Inside General Assembly, the Shiny New Hub of New York's Startup Scene

img 3099 Inside General Assembly, the Shiny New Hub of New York's Startup Scene“Everyone I bring here runs into someone they know,” said 24-year old Brad Hargreaves, beaming over the spacious, warmly-lit common room of General Assembly, the shiny new 20,000-square foot coworking space near Union Square where more than two dozen of New York’s hottest startups have set up shop.

Entrepreneurs are sprawled over couches, talking intensely and tapping at Macbooks, their backpacks and jackets strewn across the hardwood floors and modernist furniture. In just one month, General Assembly has become a hive.

On a recent Friday, Movable Ink founder Vivek Sharma wandered through the common area with a coffee, looking a little nervous about the meeting he was about to host next to the unmanned reception desk. Mr. Sharma passed early General Assembly supporter Dave Lifson, whose startup Postling just raised $350,000, on the way back to his desk after concluding some business in the north office wing. (Later, members got down to real business: “Happy hour poppin’ off at General Assembly,” entrepreneur Ben Kessler announced on Twitter.)

General Assembly is an office for entrepreneurs, but it’s also an event venue, a place for classes on tech, design and more, and the newest hub of New York’s emerging tech scene.

“We’re creating a multi-faceted physical location to advance the tech startup ecosystem in New York City by pooling hackers, innovators, intellectuals, creatives, and full startups all together in one place,” cofounder Matthew Brimer, 24, said back in March. “IKEA and fluorescent lighting will be strictly forbidden.”

The project was called Superconductor at the time–a terrible name, everyone now agrees–but there was no shortage of interest. It got support from the founders’ friends and family and the city’s economic development arm, as well as corporate sponsors including Skype and Rackspace. The founding team also includes entrepreneur Mr. Hargreaves, 24, Brimer’s classmate at Yale; and entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jake Schwartz, 32, another Yale grad, and Adam Pritzker, 26, who lacks an entrepreneurial background but comes from the influential Pritzker family and is passionate about tech and design.

“This isn’t just an office,” Mr. Pritzker said. “We wanted to create a space that captured the creative, communal atmosphere of college.”

See pictures of General Assembly’s classy digs >>

And just like college, its hard to get in. Startups in residence were recruited by invitation; the waiting list is as long as the current roster. Those who got selected were asked not to share photos of the space or speak to press. These included buzzworthy startups like Art.sy, Fashism, Neverware and Movable Ink as well as superstars like Zach Klein of CollegeHumor, Vimeo and Boxee, now working on a stealth project.

The secrecy along with General Assembly’s star power and its chic design have had New York’s tech scene buzzing for weeks. Many assumed General Assembly would resemble an accelerator like San Francisco’s Y Combinator or the TechStars program, which recently opened up a branch in New York. Such accelerators offer a small round of seed funding coupled with three months of startup boot camp to a class of entrepreneurs in exchange for an equity stake usually around six percent. Polaris Ventures, which operates the nearby incubator Dogpatch Labs, often leads early investment in its alumni even though there are no formal strings attached to using their free space.

But General Assembly is a new experiment. It’s primarily a coworking space, but it’s also a venue and a school, a place where New York’s tech scene can mingle with the public. General Assembly members will be teaching classes on coding and other topics–these classes are one of the cornerstones of General Assembly’s business model. Startups currently pay $500 per desk for dedicated full access memberships; communal members pay $300 per month for access to the space and classes; Programming Members pay $25 per month for access to certain classes and events.General Assemb.ly plans to offer 30 to 50 classes a month, including one keynote lecture each week.

There is no institutional investor prescence, although investors working out of the space and plenty will visit–Charlie O’Donnell, of the nearby First Round Capital, dropped by after a snowball fight in December. “I can undoubtedly say I’m the first VC to dry his socks on the General Assembly radiators,” he said.

The amount of potential housed in this one space is almost scary. VHX, a company started by Vimeo veteran Casey Pugh, is building an Instapaper for video; Movable Ink is working on a system for dynamic email content that should make any business with a newsletter drool. One small company, Nodejitsu, is building a product that’s cousin to the service offered by Heroku, a Y Combinator startup that recently sold to Salesforce.com for $212 million.

But whether General Assembly will produce successful tech companies is hard to say. It’s certainly a boon to the companies that are there to have affordable office space (although it’s definitely not the cheapest) and be around smart people. But do New York’s most promising startups really need an in-house barista and a collegiate atmosphere, as opposed to adult supervision? “We’re involved in funding a number of those startups, but that doesn’t mean I would want to sit down a take a class from one of them,” a prominent New York tech investor told The Observer.

But the fact that classes are amateurish may be beside the point. “Every day there is a story about the lack of developers in New York,” said Evan Korth, who teaches computer science at New York University and cofounded the hackNY startup internship program. “If General Assembly can cultivate an environment where young, code-curious people can come to learn and make mistakes and rub shoulders with entrepreneurs, that could be huge for the community.”

General Assembly is a startup itself–with a ten-year lease!–and its potential is more than just the sum of its parts. It’s bolstered the city’s tech scene by bringing green entrepreneurs face-to-face with some of the city’s most successful tech veterans, and will serve as an ambassador to the public and other industries. Just being a part of General Assembly helped Nodejitsu recruit a talented engineer from out of state.

On Friday, Mr. Hargreaves stepped out of one of the seminar rooms to join Mr. Pritzker for a moment in the hallway. He shook his head disbelievingly when The Observer asked how he felt about the way Superconductor had turned out. “I don’t know. It’s amazing,” he said, blinking at the scene in the common area, as if he had just come home from class and discovered the coolest party raging inside his dorm room.

See pictures of General Assembly’s classy digs >>

Correction: This story originally misattributed the opening quote to Mr. Pritzker.

ajeffries [at] observer.com | @adrjeffries