The next jocular, wonderfully educational Homer Fink’s Hidden Walking Tour takes place this coming Saturday, April 21, at 11 a.m. Learn about the odd, weird, controversial and amusing history of America’s First Suburb over a sprawling 90 minutes of fun, led by the faithful kingpin of the Brooklyn Heights Blog, Cobble Hill Blog and Brooklyn Bugle. More info is available by clicking on the black box at the top left of the BHB home page.
We normally think of Brooklyn Heights as an idyllic haven from the challenges of New York City life, tucked away as we are in a corner between hip Williamsburgh and staid Manhattan. And that’s what Alex, a photographer, and Susan, a recovering lawyer who would rather be an artist, the main characters in Ben H. Winters’ entertaining new novel, think when they move with their three-year-old daughter to a lovely duplex on Cranberry Street. They spend time skittering around the beautiful tree-lined neighborhood streets, crawling through all the playgrounds, and sampling local restaurants. They are itching to know their new neighbors, most notably the landlady, Andrea, and her handyman, Louis.
But things are not quite what they seem. Susan becomes convinced that the dream apartment harbors bedbugs. Her skin becomes cracked and infected, while Alex and their daughter remain untouched. An exterminator finds no sign of infestation. Susan tries to solve the problem herself, sending out sticky probes to the previous tenants and lurking on bedbugs websites. Understandably, Alex thinks Susan has lost her mind.
“Bedbugs” is a gothic novel (among Winters’ previous work is the novel “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters”) convincingly moved to our time and our neighborhood. It has a refreshingly modern take and while I can’t give away the outcome the story had me in its pincers start to finish.
I couldn’t read this book before going to bed! Would you? Use the comments to let us know what you think.
From the Web
If the décor of Etsy’s headquarters in DUMBO is any indication of what shoppers can find on its extremely popular website, then those in search of an octopus arm sculpture are in luck.
Billed as the only marketplace for buying and selling handmade goods online, Etsy was founded in 2005 by Rob Kalin, Chris Maguire, and Haim Schoppick with the motto “Buy, Sell, and Live Handmade.” Adam Brown, Etsy’s public relations manager, explained why the site is preferable to eBay for a particular kind of consumer.
“I view eBay as more of like a garage sale or a flea market where you’re always trying to get the lowest price,” he said, seated in a conference room meant to look like the inside of a spaceship, I think. “It’s like looking in somebody’s junk drawer of stuff, whereas if you come to Etsy, you’re looking at things that are handmade.”
Etsy shoppers will also find craft supplies on the site, as well as vintage goods, which are defined as items older than 20 years. They depend on consumers to flag potentially illegitimate objects, and the customer support team then investigates the claim.
“We rely on those people in a way to help us maintain the integrity of the marketplace,” Brown explained. Etsy is nothing if not eclectic, a fact reinforced with a single glance around the office space, which was among the largest and most colorful I’ve seen in my travels around Digital DUMBO (aka NY Digital District).
Initially run out of an apartment in Ft. Greene, Etsy relocated first to an office at Flatbush and Myrtle Avenues, and then on to DUMBO. Staying in Brooklyn was important not only because so many employees live in the borough, but because it felt like home. Oh, and there are creative types nearby. Lots of them.
“We take a great deal of pride in it,” Brown said of Etsy’s DUMBO base. While it’s technically a digital company, Brown thinks Etsy has little in common with the myriad marketing/social media/advertising/graphic design agencies in the neighborhood.
“We just came here more because of the creative side of it than the digital side,” Brown stressed. “I think that wasn’t as important to us as the fact that there are actual artists studios.”
He conceded that being in DUMBO has helped with recruitment, because potential hires want to live in Brooklyn and are aware of the digital opportunities in DUMBO. Etsy employees receive one hundred dollars to spend on the site to decorate their workspace, and while most workers are technologically savvy, the typical Etsy seller need not be.
“Creating an Etsy account is about the same as setting up a Facebook account,” said Brown, because all the user needs to do is input copy and upload pictures. “Obviously the more you are willing to learn about stuff…the greater your chances for success.”
Available for purchase on Etsy are items ranging from earrings to blankets; dresses to pillows; miniature pumpkins to tutus for newborns, all handmade. And buyers can search for items by color, by seller location, by editor’s picks, or by something called “time machine,” that I was frankly too nervous to click on.
The site’s users are overwhelmingly female, and while Brown said they market to men, the ladies have been plenty kind to Etsy, which recently opened up a satellite office in Berlin as part of an effort to enhance its international presence.
“We’re hoping to do a lot more with the idea of social commerce, which means instead of searching for a scarf, there would be more tools to help you find a scarf that would have to do with other people,” Brown said.
Etsy gets 700 million page views a month, and the company is bigger than most in DUMBO, with around 100 employees in the office and a smattering of people around the country who work from home. It’s possible some of them know the derivation of the word “Etsy,” but Brown, for one, wasn’t telling.
“I kind of stopped answering [that question],” he said when I innocently asked what Etsy means. He instructed me to look it up (I did, and found only speculation), and then pick my favorite definition. So let’s go with this: Easy To Sell Yourself.
Which can be interpreted any number of ways.
From the Web
At 11 years old, Brooklyn Digital Foundry is a dinosaur by DUMBO standards. But this self-described “old guard” of the industry remains on the cutting edge of traditional and digital marketing, thanks to the passion of founders Brian Lemond and John Szot, both trained architects in their late 30s who met at the University of Texas.
“We’ve always taken pride in that even though we do marketing materials for other people, we’ve never done marketing materials for ourselves,” Lemond said recently, sitting at a conference table in the Foundry’s white-walled Jay Street office. “Our reputation has been the thing that’s driven this business.”
It’s a business that continues to grow, having recently spun off Brooklyn United, an arm of the company that focuses specifically on art and creative direction instead of concise brand marketing products, like websites, brochures, or business cards. Szot believes this has been the most efficient way of marrying broad ideas with the finer points of execution.
“We usually see the project from the beginning all the way to the end of production,” he said, noting that their wide variety of clientele—from artists and architects to education institutions and fashion houses—makes it worth walking through the door every morning. (The killer view of the Manhattan skyline probably doesn’t hurt either.)
Szot and Lemond first operated Brooklyn Digital Foundry out of an apartment on Henry and Atlantic Streets in Brooklyn Heights, and moved around a few times before settling in DUMBO two years ago. They have just eight people on staff, allowing them to remain extremely involved in all aspects of a project.
As for why their company and many other digital houses have been relatively immune to the downturn in the rest of the economy, Lemond cited the Foundry’s project-based business model, which he said makes them less vulnerable to market shifts.
Their workload, he said, includes projects “that are already funded, already focused, that have to be developed and completed regardless of the external economy.” Larger advertising houses tend to be account-based, and in bad financial times, accounts are often truncated or yanked altogether.
Neither Lemond nor Szot, both tall, slim, and baby-faced despite splashes of gray hair on their heads (Szot) and in their stubble (Lemond), would say that the Foundry’s small stature allows them to better know their business and be more successful. Instead, they chalked it up to flexibility and diversity of services.
“It’s a grab bag of things people might need,” Lemond said. “Everything from creating assets like photography and video direction and production, all the way to full website development and graphic design, both for traditional and new media.”
The Foundry’s range of capabilities is a bit of an anomaly in DUMBO, where companies often hone in tightly on one specific market or skill. But instead of looking at each other as competitors, the 60 or so digital companies that call DUMBO home are, it seems, each other’s biggest fans.
“Most of the people who run these businesses have grown up and matured through learning from other open, like-minded people,” said Lemond. “So I think there’s a respect for that as a position, and a way of engaging your professional peers.”
And nowhere is this more evident than in Lemond’s work, along with Mike Germano of Carrot Creative and Sam Lessin of drop.io, to re-brand DUMBO as the New York Digital District, a distinction that Lemond insists would promote unity among the companies already there while simultaneously drawing others to invest in the area.
Though he was reluctant to offer advice to anyone thinking of starting a digital agency that could someday land in DUMBO, Lemond is uniquely positioned to do so, having created, along with Szot, a lucrative formula.
“In the early years of our business, we reinvented the wheel every time we turned around, rather than relying on the kind of institutional knowledge that’s out there,” he said after much deliberation.
Lemond noted the overuse of clichés by people in his position, and ultimately settled on something more suitable to his own experience. “Do the things you know,” he said. “But let the things you know be softly defined.”
Works for us. And, obviously, for Brooklyn Digital Foundry and Brooklyn United.
From the Web
If it is possible for a person to sit in a chair and bounce off the walls at the same time, then that is exactly what Mike Germano (@mikegermano) did on a recent Monday evening in the DUMBO spot ReBar. But his energy is channeled in the right direction: toward his company, Carrot Creative, and the Digital DUMBO scene, which he has helped cultivate.
At just 28 years old, Germano, who grew up in New Jersey and now lives in the Financial District, is a pretty accomplished guy. He served a term as city councilman in Hamden, Conn., from 2005-2007, during which time he founded Carrot Creative, a new media marketing agency specializing in social media.
“We help brands build on social networks, and teach them and help them in great ways for them to have conversations with their customers and really turn brands into people,” he explained. Some of those brands include Crayola, the NFL, Disney, Ford, and the Islands of the Bahamas.
When Germano speaks of his achievements, it’s as if wild success was always in the stars. In high school, he and one of his future business partners, Chris Petescia, built websites that he described as early versions of blogs and social networks. In college at Quinnipiac, Germano furthered his ambitions with Robert Gaafar, who would become Carrot’s other partner, creating sites that helped students sell books and rate professors.
“For me, the Internet was a way for me to break the rules and get my message out there,” said Germano, who wanted me to point out that he was not wearing a hooded sweatshirt, opting instead for a pink gingham shirt and khaki pants.
“Every marketing and business class we took, no one was talking about this,” Germano said of harnessing the Internet’s powers. “We knew it was the future.”
At Carrot Creative, which he claims was the first agency to use social networking in 2005, Germano and his team of 15 feel they can truly influence culture by sustaining brands. He shot down the notion that large advertising or marketing houses (some of which have tried to buy Carrot) could ever adequately perform the same services.
“When all these big companies try to hire people to head up their social media, they have no idea what they’re talking about,” he said boldly, pounding on the table a few times, as he did throughout our chat. “I know that fundamentally, they will fail.”
The decision to relocate to DUMBO from Connecticut in 2007 was a simple one for Germano and his partners. They briefly considered Union Square, but felt Manhattan, as he put it, “has a bit of an identity crisis, because there’s so much going on there.”
DUMBO, on the other hand, “was this little oasis of digital.” And once he realized there were so many other startups like his in the region, Germano’s inner politician was stirred to bring people together. He and several others formed the Digital DUMBO monthly meet-ups, which have been going strong—and growing strongly—for more than a year.
Not long ago, Germano joked to pals Sam Lessin of Drop.io and Brian Lemond of Brooklyn Foundry that DUMBO should be declared New York’s “Digital District,” to give themselves and others a louder voice, and it has turned into a genuine crusade.
“We appreciate the individual nature of small companies,” he said. “We need to show them they’re not alone, there’s help out there, and that it’s ok for Manhattan ad firms and brands to bring their money here to DUMBO.”
Which is exactly what they’ve been doing, at least as far as Carrot Creative is concerned. Germano now regularly finds himself turning down business, either because he doesn’t believe in the brand or because it’s not a good fit. But with so many digital companies saturating the neighborhood, is DUMBO starting to feel…a little crowded?
“Competition is always a good thing for the industry,” Germano insisted. “I would rather that. I think in the long run it’s beneficial to me as a company if all the best and brightest agencies that are my competition move tot he same geographic region as me.”
He strongly rejects the notion that digital is over-hyped, saying it’s “in a beautiful exploration stage of both users using it and brands understanding it.” Of course, no matter how harmonic the interplay, Germano understands one thing very well.
“Money speaks volumes,” he admitted.
Though he’s tinkering with the idea of “inevitable” overseas expansion, Carrot Creative and its bright orange couch are in DUMBO for the long haul, which seems advantageous to both parties. Because if the outlook of at least one other person in DUMBO is as sunny as Germano’s, everybody is going to be just fine.
“Digital is the biggest, most important part of having an amazing future in our country,” Germano said, without a hint of hyperbole. Who wants to argue with that?
From the Web
Steven Greenwood (@sgreenwood) rarely stops smiling when talking about drop.io, the two-year old, DUMBO-based company that, in a nutshell, powers content sharing online. It could be that Greenwood, who is 32, is enthusiastic about what he does as vice president of business development at drop.io, which recently spun off a service called PressLift that Greenwood created; or maybe he’s chipper because Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz just announced that his office is going to start using PressLift for all of its media needs. Whatever the reason, Greenwood’s positive outlook on his industry is not only echoed by his peers, it is refreshing in an otherwise dour economic climate.
“We’re actively hiring!” he exclaimed, sitting in a Union Square diner sipping a soda on a recent evening.
Greenwood believes New York City is the epicenter of the next phase of the internet revolution. “We could not have built PressLift in any other city in the world,” he said. “We’re within a subway ride away from the top PR firms, the media companies, Madison Avenue, and big Fortune 500 companies who we can connect to in a single day.”
PressLift would not have happened without the success of drop.io, which Greenwood described as “a point of exchange on the internet.” Teachers, journalists, architects, and thousands of others use the site to create “drops,” a means of online file-sharing. The service is free up to 100 megabytes, after which point users pay for more space.
The benefit of drop.io for people working on a project together, for example, is that it streamlines communication. Instead of engaging in a long e-mail thread, each member of the team receives an alert when content is added to or changed in the “drop.”
“These are real time points of exchange,” said Greenwood, who lives in the East Village. It is drop.io’s responsibility, he added, to not only use their robust background to power content sharing, but to provide context and relevancy. “We’re building specific applications that are geared to specific users for certain uses.”
Case in point is PressLift, the genesis of which happened very organically. “Among the tens of thousands of users of ‘drops’ were communication professionals,” said Greenwood. “What they wanted to do was share multimedia with a press release—really, a very simple idea. It was actually really hard to do in practice.”
But they worked it out, creating a device for public relations professionals or press departments at places like the Borough President’s office to use to combine the text of a press release with associated video, audio, pictures, or links.
When asked why the Borough President’s office should use PressLift instead of simply creating their own page for that sort of content, Greenwood employed a helpful analogy.
“If you’re an individual company you constantly have a decision: do we buy a desk or do we build a desk?” he said. Using PressLift, which has access to the resources and talent from drop.io, is akin to buying the desk, because, Greenwood added, “We know content sharing really well.”
Drop.io/PressLift also works with Pepsi, Conde Nast, McGraw-Hill, and the Robin Hood Foundation, whose offices Greenwood was headed to later for a meeting, dressed predictably in—what else?—a zip-up hooded sweatshirt.
Greenwood sees DUMBO’s role as a breeding ground for digital start-ups much like some kids see Disney World. “It’s an area where you can imagine,” he said dreamily. “A lot of what we’re doing is trying to imagine where the future is.”
Though DUMBO is historically known for its population of artists, Greenwood doesn’t see himself or his contemporaries as all that different from their progenitors.
“This is a place that encourages and fosters ideas, and helps create this community that promotes them,” he continued. “That’s incredibly valuable, and it’s part of this ecosystem growing in DUMBO, and Brooklyn, and throughout New York.”
Drop.io will host the 15th Digital DUMBO meetup on Thursday, April 29, at their offices in, duh, DUMBO.
From the Web
Self-described techie “geeks,” like Aaron Harvey and Alex Lirtsman of the DUMBO-based firm Purple, Rock, Scissors, are really anything but. Though they’re dressed in the requisite hipster apparel—zip-up hooded sweatshirts, skinny jeans, sneakers—and toss around terms like “search engine optimization,” “conversion,” and “analytic platforms,” Harvey and Lirtsman probably have more in common with behemoth Madison Avenue advertising agencies than with their artistic Brooklyn neighbors. But that doesn’t mean they don’t fit in.
“We really saw this emerging scene here, and there was a lot of buzz, and a lot of excitement,” Harvey, 28, said about why PRPL set up shop on Jay Street when they expanded from Orlando, Florida six months ago. “That’s why we chose to come to Brooklyn and come to DUMBO, because it’s on fire right now from a tech perspective.”
As a digital marketing agency PRPL, which has just 15 employees, helps non-profit agencies and diamond jewelers alike figure out how to best position themselves to customers in a competitive online environment.
“We have a pretty big discovery process where we break down specific goals,” said Lirtsman, also 28, the company’s chief marketing officer and a Kensington, Brooklyn native. “We don’t try to come up with one end-all solution, but try to touch upon those goals and create a strategy.”
That strategy can be anything from ensuring a client’s Facebook presence leads to an online sale to meeting fundraising or volunteering goals. They use proven channels like e-mail programs, newsletters, and social media to execute their plan, and measure which one leads to the most “conversions;” or, in laymen’s terms, which one achieves the goal.
Then they perform tests and analyze data to determine, for example, whether a user is more likely to convert when offered free shipping on purchases over $25, or when shipping is a flat $1.99 site-wide. “We’re constantly optimizing,” Lirtsman added.
PRPL optimized its own presence when it opened up its three-person operation in shared office space in DUMBO last fall. With a growing New York-based clientele that includes companies like Vizio, Better Home and Gardens, and the Jewish news site JTA, Harvey, a partner in PRPL and its chief operating officer, is enjoying the new atmosphere.
“It’s more experiential work, that’s the fundamental difference,” Harvey, who is from Florida, said about the New York market. In Orlando, much of their work involved maintaining clean, well-coded sites, while here, he said, “clients want to blend interactive campaigns with print campaigns to go after 200 coveted advertisers.”
“And they want it done yesterday,” Lirtsman chimed in.
Harvey and Lirtsman are nothing if not passionate about their jobs. They met as suitemates freshman year at the University of Central Florida, and began working together a few years ago when their mutual pal Bobby Jones founded PRPL, then called Hydra Studio, in his garage in 2002.
PRPL has grown quickly, Harvey believes, because of its approach. “We come from an e-commerce mindset, and that allows us to make sure that everything we do…is tied into a business goal, tied to a track-able event, tied into a key performance indicator that we establish to begin with,” he said.
But they juggle an intersection of three realms—business, art, and technology—that is common to most industries these days. “You kind of have these three different forces,” Harvey said. “While in some cases they can feel isolated, they kind of have to come together and bash their heads.”
Much like the DUMBO-based techies themselves, who, while often in direct competition with one another, are also fiercely collaborative. In just the last year, the Digital DUMBO monthly meetup ballooned from a few dozen people to what Harvey estimated was around 500 in March. From the PRPL perspective, which Harvey admits is limited, the draw of DUMBO for techies is more than just relatively cheap rent.
“Everybody in our industry is trying to say, ‘This is digital Silicon Valley,’ and there are people saying, ‘No, these are art spaces,’” said Harvey. “It’s a really cool, competitive environment. It’s up for grabs, and digital is grabbing it.”
And Purple, Rock, Scissors, for one, has no intention of letting go.
Brooklyn Tech is a new series devoted to digital businesses in DUMBO and other parts of Brooklyn. Have a company in mind that we should profile? Run one? E-mail us info AT the brooklynbugle.com