March 2013

Los Angeles & Tech

Last week Tara and I had the pleasure of grabbing lunch with Bryce Roberts while he was in town scoping things out. Today he posted some notes about Los Angeles and it’s tech scene(s) that I wanted to follow up on because, well, you know I have a lot to say on the subject. If you haven’t read that post you should do that now, as what I have to say will make much more sense given that context.

So just a bit of credentials for anyone who stumbles across this and isn’t already familiar with my LA dedication – In 2003 I, along with Jason DeFillippo, launched Blogging.LA which was certainly the first group blog specifically about Los Angeles, and arguably one of the first group blogs about anything. (It’s funny because it’s common place now, but in 2003 finding a blog with more than one author was rare.) That would morph into Metroblogging and I spent a lot of time over the following years talking to VCs about funding for it. In 2006 I along with a few friends put on the first Barcamp in Los Angeles because we knew there was a vibrant and active tech community here that we felt didn’t know about each other. It was a massive success and there would be 6 successive Barcamps over the next 4 years before it got too big and fragmented into several smaller and more manageable events. In 2009 I instigated the opening of the first public hackerspace in LA which 3 years later is world renowned, award winning, nearing 100 members and has events almost every night of the week. Last year, along with Alex & Tara I help build Represent.LA to once again try and solidify, or at least put a face to the LA tech scene.

I also have 213 tattooed on my finger and LA on my foot.

Somewhat related, I spent much of 2010 on the other side of the VC table, working closely with Neoteny Labs – a fund led by Joi Ito and Reid Hoffman – which gave me a considerable amount of insight about how VCs look at companies, locations, and how they approach deals.

That out of the way – I’m really excited that Bryce has taken an interest in LA. As you can see, I’ve been thinking highly of the place for quite some time. The truth is, the people here in LA know how awesome it is. That’s why we’re here. But most people outside of LA have no idea what is going on here. LA has an image problem in that Hollywood has been really good at making up a fictional version of itself and painting that as LA. I guess people outside of LA don’t understand what fiction is, and assume that the LA they see portrayed on TV and in Movies must be real. It’s not. Hell, Hollywood “the place” doesn’t even have anything to do with Hollywood “the industry.” But, that’s beside the point. Point is if you’ve never spent any time in LA chances are your impression and opinion of the place are dead wrong – but the vast majority of people are happily uninformed. So it’s refreshing to see someone take more than a passing interest.

Bryce spends the first part of his report making LA/NYC comparisons. Which neighborhoods match up and things like that. Which places he thinks are similar is up for debate, but that’s hardly the important part. The gem here is the comprehension that LA is not just one thing. Not just one place. But lots – and I mean a lot – of smaller places with their own personalities all nestled up next to each other. Santa Monica is not LA. Venice is not LA. Hollywood is not LA. Downtown LA is not LA. Silver Lake is not LA. Pasadena is not LA. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This place is giant and every step in every direction is different. This is a good thing and something you have to understand to begin to understand LA.

He notes that there are some great incubators, not a lot of local funding here. Bingo.

This is an excellent observation. In my time hunting for funding for Metblogs I met with a wide variety of both angels and larger VC funds in town – as well as out of town. Not all, but vast majority of VCs and Angels I met with in LA were aggressive, greedy, and very interested in seeing just how many hoops they could get you to jump through. The term sheets I was offered were outright hostile. I met with a lot of people who liked to talk about how much they invested in the local tech scene to try and take credit for anything and everything happening here. Turns out by “investing in the local tech scene” many of these people meant throwing parties or comparing bank accounts with other local investors who valued cashing checks more than investing them.

Needless to say those were not positive experiences. Years later when working with helpful, excited and positive VCs at Neoteny Labs I’d realize just how bad those other deals had been. When I spoke with VCs out of LA I was repeatedly hit with “there’s nothing happening in LA, you’d need to move closer to us before we could consider investing.” Immediate deal breaker.

LA really needs investors who are supportive of both the growing scene and LA itself. There’s a unique atmosphere here that, if nurtured, could produce some incredibly awesome companies. I have no doubt about that at all. Some of the most creative and driven people I’ve met in my entire life have been in LA.

As for the disconnect between Hollywood (the industry) and the LA tech scene, I agree completely that this relationship is underdeveloped. I think a lot of that blame lies on the shoulders of super conservative business advisors, hired by people and companies with expendable income and charged with doing something/anything with that money except losing it. Which makes investing in tech start ups less than attractive. There’s also the thing – when you are a hammer everything looks like a nail. A lot of people in Hollywood (the industry) think the whole world is struggling to be them. So any intermingling with other industries would really just be showing those folks how Hollywood does it. This is where a lot of the content crossover comes from.

That’s not everyone of course, there are some very smart people in Hollywood that have made moves into technology, but largely this has been driven by one person who really gets it, not an industry that understand it. It’s progress, but it’s slow. I think there will need to be some very noteworthy success stories coming from these partnerships to convince others to get their feet wet. I think this will happen, but it won”t be the result of parties, mixers, or networking events. It’ll be because awesome people working on awesome projects get together and do awesome things.

Hollywood (the industry) has the reputation for seeing on failure as a condemnation of an entire theme. If a movie about earthquakes flops, no studio is going to make another one for long time because it can’t be that the movie just sucked, it has to be that people don’t like that theme. And similarly if a movie about zombies does well, you can expect a hundred more zombie movies any minute now – because it can’t be that it was just a good movie, but that people want that theme. We suffer from the same problem in tech. If a site fails – lets say a local product that raised a mountain of cash before even launching a site – then obviously local isn’t viable. It can’t be that it was jut a crappy idea, or poor implementation – it has to be that the theme is bust. And likewise, if something works, get ready for a million copycats. This quickness to accept or reject an idea is harsh on it’s own, but put the two industries together and you get lot of skepticism. Which is why I think when this happens – and I again, I firmly believe it will – it’ll be individual driven. It’s just a question of who those individual will be.

Bryce says that he “can see LA really stepping into it’s own over the next few years” and I think he’s right. I’ve been championing this place for over 10 years now and while I’ve always really liked what was happening here, what I see happening right now is the most exciting it’s ever been. And if people like Bryce and the folks at OATV (among others who have been here recently) are noticing that too, I think it’s more than just local hope.


“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in…”

I’ll save you the epic backstory and just say that when I walked away from the music industry in the late 90’s one of the many reasons I chose to do so was because, frankly, it had gotten boring. People (and bands) were just running through the motions. They were executing a prescribed set of actions because that’s just what you do. I missed the days of people doing things because they loved them. Because they thought they were awesome. Because they wanted to be proud of what they were doing. Doing the same thing that you’ve already done, that everyone else has already done, over and over again, isn’t at all fulfilling or interesting to me.

So I left the music world and went to work at this exciting new place, the internet. The music industry had a lot of perks, but it never had lolcats. In the years since then I’ve helped a few friends out with the occasional music project here and there, but I’ve always kept things at arms length because on some level it was the same old thing. It’s was a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

These frustrations were echoed in a conversation I had with a few friends last year. We went on to ask ourselves, what does success mean, or even look like if it’s not just living up to someone else’s metric? Obviously if we were going to spend time working on something we want it to be successful, but maybe more importantly we talked about how we wanted it to be something we were proud of working on. If the absolute worst case scenario is that we spend some time working on something we think is awesome, how bad is that? And anything above and beyond that is even better. So, thinking about a music project from that perspective, what would we want to address? What would we want to do differently?

Turns out, a lot.


Clockwork Orange bar

“Kelly told Alice that she thinks you are cute”

Stereotypical high school grapevine courting. It happened all the time to everyone. Except it had never happened to me. I’d forever been in the role of passing on this kind of message but had never had it directed towards me. Of course I always dreamed about what would happen when my number finally rolled around. When one of the oh so many girls who I stared at for endless hours in school would finally notice me. One of them, which one I hoped it would be changed often enough that it really could have been any of them, but one of them would realize that right there in front of them was the guy that they were dreaming about when they at home singing smiths songs. I never liked the Smiths mind you, but they all did. It would be like turning on a light in a dark room filled with furniture, suddenly everything would make sense and we’d both know it. We’d instantly know everything about each other and understand every thought the other had. We’d do things that people who were dating did like hang out and go to the mall together. We’d hold hands absentmindedly while doing something else – just for the comfort of knowing the other person was there. We’d snuggle up on a couch and fall asleep next to each other while watching a movie. We’d probably kiss. Then we’d have mountains of sex. We’d live happily ever after. It was just a matter of time before all this came to pass, either that or I’d grow old and die alone. But one of those things was sure to happen. It was just a matter of time.

“Who’s Kelly?” I asked.

She wasn’t one of the girls I currently (or recently) had had my sights on, but no matter because she was one of the girls. This was happening slightly differently that I’d expected, but these were variations I could deal with. It turns out that Kelly was one of the girls who from time to time would sit at table during lunch which meant she was at least a friend of a friend. But let’s be honest here, we’re talking about Bradenton, Florida so anyone who was the least bit weird at some point ended up stuck with the rest of us. You didn’t want to be one of the weird ones in Bradenton. You were supposed to want to fit in, to play sports and have rich parents.

Her name wasn’t even Kelly. I’m not changing it to protect the innocent or anything like that, I just can’t remember it. If I really cared about creating some historically accurate document I suppose I could find a yearbook and look her up, but I don’t really care. That, and I threw out all my old year books a few years ago. So for this her name is Kelly, but really it doesn’t matter. This story isn’t about her name, it’s about her and me and it’s about the events of these few weeks.

The next time I saw her I went out of my way to say Hi and be friendly, without being obvious and without letting on that I’d heard the scandalous rumors that she thought I was cute. That would ruin everything. Besides, I wasn’t the one who thought she was cute so I didn’t have anything to worry about. But she was cute, in a weird kind of way. I’d just never noticed it before. Or maybe now that I had this insider information I looked at her differently. I noticed her anyway, which I hadn’t before, so there’s that. She was smallish, both in stature and weight. Her short bleach blond hair was plastered down to her head with some kind of plastering hair product or matted from unwashed grease, I couldn’t tell which. She touched it and looked away and smiled nervously. Her white T-shirt was at least 4 sizes too big and her arms looked toothpicks sticking out of the sleeves. She wore boys jeans with what was probably her fathers belt. Her super pale skin was harshly contrasted by the dark red lipstick she was wearing, or had worn many hours ago because it had turned black and caked up in the corners of her mouth and edges of her lips. I assumed it was lipstick anyway, it might as well have just been remnants from a lolipop or something. She was awkward on every level, and I thought it was fantastic. How had I not seen her before?