December 10th, 2013 Tech and the City

Fred Wilson among distinguished guests at Columbia Engineering demos Union Square Venture principal Fred Wilson draws so much attention; he’s like a Beatle. Where else can you see grown accomplished startup founders feel like giddy teenagers at the mere sight of him? For those who don’t know him, Wilson has made many great choices in the startups he has backed up.

Wilson also wrote the foreword to Tech and the City, the book about New York’s tech startup history written by the other guest, Alessandro Piol. The two, along with Shutterstock founder Jon Oringer, were the guest speakers at the Columbia Engineering Demo Day last December 13 at Time Warner Center.

The three guests clearly tell us so much how New York City has changed.

For Piol, the turning point was 2008 when the financial meltdown made many leave the financial world for the tech startup scene. New York-born and -raised Jon Oringer was already running Shutterstock by then. Today, the stock photo company is earning $200 million.

For Wilson, it was Google. “The biggest thing that happened in New York is when Google came to New York. Google is a gift to New York.” And it’s how New York emerged as a tech city.

The panelists talk about the history of technology startups in NYC and offer perspective on critical opportunities and roadblocks facing innovators and startups in New York.

Wilson’s candidness also endears him to his followers. The New York tech scene, he said, has kind words for exiting Mayor Bloomberg but he believes the tech scene wasgoing to happen anyway with or without him. “Bloomberg was friendly. It (tech scene) would have happened even without Bloomberg.”

It was also a night for students and alumni of Columbia University. Following the program with the speakers, people congregated in the open reception with the students talking about their startups.

Compass offers a technology platform that enables customers to manage their entire apartment search in one place. It has a team of agents for good measure.

Since August 2012, Trek Medics' dedicated full-time staff has been working to complete beta-testing for their SMS-based emergency dispatching software, Beacon, with efforts currently focused on the southern coast of Haiti. Beacon addresses response gap by allowing community paramedics to quickly locate, treat, and transport emergency victims from the scene to the hospital.

What does Wilson look for in a startup founder? “You have to be charismatic,” he said, adding that it’s an important quality to have if you are asking people to fund you.

Elaborating on that, he said he likes someone who has vision, who can “get to an opportunity from 0 to 60.”

If they can't do that, he said he cannot be successful. But he knows success is hard and even comes from having failed in the past. “Failure should not be a Scarlett Letter. (I like) somebody who has failed but who has learned tough lessons.”

He adds that that the most important for a founder to keep in mind when recruiting is the first five people.                     

The other presenters of the night were eBrevia, Keynes, and Meal Logger. eBrevia was created to assist corporate attorneys, in-house counsel and business executives perform tasks more efficiently.

KeyMe is a cloud-based “keychain” that stores key’s cutting instructions, while Meal Logger is a photo food journal designed to empower people to improve their lifestyle.

Columba Engineering dean Mary C. Boyce moderated the discussion.