of this legislation transformed the NYC startup community from a constituency to a political force to be reckoned with. In the wake of that moment, the tech world has been uplifted and galvanized. Last night Andrew Rasiej called on the community to maintain that sense of engagement, while warning that “it is much easier to say no to something than it is to build something.”

With that in mind, Rasiej’s closing words first sounded like the beginning of a political campaign, but they were more of a call to engage collectively and to draft new leaders:

“Imagine a future New York City where every public school student has low cost 24 hour access to all the world’s learning resources and students who graduate from our schools flow seamlessly into the New York workforce…

“Imagine a future New York City where all of its public data is available online for free…

“Imagine a future New York City where in addition to all of its cultural riches we add a robust “culture of code”…

“Imagine a future New York where our Senators, our councilmen, and even our future Mayor are all members of the NY Tech Meetup…”

The New York City startup community is one of the largest and most politically engaged small business communities in the world. The NY Tech Meetup alone has over 20,000 members, and the city is teaming with thousands more equally innovative thinkers and financiers — many eager for new candidates to represent them. So you can expect to see many of those candidates jumping into races over the next six years. And none of us should be surprised if Andrew Rasiej is one of them.

See below for the full transcript.

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Remarks made by Andrew Rasiej, Chairman of NY Tech Meetup at the event on February 8th, 2012.

On January 18th our community executed one of the best tech demos ever seen.  In response to a call to protect the NY Tech Industry and the open internet 2000 of us congregated outside the midtown offices of NY’s two US Senators, Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and demonstrated in opposition to legislation they were sponsoring which if passed would have significantly dampened the growth of and investment in tech startups here and elsewhere.  More dangerously, the bill they were supporting would have irreparably damaged the Internet’s ability to act as a open conduit for free speech and their advocates around the world.

The SOPA/PIPA legislative bills as they have come to be known were designed to stem rampant online policy but they will now be known history as the catalyst that gave the community of Internet users its voice in fighting for a balanced democracy.

Let me be clear for the record: The NY Tech Meetup is not against copyrights nor does it support piracy of any kind.

What we are for and what we will defend is an open web and a vibrant growing New York City where the  tech industry can play a leading role in building our city’s 21st century future and by extension that of the country and the world.

To give you a sense of how cohesive our community is, we did not receive a single email or see a tweet, chastising us for taking part in this fight.

Just short of 2000 people signed up for the emergency Meetup and over 13,000 people watched the event on LiveStream, who we should all thank for providing the equipment to do it.

In addition, since the protest our membership has grown by an additional 1500 members.
But what we did was even more important than these statistics is that the NY tech Community put a human face on the protest that were simultaneously happening online.

The images collected by the media were seen all around the world and the impact was massive.
Washington Lobbyists and the Senators and Congressman who they wine and dine were shell shocked. They had never experienced such a spontaneous negative public reaction to a piece of legislation, And the reason why is because Washington operates in a currency of money and influence peddling and therefore were unable to sense it was coming.

You see, Washington DC policy making operates in a currenty of money and influence. It has for decades and it has become entrenched not only in DC but in statehouses all across the country.
However, The People of the Internet operate in a different currency. A currency openness and trust, if you will, that challenges top down hierarchal organizations especially those who operate in secret, and who are clinging to tired and obsolete business models, or give money to politicians to protect their monopolies.

What this means is that we DEMOstated that we didn’t need to donate to politicians or collect money to hire lobbyists to make sure citizen’s voices were heard. We proved that people are more important than money.

Since our protest Senators Schumer and Gillibrand called members of our community and have started a new conversation. They have assured us that although they may not have been listening before, they are listening now. We’ll see.

We would like to thank other membership organizations who helped us with this effort who are part of our extended family including the Hackers Union and Brandon Kessler, NJ Tech Meetup, and Public Knowledge who sounded the alarm on SOPA/PIPA long before any of us knew what those letters meant and who kept us and the coalition informed throughout the process.

On behalf of the board of NY Tech Meetup, we are incredibly humbled and grateful for the trust you placed in us in this battle and you can be rest assured we do not take you for granted.

You should be very proud of yourselves because your passion for NY, our community, and the Internet is without equal.

But if I may, I’d like to challenge us not to stop thinking about how we can continue to draw on the energy in this room and in our community to further the goals of members and future members.

Please remember that it is much easier to say no to something than it is to build something.

The question for our community is whether we can take this newfound sense of engagement in our democracy further and not just say no but say yes.

Instead of trying to fix the 20th century democracy we have inherited can we build a better functioning 21st century democracy?

Instead of just thinking about how to get politicians to “get it” and adopt e government, can we leap frog them and build a true We-Government?

So NY Tech Meetup community:

Imagine a future where New York City is known as the most wired city in the world…

Imagine a future where developers and engineers naturally flock here because we are…

Imagine a future New York City where every public school student has low cost 24 hour access to all the world’s learning resources and students who graduate from our schools flow seamlessly into the New York workforce…

Imagine a future New York City where all of its public data is available online for free…

Imagine a future New York City where in addition to all of its cultural riches we add a robust “culture of code”…

Imagine a future New York where our Senators, our councilmen, and even our future Mayor are all members of the NY Tech Meetup…

Long live the NY Tech Meetup.

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“It’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time.”

~ Clayton M. Christensen (@claychristensen)
Harvard Business Review, July 2010

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Lot 18

Lot 18 bottle — 2007 The Spaniard

A great discovery — 2007 The Spaniard from Twisted Oak

As a niche market company offering high value, recession-proof goods, bargains for consumers and a marketing opportunity for wholesalers, Lot 18 has nailed all of my ideal attributes in a company. But that’s not why I tried out the online wine seller. I signed up last year because I’m the perfect early user for a company like Lot 18 —I’ll try anything once, love wine and am a sucker for top shelf luxuries at dramatic discounts.

This flash sale site for the wine market raised plenty of eyebrows when it reported millions in sales just months after launching, but it should never have been a surprise. When looking at high value goods most investors see a limited target market, and in most cases they are correct. Tiffany’s, Bentley and Prada are simply out of reach for average consumers in most cases, but wine is a little bit different.

Like many collectibles, wine is a highly inefficient market, with a limited number of experts, limited shared knowledge and highly subjective values. Add that opportunity to the high value of each sale and you’ve got a very good pitch for investors. Lot 18 took this obvious opportunity and then absolutely nailed their market, team and tech, and made it look easy in the process.

Because of this Lot 18 can serve high value wine collectors and average consumers equally, with big discounts across a range of products. However, while connoisseurs may spot an occasional deal on a favorite bottle, the real success of the company comes with mass appeal.

For the average consumer a great bottle at a decent price is an affordable treat, a special occasion that doesn’t break the bank. In struggling economic circumstances consumer trends consistently show an uptick in small luxuries like comfort food, and Lot 18 plays perfectly into that behavior.

A nice bottle of wine lends the consumer a sense of high sophistication and taste, yet many excellent wines are priced within reach of most consumers. Lot 18 helps the average consumer sort through them all, curating their sales and including reliable reviews from in-house tasters. This enables troglodytes like me to consistently find some very good wines.

On the supply side Lot 18 offers an opportunity to reach a broad audience with niche products, undervalued vintages and likely some perfectly good overstock. Limited reserves and small vineyards in particular provide some interesting new discoveries, and I’ve found the reviewers to be reliable enough to gamble on what turned out to be a few great bottles.

In fact I was so impressed by the 2007 The Spaniard from Twisted Oak that I visited the winemaker’s web site and signed up for a subscription to receive two reds of their choosing every other month. Better still, when I saw The Spaniard on sale again I bought a case for myself and another to give as holiday gifts. By working with Lot 18, they turned my original purchase of two bottles into a 3-case sale. And I’ll be back for more in the future.

My only word of caution to them is this: you’re sitting on perfection, so don’t f*ck it up. In particular, be careful not to over-partner with other brands to expand unless you can control every aspect of messaging and branding. Lot 18 has been doing this successfully with a few companies now, but their first attempts were rough. Much to their credit, the early stumbles were brief and they now seem to offer complimentary goods in a more seamless way.

So cheers to the team at Lot 18! It’s the best flash sale site in the market, and probably the only one I’ll continue to subscribe to for years to come.

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CEOs Handling Customer Support

Leave the call centers empty and do it yourself.

What do Steven Brill, Mike Hudack, Babak Nivi and Chris Siragusa all have in common? They are all innovative founders who have all personally responded to my customer support requests.

Many of you know that Craig Newmark takes the prize in this department (his job title at the hugely popular Craigslist is “Customer Service Rep”), but every CEO should be fielding support requests at least occasionally. In the early days of any company, if founders are not seeing support requests they are missing what may be the most valuable data they’ll ever see after launch. For startups in particular almost every support request is customer feedback that can be used to shape strategy, improve products, reaffirm your brand and build relationships with your user base.

Many people expect requests and complaints made to almost any company will go to a room full of underpaid automatons. In a well run startup the odds are good that one of the founders is stepping away from a holiday dinner with their family so they can type on a cell phone to help you watch a movie, download an app or just read your vented frustrations.

When Steven Brill launched Content magazine I was still in college, the dot-com bulls were charging, and I was thrilled to have an email exchange with the founder and editor himself. In that brief exchange I suddenly realized the high value that all of us lowly customers had to the leaders of these new companies, that were much more agile and engaged than the old media stalwarts. While many magazine editors were still figuring out how to manage their email accounts, Brill was using those exchanges to get feedback, build loyalty and create a better product.

Likewise, in the early days of Blip.tv I saw Mike Hudack’s name on a lot of support emails, regardless of how early or late it was. Blip has gotten too big for Mike to spend time explaining the details of transcoding to random customers, but I’m certain that having a CEO in touch with user needs helped make the company a standout success in a crowded marketplace. Beyond the value of user feedback, personal attention from Mike and others at Blip also made many customers like me loyalists during a highly competitive time for the company.

The same is true for MaxDelivery. Founder Chris Siragusa immediately impressed me after I began using the local grocery delivery service and received personal customer support from him. Not only was the response helpful, but the way he handled it demonstrated an understanding of his products, web site and team. I certainly don’t expect him to reply to the thousands of customers they now have, but his support emails early on sent a clear message that he was a hands-on founder with an interest in the customers’ satisfaction.

More recently, Babak Nivi gave me a thoughtful response to an overly aggressive complaint I made about new features on AngelList. He not only took my feedback into consideration, but he handled my email rant quite graciously. That’s not always an easy task after working hard to roll out new features, but a positive and patient response to frustrated customers creates a positive association in place of a negative one.

I’m hardest on the people and companies I love most, so if you run a startup and see a hyper-critical email from me at 2am, it means I’m paying you a very high (albeit backhanded) compliment. I’m improving though. After all, if you ever need help with Dynamo, chances are that you’ll see my name attached to a lot of those support requests.

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Kindle Fire

Kindle Fire

The best new media product I’ve seen since the iPad is the Kindle Fire. This is not a typical tablet. Amazon’s Kindle Fire is a content delivery system.

It is inaccurate to compare this directly to the iPad, because the two devices are quite different and will naturally appeal to different kinds of users. Others will prognosticate about whether or not this is an “iPad killer” (which doesn’t exist) or an aggressive reaction to Apple and others, but Kindle Fire excels because it is an exceptionally well executed step forward in the marketplace, regardless of what the iPad or other devices have to offer. However much strategic maneuvering is going on behind the scenes, Fire succeeds because Amazon dedicated the resources and quality control necessary to release an exceptional product. As a result, Kindle doesn’t feel like a reactionary half-measure to compete with a market leader. With inherently strong features, design and total integration with the Amazon content market, Fire is a market leader.

Amazon has perfected the instant gratification of one-click purchasing and digital hosting for books, magazines and movies. Kindle Fire now completes the user experience with a near-perfect delivery device for all of the digital content Amazon offers. Say what you will about open vs closed ecosystems, when it comes to delivering an excellent user experience for content consumption, vertical integration equals quality control.

Browsers beware: the Amazon Silk browser still needs a lot of work. Silk simply cannot compete with Apple’s Safari browser for the iPad, or any other serious browser for that matter. I had trouble with some Flash video players, with layers and overlays, and even completing simple form fields with the typing interface. I’m sure the 2.0 version will improve, but browsers are not as simple as they seem and it appears that Amazon engineers face a steep learning curve.

Likewise the apps seem to be hit or miss, but they are really all just add-ons to begin with. The core of Kindle Fire is content delivery and it beats anything in the market for books and movies in a hand-held size.

 

 

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