On the Saturday that thousands of protesters marched to Times Square, the brass bells of the New York Stock Exchange rang out at noon–signifying the takeover of the trading floor by the New York startup community. Companies like Etsy, Meetup and ZocDoc were handing out t-shirts and branded ping pong balls to fresh-faced engineers in backpacks who circled the screen-filled roundabouts while munching the complimentary sandwiches provided for SA500, a Silicon Alley recruiting event.
The choice of venue could be interpreted as symbolic aggression. New York startups compete fiercely with the finance sector for programmers and MBAs–and while they can’t match Goldman’s salaries, they do make the social argument. Knewton wants to transform education, Sulia wants to reinvent news, and the mobile payments app Venmo wants to replace credit cards. Meetup is “starting a local community revolution”; Etsy’s mission is to “empower people to change the way the global economy works.” The lofty talk of startups is not unlike the rhetoric of the protesters, who are advocating–albeit vaguely–the most radical agenda of any political movement in recent memory.
“I see them as very, very similar,” said Scott Heiferman, co-founder and CEO of Meetup.com, who orchestrated a field trip to the protest after a recent board meeting. “Most of the successful startup people are out to make a dent in the universe and change the world in some way, and that’s what they’re trying to do downtown. I can’t speak to the people who are just hanging around for the free pizza, but there are people downtown who are really fired up to see some sort of systemic change in culture.”
But while they’re definitely talking about the protest, many techies aren’t sold. The movement has high engagement (and revenue!) but the brand, the marketing and the roadmap need work.
“It’s all about your pitch,” said Reece Pacheco, the co-founder and CEO of the hot video-sharing startup Shelby.tv, who was at the N.Y.S.E. that Saturday scouting for talent. “Right now Occupy Wall Street’s pitch is really bad because no one know what they’re really about. You got some people saying ‘yeah, stop spending money, and get the troops out of Iraq,’ and like, ‘free Nelson Mandela!’ They’re all over the place.”
“My view of it is that they have not been utilizing technology to their full advantage,” said Brandon Diamond, founder of the Hacker Union, a collective of New York programmers. “What they should start with is a centralized resource where people can find out what they’re protesting. Even a Twitter account.”
“I think the way it’s been executed has been really poor,” said Melanie Moore, a former financial analyst who is now on her second web startup, a subscription-based site for fashion essentials. “That list of demands that came out? It was like, Marxist bullshit. It was crazy. Like, ‘we should abolish government.’ Like anarchist … they’ve gotten to the point where their brand is very diluted.”
Ms. Moore, who lives on Wall Street and regularly walks past the protest, advocated a pivot. “If I wanted to go about it the right way I would get a group of people together, break off from Occupy Wall Street, call it something else, rebrand it and start the right way, with people who maybe have some connections in Washington.”
Despite criticism from the techie peanut gallery, Occupy Wall Street is nothing if not tech-savvy. (One of the earliest criticisms was the preponderence of Macbooks among the protesters.) The protest has had a near-constant Livestream from the headquarters at Zuccotti Park, which has also broadcast from Times Square and during the now-infamous mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a fixture on geeky forums like Reddit and SomethingAwful; even the Bitcoin community and the hacktivists of Anonymous are into it. The protest has also voted consistently to use open-source software for everything from its website to its accounting, and the still-grassroots funded movement is hip to crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, which raised money for tangential projects such as The Occupied Wall Street Journal. There are also more than 200 occupation-related campaigns on the Y Combinator-incubated WePay.com. “It’s not a coincidence that much of the success of the #OWS movement comes from their nimble use of technology to organize and get their word out,” the venture capitalist Fred Wilson wrote on his blog.
Betabeat happened to be standing at the corner of Zuccotti Park on the second Saturday of the protest, as a march that had resulted in about 80 arrests was returning to the park headquarters. As the much-thinned stream of sign-holders neared, the N.Y.P.D. tensed and started to shoo protesters off the sidewalk and into the park. “Cameras up, cameras up!” one man shouted, needlessly, as the small crowd had already sprouted a halo of smartphones.
Atlantic staffer Conor Friedersdorf, who lives in the redwoods of Northern California, discovered a sign at the New York protest bearing an excerpt from one of his blog posts–alerted to him by a reader on Twitter who had seen it on BoingBoing. The way his words had traveled, transformed and disseminated back to him led to an epiphany: “I now see how Occupy Wall Street is like the internet,” he wrote, adding another layer to the remix by referencing words written by CNN’s Douglas Rushkoff. “I now understand a little better what it means for a protest movement to be without ‘a traditional narrative arc,’ to be ‘the product of the decentralized networked-era culture,’ to be about ‘inclusion and groping toward consensus.’”
The New York tech community would seem to be in a prime position to help the webby movement. The protest has been using Vibe, an anonymized broadcasting app similar to Twitter built by a New York techie. One Meetup engineer organized a small hackathon that produced a few Occupy Wall Street apps including OccupyVotes, a platform for deciding on the specific demands everyone has been clamoring for, which has already collected some 19,000 votes on 64 proposals.
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.