Around midnight on Dec. 12, just a few minutes after being elected leader of one of the most influential tech groups in New York City, Nate Westheimer was winding down in his Lower East Side apartment with some Wii Bowling. Earlier that night, Mr. Westheimer, 25, had a few beers with various blogger types, recently laid-off Radar writers and other 20-something tech scenesters, like Tumblr founder David Karp, at Sweet & Vicious, the Nolita dot-com drinking and dating hole where Gawker videographer Richard Blakeley was hosting the last of his infamous Media Meshing parties. Mr. Blakely decided to shut down the monthly networking event, since, well, there isn’t much networking to do in the job-hemorrhaging media business these days.
As some media types drank away a final fuck-you to their industry, congratulatory text messages and Twitter posts rattled Mr. Westheimer’s phone and in-box. At 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 11, the online poll closed in the election for a new organizer of the New York Tech Meetup, the 7,500-strong, monthly must-do meeting of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and miscellaneous geeks at Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp building in Chelsea. Mr. Westheimer was up against eight other candidates, one of whom would be charged with reinventing the organization; Mr. Westheimer won by 48 percent of the vote of NYTM members (though only about 600 members voted).
“It was probably good for me to be drinking a few beers with Huffington Post writers and other media people last night,” he said the following morning, sitting in a conference room at his Flatiron office on 23rd Street. Who wouldn’t want a drink before contemplating the task at hand: organizing a United Nations of tech communities in New York.
Mr. Westheimer is broad-shouldered with scruffy brown hair and steady brown eyes. He was dressed in jeans, Converse sneakers and a rumpled T-shirt with a Shepard Fairey–inspired graphic of President-elect Barack Obama on the front, his typical uniform as entrepreneur in residence for Rose Tech Ventures, an early-stage venture investment firm. Since closing shop on his start-up, an online publishing platform called BricaBox, in June, Mr. Westheimer has been building an incubator, a co-working space for budding tech companies at Rose Tech’s headquarters. But he plays, too. Mr. Westheimer can be spotted at most of the tech media parties, Meetups and panels on the industry. Just about everyone in the community knows his name.
David Rose, CEO of Rose Tech Ventures and prominent angel investor as chairman of the New York Angels, saw the potential in this young tech guru to help organize the disparate tech industry in New York. “He’s a very low-ego, high-energy, popular, connecting guy,” Mr. Rose told The Observer Monday morning by phone. “He has demonstrated, certainly over the last year, that he is really committed to helping entrepreneurs. And he’s not just a community organizer, quote, unquote. Although BricaBox, the company itself, didn’t succeed, he’s still the kind of person you want to see. You want to see somebody who isn’t just a community pimp per se. He’s also a hard worker and knows what he’s doing in business.”
But Mr. Westheimer has big sneakers to fill in his new position. As the new NYTM organizer, he will take on a role previously held by Scott Heiferman, the CEO of Meetup.com, who founded the group four years ago and has been the event’s charismatic MC ever since.
In an unexpected announcement, Mr. Heiferman stepped down from the position in November, noting it was time for the monthly meeting to become something more than just an hour-long infomercial for several city-based start-ups. Rather, he said, the NYTM should help people get jobs, connect and change the city. He said a new organizer would be voted in by members after the next Meetup. “There’s so much passion out there and there’s so much energy that needs to be corralled and harnessed, and I don’t have the time for it,” he said after announcing his resignation. “New York City can’t count on Madison Avenue, we can’t count on Wall Street, we can’t count on media. We [the tech community] have to save New York.”
On Dec. 1, Mr. Westheimer wrote out his ideas for the new NYTM before announcing his candidacy on his blog at Innonate.com. “We don’t need more great ideas or new great investors — we need more coordination!” he wrote.
At the next NYTM, on Dec. 9, candidates for the position made their case for building a “21st-century” organization. Mr. Westheimer gave a five-minute proposal before a relatively thin crowd. His plan is to create an “ecosystem” of the city’s tech organizations, with representatives from each sector getting together to organize and open communication lines. Each group, whether angel investors or developers or university professors, will have an ambassador on his NYTM executive board. He sees a kind of exclusive social network being formed so that these leaders can make the city’s tech industry stronger. Which would make our city stronger, too.
ORGANIZING IS PRACTICALLY in Mr. Westheimer’s blood. He grew up on the outskirts of Cincinnati in Batavia, Ohio, where his mother organized a home-schooling community with three other mothers that eventually grew to include 350 families throughout the Cincinnati suburbs. Mr. Westheimer, as leader of the baseball-card-trading group, published the sports section of the community’s newsletter. He was home-schooled until high school, where he was president of the Junior Statesmen club and a varsity track athlete and soccer player. He studied politics and sociology at Brandeis, and was voted onto the executive board of the student union, which included Ben Brandzel, founder of MoveOn.org’s Student Action group; Lauree Hayden, an organizer for SEIU; and Josh Sugarman, a former political strategist for progressive Boston Democrats, among others. “The administration was terrified of us,” Mr. Westheimer said.
He graduated in 2005 and worked on a mayoral political campaign in Cincinnati before moving to New York, where he got a job on Wall Street, which he hated. He quit in the summer of 2006 to start BricaBox, which worked like a blogging tool, with more structure and social content mashed in. He launched the publishing platform in Feb. 26, 2008. He closed down the project in June, volunteered for the Obama campaign for a few months, and has showed up at almost every NYTM for the past two years. He served a stint as technology strategist for National Public Media and has organized numerous community events and parties. But the NYTM will be one of his biggest challenges yet.
Mr. Westheimer plans to keep the actual NYTM pretty much the same as it’s been. There will still be a monthly meeting where entrepreneurs can present their new projects. He wants Mr. Heiferman to keep MC’ing, and maybe bring on a few entertaining guest hosts, like the F-bombing Charles Forman of iminlikewithyou.com. He’s hoping to make the unofficial, post-NYTM mixer more publicly known to outsiders of the tech community’s inner circle.
This week, Mr. Westheimer is consulting with Mr. Heiferman and Dawn Barber, the NYTM’s co-organizer, to map out a strategy and build an advisory board before the next Meetup, on Jan. 6. He’s also trying to woo folks onto his Organizer Board. He’s already called on Charlie O’Donnell—the CEO of Path101, a Web site that helps people find their best career moves through social networking—to lead the tech education sector, and Whitney Hess—a user experience designer and social networking expert—to be an ambassador for designers.
Mr. Westheimer said he’s still working on what the new NYTM will look like behind the scenes. “I’m greatly influenced by the model put together by [another grass-roots tech networking organization founded by Mr. O’Donnell] NextNY. You don’t have titles and you don’t have roles.
“The challenge is keeping it egoless: How do you add structure without adding ego and feeling like you’re not stepping on anybody’s toes and still including everybody?” Mr. Westheimer said.
If he can figure that out, we predict a bright future for young Mr. Westheimer.