Caught in the Webb: Let’s Not Party Like It’s 1999

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In 1997 in Boston I had the pleasure of witnessing in person what Steve Jobs called “my worst and stupidest staging event ever.” He had recently made his triumphant return to Apple, and I was amongst those psychopathic faithful that continued to use OS 9 even though it was obviously a piece of crap compared to Windows XP. But to have Steve back meant there was hope again. That our dream of using computers like they do on Star Trek, with swipes of fingers and beautiful, intuitive interfaces, was back on track. It turned out in the long run, our hope was justified, but that day he did something that nearly knocked me out of the reality distortion field.

Onstage at Macworld Boston, Jobs announced his settlement of legal disputes and a partnership with Microsoft. And in a move eerily reminiscent of his landmark 1984 advertisement, Bill Gates’ satellite-broadcast image filled the hall, a looming face looking every bit the overlord out of place. He was the Orwellian big brother we had come to despise. People booed as he spoke. In the end, the deal was probably a good thing, but the symbolism was catastrophic. But we’ll get back to that in a second.

Fast track. 2011. New York tech. Parties. Parties in New York tech are a double-edged sword. The city’s density naturally leads to parties, since everyone’s apartments too small to have anyone over. Despite the fact that techno-dbags use “networking” as an excuse for excess, networking is a vital skill for any startup in tech. In the Silicon Alley 1.0 days, Jason Calacanis said of his domination over his early competitors: “Those guys will never really amount to much because they are not part of the Alley. They have to go back to the suburbs at night to take care of the wives and kids, and I stay out all night. I’m part of the culture.” There’s a legitimate reason and need for tech parties. They can be an economic equalizer, giving the outsiders, the young and the poor the chance to make connections often reserved for the insiders and the rich. I made extensive use of them in the early days of building my business.

The problem, of course, is that you can get lost in them, using the legitimate utility of them to justify an utterly unhealthy lifestyle. This is the painful truth for all of us, but it doesn’t make it any less true: the moment you find yourself at a NY tech party thinking about who you’re going to hook up with rather than who will help your business, you have lost the plot when it comes to your startup, and you may as well shut it down or quit now. This is work, never forget it.

The other problem is that the parties can raise to absurd heights of decadence or inappropriateness. During the Dot Com boom 1.0 there were something like a dozen parties every night in New York. We’re not there yet. But we’re getting close. Publications like this one are covering the industry, making tech entrepreneurs, even of zero-revenue startups, bold faced names again. It woud be simplistic to assume that because there were lots of parties last time around and the market imploded that the parties are some bellwether or that doomsday is nigh. I don’t believe it and I’m a giant proponent of New York tech. That’s why I’m starting this column. But we’re getting to a point where we need to be careful. It was easy to emulate Silicon Ally 1.0 up to now, but soon we’re going to have to break from the past and blaze a new trail. And, as Jobs learned that night, symbols matter.

To that end, last week’s Raise Cache party was a cautionary tale. Now first, the good: it was a charitable event, supporting HackNY, an academic-industry partnership to support education in tech, something this country desperately needs. Charitable parties are almost always above reproach. You gotta go, you gotta help out charities, and the impact that the organizers of Raise Cache have made should not be discounted.

But sitting in the Armory swilling free booze, when our Orwellian overlord Mr. Bloomberg appeared in a canned speech joking about New York tech, just days after he had taken his campaign against the Occupy Wall Street protesters to a new level, struck me as a move reminiscent of Bill Gates looming over the Apple faithful at Mac World 2007. Bloomberg, like Giuliani before him, has been a great supporter of New York tech. But whatever your opinion of the OWS movement, the police’s actions have been eyebrow raising at the very least. While Fred Wilson walked the runway sporting an #OWS sign, Bloomberg’s “appearance,” in the wake of these actions, risks symbolically tying New York tech with a mayor who is perceived to be increasingly out of touch with his constituency.

New York tech is excited to have a mayor that supports it, especially compared to the pointless battles the city of San Francisco is waging with its tech companies. It means we’re a grown up concern, a legitimate part of the city’s fabric. We’re learning to go toe-to-toe with other major New York industries. But we’re in NEW YORK tech for a reason. Because we love NEW YORK. It’s not “convenient city where lots of different industries are” tech. It’s not “I’m a developer dude but I can also get a girlfriend here” tech. It’s New York Tech. We love our city, and we love it the way it is. Occupy Wall Street is not the subway you’re afraid to ride in 1994 for fear of getting mugged. The year before Rudy Giuliani took office there were more than 2,400 murders in New York. The last couple years have been less than a third that, the lowest since the 1930s. What we may have overlooked under Rudy is unacceptable now from a “safety” standpoint.

This is tech. We’re new, we’re disruptive. Many of us like Occupy Wall Street. We like their distributed approach. We like their use of technology. But even those of us who don’t, we’re not part of crony capitalism. Until we IPO for a billion bucks, we’re not into being on the inside. We don’t have lobbyists and we’re not looking for unfair advantages. Mr. Bloomberg, just because we’re an “industry” doesn’t mean we want you to protect us from the scary protesters who might muck things up for our inside game. You’re not doing us any favors down there, and while you’re doing it, could you perhaps try and not pretend we’re all buddies? It’s embarrassing us. Caught in the Webb: Let’s Not Party Like It’s 1999