Sometime in the Fall of 2011, I was looking for a community in New York where a non-technical person like me could learn about about “Big Data”.
I couldn’t find any. So, on a whim on a November Sunday night, I logged on Meetup.com and created a group.
After thinking about it for about 30 seconds, I came up with a oh-so-catchy name for it: the New York Data Business Meetup.
And so started a 10-year journey of community and network building, and an immensely fun and rewarding chapter of my professional life.
Back then, the New York tech ecosystem was still very nascent. Beyond some early successes like Doubleclick or Tumblr, there were still very few startups and even less VC firms. On the whole there wasn’t much community activity either. Tech just wasn’t really a thing in New York, yet.
At the time, I was working at Bloomberg Ventures, the incubation and venture arm of Bloomberg LP. The midtown HQ of Bloomberg LP is one of the most beautiful offices I’ve ever been to. I asked if I could have access to one of the rooms there. They said yes.
The first event took place in December 2011 – ten years ago. My first speaker ever was Jordan Cooper, now the co-founder of Pace Capital. Back then, he was running a data infrastructure company called Hyperpublic.
I was expecting to have about 10 attendees, mostly friends. I got about 30.
The following month, I was expecting 30 attendees. I got maybe 75.
By the next event, I had over 200 RSVPs. The event had hit a nerve of some sort.
I begged Bloomberg for access to the their main event space, a gorgeous room that could hold up to 275 people. Randomly, it was available on a date that could work. We got the green light.
This was the big time.
Things grew from there. I left Bloomberg to join FirstMark in 2013. My community building efforts gelled perfectly with FirstMark’s ethos, as the firm had been actively creating networks of its own. The community became part of the FirstMark Platform. I rebranded it to Data Driven NYC sometime around then.
Fast forward to today, 10 years later after the first event:
- Data Driven NYC has grown to 19,000 members – the biggest data and AI community of its kind in the US, and possibly the world.
- We have run 93 events
- We’ve featured almost 330 speakers, a pretty ridiculous list and a who’s who in the data, ML/AI and software space: founders, CEOs, CTOs, Heads of data/AI, VCs, academics, etc.
- Pre-Covid, we maxed out all the biggest venues we could find: Bloomberg LP (275 seats), Axa (500 seats) and Moody’s (350 seats). We never found a room that was big enough. At each event, we had several hundred people on the wait list.
REFLECTING ON THE EXPERIENCE
It’s been an incredible ride. There’s been a lot of learnings about building a community, which I’ll share in a separate post.
In the meantime, as I take a step back, a few thoughts.
A lot of people over the years have asked me why I do this. After all, for a VC, running events is not the day job. And it’s clearly tons of work. Most people assume the reason must be to generate deal flow.
Certainly, there’s been strong transactional benefits to running Data Driven NYC.
Deal flow has been a part of it for sure. For example, I first met Dataiku, the leading collaborative enterprise AI platform, when they spoke at the event in 2013. I led their Series A three years later. Today, they’re a $4.6B unicorn.
Data Driven NYC was undoubtedly helpful in terms of putting me on the map as a VC. In a world of undifferentiated capital, the community has provided clear evidence that I have paid my dues, done the work and built a broad and deep network that over many years. It enabled me to win deals and write checks in some highly competitive rounds – including Cockroach Labs in 2015, now a $5B unicorn.
And finally, the community has been great for the FirstMark portfolio companies. The network effect really accelerated over the years, and Data Driven NYC has become a hub for anyone passionate about data, ML/AI and startups in NYC and beyond. Many of the best engineers, data scientists, analytics folks and founders have attended the events, whether in startups or Fortune 1000 companies. As a result, Data Driven NYC has been an extraordinary source of both talent and customers for our portfolio companies. I’ve long stopped counting all the people that found their next opportunity through the community.
Having said all that, the non-transactional aspects of running this community have been the most rewarding to me.
Getting to interact with the speakers has been an immense privilege. Spending time with a highly curated group of top-notch founders, executives, VCs and academics has been amazingly inspiring – a fantastic source of insights and lessons. There is also something special about having been on stage in front of hundreds of people together, at a human level.
But perhaps most importantly, the best part has been to interact with the community itself. When I started the first few events, I was concerned that I’d get aa bunch of people that would show up just for the free drinks and food. Instead, I got an incredible group of sophisticated, thoughtful and enthusiastic attendees. Many invited their friends and we ended up with wonderful virtuous circle of great people attracting more great people.
One of our great speaker, Ryan Smith of Qualtrics, described the community as “a cult”, and it has often felt like it, in the best possible way.
I wish we could have celebrated this 10 year anniversary with a really fun in-person celebration, but we still live in the COVID world.
Since April 2020, we have been running the event on Zoom and it has had its advantages. It’s certainly been fun to have attendees from around the world (as far as New Zealand!).
We’ll go back in person as soon as soon as we can (we may need a new venue in Manhattan, if anyone reading this has suggestions for a big, high-end room).
Ultimately, we’ll operate in hybrid mode and do both online and in-person events.
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FirstMark: everyone at the firm. Amish Jani, Dan Kozikowski, Jack Cohen, Katie Chiou, Karissa Domondon and Diego Guttierez in particular have played a huge role
Bloomberg: Dan Doctoroff, Shawn Edwards, Lex Fenwick, Roselyn Matteo, Shivon Zilis
Moody’s: Katherine Curtin
Axa: Stephane Aknin, Louis DiModugno