At the Makery—a communal workspace for nascent start-ups in a light-filled loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn—the atmosphere pulses with youthful exuberance. By day, the proprietors of Inlust (a video-based dating site), Small Girls Big Business (a fashion P.R. consultancy), and Jauntsetter (a travel website), among others, work at their laptops while singing along to Cee Lo's "Fuck You"; by night, they unwind with speed-texting parties. The Makery's mission, its 31-year-old founder, Matt Langer, announced on his Tumblr last August, is to create "an enriching, cross-pollinating environment where people making great things can make even better things when they're surrounded by others doing the same." Langer's rotating cast of ambitious young tenants—who pay $300 a month for a desk, Wi-Fi, and the privilege of mingling with others on the make—are driven by a new kind of entrepreneurial spirit. "We're having something of a renaissance right now," Langer says. "Services became cheaper, the cost of hitting the ground got lower, and that brought in investment dollars. At this point, the ball is rolling."
The act of striking out on your own is hardly a new phenomenon—it's the DNA of the American Dream, after all—but it might well be today's savviest career move. Although tech geeks may have laid the groundwork with platforms that can be utilized across industry boundaries, Silicon Valley is no longer the primary launching pad for emerging entrepreneurs. Around the country, there's a groundswell of can-do start-ups among artisanal food-makers, boutique retailers, even automakers, and the government is starting to take notice. In November, after the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation released the findings that "startups and young firms . . . account for nearly all net job creation in the United States," the Senate unanimously adopted a resolution declaring the first-ever "Global Entrepreneurship Week." It's no wonder, then, that the boundaries of age are also falling. "There's a stereotype being formed—probably by Mark Zuckerberg—that everyone who's creating a company is 25," says John Borthwick, the CEO of Betaworks, which makes seed investments in start-ups in what the company calls the real-time social web space. "But the majority of new entrepreneurs aren't right out of school." And they're not sad sacks who discovered the virtues of self-employment after being downsized. In fact, they are closer in spirit to the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on Mad Men, who started their own ad agency after being manipulated by the corporate schemers who were buying and selling them like commodities. Despite being separated by decades of social and technological upheaval (not to mention the gulf between fiction and reality), we are motivated by the same impulse—not so much to stick it to the Man, but to be a better version of him. "If the Internet makes these new businesses possible, well, so does indoor plumbing," says Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The new entrepreneurs, he says, "are simply using the residue of that revolution, on their way to doing the things they most care about."
Langer, a natural-born connector, has made a career (and a few killings) out of being a serial entrepreneur: He joined online-game designer Conduit Labs in 2008 and cashed in his equity when it was bought two years later for an undisclosed sum by Zynga, the world's largest social-game developer. By then he had already helped build Hot Potato, a New York-based "check-in" service that launched with $1.42 million in seed funding and was reportedly bought by Facebook for seven times that amount less than a year later. When Hot Potato moved out of its Williamsburg loft, Langer used a fraction of his payout to take over the lease and start the Makery. "The way I look at these things is: In the age after Enron, to go out and start your own business, raise money, turn it into something bigger, create livelihoods for people—that's a great thing. Mark Zuckerberg created 1,500 jobs with something he started in college—that's probably one of the noblest things about the whole adventure."
What Langer has built is a landing spot for those who have made the leap from corporate culture into entrepreneurship. One of the Makery's tenants is Chris Carella, 32, who runs Super+Fun ( a social funware company ) with his wife, Becky. "We have this culture of bringing people in, and that's great for investors because they can meet with half a dozen companies at once," he says. "Then, maybe twice a week, I'm getting a coffee with someone new, exchanging skill sets and contacts. They want to hear about what you're working on, give feedback, get advice."
For John B. Rogers Jr., the entrepreneurial leap represented a total change of culture. Rogers hadn't been frustrated by the drudgery of the office; he had his moment of clarity during a tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq. "I was volunteering for a miserable job that ostensibly had great national import, but I could be back in America also doing something worthwhile—and not getting shot at," Rogers says. After returning to civilian life and getting an M.B.A. from Harvard, Rogers, a car lover, considered working for one of the Big Three, but he didn't want anything to do with their "environmentally unfriendly, uncool" methods. Instead, Rogers, now 37, drummed up $7 million from 40 individual investors and founded Local Motors, which produces made-to-order cars, using customer input and elbow grease (yes, you build your own set of wheels), in Arizona. He has ambitious plans for a national network of "microfactories," each of which will produce models that are environmentally appropriate for local climates, but knows he is still a long way from moguldom. "You can start to doubt yourself late at night," Rogers says, "but the thing that brings me back is a very simple promise: We want to make cool cars that people want to buy. When I think about that, all the other stuff melts away."
The Makery, Brooklyn: A Case Study in Cluster Entrepreneurship*
In every major field, entrepreneurs like Rogers are remaking the ways we work and play. Before, a would-be restaurateur needed serious capital investment to succeed in a notoriously unpredictable, failure-ridden industry; today a young chef can make a statement with just talent, hard work . . . and someone else's lease. On Fridays at Coffee Bar, in San Francisco's Mission district, Ethiopian-born chef Eskender Aseged wowed crowds and critics at his restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Radio Africa & Kitchen, and is now opening his own brick-and-mortar eatery. In New York there were, at last count, 34 pop-up restaurants in operation. (The rise of yet another star-up, the daily e-newsletter Tasting Table, helps educate fans of pop-ups.) "These people using Facebook to invite their friends to pop-up restaurants don't think of themselves as part of an Internet revolution," Shirky says, "and the pop-up restaurants aren't 'Internet businesses' any more than 19th-century banks were 'telegraph businesses.' " This same spirit is shaking up the fine-art world. Jen Bekman, a gallery owner, launched 20x200, a site that regularly commissions a photograph and a print in small editions and sells them at affordable prices. "I wanted to scale this in a way where artists are getting big checks, and people like you and me and everyone else we know can become art collectors," Bekman says. Last September, after two years in business, Bekman raised $885,000 in seed funding; she now has 19 employees.
While the recession has stemmed the flow of venture capital—the lifeblood of any start-up—what's out there for anyone with a strong idea is seed money. It's backing designed to help you get started and keep you hungry. First Round Capital looks at 3,000 business plans a year and funds a couple of dozen, making early investments, usually at around half a million dollars. An even leaner model is the start-up boot camp Y Combinator, which has seeded more than 200 new businesses—at less than $20,000 a pop. So, while the big-time Silicon Valley money might be going to nanotech and biotech, incubators and seed-funders are spreading their wealth around as if they're betting on a roulette wheel of Next Big Things. Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham says that applications are up 40 percent in the past six months and has this advice for those who want to make the leap: "Most things that happen to newly launched start-ups are bad. But these disasters are precisely the reason to launch fast: They all represent problems you need to solve eventually, and the only way to find out what they are is to launch."
This philosophy is the antidote to the too-big-to-fail mentality. The M.O. of the New Entrepreneur is to start small, launch fast, listen to your early and devoted clientele, and, if necessary, tear up your business plan. "We've been given this advice many times," says Nick Bergson-Shilcock, who cofounded HireHive, a video-based questionnaire service to help companies screen job candidates. " 'If you're not embarrassed by your first release, you're not releasing early enough.' " HireHive was shuttered within months of Bergson-Shilcock's graduation from Y Combinator's three-month boot camp, but his mentors hardly considered his risk-taking a failure. He'd earned what you might call bet equity. The fact is, across our culture, it's the entrepreneurial leap that's esteemed, regardless of whether it results in a successful landing, a spectacular crash, or an eventual return to the corporate ladder (typically at a higher rung). "We got a lot of respect for deciding that there were bigger and better opportunities out there," Bergson-Shilcock says. "We're really enthusiastic about our prospects. This is just the opening chapter of a long novel."
Serial entrepreneurs who have five ideas ready to replace every failed venture will be rewarded one day for their headlong approach; others will take some inspiration from the patient, practical example of Chris Carella. He and his wife, Becky, had been grinding away at other people's start-ups for five years when, initially for fun, they started working on a fantasy-football product. They played it with their friends, who loved it. Baseball season came around—same result. So, after accumulating enough savings and lining up part-time gigs to help in a pinch, they made the leap together. Now their company, Super+Fun, is testing prototypes and soliciting user feedback. Their latest, an online game that helps users improve their physical fitness, is slated to launch soon, and a new blogging platform is close behind. In the meantime, they're networking with other start-ups at the Makery—and beyond. Call it cluster entrepreneurship, an infectious strand of go-getting that trades on the best parts of me-too-ism. "I was burned out from working on other people's projects for so long," Carella says. "We wanted to own what we were doing."
DOES "INTRAPRENEURISM" OFFER THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS?
If the entrepreneurial spirit is coursing through your veins, but a desire to leap from the mother ship is not, there is a win-win scenario. In a recent op-ed entitled "Intrapreneurs: Building for the Future," Virgin head honcho Richard Branson called for his fellow empire builders to "nurture a breed of intrapreneurs"—employees given the freedom and resources to operate like entrepreneurs on company time. "What if," he mused, "CEO stood for 'chief enabling officer'?" Some corporate overseers are already following in the nimble footsteps of Google, which encourages employees to spend 20 percent of their workweek on pet projects, with pretty good results: Gmail, Google News, AdSense (no wonder Twitter has aped the project). Says William Aulet, managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, "The most effective companies are harnessing the innovation of entrepreneurial ventures and incorporating that into their corporate strategies." So now ambitious workers at Qualcomm can polish their applications for VentureFest, an in-house start-up incubator, while Procter & Gamble has a policy of "open innovation," wherein the company solicits business plans from the public and shepherds the best ideas to market. Glow-in-the-dark toilet paper, anyone? - Laurence Lowe