When I went to Kickstarter, the projects that were seeking funding included everything from a documentary on Asian-elephant conservation and a project that will cover the funding to send journalist Ted Rall to Afghanistan to a pair of Brooklynites who make artisanal soda. People can put up whatever they want, and the people behind the projects agree to give their funders something from the venture. So if you give $10 to the artisanal-soda folks, you get a coupon for two free sodas, but if you give $50, you’ll get a printed tote bag, a mix CD, a coupon for four free sodas, and a handprinted card with one of their soda recipes. Give more than $500 to Rall and you’ll get personally thanked in the acknowledgments section of his book plus signed copies. People set a funding goal for their projects, and funders don’t get charged unless a project reaches its goal. It’s a way of not only encouraging creativity but also making consumers feel more connected to the things they buy. (Kickstarter takes a commission of 5 percent of all projects that get funded.) The biggest project funded so far was for $85,000 for a book of Obama-campaign images, Designing Obama, by Scott Thomas, the campaign’s design director.
“The value is in the exchange,” says 33-year-old Chen, when we go down the block to Schiller’s for a snack. Chen looks like a surfer, with shoulder-length black hair; he wore a navy hooded sweatshirt over a T-shirt. Born and raised in New York, he spent a few years in New Orleans and still owns a house there. “I think that’s how you create an economy, and a commercial market that is sustainable, rather than seeing donor fatigue enter into it.”
Chen sees the power in returning control to the creative producer, the way it could upend much of the way culture is produced. “If you’re in music and you have a record label, if you’re in fashion and you work for a studio, you are giving up the mass bulk of your intellectual property right off the bat,” he says. “And with Kickstarter, you keep 100 percent of your own intellectual property.”
To certain superannuated people—anyone over, say, the age of 35—all of this manic optimism can summon a queasy sense of déjà vu. After all, by the end of 2001, Silicon Alley lay in ruins, littered with the detritus of now-forgotten companies like Kozmo.com and Inside.com. The bubble “got birthed in the craziest kind of hyper period,” says Union Square’s Wilson, who has invested in companies like Twitter, Etsy, and Tumblr. “So when the bubble burst, it came crashing down, like everything did. But when Silicon Valley came crashing down, there were lots of big companies that weren’t going to go away, like Sun and Cisco and Oracle. In New York, that wasn’t really true.”
Worse, New York has historically lacked what people in the tech community call “start-up culture.” To Meetup’s Heiferman, it comes down to the need for a shift in worldview. “In Silicon Valley, when an Apple or a Google happens, it inspires tons of people to not just be entrepreneurs or founders of start-ups,” Heiferman says. “It encourages people to just work in the industry because they know if you’re an engineer for a company that does really well, then you do well. New York does not have its great success stories that become the stuff of legend and lore and myth.”
Heiferman is an evangelist-slash-contrarian in New York’s start-up scene. He’s got the history—he worked at Sony as its “Interactive Marketing Frontiersman,” then co-founded the first online ad agency, i-traffic, which was acquired by Agency.com, and the photo-sharing website Fotolog—and a vision for the tech scene that, appropriately for a contrarian, rubs some people the wrong way. He hates the idea that some of New York’s start-ups seem to exist only to support the so-called legacy industries of the city. “Madison Avenue ain’t gonna be the heart of New York anymore. Wall Street’s not going to be the heart of New York anymore. Media’s not going to be the heart of New York anymore,” he says. “New York is actually really hot. We’re inventing the shit that the world is using! This is a first. The fact is that New York didn’t create any great companies in the first tech boom. The closest thing was DoubleClick—but that was about making what old advertisers need.”
In San Francisco, start-ups have cachet that they’ve never had in New York. It’s in part because of these legacy industries, the Condé Nasts and Goldman Sachses that have historically served as shiny, aspirational baubles for 22-year-olds and have long driven the city’s gestalt.