At first, Venu Moola thought a local Panera would make an ideal venue for the first meeting of Princeton Tech Meetup.
That was March 2012, shortly after he co-founded the group with colleague Chris Boraski. But when more than 60 people responded to an online invitation, Moola was left looking for a new location in a hurry.
“You can't hold 60 people at Panera,” he said.
The actual meeting drew about 100, Moola said, and today, a monthly gathering brings roughly 200 people to the group's typical meeting spot, the Princeton Public Library.
There lies a common discovery of participants of the state's growing body of tech meetups: Few realize just how vast New Jersey's community of aspiring technology entrepreneurs is until they congregate under the same roof.
“Clearly there was a need. People were looking for something like this, for business, for networking — plus, people are always looking for a great speaker,” Moola said.
New Jersey Tech Meetup may be the state's most visible network for technology entrepreneurs, but grassroots associations to aid startups are sprouting statewide.
Moola said the Princeton group has about 1,500 members, making it the second largest in New Jersey. In addition, a Jersey Shore group is helping fill out the Garden State landscape with about 600 members.
Jersey Shore Tech Meetup founder Bret Morgan recalls meetings early in the group's history — it was founded in 2010 — when only five or 10 people showed up.
Things picked up in October 2011 after Asbury Agile, an offshoot of Jersey Shore Tech Meetup, led a Shore-based conference geared toward Internet and mobile technology developers. The event sold out, with 85 attendees and about 20 sponsors.
“We got really great feedback from the speakers in attendance,” said Morgan, also co-founder of CoWerks, an Asbury Park provider of workspace for startups, and BandsOnABudget.com, a provider of music-based apparel and merchandise.
“People said they never realized there was such a community for this,” Morgan said. “There is a vibrant scene. It's just a matter of providing the right scenery.”
For Moola, who works full time for Fleet Studio, a consultancy he founded in 2008, nurturing a tech-friendly environment is especially important in Princeton, whose prized university has produced alumni like Jeff Bezos, of Amazon.com, and Eric Schmidt, of Google.
Problem is, those industry pioneers took their talents west. Moola says if New Jersey can educate such talent, it can retain such talent.
“No entrepreneurial ecosystem exists here in the Princeton area,” Moola said. “Either they go to Silicon Valley or New York City. We need a grassroots movement for creating entrepreneurs here in the Princeton area.”
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