The True Believers

A Brooklyn-based boot camp readies the next wave of digital media's Next Big Things

Weeks 1 and 2
Putting Ink to Paper

The five teams—each with three members—met a week earlier for a casual, meet-and-greet dinner. On July 18, they’re getting down to brass tacks, congregating in Long Island City at a corner bar called La Familia. In the bar’s back room, they sit on cushioned benches arranged camp-style in an imperfect circle and consume sandwiches, beer and wine. Gruff-voiced and thickly bearded Ivy Leaguer Koczon sips a whiskey and soda as he holds court, immediately establishing himself as the group’s head coach.

A self-described “Airbnb hobo,” Koczon regularly visits cities around the U.S. and Canada for entrepreneurial brainstorming retreats and hackathons. Though probably more a Bad News Bears Morris Buttermaker type than John Wooden, he fits right in with these tech types. During one camper’s overly hurried presentation, Koczon comments, “I felt like you were racing ahead of me, and I am out of shape and have bad knees.”

In the first order of business, all five groups are asked to sign the Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp contract, which takes a 6 percent stake in return for the $25,000 investment. (Other financial details were not disclosed.) In the dimly lit back room, the 15 entrepreneurs put ink to paper. Along with Maker’s Row and Sticker FM, the teams introduce themselves. Calzone is a social calendar mobile/Web app, Skillcrush is a Web destination enabling digital-code novices to build websites, plus there’s a yet-unnamed mobile app for fans of farmers markets. “We have some name ideas, but we want to be patient and make sure we pick the right brand,” says John Ford, one of the app’s developers.

After the introductions, Koczon shifts the discussion to digital creativity. “Let’s use collective wisdom,” he says, encouraging the teams to embrace “a ‘slash-purpose’ mentality,” a code-referencing credo meaning Web products that inspire users and beget business. “We have some really smart people,” he goes on. “We can help each other iterate and change our products for the better.”

Tech startups tend to work within a culture based on change. All the campers have either launched other startups or left promising careers to become entrepreneurs. Fashion-minded Maker’s Row was born after Matthew Burnett and Tanya Menendez suddenly scrapped their e-commerce venture Brooklyn Bakery, filling out their team after meeting Scott Weiner through an online tech talent board. Targeting a fragmented fashion ecosystem, their concept aims to unify large manufacturers, small artisans, suppliers and retailers in one digital destination. “We were working so hard to get Brooklyn Bakery off the ground,” Burnett says. “And then Tanya comes to me and says, ‘Hey, this is a huge problem that we can tackle.’ So we pivoted.” But would their new plan stick?

Closing the Long Island City meeting, Koczon cheers them on. “We want five incredible products,” the San Diego native says. “Each one should be a hit. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.”

Weeks 3 and 4
Tweaking Prototypes

On Aug. 1, the teams meet at Sticker FM’s warehouse space in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. The dog days of summer have arrived, and it’s muggy. “Want a beer?” Igal Nassima, 32, a Sticker FM co-founder originally from Turkey, asks campers gathering on the rooftop. “It’s co-o-old.”

After a few drinks and some chitchat, the campers head downstairs to the bare-bones warehouse space for updates on their progress and pinpointing their next moves. The hosts go first, with Nassima and partners Paul Christophe, a Texan, and Avery Max, a native New Yorker, taking the stage. With Sticker FM, they explain, groups of friends create 10- or 20-second videos on their smartphones or computers to post message board-like threads but for mobile or Web.

Several campers from other teams laud the playfulness of Sticker FM’s design, which lets users scroll from left to right while watching vids. “The videos will be fun vignettes between you and your friends,” Nassima explains. Yet his group needs to attack a basic problem that befuddles all the teams—ridding their products of glitches. “The prototype is done,” Nassima says, “but now we need to rebuild it in HTML5.”

Next to present is Skillcrush, a three-woman team looking to teach Web newbies how to code their own sites. “We all come from the news industry where technology has become a disruptive factor,” says co-founder Jennifer McFadden, 40, who has worked in product marketing for The New York Times and is an adjunct journalism professor at the City University of New York. “And those people who have some technical understanding have had a much better chance of keeping their jobs over the last couple of years.”

Like Sticker FM, Skillcrush hopes to progress from prototype to finished product during the three-month camp. During their presentation, partner Adda Birnir, 27, forecasts the venture’s next steps. “We are still trying to figure out things like if we’ll have price add-ons for certain education features,” she says. “There’s a million questions.”

Week 6
Campers Talk Tough Love

On Aug. 15, everyone meets at Skillcrush’s West 27th Street headquarters in Manhattan. Another typical tech workspace, it’s an open room with six-foot-long track lighting. Out the window, the top of the Empire State Building glows green and yellow as dusk nears.

During Maker’s Row’s 20-minute presentation, Burnett and Menendez describe how their online hub will unite fashionistas with designers, highlighting how their site makes it possible for both brands and consumers to design products like watches and handbags. They have also developed a directory for suppliers. After the show-and-tell, everyone in the room applauds. “A week ago, we got destroyed,” 27-year-old Burnett says afterward, explaining that the campers can be especially harsh in their design and developer criticism. “This felt good.”

Next up is the team behind the still-nameless app for farmers market devotees. The group involves early thirtysomething brothers John and Glenn Ford, at the moment working in Wisconsin, where Glenn lives. “They are pushing out [mobile code],” says their partner Josh Stewart, 33, who demonstrates for the campers how the app is evolving into a photo-friendly, Instagram-like social tool for aficionados of fresh produce.

Pretty pictures of blackberries and peaches appear in a mock-up of the app appearing on a drop-down projection screen. Stewart points to just-implemented interactive features, including users’ ability to “like” a picture. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. “Who goes on their phone to look at pictures of fruit?” asks Ryder Ripps, a member of the three-man team Calzone. “That’s freaky.”

Calzone is up next, presenting the latest iteration of their social calendar, according to Ripps, “that doesn’t suck.” A few weeks ago, the concept seemed all over the place. Now, it becomes clearer that Calzone can be useful for social networking through a so-called “smart” digital calendar. Camp coach Koczon says he thinks their project can be “like Tumblr for events,” adding, “You got a lot set up. What is this? Only Week 6? What you have left to do, that’s nothing.”

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