Key to startup success, via the Northside Festival: Make work like sex

Northside Festival HQ. Photo by Sarah Bibi Gainer.

I set out to cover the Northside Entrepreneurship Seminar last week full of journalistic integrity and determined to deliver the wisdom of Brooklyn’s marquee names in startup success with minimal snark. Then someone mentioned sex and I got distracted…

“Making is the new sex” said Nora Abousteit, founder of Kollabora, a social marketplace connecting makers with DIY ideas, inspiration, supplies, and each other. I am pretty confident knitting a sweater or building a rooftop farm or even writing (fickle mistress that she is) will never replace sex as a source of pleasure and satisfaction. But it’s certainly a valid point about the similar experience of intimacy that develops with the creation process, passion for the thing you are making, and sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when all your hard work finally comes to fruition (oh so many puns intended). And if making is like sex, then Brooklyn is the epicenter of the DIY sexual revolution. From  artisanal mayo shops, to innovative web-services and DIY marketplaces, to co-work space designed specifically to enable people to make, Brooklyn is an incubator for a new, entrepreneurial way of life.


“Brooklyn has become a national adjective for what’s next. Emerging trends—all aspects of culture, innovation and creation—are coming out of Brooklyn,” Northside CEO Scott Stedman said before the festival. This theme ran throughout the two-day seminar which featured hot tips for startup success from marquee names in Brooklyn business. So how do we get into the DIY cool kids club? Forget traditional higher ed and instead do or make something you love with talented people you actually like being around.

Some have been calling this surge of startups the “new Brooklyn economy.” And yes, it probably has to do with more macro factors like the crappy economy and depleted value of degrees, but I keep coming back to sex.

New Brooklyn likes pleasure and has figured out a way to turn it into lucrative businesses. After hearing more than 50 panelists over two days talk about their secret formulas for startup success it all comes down to one simple equation: Make or do something you love with talented people you actually enjoy being around; the money will follow.

“Work makes up such a huge part of our lives, it makes sense to make it as fun as possible. People like being a customer of a company that they can tell the people who work there give a shit about their product and customers” said Chris Shiflett, Co-founder of Brooklyn Beta (check out their Startup Summer Camp).

The Northside beer line. Photo by Sarah Bibi Gainer.


Your team and company culture are key, according to many of the panelists, including CTO of Etsy Kellan Elliot-McCrea. They should be people who understand and embrace the mission and are invested in the success of the business.

Whitney Hess, a consultant whose a corporate culture fixer, said that for a small company, team camaraderie is almost as important as skills. When bringing new people into the team, candidates should meet every other person because that one person could change the dynamic of the whole. “People can learn and grown, but it’s a lot harder to change a personality.”


We already heard from one person who is making a career out of her belief that grad school is for suckers. The current institutional education model is extremely outdated and unsustainable. But even though MIT and Harvard have ventured into virtual, there is still the stigma that higher ed online sucks. But this creates a huge window of opportunity for entrepreneurs in education technology, said Joseph Cohen, Founder & CEO of Lore (a social network for learning).

Local web-entrepreneurs such as Skillshare and CodeCademy are stepping in to give lower cost practical education so students don’t have to incur massive debt for an education that doesn’t guarantee a job. Resonating again with the making = sex theme, Mike Karnjanaprakorn, CEO & Co-Founder of Skillshare, said he believes the future of education is learning by doing and making and creating and collaborating as opposed to tests and certifications.


So what about those of us that make a living providing hilarious and informative content to help the Brooklyn community live better lives? Are we destined to perpetual poverty? There is money to be made in high-quality original content if done right.

Philippe von Borries, Founder and CEO of Refinery29 (original fashion editorial content + e-commerce), said it’s all about bridging the content-advertising divide. “Focus on high-quality content, authentic platform and building audience across distribution channels. A website that serves as a discovery destination for readers provides value for brands.”

For websites that do not offer an e-commerce hook, clicks are currency. Erica Berger of Storyful (a site that vets and curates user generated content from around the web), said user-generated content is the best way to increase engagement as well as products (app, mobile, social media, blog content). More clicks equate to advertiser value, but banner advertising is on it’s way out. Sponsored content is becoming a much bigger percentage of online revenue but it takes talent and finesse to get it right.

Good thing we’re in the creative hub of the world, huh.