Jan 28 2013

Entrepreneurs As Community Leaders Who Just Do: The Story Behind Walkabout NYC

Guest Post By: Jake CookDigital Wax Works – (Founder)

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tjschuck/
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tjschuck/

New York City company, Harvest, makes beautiful and useful software for companies looking to easily track time and invoice. In the spirit of “just doing something”, cofounders Danny Wen and Shawn Liu, hatched Walkabout NYC as the annual Friday afternoon event following Internet Week. For one afternoon some of the world’s most revered startups located in New York open up their spaces and various founders speak on different topics in a casual setting to standing-room only crowds – all for free.

To date, companies like Behance, Tumblr, Vimeo, OMGPOP, Etsy, and Meetup have all participated. I had the chance to ask the Harvest cofounder, Danny, on the story behind Walkabout NYC and tips on how you can pull off something similar in your city to help build connections in your startup community.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tjschuck/
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tjschuck/

1. How did the idea for Walkabout NYC come about?
Prior to launching Harvest, Shawn and I ran a web design and development studio. From those early days, we never turned down an offer to see the workspaces of other companies in our industry. We found visiting these workspaces to be tremendously inspiring as those experiences often helped us think about how we wanted to build our business and workspace.

Aside from these informal visits, we also had the good fortune of going to various organized studio tours, whether it’s for artists or spaces (like Open House NY). Beyond just seeing the spaces, it was about the conversations people would have when they visited one. It was an opportunity to see behind the scenes. From those experiences, we felt compelled to create an event similar in spirit for our community of technology companies.

2. What advice would you give other startup community leaders trying to pull something like this off?
The first year we launched Walkabout, we only had 15 companies that participated (compared to 80+ companies the following year). We started small, but made sure we involved some of the most fitting and high-profile companies in the city early. For example, here in New York, community driven companies like Meetup and Etsy were quick to support us in the effort and this allowed us to go out and invite more companies to participate. Before long, companies were emailing us to express their interest in participating and helping. So I think it’s important to involve other community leaders early and this will ensure the event gets momentum and gets off the ground.

When we define the purpose of the event as getting people to offline, to have in-person interactions, to talk about how a company works, their culture and process, it’s in many ways an easy sell. It’s naturally an exciting thing to be a part. Companies benefit from telling more people their stories, in person. The community benefits from being inspired by all the behind the scenes stuff they normally don’t have access to. We’ve even had several instances, including here at Harvest, where companies have hired people they’ve met from hosting the Walkabout event. Ultimately, it’s about bringing people who have similar interests together under the backdrop of open doors.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tjschuck/
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tjschuck/

3. The Harvest team built a gorgeous app for this – was it helpful for participation? Any chance this can be available as a platform for other communities?
Thanks! For this year’s Walkabout, we wanted to build a much better experience on the web and for mobile devices. Since Walkabout is an event to celebrate technology and the people behind it, we wanted to make sure we pushed our own adoption of technology for everything that is supporting the event. Since we were starting fresh, it was a good opportunity for us to experiment with new techniques and technologies.

We decided to create the site from a “mobile first” approach, where we can focus on getting the mobile experience right first, before we considered the “desktop” experience. This led us to make design decisions which favored simplicity, and things naturally expanded into a desktop version. It was an educational experience for us to build the platform and incredibly rewarding to see people navigate their way around the event using just their mobile phones.

Another important aspect of building a more serious platform for this year’s event was to get a better control of attendance. In our previous years, the big question participating companies were asking for was “how many people will show up to my office?” With an RSVP system in place, not only could we send them a list of people that would be attending their way, but they could also define how many people they can allow.

So in the end, it was a win/win for both the “walkers” and the participating companies. The platform helped people decide which companies they wanted to visit and the companies were able to provide a better experience because they knew how many people were coming and at what time.

We haven’t made any plans to make this available for use with other communities yet, but we do plan on using our platform again for another Walkabout event tailored for our customers that we’re hosting this coming Fall.

4. How did you get other leaders to participate?
We’ve been building our technology company here in New York for the better part of the last decade, so we’ve gotten to know some great people along the way, like Scott Belsky from Behance. Frankly, there wasn’t anything special we had to do to convince Scott or anyone that participated to do the event. We explained the idea and purpose of Walkabout and people naturally want to latch on to the opportunity to share their stories and ideas with the community. It really is a win-win situation.

5. What effect has this had on the startup community in NYC?
The major effect is that people are really more aware of who’s around them now. Companies in New York are mostly unmarked from the outside. There are no signs and banners that say “Company X” is here like you might see in other cities. Those that have visited companies now know for example “oh that building houses Skillshare” as they walk down just another street in Soho.

Beyond just knowing about the physical locations of companies, you realize people who have met during the event stay connected. They end up joining companies they visited because they liked what they saw or they stay in touch with each other to further discuss fragmentation in mobile because that’s the presentation they saw at MLB digital.

Ultimately, connections are made and knowledge is shared, and that’s a great thing.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trashrockx/
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trashrockx/

6. What do you see the tech community scene in NYC becoming? How are connective tissues being formed within the community?

The ecosystem is continuing to grow and support itself. On any given day, people have several options for events to meet people, to hack, to learn and all of that is just going to continue to grow.

7. Any unexpected connections as a result?
I believe connections, when it comes to people, are meant to be unexpected. Whether it’s finding co-founders, jobs, office space, etc., things like Walkabout are here to facilitate precisely more of those unexpected connections.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trashrockx/
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trashrockx/

Anything else you’d like to tell us?

In October of this Fall, we’re producing another Walkabout event. This time, instead of focusing on technology companies which produce products (which is what we’ve done so far), we’re going to focus on the services side of design and technology. Think of it as WalkaboutNYC Agency. We’ll be collaborating with leading independent design and technology agencies to help people see how the most creative and technology forward work is created. For us, it’s an exciting way to showcase many of our customers who are in this exact business. They’ve done an amazing job creating campaigns for top-notch brands and companies, and to be able to meet the people behind the work — that will be very exciting.

About Harvest: Based in New York City, Harvest let’s businesses beautifully perform two essential business functions: Tracking Time and Invoicing. Both of which helps ensure startups don’t violate Brad’s #1 rule of startups (“Never Run Out of Money”).

Jake Cook is a cofounder at Digital Wax Works and a volunteer for StartupBozeman. Follow him @jacobmcook.

Additional Photos from WalkaboutNYC: