About 50 people stood last Saturday afternoon in an irregular circle in the natural light on the second floor of the elegant renovated office a local tech firm occupies on North Front Street in Kingston. The host was Dragonsearch, which is in the business of search engine optimization, a process for affecting website visibility. Dragonsearch executive Abe Uchitelle started the hour-long process of introduction.
The people in the circle were participants in what Ulster County economic development director Suzanne Holt termed the Techpreneur Red Carpet Tour, part of Ulster County government’s Do Business Differently in Ulster County marketing initiative intended to persuade tech entrepreneurs from New York City to relocate their businesses here. The county had put considerable effort on this portion of its strategy: appearing at a tech meetup in the city, advertising our local glories in various media (including a slick and effective four-minute video), stops at SUNY-New Paltz and lunch at Mohonk as well as visits to several Kingston venues), bringing in local supporters to participate, and arranging (and paying for) the complex logistics of the bus trip.
More than half of the people in the circle were locals. They provided willing testimony about Ulster County’s powerful sense of community.
Now it’s time for the post-mortem. Three questions. Was this expensive gambit effective? What was learned from it? What should the follow-up be?
The mixed bag of New York City tech entrepreneurs consisted by my count of fewer than 20 individual businesses. That’s not a strong turnout, though for an untried adventure the event wasn’t a disaster. Considerable good will was generated.
Given the direct expenses and marketing expenditures, plus the number of county employees and consultants who may have been on the clock, the all-day bus-trip method of attraction will in my opinion need to be modified rather than repeated. It was very expensive, and there should be more effective ways of reaching that particular target audience.
What was learned from it all? Committed to the initiative, the county government will undoubtedly have only good things to say about it. It’s certainly better that the Red Carpet Tour was tried once than that it wasn’t. But there ought to be better tools to attract New York City tech entrepreneurs to relocate their businesses to Ulster County.
How can the same, similar or complementary goal be accomplished more effectively or at a lower cost? Several paths suggest themselves.
Kale Kaposhilin and his colleagues at Evolving Media Network on Wall Street in Kingston have been the prime movers of the Hudson Valley Tech Meetups held on alternate months in the Poughkeepsie and Kingston areas. Kaposhilin is also an organizer of the inaugural First Annual Catskills Conference scheduled for the Ashokan Center in Olive on October 23 through 25.
That organizing is focused on the tech community. “We had a collective dream to bring smart and creative people together in a natural setting close to where we live and try to inspire and motivate them to create new and amazing things,” writes Kaposhilin on the conference website. “We ourselves are captivated by the beauty of the Hudson Valley and wanted to share that with an intimate group of like-minded individuals. We also want to make it clear to our community and the world that this area is full of talented people and is an emerging center for art and technology.”
The meetup approach has become a mainstay of tech culture, and there’s obviously room for it in every palette of regional business attraction.
There’s room for education, too. It seems these days that every institute of higher education from here to Timbuktu has an institute of entrepreneurship. Ulster County Community College has its Darlene L. Pfeiffer Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. SUNY New Paltz gives business courses in entrepreneurship, and its Makerbot innovation lab offers programs in digital design and fabrication. Both schools are affiliated with the Start-Up New York apparatus.
Then there are venture capital networks. Capital is a requirement for growing enterprises, and the process of getting it requires increased business sophistication. Encouraged by the success of Upstate Venture Association of New York in Albany and other upstate metro areas, a Hudson Valley venture capital group is presently in formation. You’ll be hearing more about it in the near future.
If Ulster County is good at anything, it’s community networking. Kindred spirits form longstanding relationships in business as in other things. The possibilities of applying these to tech matters is still in its infancy around here.
None of these avenues are a silver bullet. Together, however, they provide a growing arsenal of techniques for a world in which jobs are added to a local economy one by one rather than in large clumps.
Let’s face it. Creating job growth in Ulster County is presently not going well, as members of the Ulster County Economic Development Alliance attested to at a recent meeting. Many of the stores in the Hudson Valley Mall are about to close. TechCity is planning on demolishing buildings. Announcements of new jobs have been few and far between.
The present county-led effort in the tech and arts fields is, alas, anemic. Being supportive is not enough.
It takes entrepreneurial thinking to attract entrepreneurs. The skills needed to help entrepreneurs find the right mix of inputs successfully to create and grow business here are scarce. In my view, they haven’t been sufficiently in evidence in what Ulster County has been doing.