The view from David Sorin's top-floor, East Brunswick law office is that of a bird's eye, rendering even the New York City skyline visible. In a way, it's fitting: His reputation for being all-seeing on things New Jersey tech led to the merger of his practice SorinRand with McCarter & English, when that firm was looking to increase its focus on the state's growing technology industry.
It also means he knows how that growth is tied to the spread and the rising membership of technology meetup groups in the state.
And that he can answer this question: What role do these groups play, if any, in the development of New Jersey's tech industry?
“I don't think there's any question that, for lawyers who are expert in the representation of startup and early stage companies, being involved with meetups has two major benefits,” Sorin said. “One is that it clearly has a benefit from a practice development perspective because you get to meet these exciting entrepreneurs and the companies that they're forming very early in their evolutionary process.”
The other benefit?
“It's also part of giving back to the community and being part of developing the ecosystem here in New Jersey, and we've taken that very seriously,” he said.
Cynics and skeptics could be quick to dismiss such claims as a load of hot air, but in Sorin's case, the story checks out. Early in his career, Sorin was an early supporter of the New Jersey Technology Council.
“It was probably the precursor to the whole meetup community you see here,” he said. “It was the first attempt at having a statewide networking and information-sharing group dedicated to the technology company infrastructure in the state.”
This goal was important to Sorin because, as he notes, there is no clear center of commerce in the state of New Jersey.
“Technology exists throughout the four corners of New Jersey, but it historically existed without an infrastructure and ecosystem,” he said.
A strong ecosystem, Sorin said, is a way to lower the barrier to entry for small startup companies.
“Startup companies and folks who are doing this for the first time — they were in real need of organizations like meetups,” he said. “It's just like any other affinity group: It's an opportunity to collaborate, to meet other people who are going through similar stages of development, who have similar problems, opportunities and challenges.
“Most of these meetups are also an opportunity to meet potential co-founders and employees.”
This peer-to-peer networking is what drove Aaron Price to start his NJ Tech Meetup in April 2010. Only Price hadn't started the meetup to fill a business need, but a human one that often goes unfulfilled for people whose business is conducted behind a computer screen.
“It can be a very lonely endeavor,” he said. “I've had some really good success and pretty bad failures, but regardless, it can be a pretty lonely thing.”
So he started venturing to New York to attend the many meetups in the city before seeing the opportunity to create something similar in his own backyard.
“I started New Jersey Tech Meetup hoping I would have 20 to 30 people in a bar, just kind of sharing ideas,” he said.
Those expectations were doubled immediately: The first meetup had 60 attendees; the next had 80. Then the third meetup reached 120 people.
In late September, Price stood in front of a packed room at the Tigerlabs coworking space in Princeton and welcomed the newcomers to the meetup. He then used a PowerPoint slide to reveal the positive trend of the group's membership over the last four years.
For all intents and purposes, it might as well have been a straight line: From the bottom left corner to the top right, the graph runs all the way up to its current 4,000 members.
“If only all of our startup business growth looked like this,” Price said to the audience.
Mario Casabona, founder and CEO of Clifton-based TechLaunch, was also at the event acting as a judge for the “Pitch-Off,” where five startup companies pitched their business and received feedback based on their presentation. He's noticed a growing trend, even outside of this single meetup.
“Aaron Price has done a phenomenal job in the years he's been around and when you look back three, four years ago, you basically see the New Jersey Tech Meetup and you don't see that much else,” he said. “Now, over the past three, four years, if you're really trying to track the startup culture in New Jersey, what you really have to do is look at the number of tech meetups.
“They're just bubbling up.”
Casabona also has noticed another trend: As more people set their aims on entrepreneurship, a gap is growing between startup companies and investors.
“Now a demand is being created, saying, 'We need more money —where's it going to come from?'” Casabona said. “So, the angels (investors) are going more upstream, but the startups need money and who's going to take the risk?”
There's an even broader uncertainty than that: How do investors know which meetup groups are even worth paying attention to?
“You're looking for who attends, the quality and stage of development of the entrepreneurs and fledgling companies that are attending,” Sorin said. “If you're an investor, you're looking at the attendance of these meetups and trying to determine which meetups attract the kind of people you want to meet.”
The other option, according to Sorin, is to look for meetups that cater to a specific area of the technology industry.
“If you're an investor with a specific interest in health care IT, you're going to look and see which of the meetups tend to attract those folks in a particular industry sector,” he said.
An empty auditorium — it’s the worst fear of a meetup’s organizer.
So what’s the difference between hearing a pin drop and hearing that the venue has reached capacity? The support of businesses.
Through its experience with the 2,000-some member strong N.J. Entrepreneurs and Technology Startups Meetup, the Somerset-based JuiceTank learned about that.
As the business incubator’s general manager, Mason Carter, explained: You can run a meetup without corporate sponsors, but taking it to the next level absolutely requires one.
Having a business lend financial support can help cover the costs associated with running large events — paying that well-known speaker’s bill — to avoid scaring people off with large admission fees.
“You don’t ever want to charge the attendees more than $5 per event,” he said. “Once you get beyond the $8 threshold, you see a decline in attendance.
New Jersey may be seeing more and more tech meetups forming, but relative to the rest of the nation, its membership is low. Two states truly have the market cornered: Between California and New York, there are more tech meetup memberships than the rest of the country combined.
And, by all accounts, the roughly 388,000 tech meetup members in just San Francisco alone trumps — by far — the amount of people in these groups in all of New Jersey.
Let that one sink in.
RJMetrics analyzed tech meetup size across the country, using data from Meetup.com, and earlier this year ranked the entrepreneurial activities of states and cities. According to the firm, networking via meetups is a factor in predicting the quality of a startup ecosystem.
By that measure, none of the Garden State’s cities makes the list.
Many of the state’s neighbors did: New York (No. 2, behind San Francisco), Boston (No. 6), Philadelphia (No. 21), Pittsburgh (No. 23) and Baltimore (No. 27).
Hoboken, Princeton and Newark missed the top 30.
“That’s why my advice to (meetup groups) is to really treat your sponsors well. (You need to) build long-term relationships with them.”