Last night in Charlotte at a venue the size of a high-school gymnasium, hip-hop heroes The Roots played a frenetic 90-minute set to a crowd that was an awkward mix of the hip and the suited. Grown men with lanyards dangling round their necks danced themselves into a sweaty stupor; young women in pretty summer dresses threw their hands up in the motherfucking air. Everyone got sloshed on endless free drinks. And large signage near the stage told us this was all the work of “StartUp RockOn”.
StartUp RockOn, it turns out, is a collaboration between three startups that decided they wanted to promote startup culture at this year’s Republican and Democratic conventions. And, just in case I didn’t say it enough in that previous sentence, here it is again: startup.
When the founders of EventFarm, Fighter Interactive, and HyperVocal first got together nine months ago, they decided they just wanted to put on one big show – last night’s party – at the Democratic National Convention. That isn’t a reflection of their political views – they just thought it’d be easier to attract talent to the Democratic convention, which appeals to a younger and more pop-conscious demographic than the GOP’s. But the more they talked about it, the more excited they, and their collaborators, got. The new ideas kept flooding in, and they forged a partnership with Startup America. By the time this week’s over, the fledgling organization would have hosted 17 events over the course of the two conventions.
Today, I turned up to a Facebook networking event half an hour after it ended and randomly bumped into EventFarm founder and CEO Ryan Costello, one of the brains behind the StartUp RockOn operation. He said the idea behind the convention activity is generally to elevate startup culture.
“We just want startup culture to be celebrated, because we love it, we live it,” Costello said. “We’re not coming down here with any strong policy statement or any requests. We’re coming down here saying, ‘We’re here. This is fun. This is part of American culture, and it’s awesome, and you should know about it.’”
As far as Costello is aware, there has never been a coordinated effort by startups to have a strong presence at a political convention. This year in particular seemed like a good time to start, though. “With this election being a lot about job creation, we thought it would be a perfect time to say, ‘Hey, if you want to talk about job creation and innovation, we’re all here as startups. That’s what we do every day.’”
The events have been funded by sponsors, as well as through cash that the three organizing sponsors put up themselves. Aside from last night’s concert, StartUp RockOn has hosted panels on innovation, a meet-and-greet for the young rising stars of the Democratic party, and a party in Tampa with Steve Aoki. They’ve also awarded cash grants to two startups – one in each convention city – as part of a StartUp RockOn Challenge.
Political conventions are not a natural fit for startups, Costello said. “This is not a place that startups can really excel, in some ways, because it’s usually controlled by the major companies – the big boys, the donors, that contribute to the parties in a major way. A lot of startups don’t have the capacity to leverage political involvement.”
And how does startup culture mesh with political culture? Well, going by the raucous reception The Roots got last night, it seems not too bad. For the long run, it’s yet to be determined. “I don’t think it’s clear that it has a place yet,” said Costello. “That’s what we’re trying to do. I don’t think Washington fully understands what startup culture means. A lot of them think it’s small business. That’s not true… Startups are high growth, trying to be high profile, high energy companies.”
Costello says the support for StartUp RockOn has been too good to not carry on. He sees the organization as a long-term thing and foresees doing events outside the political sphere. “When the reception is this positive, you have to think about where it’s going in the future.”
[Picture credit: My iPhone]