In its first years, Carnegie Mellon University incubator Project Olympus showcased work from student, faculty and staff four times a year. Now, a decade later, the showcase is once a year.
“We did four a year, three a year, and then two a year,” said director Lenore Blum, adding that for the last few years it’s been an annual showcase.
The change doesn’t come from a lack of interest. The event has even outgrown spaces on campus, Blum said. Instead, it’s about scheduling.
“I can’t find a night that other things aren’t going on,” she said. This year, for example, the spring Show & Tell was the same time as the International Hardware Cup at AlphaLab Gear.
Finding a tech-related event in Pittsburgh isn’t difficult. From networking to competitions and showcases, there are often multiple to chose from at the same time. Just ask Kenny Chen, program director at Ascender in East Liberty. In 2016, he kept track and found he attended roughly 500 events and had some role in about 120 of them.
The upward growth has become a “chicken and egg” scenario for company success and the sustainability of the events calendar, several in the tech community told The Incline. And while burnout is possible, it’s also avoidable, they said, adding that the tech calendar needs to keep evolving with Pittsburgh’s startups.
An overflowing calendar
Sometime in the past two years or so, the uptick in events became apparent.
Jonathan Kersting, vice president of communications and media for the Pittsburgh Technology Council, said the organization has done its own events for years, but more recently, members are asking the council to promote their events. So much so that Kersting came up with a system for members to submit events.
Terri Glueck, director of communications for Innovation Works, has noticed it, too, both when sending staff to meet more startup founders at events and when planning in-house gatherings. “You don’t want to step on toes, but there’s so much going on, you’re likely to be double booked,” she said.
At Project Olympus, Blum settled on always having the showcase on the Thursday of Spring Carnival weekend. This way, she said, alumni are already in town to attend and other local universities are likely to not schedule conflicts with the carnival.
Developer Brittany Martin, who has organized a variety of events, is now working on AlterConf, a conference focused on inclusivity in tech and gaming. She’s planning it for February, but said she had to look that far ahead on the calendar and consider other tech events, as well as busy weekends for Pittsburgh in general, when she was looking for a good date.
It’s becoming a “free market of events,” Chen said.
Chicken or the egg?
Largely, more events has been a good thing, said tech community leaders, adding that it’s especially good for those breaking into the startup scene.
It means more networking and a grassroots way to meet investors, especially for entrepreneurs who are not affiliated with universities, Glueck said. Plus, if a reporter or investor is in town, there’s always something to take them to so they can meet people, she said.
Kit Mueller, a self-dubbed community builder who has organized startup weekends and various event series like Unstuck on Monday mornings, said “It’s a chicken and egg thing.” Events drive business activity and success, as well as accessibility and entrepreneurship, he said, adding that those things drive events.
And the new faces are growing, Chen added. He said he used to go to an event and it would be largely familiar faces with about 10 to 20 percent new people, but now, as many as half of the people at events are new. That goes for Ascender events, too. Chen said one series averaged about 40 percent new attendees.
Glueck said at Innovation Works’ new Caffeinated Innovation series about “75 percent of the people who attend are not affiliated with Innovation Works, 25 percent are companies in our portfolio.”
Glueck and Chen said they’re also seeing diversity in who attends the events and where they are, listing places like Allentown, Downtown, Homewood and North Side as neighborhoods where there are a growing number of events. And the work to increase diversity of attendees is a goal of Black Tech Nation which started earlier this year.
John Quayle, co-founder of StartNow Pittsburgh, a newsletter of tech events and news, started noticing more and new people organizing events and more initiatives pop up around late 2016 or early 2017.
“It comes down to a chicken and egg problem. You always need more people and more organizers,” he said.
‘Network with meaning’
While more new faces pour into events, startup leaders who are further in their career might be a little more choosey.
Allison Howard, CEO and founder of AURATEK Textiles, said she’s been in the entrepreneurial community for about five years but started full-time less than a year ago with her company, which makes a fabric that’s good for people’s skin.
When she was in full networking mode, Howard looked for events everywhere. “You could be at a different event every night of the week,” she said.
But as work with AURATEK ramped up, Howard became more selective, picking events where she’s especially interested in the speaker or if she knows someone she hasn’t met yet will be there.
Founders go to the most events during their sales and business development phases, Chen said. That ability to jump in and out of a packed schedule also helps prevent burnout, Glueck said.
As long as people feel events in the city have value, they are worth attending, Mueller said, adding that he was happy to see more events focused on tactics and getting stuff done, instead of regurgitating a national news article or study.
“We are surpassing the ideas of just getting people in a room,” he said. “…They are putting some meat on the bone, [with] really good content.”
And there’s demand for events that help push things forward, Martin said, adding that she’s noticing more “doers” and fewer people just thinking of an idea at events now. Martin said she’d love to see more events that include mentorship and tangible skills, in addition to the networking that is “king in Pittsburgh.”
It’s pretty clear when an event doesn’t have a purpose behind it, Chen said, adding that attendees often want to go to things that are mission and outcome driven and to “network with meaning.”
But don’t expect the end of happy hours. Mueller said he was recently approached to bring back Startup Drinks, an informal happy hour that hadn’t been done in about a year. The event works because it feels “like a reunion” and has a wide variety of people from those working in hardware to funders and more, he said, adding that more than 200 people came to the latest one at The Shop in Homewood.
Howard agreed the event is just what she wanted. She said it was less structured, but the networking could still happen with people she hadn’t met before.
Next on the schedule
As content evolves, tech leaders also had a variety of ideas for what they’d like to see next and events they want to attend.
Chen likes to see events where multiple groups work together and reach a bigger audience and said there could be more to address two gaps in the city’s tech scene: The disconnect between corporations and startups, and Pittsburgh’s tendency to sometimes act like it’s in a bubble and to not look at outside trends.
Bringing in speakers from outside the city can help in both scenarios, Chen said.
Quayle agreed about outside speakers, adding that he’d love to see more people come to Pittsburgh to share experiences and knowledge from the coasts or the Midwest. “We have a number of great individuals, but sometimes they get overused,” he said.
Mueller said he wants to see more about commercializing the things made in Pittsburgh so startup leaders can learn to bring those things to market.
Glueck added that Innovation Works and others are planning more around culture in the tech community, such as ways to support founders in the areas of mental health and wellness, as well as company culture and inclusion.
“I think we’re going to see that kind of programming,” she said.