The New York University startup incubator at Varick Street is awesome

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

I’ve been the technical co-founder at three different startups and so I associate startups with long hours, grinding stress, and near total isolation from normal life. The loneliness of startup life is one of the things that contributes to their frequent downfall, since a common path to failure is simple burnout.

In 2015 I was at a startup that was in the New York University startup incubator at Varick Street, and it was fantastic. The room was full of brilliant people and I very much enjoyed getting to know them. Both the business ideas, as well as the people, were inspiring. I wrote about this in my book How To Destroy A Tech Startup In Three Easy Steps and I’m posting 3 excerpts here because I want everyone to understand how great incubators are, and in particular, how great the NYU incubator at Varick Street is.

(For legal reasons, all names have been changed.)

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

Celolot was working out of the New York University startup incubator at 137 Varick Street, which housed numerous other early-stage start-ups. An incubator is both a physical space and a program; it supports entrepreneurs by providing management training, general mentoring, legal­ advice, and other services. In most ways, Silicon Valley is way ahead of any other startup ecosystem but it was easy to forget that fact when I got to this incubator. Here were twenty-five small startups packed into a big room. There was a startup called RavenCart, trying to reinvent e-commerce. G-Code was a startup focused on teaching girls how to code. There were several startups, like Celolot, that wanted to use NLP to make big waves in various aspects of software. For instance, one startup was creating a plain-English search tool for travel (“I want the cheapest flight to Berlin, from New York, in October”). Voice of Law was another NLP startup aiming to build a next-generation search tool for finding legal precedents —- a challenging task, since it would have to understand both plain English and the specialized jargon of the legal industry.

Back in 2011, Business Insider had a write-up about the incubator. In “Is The Varick Street NYU Poly Incubator The Best In NYC?”, Jay Bhatti wrote:

After spending time at various incubators in the city, it very well may be that the Varick Street incubator is the top place in NYC for new entrepreneurs to call home. If you get the opportunity to be at Varick Street, you enjoy a lot of benefits. The incubator does not ask for any equity in your company. The rent is really
affordable and includes a lot of amenities that are not free at other incubators. Best of all, you get access to high quality interns [and] employees from NYU, po­tential seed investors, NYU faculty advisors, and assistance from dozens of other private partners involved with the incubator. Probably one of the best benefits is that several serial entrepreneurs call the incubator home and serve as mentors and motivation for first time founders. For example, Stephanie Sarka (founding member of Overture), Jeff Giesea (founded and sold FierceMarkets), and David Sudolsky (experienced entrepreneur in the biotechnology space) are just some of the heavy hitters at Varick Street.2

I eventually felt that Bhatti did not go far enough in listing all of the great features of this incubator.

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Twice a month the incubator threw a “Whiskey Wednesday,” and all of us oddballs and visionaries knocked back some bourbon and bragged about whatever we were working on. Natalie and I sat on a long couch and spoke with Niklas, Daniel, and Svetlana, who were from Sweden, Australia, and Russia, respectively. They were working ­together in a startup called Some Scenes Seen. Old journalism was dead, shouted Niklas, who’d already had too much to drink. Power corrupts! he added, spit flying as he yelled; the old media elites were decadent and needed to be overthrown by young visionaries such as himself. Svetlana optimistically offered that they were hoping to reinvent journalism via a focus on being hyper-local. Daniel, either more sane or more sober than Niklas, lucidly explained that they were trying to build an auction mechanism for creating certain kinds of video stories on tight deadlines.

Startups are a hellish grind, except when they’re a party, and the incubator offered a fantastic place for those of us foolish enough to dare to build something entirely new.

October, 2016

Varak had fallen in love with a girl in Sweden, so he was moving there. Meanwhile, Lee’s girlfriend was waiting patiently in his native Canada­. They’d decided their time in New York was over, and they held a going­-away party at the photography studio in Brooklyn that Lee had rented for the previous ten years.

I went and saw several familiar faces. At some point I offered praise for the ability of the NYU incubator to bring people together. In response, Varak snorted, and said it was a terrible incubator because it lacked a sense of community.

“But here we are,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Look around the room. I’ve worked at very few places where I’d want to invite all of my co-workers to a personal party. But here we are.”

He conceded that that was true but insisted that TechStars, where he’d been previously, was still a much better incubator.

Leandor of G-Code, the startup focused on teaching girls how to code, was there. She’d been to Y Combinator, and she said that the NYU incubator couldn’t hold a candle to her experience in Silicon Valley. Although she disagreed with some of the things the leadership of Y Combinator said, the community itself was amazing. The alumni who emerged from the experience stuck together and really supported each other.

Okay, so let us suppose that all of that was true. Let’s believe for a moment that the NYU incubator was the worst incubator in the world. To me, that seems like a very powerful argument in favor of such places. As I’ve said before, much of my previous experience building software startups had involved grinding isolation and loneliness. Being at the NYU incubator was an absolute treat. If it offered a below-average experience, then surely all software startups should be in an incubator, because even the bad incubators are much better than any alternative.

Here is a 4 minute video that my co-author, Natalie Sidner, created for her family in June of 2015:

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