It’s the latest must-have for trendy New Yorkers: a start-up of one’s own

I can’t tell you the whole idea.” The Internet entrepreneur on the other end of the phone sounded panicky. “It’s going to sound ludicrous and ambitious, more ludicrous and ambitious than most.”

The voice belonged to a 27-year-old Stanford law student—“just about the oldest you can be where I cannot remember not having a computer”—who was in New York to talk to people about his new concept for a website.

He gave a few vague descriptors that could apply to half the start-ups in New York.

“I definitely don’t want it in the newspaper,” he said. “I’m worried that even little sign posts toward what I want to build are dangerous.”

When he had the idea in April, he talked it up to anyone who would listen. The mania lasted about 10 days. “It is a big idea,” he explained, “and that’s the language of start-ups. The language of start-ups is a sort of manic language, it’s, ‘I’m going to change the world,’ which for normal people is like, ‘Whoa, that sounds grandiose,’ and you sound a little bit crazy. In start-up world, it’s like, ‘Can I give you some money for that?’”

We hung up. A minute later, the entrepreneur e-mailed to make sure we didn’t publish even a few vague details of his plan. “Paranoia is also a symptom of start-up fever,” he acknowledged.

Start-up fever! Whether it’s due to The Social Network or the new wave of billion-dollar tech IPOs, lately it seems like everyone has a start-up. The Observer first noticed it in our own neighborhood, the tech-tending East Village, home of Foursquare. On a recent weekend, we overheard an entrepreneur talking about pitching investors over brunch on St. Mark’s and glimpsed another demonstrating his website’s Twitter integration to a friend at Ninth Street Espresso. We tried to eavesdrop on a bearded, 40-ish fellow ranting about his start-up to a friend in Tompkins Square Park around 9 p.m. on a Wednesday. We caught the words “convertible note.” The trend has invaded our building, as well. The Goldman Sachs engineer on the second floor wants to join a start-up. He asked us about tech events.

The start-up mythology—build fast, get cash, save the world—and the low barrier to entry make it tough to resist. “An all-consuming start-up can be very difficult for a mom of young kids,” New York-based mommy blog mogul Philippa Smith said in an e-mail, but “the lure of creating something that was potentially such a benefit to both local moms and the local business community was too great.” Her start-up, Juice in the City, or “the Groupon for moms,” just announced a $6 million round of funding.

“It’s Foursquare, it’s Etsy, it’s Tumblr,” said Zeb Dropkin, a digital media consultant-turned-start-up entrepreneur currently working on RentHackr.com, a website where New Yorkers admit how much rent they’re really paying. “New York City has real investment now, real cycles. This is the real leagues.”

Roger Wu, who organizes the Stamford Tech Meetup, recently raised money for one of his start-ups. The investors remembered him because of his red Nikes, he told The Observer. “It’s like Hollywood, where everyone’s an actor,” he said. “Everyone with a little idea they had when they were drinking is going to start a company and be the next Facebook.”

(The Observer got an e-mail recently from a friend seeking cycling routes: “Is there a HopStop for bicycles? Because if there isn’t let’s start one and get riiiiichhh!”)

Cheryl Yeoh was working as a management consultant for KPMG, an 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. gig that kept her in Scotch tastings and Michelin stars, when she realized sometime in the middle of April that she needed to do an Internet start-up for something. Anything. The idea was secondary. What mattered was making something amazing that could reach not just hundreds of people or thousands, but millions. “I knew I could do something greater,” she told The Observer. “Every time I met someone who told me, ‘Oh, I’m a founder of so-and-so,’ or whatever, I don’t care what company it was, every time they said that I thought, oh my gosh, why am I not doing this, I know I can start something, I know I can do something.

“I was obsessed. You can use the word ‘obsession.’”

Yeoh had a programmer friend. She took him out to lunch and pitched him a few ideas. He picked CityPockets, a website that imports a user’s coupons from daily deal sites such as Groupon and sends friendly reminders when they’re about to expire. “We’d come home at 8:30 at night and right away from 9 p.m. I was writing, researching until like 2 a.m.,” she said. “Or I would spend time going to tech events. Some days I would go until 3 or 4 a.m. because I was talking to my mentor in San Francisco. Even though I was physically tired, I was mentally awake. Every morning I would jump out of bed because I was like, I wonder what new features I can think of next. … Even my friends were like, ‘Wow, you’re sleeping so little but you look so much more alive!’” She left her job in August, two months after her 27th birthday. “I told my manager, I have to leave,” she said. “I have to do this thing because it’s consuming me.”

She went on. “I had a one-bedroom in Gramercy, lived the high life, had designer coats and bags, traveled multiple times a year. I quit all that. Moved into an apartment in the East Village—Alphabet City, actually—and slept in a living room on a futon kind of separated by curtains Velcroed up to the ceiling. For five months I did that. … I wanted to prove that I can live just bare bones, live the life of a scrappy entrepreneur so that I can just fully focus on the product without any distractions whatever.

“I have enough savings in my bank, actually, to continue living in my Gramercy apartment,” she added. “It was more like I made an active choice to go with that lifestyle.” The day she put the curtains up, she recalled, she giggled until her eyes teared.

“In the Bay Area you have more superstars and guys who have done a bunch of start-ups,” said Shai Goldman, a director at Silicon Valley Bank who moved to New York from the Bay Area in January. “The majority of entrepreneurs here, a lot of them are first-time entrepreneurs. It’s almost like a cohort. They’re kind of all learning at the same time, they’re going through the same missteps. It makes it a little more interesting here. Every entrepreneur has the opportunity to make a big mark in New York right now.”

Evidence of the city’s recent start-up fever can also be found on Meetup.com—a New York-based, dot-com-era start-up that became a hub for local techsters—where the number of recurring tech events has wildly accelerated: Startup Lunch, 104 members; Dumbo Tech Breakfast, 641 members; UWS Startup Meetup, 164 members; the NYC Startup Garage, 208 members; NYC Startup Weekend, 337 members; the NYC Lean Startup Machine, 1,553 members; the New York Technology Bathhouse Meetup, 25 members.

On a recent evening, about 70 mostly 20-something, mostly male guests gathered in clusters on a rooftop in Chelsea for a “Find a Cofounder” party, squinting at one another’s name tags as the sun set. Red name tags were for programmers; blue meant you were more of a business guy. The blue name tags ran out by the time The Observer got a drink.

“So three years ago, there was the New York Tech Meetup, right?” Gary Sharma said, referring to the 18,545-member organization that draws about 800 attendees to its monthly demo nights. Sharma was a mild-mannered Wall Street marketing consultant before he became “The Guy with the Red Tie,” per his business card and neckwear. He has been attending tech start-up events and cataloguing them in his weekly newsletter, GarysGuide, for the better part of four years.

He calls the New York Tech Meetup “the mothership,” he said. “As that gets bigger, I started seeing satellite meetups coming out of it. Video 2.0, Web 2.0. Then you started seeing even smaller ones. Travel 2.0, Fashion 2.0. Then more niche ones. Some people started the Hoboken Tech Meetup. You know where Hoboken is?” We did; we’ve been. The Hoboken Tech Meetup has 901 members. Its monthly Monday night meetings always have a wait list.

“I want to start a social-local-mobile meetup called SoLoMo!” Sharma said. “No, I’m just kidding,” he added quickly.

“I knew nothing about Internet start-ups,” Ben Wolff, a smiley personal stylist who lives in Queens, admitted to The Observer as we sat cross-legged on a futon in a corner of the patio. “I knew I needed to make an electronic version of myself. That’s why I started.”

Last year, Wolff, whose business consists of going through client’s closets and refreshing their wardrobes, wrote out a set of “if this, then that” instructions in a spreadsheet to formalize his process. A few encouraging conversations with friends inspired him to turn it into a start-up. His dream is to make the “Faster Pants algorithm” part of every man’s shopping experience, he said, as soon as he can find someone to code for equity. “I equate this with a high school dance where there’s more girls than boys,” he said, mock-twiddling his thumbs. “I feel like I’m sitting on the wall going, ‘Oh, please dance with me!’”

“You’re a reporter? Reporters did a lot for me!” said Ray Schmitz. A former real estate broker who made a small name for himself by passing out business cards at the revolving door of Bear Stearns the day the investment bank announced its sale to JPMorgan, he was also seeking dance partners. He had the idea for a website that lets brokers refer business to each other in 2009. “I remember reading a book by Clay Shirky,” he said. “He makes a wonderful point that the Internet may be the biggest change in society since the printing press. It may be even bigger. The start-ups in New York are forging the life of the future for everyone right now. The way we’ll live, work and pray tomorrow is being created here today.”

On our way out, The Observer ran into Aaron Price, the fastidious organizer of the Hoboken Tech Meetup, who was standing in the bathroom line. Things were going well, he said. He was recently named to the nebulous position of “entrepreneur at large” for the early-stage venture capital fund DFJ Gotham, opened a co-working space, and was working on his start-up, makeMania, a website where crafty people show off their do-it-yourself projects.

He exhorted The Observer to come to the next Hoboken meetup. We promised to try.

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