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Makeit

I live and work about two blocks from Wall Street in NYC, so it’s been an interesting and charged few months — even more than the usual New York City amplifier. Besides my role at MAKE, I help run an open source electronics factory, Adafruit Industries. During the 2008 financial crash, we were able to get a fairly large space when the financial folks were leaving in droves, and since then we’ve witnessed many changes in the area. Some have been good and some I’ll call challenges. Over the years, a common question I get asked is “Why New York City?” And then there’s “Why run a business there? It’s so hard/expensive/crazy/weird/intense.” Also, “Just move to Vegas — no taxes!” And that’s what this week’s Soapbox is all about: “If you can make it in NYC, you can make it anywhere.” I’m going to talk about why I think this is the best city for me, for now, to run a business. My goal is for the maker businesses out there, from one person to many, to post up in the comments on why their city is the best city to run a maker business. Let’s get started.

Make your mark in New York and you are a made man. — Mark Twain

The Pace

I ended up back in New York City about five years ago, a cross-country move that was the end of one journey and the start of another. The first time I was working in NYC was the last dot-com. The pace was frantic, the competition was tough, and every friend I had was a coworker because we all worked so much. I realized then what is still true now: you’re in New York because you love what you do. It’s so hard, it’s so brutal doing almost anything — you’re not here to rest, you’re here to explode.

If you want to get busy, there’s no better place than NYC — everyone is in constant motion. The city is an organism with a hyper-fast metabolism. If that’s not for you, you might get churned out. So my first reason for saying NYC is my best place for a maker business is the energy you get by just being part of this gigantic entity. The stream carries you around — sometimes faster than you can handle — but sometimes you need it to get things done.

With competition being part of everything here, from the coffee cart on the corner to artists trying to get shows, you either thrive on it or you leave. I’m sure other people don’t need competition as part of their daily experience to keep going, but I think I do. In a city of millions, you can still be perfectly alone, as odd as that sounds.

The People

It’s hard to find great multi-talented people who love to work, love to create, and love what they do. New York has an abundance of these people. Hiring hasn’t been a problem. We’re able to find dynamic artists, designers, musicians, and writers. Everyone is working on multiple things, so the head of our shipping department might have a play opening that he wrote. Having people who are passionate about something besides your core business isn’t a weakness — I’ve found it’s a strength.

Besides that, there are people who need a good, stable job to fund their passions, and that’s great too. It’s expensive here — I always say you lose $20 per hour every time you walk outside in NYC. We have students, artists, writers, just about anyone who likes to work hard can with us, and can keep a foothold here.

You hear rapid prototyping of “things” in the maker world, but sometimes I need rapid sanity checks on my ideas before I make them. There’s no better place to quickly exposure what you’re working on to the widest possible group of people than NYC. I’m not that shy, so I’ll start up conversations with anyone. What are jobs they’re trying to get done? What are the problems they’re trying to solve? What things are they trying to learn, or what things would they like to see their kids learn? This helps shapes my thinking — some companies have focus groups, I have New York.

When MAKE had a small office in New York, it was when Etsy was first getting started. I watched them grow and grow as the maker movement grew along with them. There are so many people not only making and sharing things, but people who help people make and share things. It’s not just about skill sharing, it’s about making a culture and making businesses that can support these makers.

Access

I left out VC (venture capital funding) but it’s worth mentioning. We’re profitable and grew the business without taking on funding (we certainly could have and had offers) but NY has tons of VCs and there are already 3 VC open hardware businesses in NYC.

The VC folks in NYC are mostly web tech-focused, although I’m starting to see more and more investments in “maker” businesses. MakerBot just received $10M (see my previous article) and there are 4–5 more “Manufacturing 2.0″ businesses either getting funding or have received it. So while I don’t need the funding, I’m really glad I know where to get it, from whom and how.

The New York Times in on a roll with a series of NYC-is-where-it’s-at articles. Here are just a few of the recent ones:

Re-engineering New York: More Than a Sci-Fi Dream?
Technology Footprint: Starting Up in New York
A Haven for Lovers of the Analog
On the Move, in a Thriving Tech Sector

I can’t quote anyone I know who works for the city directly because it always needs to be approved, but I can say there is a large effort to get the city to diversify income to more types of businesses besides finance. It’s boom and bust that’s sometimes destructive. If you look close, you can see the start of something really big happening now.

Rapid%20Prototyping%20And%20Fabrication%20Map Nov2011

Check out this map from the NYCEDC (New York City Economic Development Corporation): “Rapid Prototyping and Fabrication in NYC” (click for the PDF).

Hackerspaces, 3D printing, galleries, schools — we’re on our way to being a hub of making as the next industrial revolution happens.

World Capital

Everyone comes to New York City, and I mean everyone. Over the last year, I tried not to travel at all to focus on the business, and it didn’t really matter. Everyone who’s doing anything I’m involved with comes through NYC. From Maker Faire NYC to conferences like the Open Hardware Summit and other events, New York is (in my opinion) the capital of the world.

When I didn’t live here, I would try my best to visit here.

It matters to me that I can work 20 hours a day for weeks at a time, but still take some time off and catch something like a Phillip Glass performance live. Door to door in about 30 minutes or less I can catch any show, a museum opening, any speaking in town. I’m not sure how other people get ideas and stay inspired, but I try to keep myself exposed to everything I can that will help me look at the world with a goal of making it better and sharing. The center of a worldwide movement is two blocks from here in Zuccotti Park.

When my partner, Limor “Ladyada” Fried, really started to get the attention of the media world because of her skills and her cause, there were months at a time where reporters were in the shop filming, photographing, or interviewing her. They were either already in NYC or would fly here — there’s always a reason to do a story in NYC and there is just about every media outlet here.

Part of the success of the maker business I’m part of is because it was easy for anyone to talk to Limor in time for deadlines, as part of a big story like Kinect hacking or just because it’s pretty cool to have a thriving electronics factory a few blocks from ground zero.

Would as many media folks venture out to see us if we were somewhere else? Maybe, but I don’t think it would be as much or as often.

MakerBot was on the cover of a popular NY magazine, Timeout NYC, and was on the Colbert Report. Bre Pettis, the founder of MakerBot (who I met in Seattle and later hired at MAKE to do videos and who moved to NYC basically with me at the time), has told me that one of the reasons MakerBot has taken off has been because of the constant flow of media. And the list goes on and on. If you’re here doing something, someone wants to tell the world about it.

Related to MAKE – Maker Faire NY reaches a whole new level of media access that we don’t get in the Bay Area and has become a key reason MAKE wants to always be in NYC. It’s led to things like an entire episode of Martha Stewart last year devoted to the Faire.

Constraints

There was a time I just hated things like running out of space, or freaking out about yet another new tax the city is putting on the business. But perhaps I’m zen about these things now. The space and money constraints make us work smarter and more efficiently. This means writing code to manage inventory better so everything is in stock, but a warehouse isn’t needed with all that overhead and money sunk waiting. Being nimble, fast, and adaptable is required in a big city, and this transfers to the business. We might have 3,500 square feet now and will grow to 10,000 square feet soon. We maximize every inch — we make systems to tightly monitor where things are, when they’re arriving, and when they’re going. We optimize and optimize because we must. Even our staff is this way — our CTO codes and he also builds new shelves when we need them — we’re all willing and able to do what it takes to keep things moving. Because we spend more than others on rent and the “fee” for just being in the city, we need to work extra hard, to do a better job and make things that are a good value and good business for us. Everything we do has purpose and we think carefully about what we spend money on, but most importantly, on what we don’t.

I’ll close this out with a quote from Jay-Z, and one last thought. I’m not sure I will like New York forever to run a business, but I know right now, she likes me here. She can be cold, harsh, and unforgiving, but when she wants you to be here, how can you say no?

In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made, oh
There’s nothing you can’t do, now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you, let’s hear it for New York
New York, New York
Jay-Z, Empire State Of Mind


Now, it’s your turn, post up why your city is the best place to run a business and why!

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.


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