True Believers

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

Craig Shapiro became a Silicon Valley man of means in the last half decade investing early in successful startups like Facebook and As tech excitement and investor dollars shifted East, he decamped to New York City in early 2011. After hunting down a Manhattan apartment in the East Village, he launched a seed pool for startups called Collaborative Fund while getting to know digital Gotham.

Through a community work space in Brooklyn’s tech boomtown in the Dumbo neighborhood, he soon met Cameron Koczon, founder of Brooklyn Beta, which hosts three-day conferences featuring DIY-minded speeches from founders of promising startups. The two entrepreneurially focused young men (Shapiro is 35; Koczon, 30) became fast friends, sharing a like-minded philosophy that startups can leverage personal values as competitive weapons in the marketplace. Their relationship helped spawn the Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp, which recently wrapped its first 12-week accelerator program. It’s the latest New York incubator for aspiring digital entrepreneurs, building off the momentum of local successes like Dogpatch Labs, which produced the hit music site, and TechStars, which nurtured the 2012 home-relocation sensation Moveline.

With Shapiro as a key adviser and conduit to venture capitalists, the camp is run by Koczon’s team at Fictive Kin, a small digital company that produces apps such as Gimme Bar and Teux Deux. With partners Chris Shiflett and Tyler Mincey, Koczon chose five startup teams from some 300 submissions, awarding each $25,000 in seed money from nine local tech-oriented sponsors.

The Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp can best be described as a program for tech entrepreneurs crossed with angel investors searching for the next big thing. The teams in the inaugural session varied greatly, ranging from a practical B2B marketplace for fashion manufacturing called Maker’s Row to a video-making mobile app/website dubbed Sticker FM. Through the 12 weeks, they would venture into Manhattan, Queens and various Brooklyn neighborhoods for evening meetings to critique each other’s work. The end goal: two days of demos before an audience of New York’s biggest tech players. Their mission would be to collect the handshakes, business cards and requests for meetings with VC players to obtain funding to keep going after burning through the $25,000 in seed money.

Would any of the campers stand a chance at becoming the next New York tech darling, like Foursquare, Fab or Etsy? The program was supposed to end on an evening with each group making a final pitch to a crowd of potential investors. But just as each of the teams evolved over 12 weeks, the camp itself pivoted. Ever lurking in the background, plotting the final twist is Shapiro, propelled by the feeling that the startup bubble will soon lose air, if not burst. “It’s made for a lot of excitement, but it hasn’t created a lot of sustainable businesses,” he says, echoing a growing consensus. “In 2013, the pendulum will be moving back toward the middle after a period of overexuberance.”

In other words, the time is now. The rush was on to a conclusion no one expected.


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.”