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Meetups become a hot ticket for those wanting links to high-tech startups

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    Aaron Price speaks during last month's Tech Meetup event. 'We're taken much more seriously than we were three years ago,' he says.
    Aaron Price speaks during last month's Tech Meetup event. 'We're taken much more seriously than we were three years ago,' he says. - (AARON HOUSTON)

    New Jersey Tech Meetup founder Aaron Price has little tolerance for deadbeats.
    Those who sign up, but don't attend, the technology network's monthly gatherings are posted to a “wall of shame” that's e-mailed to members. Do it a second time, and you're barred from future invitations.

    "It takes a lot of time to run the event. I just ask people to respond," Price said. "In addition, a lot of people are on a waiting list that would like to get in."

    Price has had no problem packing them in, as the interest in industry meetups reflects the strong interest and growing prominence of technology in New Jersey's diverse economy.

    A recent event brought attendees from as far away as San Jose, Calif., and Finland, while the Hoboken meetups have become so popular that similar offshoots have taken root elsewhere in the state.

    It's no wonder.

    New Jersey Tech Meetup, which was founded in 2010, now claims more than 3,000 members, making it the largest group of its kind in the state.

    Price, who founded it on the conviction that New Jersey is bubbling with entrepreneurial talent that simply lacks a networking infrastructure, said the higher-than-anticipated growth bodes well for the state's techies.

    "We're taken much more seriously than we were three years ago," Price said. "Now, people understand there is a community here. It's gotten more sophisticated."

    Jeremy Hamel, of Sproute, gives a presentation to attendees during a July 24 New Jersey Tech Meetup event in Hoboken.

    BEYOND STARTUPS

    The meetings provide a mix of information gathering, business card sharing and schmoozing. Meetups open with networking, followed by presentations from technology startups and a keynote speech. After-event socializing at a nearby Hoboken bar or restaurant is common.

    And, critically, these meetups don't only attract entrepreneurs with big ideas, but also business founders who need to assemble varying talents to launch a more complete operation.

    One major concern is legal help. That brought Erik Israni, a Montville attorney specializing in business and intellectual property, to the July 24 meetup. That event filled the Babbio Center at Stevens Institute of Technology with more than 130 attendees, many staying long after the 9 p.m. close.

    Israni said he attended in search of clients who need legal counsel, noting many entrepreneurs attach names to products without researching whether those labels are already taken, creating potential copyright infringements.

    "There's a lot of buzz terms people want to latch onto, and they don't realize they are not the first to use them," Israni said. "People get so caught up and in love with what they are working on. They think it's such a service to the customer, they don't realize they need to protect it. This is a huge investment of time and energy."

    THREE THINGS

    Entrepreneurs need three things before they can launch a company, according to Maxine Ballen, president of New Jersey Tech Council, a Mount Laurel-based organization that supports the state's technology companies: access to capital, people and the resources of a local region.

    Ballen said the meetups provide a simple and low-cost way to congregate like-minded aspirants.

    "The only way people are going to get started is if they reach out and get engaged at the lower level," Ballen said. "As they evolve, they can step up to the next opportunity, like accelerators and incubators. Each one of those is a key rung on the ladder, a key stage in the entrepreneur's evolution as they mature from a startup to a fully mature company."

    Ballen said certain companies participating in meetups are maturing into strong operations. One example is Phone.com, which helps small businesses integrate calls, texts, e-mails, social network activity and business scheduling in a single platform, in lieu of traditional phone service.

    The Newark telecommunications company ranks No. 262 on Inc. magazine's list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies.

    Phone.com product manager Aaron Rosenthal said the company, a frequent sponsor of New Jersey Tech Meetup, is planning to launch a product expansion in September. It values these gatherings as a place to pitch services to startups and application developers.

    "A lot of what we get out of it is name recognition," Rosenthal said. "That's the priority for us — being right in the middle of the tech scene, trying to manage and influence it and present ourselves as a company that provides a valuable service."

    GOING FORWARD

    In the big picture, entrepreneurs say the meetups are providing an indispensable building block for New Jersey's nascent tech community, which they say is still in its infancy compared with Manhattan. New York City government is widely credited for offering more robust support, be it through grants or providing work stations.

    But Price said New Jersey is steadily gaining credibility, which has benefited his own ventures. An entrepreneur himself, Price founded WeCraft, a service that helps people find craft project ideas and sells necessary supplies in a bundle, rather than requiring users to perform scattershot searches for items.

    Through the meetups, he found software developers, engineers and graphic designers — critical positions that startup founders are eager to attract — for WeCraft. Now, with several of those employees, Price is launching a new social media business, Memecube.

    An entrepreneur's road from conceiving an idea to commercialization is long indeed, fraught with frustration and failure. But Price said the foundations for a stronger tech community start with networking. For that purpose, New Jersey Tech Meetup has succeeded beyond his imagination.

    "It's humbling," Price said. "It has altered the reality. There is more going on in the state than people give credit for."

    E-mail to: tomz@njbiz.com
    On Twitter: @biztzanki

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