The Revolution

Beta Test! New York Startups Think Occupy Wall Street Has a Bad Pitch

What's up with the techie 'tude toward #OWS?

And yet most of the New York tech community, while fascinated by the protest, is keeping Occupy Wall Street at arm’s length. Most of the techies we spoke to had not visited Zuccotti Park. First Round Capital’s Charlie O’Donnell, who has sounded off about the protest on his blog and weekly email newsletter, has merely “biked by it several times,” he said. “I think I’d be too frumpy if I went down there,” said Mr. Diamond, who has stayed away.

Part of the hesitation seems to derive from the self-deterministic nature of founder exceptionalism: entrepreneurs are the ones who quit the comfort of cubicles and health insurance and convention in favor of uncertainty, 80-hour work weeks and the remote possibility of glory. Startups, not protests, are the real mechanism for change, some feel.

“Anger doesn’t create wealth or work,” said Jason Kende, a founder who works out of the SoHo coworking space WeWork Labs, where members have been debating the merit and meaning of Occupy Wall Street in an internal email thread. “For me, it’s a loud giant arrow pointing to the underlying problems of how we work, how we make wealth, the lack of flexibility or margin for error in our lives, and the enormous gap between relevant talent and real opportunity in our workforce. I think we all want solutions. It’s just a question of whether we demand someone else fix everything for us or create real solutions ourselves.”

While the protest against big banks raged outside the stock exchange that Saturday, Mr. Pacheco told Betabeat, the startups inside were seducing Wall Street’s workforce away. “Outside people preaching against capitalism, and then inside there were people who were pro-capitalism but saying ‘don’t do it the way they’re doing it, come do it with us,’” he said. “I’ve never really liked the system. But I’ve always known that I’ve had to play within the system to win, you know what I mean?”

Tech entrepreneurs have plenty of reason to feel conflicted. They’re funded by one-percenters, to start (although some tech VCs seem to recognize a familiar potential in the upstart movement: “#occupywallst proving to be a classic disruptor. dismissed as whiny hippies a few weeks ago now doubling every three days,” tweeted Bryce Roberts, co-founder of O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, who flew to New York from San Francisco explicitly to check out the protest). Technological innovations tend to eliminate American jobs; tech companies are also scraped for programmers, which sometimes means outsourcing to Mechanical Turk or a development shop in Estonia.

And of course, for a startup, the ultimate win is an IPO on Wall Street.

“I believe in business, I believe in capitalism, I believe in the free market and the ability of one to say, ‘I’m going to create a business, I should be able to do that the way I want,’” Mr. Pacheco said. “If you make money, you should make money! On the other hand, there’s a strong part of me that is always looking out for the social good of the world, and it’s tough to say, ‘oh well, sorry you didn’t start a company,’ or ‘sorry you didn’t get a job at a bank, you’re screwed.’”

But the symptoms of Occupy Wall Street mania are strikingly similar to to the startup fever that’s been going around. Betabeat recently accosted a spokesman for the movement’s finance committee, Tim Hollinger, who had deflated on a park bench after hollering an update at one of the protest’s nighttime assemblies. He was too tired to follow our line of questioning. “I was just going to go home and sleep for a few hours,” he admitted, reminding us of a young type-A founder. Another organizer, Patrick Bruner, the 23-year-old who has taken the lead on the protest’s press relations, told Betabeat his work on the protest will be “the most important thing I ever do,” in an awed voice reminiscent of the esteemed Biz Stone, who once said, “Twitter is not a triumph of tech. It is a triumph of humanity.”

Occupy Wall Street is in many ways, a triumph of Twitter–although the fact that #occupywallstreet has not cracked the trending topics has become a pet cause for a certain subset of activist Twiterati. It’s also a triumph of Facebook, Tumblr, Kickstarter, Livestream, WordPress, Google Docs and the iPhone, without which it would be considerably impaired. And Occupy Wall Street could end up setting the stage for startups like BankSimple, an online-only bank that proposes to take the pain out of personal finance.

“I think that if you look at a lot of the most exciting startups in the country right now, they are right in line with what’s at the heart of Occupy Wall Street,” Mr. Heiferman said. “So if you think about, what is Kickstarter, what is Airbnb, what are things like Meetup, Skillshare–at the heart of it all these things are about creating an economy where people are, they’re creating a new economy, creating this people-powered economy as opposed to a top-down corporate economy.”

Many local entrepreneurs don’t seem to see it that way, we noted.

“If any startup can wrangle the attention of the country and the world as fast as Occupy Wall Street has, then I’d love to hear about that startup,” he said. “Like, if you’re running a startup that no one’s ever heard of, and you’re complaining that this movement has gone from nothing to near 100 percent awareness in the developed world, well then, you know …” he trailed off. “You get my point.”

He’d advise Occupy Wall Street to worry about making the jump from early adopters to mainstream users, he said. “One of the seminal Bibles of the startup technlogy world is an old book called Crossing the Chasm, and it talks about how there is an adoption curve,” he said. “Plenty of startups that get popular amongst the social media crowd don’t make it to Middle America and the moms.”

But there’s one question no one’s asked so far: Is Occupy Wall Street a bubble? “I don’t think there’s a bubble,” the sardonic tech pundit Alex Blagg told Betabeat in an email. “In fact, I’m aggressively bullish on Occupy Wall Street. It has all the hallmarks of any real buzzy tech startup: seemingly limitless idealistic potential, great ‘anti-establishment’ brand positioning, and most importantly, a vague coolness among kids on Tumblr.”

He estimated the protest, which had raised about $300,000 as of Tuesday, could get a valuation of more than $6 billion.

Follow Adrianne Jeffries on Twitter or via RSS. ajeffries@observer.com

Comments

  1. Alan W. Moore says:

    I think it’s more about real estate — “location, location, and location” — in this case, extraordinarily symbolic (semi-)public space…

  2. T G says:

    The existence of the occupation itself – the assertion that public  space  can be used for public assembly – has been a demand from day 1 (and has done alot to expose the too-cozy relationship between business, the Mayor’s office, and the NYPD).  

    Otherwise, the General Assembly (the governing body of OWS in NYC) has not endorsed any demands.  A lot of people are trying to attach their name and agenda to what’s going on.  The “Demands Working Group” is an autonomous group and none of their proposed demands reached consensus by the General Assembly.   The individuals involved, obviously, have their own opinions.  

    Also, the insistence on OWS formulating demands implies there’s a legitimate power to address those demands to (hint, it’s not elected officials).  OWS may not have created a lot of jobs yet, but it has certainly provided people with alot of meaningful work.  

    And there are plenty of homegrown “products” in development to help support the growing movement of direct action and direct democracy –  news aggregators, donation platforms, online discussion + consensus tools – if you want to pitch in you can contact the Internet Working Group here:
    https://www.nycga.net/groups/internet/status/

  3. All in favour of aggressive startups shaking things up (even if they will struggle because of the dead weight that the anti-competitive corporatist state places on them) however the idea that the #occupy protesters are in any way similar or, God forbid, radical is frankly preposterous.

    What they are demanding is not less regulation (which is aggressively lobbied for by the very corporations the protesters claim to want to bring down) but more.

    Lenin coined the term, useful idiots. The #occupy movement is that phrase made flesh.

  4. meaghano says:

    Every person quoted in this article just diluted their brand.

    1. Crawford says:

      I don’t believe that.

      Heck, the owner of Meetup.com has helped orchestrate OWS “Occupies” around the country.

      They’re all telling the truth. OWS protesters need to look and act like normal Americans and put their most articulate supporters on the front lines.