Northside 2014 broke ground yesterday with the start of its official programming, but the three Innovation talks we attended failed to do the same. It’s not totally weird the annual music and arts festival is broadly defined to include business innovators. We get it, these entrepreneurs have come come up with some new business models and original (though sometimes confounding) means of accumulating cash. And, after all, getting people to buy your products requires some semblance of creative thinking.
But the feeling of being cooped up in a room while discussants blabbed corporate double-speak or let loose a stream of cliché so thick that no meaning at all could be derived was somehow at odds with the atmosphere outside near the tents and stages.
“From Failing to Succeeding: Three Founders Share Their Biggest Mistakes,” suffered from the aforementioned linguistic failings perhaps most of all.
The discussion was chock full of buzzwords like “company culture,” “branding,” “development,” “organic growth,” with little explanation as to what those words actually mean. Our host had an awkward habit of responding to everything by nodding his head and replying “cool, cool.”
And unfortunately the mistakes recounted by these featured entrepreneurs didn’t make them seem any more human, rather their tales induced a sensation of bewilderment– how were they able to raise the enormous funds required to get their respective startups rearing at all? But the jargon juggling that went on here was really just shallow, if not harmless banter and maybe indicative of way too much time spent playing ping-pong and drinking Soylent in the office.
But some of these startup masterminds made some pretty broad claims while explaining their business models. They somehow downplayed the fact that they are companies, baby corporations, and individuals who are out to make money. Instead, many insisted they were much more than just a company. This had the effect of blurring the lines between journalism and PR, social activism and writing checks, innovation and repetition, community and consumers.
Our favorite example of this was “Tapping into the Passionate Consumer,” a panel discussion held at the Wythe Hotel. It predictably spotlighted startups that cater to hyper-aware consumers who have caught Kinfolkism– a disease currently raging through the Western Well-to-Do population. Presenters included Soraya Darabi, co-founder of “online brand” Zady, and Amanda Hesser, founder of branded food blog, Food52. Surprisingly, both women cut their teeth at a modest, inconsequential little paper called The New York Times (the former as a marketing specialist and the latter as a food writer).
Darabi assured the audience that the Zady brand aims to make its customers “feel good about what [they] buy.” The clothing and “lifestyle” online shopping outlet is dedicated to what Darabi called “slow fashion,” clothing and accessories that meet at least one of several criteria including “sustainable,” “locally sourced,” “Made in the USA,” and “High Quality.”
She pointed out that Zady stocks “heritage brands,” and products from manufacturers who are transparent about their sources. “Every product we sell, there’s a story behind it,” Darabi said, adding that she was “disappointed” when she came across purveyors who could not pinpoint the exact origin of the clothing they sold.
In answer to this, each product available on Zady includes an origin map that shows where the raw materials are sourced and features a photograph of the maker and and extensive, romantic background story about all the love and care that went into the production process.
Darabi looked out into the audience and asked, “How many of you have purchased something because you fell in love with the story behind it?” A few people tentatively raised their hands.
Despite the hesitant response to the importance of “stories” to ye old rag buying ritual, Darabi said she’s confident her 10-month old brand will be successful because “our generation really cares about process.” She described her customers as the kinds of people who “shop at Whole Foods because they want to live a healthy lifestyle.”
The idea behind Darabi’s brand is that consumption can be moral, but that conscious shopping also inherently steers social change. “I firmly believe that we vote with our dollars,” Darabi said.
Though by this logic, the only people who can “vote with their dollars” in accordance with Darabi’s ideological tendencies are the select people who can afford to buy a closet full of $75 white cotton t-shirts, or Zady’s $265 t-shirt-cum-shapeless dress. And voting via dollars implies that people with more dollars should have more say in the political and economic order than the vast majority of the citizens of the universe who have fewer dollars. But clearly, Darabi’s concern is not the lesser castes– after all, they are not her target demographic.
Food52 is essentially a shadow food blog (i.e. really a store) that manages to get its “mostly under 34” clientele to purchase $125 Stumptown Travel Coffee Kits and $50 table cloths. How, you might ask?
Amanda Hesser explained that her brand was a way of tapping into the fact that “food is inherently social.” With Food52, she created (hired) a “community” of bloggers who post extensive accounts of their adventures in baking and entertaining, and made the products conveniently featured in these write-ups and the beautiful photographs that accompany them available all in one spot.
Hesser has effectively created a space where customers feel as though they can buy the experiences featured in the blog. Just one click and a credit card number can bring them great happiness and joy, and above all a sense of belonging.
“What sets us apart is that we’re super social,” Hesser said.“We really care about food and cooking.” Hesser claimed this is evident in the fact that Food52 features blog posts without advertising. “We do content all the time that has nothing to do with our products.”
Darabai also insisted that she didn’t want everything featured on her online store to be about selling something. “We wanted to build storytelling into every part of the website.”
But a brief discussion of some exciting new technologies lit the way through all the corporate convention-like muck.
“Connected Car + Data: The End of the Bad Driver,” focused on emerging driver-less automotive technology, a revolutionary development that has serious implications for car insurance, passenger safety, infrastructure, and of course cabbies, truck drivers, and others in the transportation business.
Brian Langel of local start-up Dash, an app that synchs your smartphone with your car, explained his technology is another step in the direction of realizing the “connective car.” The app analyzes your driving habits, but Langel dreams that one day cars will be linked seamlessly with the home. “If I’m 15 minutes away, I’ll be able to turn the lights on.” He said this technology may one day even make it possible for cars to communicate with one another: “One car could warn another behind it that there’s ice up ahead.”
Christian Noske of BMW said he was also excited about the technology, though tentatively. “I’m afraid of the challenges for those innovations, but I’m positive we will overcome them,” he said.
Mike Moen, founder of DriveScribe, an app that offers “real time driving help” and apparently “reduces distractions,” voiced his major concern– privacy. With all this new technology and driver-car-street connectivity comes a plethora of data. “We want data connected to the individuals. The most important part is having ownership [of your own data].” Moen said that he hopes data will prove to benefit individual drivers as opposed to going directly to auto industry giants like Ford and GM.
But all this talk of cars began to feel weird at a festival like Northside which aims to showcase Brooklyn at its Brooklynest and supposedly caters to the young and hip. Doesn’t our generation eschew the automobile? At one point a panel member looked out into the crowd for some feedback. “How many of you actually own cars?” Three people out of dozens raised their hands. An awkward silence ensued.
Desperately trying to excuse the audience reaction, the host guffawed–“But this is Brooklyn!”