Over the course of several months in 2010 and 2011, local writer Amy Dusto tagged along at countless tech events in Baltimore in order to document the fledgling tech scene in the city. The results are recorded here, in this thesis written for Johns Hopkins University. I think her journey has captured some of the spirit and much of the history of our up-and-coming culture, and I wanted to preserve and share her story. Great work, Amy.
-Jonathan, October 2012
by Amy Dusto, April 2011
After the 90’s dot com bubble, after a revolution in personal computing, after the explosion of social media, and after the beginning of a long recession in 2008, a new social scene is shaping up in Baltimore. Like the neighborhoods and the people that are known for making this city so charming, this scene, too, has a unique enthusiasm and flavor of its own. To be a part of it is as much an attitude as it is an interest for all things technological. And to be a part of it is not necessarily one thing in particular, but to be tied with many different groups of doers. The scene is ever-changing and not easily, if at all, summed up. I came across it haphazardly myself, but will try to bring some order to the chaos in this narrative of describing what I’ve found to be tech in Baltimore.
On a Saturday afternoon, in a conference room at the Emerging Technologies Center in Canton, about seventy members of the tech scene worked on projects in the first ever Baltimore Hackathon, a sort of sped-up, high-tech science fair for adults – with cash prizes. From six p.m. Friday to six p.m. Sunday, November 19th – 21st, 2010, attendees known as “hackers” tried to bring a technological creation from idea to prototype – or as close as they could. At the end of the weekend, a panel of judges picked the winners. Mostly twenty and thirty-somethings – and only three women – these hackers were gadget-building hobbyists, professional programmers, and students. All of them spread out their things in the rooms, covering tables with six-packs and coffee cups, laptops, wires, and tools, while knocking around project ideas and sharing their expertise with one another. The atmosphere was decidedly Baltimore; many participants wore computer-speak t-shirts referencing local tech events (“Bmore on Rails”) and someone had covered the “t” on the Hackathon banner so it read “Hacka-hon.” In Baltimore, “hon” is a term of endearment similar to “sugar” or “sweetheart” – but not the same as “honey” – and residents have no specific criteria for who gets addressed that way.
“Is it weird that my body gives off a sine wave?” said Rob Miller, an engineer who was testing a piece of electronics equipment. Coming alone but with a solo project in mind, he’d set up a small workshop in the middle of what became the hardware room. He taped a paper plate to his tool box that read in black marker: Spare meat: will work on cool projects. He claimed the T.V. show “Battlebots” is what got him “into this stuff.” Nearby, someone soldered above an empty pizza box. When it began smoking, a hacker at the next table lent him a stand to keep the solder iron off the cardboard.
Altogether, the hackers represented sundry eclectic interests. Ted O’Meara was writing a program to turn output from brain waves into visual art. Adam Bachman and Zach Waugh were making the “laterlist,” a way for a person surfing the web to keep track of items he wants to remember. Brent Frederick got help from a few representatives of the Hackathon’s largest sponsor, Tropo, to develop a blog transcription service that works via phone – the caller simply dials a number, says “I want to post this to my blog,” speaks, and the service posts the words. Two attendees had met only on Twitter before the event; neither had had time to work on their ideas until this weekend.
Indeed, the opportunity to set everything aside and focus on a pet project seemed to be a big draw for attending. Many hackers considered continuing work after the weekend, but most agreed that they’d be satisfied simply by making progress. “It’s kind of like itch-scratching,” said Bachman. Instead of staying open for forty-eight hours as originally planned, by midnight on Friday the crowd was tired and a decision was made to close up and reopen at eight in the morning, a process which repeated on Saturday. The free food, provided all weekend from local restaurant Puffs & Pastries, was incentive to make it back in time for breakfast.
As Sunday afternoon loomed close, the hackers began rushing to add final touches. “Why does everybody want me to fix my project?” Mark Huson wondered aloud, “I just want it to be what it is.”
“Because that’s what we do here,” the lone-comer Miller replied. Indeed, after another attendee, Matt Scilipoti, ended his project in frustration, he spent most of the final afternoon helping other people to write programs in Ruby, a particular computer language and his specialty. He reflected that he was happy with the weekend overall, even though his own thing didn’t work out. Like anyone else at this event or at most others hosted by the tech scene, these guys weren’t here for the money but for fun and camaraderie – though ending up with a sell-able product would be a welcome bonus.
The seven judges, all from the area, included: two heads of local software companies, an engineer and founder of an annual robot festival, an urban planner who was running for mayor, the director of an entrepreneurship program at Morgan State University, the interim director of the Greater Baltimore Tech Council, and the Chief Technology Officer of Millenial Media. Each individual or group of hackers had five minutes to present to the judges and a crowd of friends and family. At the last minute Millenial Media, a sponsor, doubled all the prizes, making the biggest awards, for group projects, $700 each. The results?
For individuals, the hardware prize went to Miller, who created an elaborate circuit board of guitar effects, which he demonstrated while playing Iggy Pop. Ray Wenderlich’s project, an interactive book for the iPad, won in software. As he read aloud the fable of “The Crow and the Pitcher,” he moved the illustrations around with his fingers. (Later, his story became part of a complete app called “Wild Fables” which is now available for download in the Apple App Store.) Two children in the front sat entranced. A team from the Harford Hackerspace took the group prize in hardware. Their RotoFoto project used a regular digital camera to take pictures of an object from all angles as it rotated on a lazy Susan built from spare wood and a JC Penney cutting board. Then the images were put together so that, from a computer screen, a picture of the object could be turned and viewed in all 360 degrees – all at a fraction of the usual cost for such a service. The group software prize went to the “Headline Split Test,” a Wordpress plugin that picks the best headline for a blog post. During a trial period, two choices flip-flop and the one with the most clicks becomes the permanent title.
The last award, “Audience Favorite,” went to a project that uses a camera, a nickel, and a 3D printer, which is a box-like robot that spits out plastic, layer by layer, to form a particular shape – in this case, a ring. At the Hackathon, Amy Hurst and Marty McGuire wrote software that looks at a picture of a hand with a nickel on it and uses the relative width of the nickel to size a finger. Then the printer makes a ring to fit that finger. The duo even included options to embellish the rings with miniature hats or mustaches.
Excitement over, the hackers and volunteers began cleaning up. A few complained about the task of sorting out whose tools were whose in the chaos left in the hardware room. They were exhausted – some people estimate that the event used over 1,500 hours of manpower. But still, as the final beers were finished and trash bags filled, talk was in the air about the next Hackathon.
And the next Ignite, and Betascape, and Robot Fest – a million and one events across the city – because that’s what these people do. They organize, set up email threads and online forums, write blog posts philosophizing about the state of the tech scene or entrepreneurship in and beyond Baltimore with equally long conversations in the comments sections. They are activists after their own shared cause, a love of tech and of this location, their home; like parents they nurture their community together.
One of the first and most enthusiastic proponents of the tech scene is Mike Brenner. He says he spends about forty percent of his time doing the work that makes his living (creating websites for clients through his company Sunrise Design) and about sixty percent of his time doing things that will build up tech in Baltimore. Everyone always told him he seemed like a west coast guy and, since switching his major at George Washington University from pre-med to computer science, he’d been set on moving to San Francisco. Instead, Brenner ended up moving into a house with a few other recent college graduates in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood for a year. From there he grew his business, begun in his senior year at GW, by working out of various coffee shops. Four years later, he owns his own house in the same part of town and he isn’t talking about moving to San Francisco anymore. In fact, he plans to never leave.
“When I came here, there was not a whole lot going on,” Brenner says, “but that’s totally changed in four years.”During his early Baltimore days, he realized that some of the people working on laptops around him – free WiFi attracts freelance – must be doing similar work. So he started asking whether they were, finding out that yes, they were also programmers, and yes, they’d like to discuss aspects of their freelance lifestyle with other freelancers. “I want to surround myself with like-minded people,” Brenner says, and like-minded people naturally concur.
He began a local speaker series and meetup event for other web designers and developers known as Refresh Baltimore. He got involved with others who were also interested in organizing groups, collaborating on events such as the Hackathon. As his dedication for bringing people together over creative projects grew, he was not alone – he’d possibly landed in Baltimore at just the right time. The tech world today results from developments that may not all seem positive to the rest of the world but are certainly fortunate for tech – a different type of fortunate than the fleeting one associated with an infamous dot com era.
IN THE 90’S
Ron Schmelzer, a native Chicagoan who went to study computer science at MIT in the 90’s, began with his sophomore dorm-mates one of the original dot-com successes: a virtual mall that posted scanned pages of mail-order catalogs to the web for various companies and mediated payments – the embryo of modern online shopping. They raised millions and were featured in Newsweek. “We were a poster child,” says Schmelzer, and they were not alone. Companies were sprouting up like dandelions in spring while investors handed out $50 to 100 million at a time – transactions that weren’t even making the news. They were like fads, says Schmelzer: “You got all these crazy businesses that no one even knew what they did, people were just throwing money at things because they had a ‘dot com’ in them.” Recruiters put Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s in campus buildings at MIT, to read as: “Your Signing Bonus.” “I remember going to these launch parties, especially in Silicon Valley,” says Schmelzer, “Where there’d be rock bands and lamb chops (lamb chops with mint!), houses with sushi all over the place.” And as out-of-control things tend to do – especially out-of-control things like companies without real products or revenue, and shaky business plans at best – things fell apart fast. When the dot-com bubble crashed, the California-based tech scene deflated right with it.
Fortunately for Schmelzer, his idea had actually been viable. He sold VirtuMall, which had expanded and branched into other online services, in 2001 and began consulting and investing, starting another few companies and writing two books along the way, before moving in 2006 to Baltimore where his wife got a job teaching medical illustration at Johns Hopkins. He got an MBA at the same school and has been embracing the emergent tech scene here, again working on a startup, investing in other entrepreneurs, and commingling with those who do the same.
Another dot com survivor, Dave Troy began building computer businesses in the early 80’s when he was about twelve years old in his hometown of Severna Park, Maryland. As a sophomore in high school, he and a friend founded a computer mail-order firm based in a nearby storefront. By the time he graduated it was worth more than one million dollars and had customers all over the world. In the mid-90’s once the Internet came to the average house, the pair founded an Internet service provider (ISP) which offered, among other things, broadband and email services to over 50,000 people in the region – one of the largest ISP’s in the Mid Atlantic. Troy bought out his partner in ‘96 and in 2004 he sold the company to Continental Broadband.
Schmelzer and Troy, two who had “been there” in the heyday of the Internet revolution are each now based in Baltimore. Schmelzer came later and Troy has been here from the start, but both delight in the city’s rising community of technologists and entrepreneurs and are devoted to helping build up the scene. Along with other enthusiasts like Mike Brenner who call this place home, they are getting more and more people involved in creating projects and businesses here.
In the meantime, along with the work of gung-ho individuals, a number of other developments were converging that helped make the nascent tech scene inevitable. Advances in personal computing were steadily making the coffee shop, once a workspace relegated only to freelance writers and beat poets, into a possible operations base for another group: programmers and web designers. And not just in the coffee shop, but better hardware and software combined with the Internet meant anyone with a laptop could create computer-based products and services equally well on their own, from all sorts of places.
At the same time social media – MySpace, Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, and the like – were also changing the tech-scape. Since the years around 2005, these new avenues of connecting people have changed not only day-to-day social life, but also business life. From advertising to the creation of new products and services, a whole realm of potentially cash-earning innovations is based on this near-instantaneous, mobile, and nonstop set of communication tools. Add the smartphone to that, and this tech becomes in some ways an extension of personhood, an engrained part of life. Technologists just happen by nature of their livelihood and interests to be, if not always in the driver’s seat, somewhere up front.
One more factor must be noted as a propellent of the emergent grassroots tech scene: Baltimore’s particular attitude of scrappiness. The current recession may have helped to spark it. Whatever happened on Wall Street that’s led to prolonged global panic has, in Charm City at least, been met with something of defiance. Maybe Baltimore already had enough problems – with the manufacturing era deceased, suburban flight familiar, and the counterculture grime of John Waters long traded for the sub-culture grime of The Wire, to name a few – but whatever it was, Baltimoreans and especially the technologists were not to be daunted. A driver passing through this city known for its quirkiness will see, in a day: a half a dozen colleges world class in everything from medicine to art, garish and wonderful paint jobs on personal rowhouses as easily as public bridges, and maybe a Mercedes or two parked outside a dive bar named something comical on a historic brick street across from a biker adorned with a live boa constrictor who is just out, watching the “urban pirates” boat pull up, getting some air – in this place, no one is overly concerned about what they should be doing, but whether they’ll be able to do what it is they want to be doing and still be home in time for the Ravens kickoff.
So the technologists, as designers and members of the creative class as well as residents within the quirk, also want to know if they can do what they’re doing before kickoff. And with the ease and mobility of how they work, they can even do it mid-game – put another way, just because the bank might be wringing its hands and the newspapers drinking themselves into a stupor, the tech people in Baltimore have no obstacles debilitating enough to keep them from dreaming up new projects, building them, and then dreaming up a way to make money off them, if they feel like it. In a comment on another local developer’s blog post about the current state of the tech scene and entrepreneurship in Baltimore, local developer Adam Bachman writes: “It’s easy to be negative and cynical, but it’s good to hear some optimism on the tech future. If I hear ‘in this economy’ as an excuse one more time, I’m gonna punch a puppy.” Screw venture capital and hiring freezes; office space is overrated. But of course, if do-it-yourself-ers wanted to get together and work, they could always go to the Beehive.
Jonathan Julian, a software engineer, has been working in the area’s tech industry for more than a decade but says, “It’s only been in the last maybe three years that I’ve met and known all these people.” While working as a consultant in Annapolis, a coworker told Julian about this place he should check out in Baltimore, the Beehive.
Founded by Dave Troy in 2008, the Beehive is a co-working space for creative professionals, computer programmers and people working in marketing, finance, or other information-based industries. The space is a large room inside Canton’s Emerging Technologies Center with a lounge and plenty of computer-adorned desks and tables. Members pay a fee to join the Beehive community and, based on their plan, can have access to the space up to twenty-four hours a day. The appeal of a co-working space over camping out in a coffee shop is as much due to the community work atmosphere as it is a guilty need, perhaps, to relieve the shop owners who often watch from behind the counter in annoyance/anger/despair as their seats and tables are held captive for hours by laptop-using freelancers. So, though many workers operating from the Beehive might pop out occasionally across the way to get their Venti fix, they have an exclusive spot to which they can return; everyone wins.
Julian mulled over the Beehive for two weeks, then finally went to take a look. “I was kind of shocked to find all these people like me around,” he says, “and a little upset. Why didn’t I know them?” Nonetheless, after a few days of working while sitting next to them he met his coworkers, among the first of whom were Dave Troy and Mike Subelsky. He now works with Troy’s company, 410 Labs. “I’ve worked on a lot more fun things since I’ve met all these people,” says Julian. He no longer spends his days alone, programming in a vacuum and sifting through drab job postings online.
THE CITY THAT CODES
The conditions had changed, and a new ecosystem was emerging for Baltimore’s technologists. But the ubiquity of social media and the Internet had been changing life for non-technologists too, and even larger social structures were evolving digital personas. The city itself began adding its own offerings beyond just money or support to citizens via the tech scene. Baltimore became one of the first metropolises in the nation to jump on a trend (for a change), following suit with a handful of other US cities and the federal government in making its public data freely available in digital form.
On January 26, 2011, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signed into order an initiative attempting to make government more transparent, accessible, and accountable for everyone; a digital warehouse for getting public information would be put online in a portal known as OpenBaltimore. The portal contains databases of information ranging from 311 calls to crime reports to property taxes. “The city is relying on us to use that data to make cool things that make living in the city cool,” says the aforementioned tech scene-builder Mike Brenner, “They opened the data up for us, not for themselves – they had it already.” The hope is that people from citizens to private companies will use the data to invent software applications (or “apps”) that offer creative solutions to city problems. “The developer community initially will consume this data and make all kinds of nifty widgets out of it,” says Mike Karr, webmaster for the city who, along with lead developer Brian Wham, is in charge of managing OpenBaltimore, “and that will benefit the non-tech community.”
Other cities have proven that open data can be a binary-candy shop for developers. In New York, the “Sportaneous” app fosters pick-up sports games anytime, anywhere, by providing information about available facilities and an interface to connect with other players. Another app helps New Yorkers share cab rides. “Filmed in NYC” uses data from the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting to show nearby locations featured in movies. In Washington, a Facebook-based app called “Where’s My Money, DC?” tracks city spending orders over $2,500 and includes forums where people can discuss what they think about the purchase.
From connecting people, restaurant reviews, bike routes, landlord information – a Baltimorean even proposed a way to track city representatives in the hopes that citizens will stop them for a chat – the potential apps alone could transform the quotidian. Not to mention the possibility for citizens to use their own data analysis to influence policy and business decisions.
The process of getting something like this started, however, is somewhat tedious. Fom the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology, Karr and Wham request records from all different city agencies, such as the police or transportation departments. They prioritize which ones to retrieve based on what the citizens ask for in either the OpenBaltimore forums or through email, Twitter, and the like. Once they have the data, the pair must contend with its messiness. Historically, the city had no required format for collecting information across all agencies. So something as simple as “male” or “female” could in one case show as M or F, in another 1 or 0, or in another the words fully spelled out. The data must be “cleaned” to be usable and so that categories can be easily compared or combined. Having outside eyes on city records may ultimately make this easier, says Wham, who has been working on city web services since 2006. He hopes “that the public will criticize some of these pieces of data, and force the people that maintain them to make them better.”
“When we started this initiative you could count on both hands how many cities in the nation have done this,” says Karr, “and it’s ramping up relatively quickly.” Once data is available, the natural evolution is to hold an app contest. D.C. led the movement in 2008 with its month-long Apps for Democracy competition. In it, the city offered $50,000 in prizes and was returned with forty-seven useful applications, which the Office of the Chief Technology Officer valued at $2.3 million – what D.C. would have had to spend to do the projects itself. More whopping paybacks were later reported by cities who did the same, including New York, San Francisco, and Seattle.
This “tremendous return on investment” is the result of the creative ecosystem that these competitions foster, says Brandon Kessler, CEO of New York City-based Challenge Post who runs BigApps for NYC and also the federal open government competition, Challenge.gov. “This is not a get rich quick thing,” he says. Instead, participants are lured by altruism and the promise of exposure, recognition, and intellectual stimulation.
Baltimore still has a ways to go, however. For one thing, only about seventy data sets are currently available online, and getting each one takes time. Updating everything is another issue: Some data is old and some will be more useful if it can eventually be uploaded in real time for, say, a person who wants to track the number 11 and time his walk to the bus stop. To help jump start the process and begin exploring what local minds could do with the data, Brenner hosted Civic Hack Day and invited members of the scene to come play with the new data. Held on a mid-February Saturday just a few weeks after OpenBaltimore went online, they all met in the Beehive.
There, about twenty guys were typing, talking, and pointing at their computer screens while squinting in the sun coming in through skylights.“That would be cool to see animated, instead of in pie charts,” said Baltimore developer Lokesh Dhakar, 29, on visualizing the population of a neighborhood over twenty years. “The point of this is: there’s a lot of data, how can we slice and dice it?” By the end of the day, he and the other attendees had come up with ideas and prototypical applications of the data for use by the public, including: mapping 311 complaints to location as well as visualizing them over time, a text reminder for almost-due parking fees, and an analysis of jurors called by weekday. Jonathan Julian got a tweet from someone during Civic Hack Day asking whether he could disprove the myth that traffic cops give more speeding tickets at the end of the month. The public was interested and, like intrepid servicemen, the tech scene provided reconnaissance. And they were needed elsewhere.
Not only do non-technologists intersect with the tech scene in the apps and devices they use in a modern lifestyle, but many of them are also creative types who are likewise interested in the latest and greatest tech – but more importantly, what they can do with it (not what they should do with it, but what they could do before kickoff). Maybe it was part of that whole nasty economy business, along with some other factors, but the ecosystem of Baltimore has also been ripening in an area for which it already had some fame: the art scene. And what could the artists do, if lines of code were added into their toolboxes next to the pencils and blow torches?
Around 2007, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) fiber faculty member Annet Couwenberg realized that some of the aesthetic designs her students were coming up with – how to make fabric respond to a cue on demand, light up, or make sounds – were getting technically advanced. Fiber was going digital. She spoke to the Chair of Interaction Design and Art, James Rouvelle, who has a background in electronics, and they decided that working together would benefit both their sets of students. They began to conceptualize a class.
MICA’s Fiber Department Chair put them in touch with the director of the Digital Media Center at Hopkins, Joan Freedman. The three soon designed the “Collaborative Smart Textiles Research Lab.” Freedman secured funding with a JHU Arts Innovation Grant. Now the class has been taught four times.
For six hours every Wednesday night in the fall 2010 course, the artists and engineers worked together. “Fifteen weeks is short,” says Couwenberg, and students start with little if any “tech” background. Hopkins guest lectures helped to change that. Engineers specializing in materials or human bodies, computer scientists, and graphics and audio staff from the Digital Media Center all lent their expertise. Sometimes the students visited labs, seeing body sensors like heartbeat monitors in action. To make fiber projects that “react” to physical cues, the students needed to incorporate sensors like that into their designs.
But once a tapestry has sound sensors, it needs a brain to process the information from fingers snapping or birds singing. Rouvelle had a solution: the LilyPad Arduino. This credit card-sized microcontroller is an easy to use, programmable platform designed to be sewn or mounted into textiles. It communicates with sensors using conductive threads or wires. With the LilyPad, students could orchestrate their projects as they chose, perhaps making lights dance along a hemline or an iPod music selection change with a pulse rate. The LilyPad was designed for use by novices; they just needed to learn a little programming.
Fortunately, some local techies volunteered to help – most prominently, Gary Mauler, founder of an area robot festival and a judge at the Hackathon who, after a friend accused him “of being a left brain engineer without any art appreciation,” began looking for a way to prove her wrong. (In an email the next spring, he announced that after eight months working with MICA students, “I am currently about 54% left Brain and 46% Right Brain according to one test! Not sure how accurate it was.”) Mauler found Rouvelle and spent a summer asking him questions about the smart textiles class until finally, he thought, “I might as well just come up.”
The enthusiastic volunteer also got his son Robert, a tech-savvy student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to start assisting. “When we show up we’re just non-stop,” Mauler says, “just one student after another with questions.” The artists, he says, are out of their element and he and the other volunteers are “like tech support.” Even so, he wasn’t always in his own element either. The hardest question he was ever asked? How to match the color of electro-lumino wires to a skirt. In his Bawlmer twang he tells it: “I said, girl, look. Your world and my world are pretty far apart. You don’t ask an engineer to match colors.” Still a few seconds later he is already admitting that “it’s interesting to be asked about the art side of a piece.”
Set up like a workshop in a MICA studio – with some space also at Hopkins – the class ran long into each night. After a while, no one was taking dinner breaks anymore and most students continued their work at home. A computer scientist from Hopkins got help with sewing and the artists learned how to solder and program. Their designs included, on the more abstract end, a waist-high white box with a hemisphere of spiky fabric sticking out the top that pulsed to a heartbeat, sub-woofer-like. Other projects seemed more mainstream, like the legwarmer-looking boot for a horse with lights up the side which turn off as the hoof lifts, a feature useful to trainers studying a gallop. Another student made a glove that controls sound when the fingers bend, which the artist hopes to use in puppet performance.
Two girls, both foreigners, used sound as “nonverbal communication” to depict the feeling of being isolated in a new city: their backpacks emitted static-y noise like an AM radio that changed frequency as they got closer together. Face to face, they pulled tent-like structures out of their packs and over their heads which they connected, forming a small, LED-lit cocoon. They called themselves Urban Aliens.
At the final project showcase, a tapestry hung on the wall, its shades of blue dim in the dark room. The audience turned in their folding chairs to watch as the artist snapped his fingers in front of the fabric. A smattering of white lights appeared in response to each burst of sound, revealing the neat array of LED dots that he’d worked into the swirling patterns of dye. When he finished, applause lit up four rows of lights while a fifth row on the bottom blinked intermittently, like the cloth was clapping back.
THE GREATEST CITY IN AMERICA
In the collision of all the citizens, artists, engineers, programmers, and everyone else within the larger system of the city, the lines of where the tech scene ends and Baltimore begins blur. But the tech scene people persist as a unit, self identifying in online groups and physical meetups, inviting anyone to join them. Perhaps, a few of them suggest, worrying about labels is too much of a hangup. Baltimore already has something of an identity crisis.
“When people talk about what is very typically Baltimore, it’s ‘hon’, beehives – but that was Baltimore in the 1960’s. Baltimore doesn’t look anything like that; this place doesn’t look anything like beehives!” Ron Schmelzer (the transplant of dot com fame) says, from a couch in the Beehive. “Baltimore should be creating a brand based on what they want to be.” Rather than focusing on the past, trying to paint the iconic image as remembered in Hairspray or when National Bohemian Beer was still brewed in town, the city should modernize and figure out what a future identity of itself might look like. On getting there, he says,“I think Baltimore is on the cusp; this may be the scene that’s going to do it, but we need it.” The tech scene is not just another faction within the city, another charm on the bracelet of Things That Are Baltimore, but one scene meshed into many others, most notably the healthcare/medicine and art scenes which thrive in their own high-caliber yet down-to-earth versions of quirk. “What would encapsulate the innovation around those three things?” Schmelzer asks, “You’re not Silicon Valley, that’s true, but then what are you?”
Baltimore is not the intensity of New York City, which is open-minded and unique, but more claustrophobic and competitive. It is not self-important D.C., where most techies are government contractors and everything smells mildly political. Instead, says Aaron Saunders, a District resident and mobile app developer who moved there almost two years ago from New York City, where he helped build successful dot coms in the 90’s, Baltimore lies somewhere in between, geographically as well as metaphysically. “I’ve been trying to find a like-minded community to be part of but I haven’t been able to find one down here,” he says. At an April event in the Beehive he meets the Baltimore tech scene for the first time, and likes the vibe. He thinks he will probably return.
In the meantime, locals want to entice him. As part of building a tech community – any community – grassroots up, people need to be drawn in. They need to realize that here people do what they want, create, make, innovate – and more than just a matter of rebellion against the “shoulds,” economics, or other possible barriers, people do it here because they can actually be successful. A person trying to take off in the promising industry of tech probably also has entrepreneurial intentions. Some call it bootstrapping, some call it scrappiness, but the phoenix-rising method is tailored for a place like Baltimore. An increasing proportion of the tech scene, fed by the cross-creativity coming from multiple groups, is incorporating its enthusiasm for what they do and for the city itself into an enthusiasm for startups. The tech industry provides an accessible and high-potential base, on layers the entrepreneurial spirit – a direct cousin of scrappiness – and the local techies add gloss. Or outline the whole thing, as the case may be.
THE CITY THAT MAKES MONEY
One of the organizers of the Hackathon, self-employed programmer Mike Subelsky, had an idea to create a summer camp intensive to help train budding entrepreneurs. He drafted a proposal for “Startup City,” a twelve week program offering free workspace in Baltimore, $15,000 of seed money, mentoring, and workshops for ten lucky entrepreneurs. “The actual problem we’re solving is to tell the story for these ten companies in a visible way, [the story] about people struggling and succeeding,” Subelsky says, “to show it’s doable.” The city should subsequently benefit from the action of more than just whirling brains, but solid ideas going into motion with economic development attached. As he wrote in the proposal, “All we need are a few success stories to create a chain-reaction of entrepreneurship.”
Then he sat on it for about a year, until one day his friend and tech-scene colleague Monica Beeman, regional director of the small business loan company Lendio and founder of a local women’s tech group, Women.Tech, asked him, “Why isn’t anything happening with this? Let’s do this.” Just a few months later in the end of March, they were ready to launch Startup City, with the program itself to begin July 1st and run through mid-September. The selected participants would be required to live in Baltimore throughout; Beeman and Subelsky hoped they’d stay longer.
Such business incubators already exist around the country. For example Techstars, the program which Beeman says Startup City is directly modeled after, provides guidance to entrepreneurs for three months in a different city each season: Boston, New York, Seattle, and Boulder, again proving that startup culture and tech scenes are growing in petri dishes other than Silicon Valley, and that smaller places are inviting for such pursuits in their own right, with a proper mix of talent, technology, and open-mindedness.
“People here already know it’s a good place to start a business,” says Beeman, “We want to help other people realize that.” Applicants to Startup City, who are selected based on a YouTube video they submit to the program’s website, can be from anywhere in the world – though Baltimoreans are equally encouraged to apply. The final ten, chosen by consensus of all the program’s mentors and investors (after Beeman and Subelsky narrow down the initial pool) can be anyone from a single person to a formed team or company. Mainly, the judges want startups that will be able to execute a successful project in twelve short weeks. At a graduation-like final event for Startup City, the entrepreneurs demonstrate the product they’ve created for the investors and everyone involved. A second demo day in New York City might also be planned to help them gain even more exposure, though that will depend on the ultimate budget.
Investors in Startup City are private individuals coming from Angel groups, small units of individuals who put up their own money, and elsewhere. Though the seed money is nice, says Beeman, the most crucial element and the draw for most applicants is the mentoring and educational resources offered by the program. She works with the investors to bring in successful people and expert entrepreneurs to share their knowledge in areas like finance or marketing over weekly seminars and workshops. Additionally, one of the program’s goals is to introduce the participants to Baltimore, showcasing it as a world-class city and a great place for creative types to live.
“We want this to be the Silicon Valley on the East Coast,” says Beeman, though in the Startup City proposal Subelsky wrote that rather than trying to recreate California’s tech Eden, Charm City should “capitalize on its distinct urban character.” The sentiment persists, however, that Baltimore has potential to become a startup haven, and may even be known for it one day – through the global mirroring of tech scenes implies that the city will more likely be one of many with this kind of acclaim. Subelsky paints Baltimore, with its numerous universities, low cost of living, proximity to venture capital in the D.C. region, and “strong counterculture” as an obvious place for entrepreneurs to come.
INVITING THE NEIGHBORS
On the rainy Saturday afternoon of April 16, 2011, I am camped out on a couch at the Beehive covering Startup Weekend. This is like a condensed Startup City with a Hackathon-esq frame for time and projects, though it is at once neither a serious summer program nor a geek-out get together. An entrepreneurial kick-starter, Startup Weekend has, amazingly, drawn most of its participants from out of town. They are not all programmers or web developers – in fact, the event suffers a developer shortage – but they are people with a great idea, a great yearning to start a business, a curiosity to work on new projects, or all three. Last night, most of them lined up to give a one minute pitch of their business idea to the rest of the more than one hundred-strong crowd, some of them nervous and stuttering, quite clearly connected to their ideas by the heart-string. Jonathan Julian speculates that perhaps, for some attendees, this is a make-it-or-break-it event, the one shot they feel they will have for turning a pipe dream into reality.
I ask them why they are here, from states up and down the east coast as far north as New York and south as North Carolina. What stake did they have in attending this particular event – which is held in franchise form around the United States and the world – here in Charm City? Their reasons varied from having a great idea and being nearby to being curious about Baltimore’s tech scene to coming because they missed the event in another location, but most every response elicited some feeling of kindred-spirit to the other people in the room which I’d noticed in every local tech event I’d attended all year.
It was the same feeling I’d noticed all over the city since driving up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to move here myself almost five years ago, and reading its somewhat-famous road sign: Welcome to Baltimore, hon! As the story goes, that “hon” was added by hand, a painted placard which was posted, removed, posted again, and so on, by a character known as the “Hon Man” beginning in the early 90’s. Longtime Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Olesker once wrote about that sign: “It’s all about friendly unpretentiousness and not taking ourselves too seriously, and it’s about a sense of home.” Yet it’s posted for anyone who’s happening through.
Many of Startup Weekend’s Friday pitch-givers wanted to make mobile apps for purposes from sending automatic texts to finding which bars are full of singles before leaving home. They also wanted to set up various websites, such as a social one meant to engage young professionals in nearby non-profits, or ones that would allow a person to request and pay for items an international traveler could pick up for them – perhaps a small Turkish rug or a hard-to-find spice. Some had these ideas rattling around for months or years; others came up with them that night.
While they spoke, co-organizer Monica Beeman wrote the gist of their proposals on large sheets of paper that were then posted around the ETC. Later people voted for the best ones by distributing three sticky notes on the papers as they pleased. Ideas with seven or more sticky notes survived, and twenty-two teams formed ad hoc around them.
“I didn’t plan on pitching this,” says Chris Mechanic, of Baltimore, about his mobile app idea,“But it was so alive and magnetic in the room when I got here so I thought, all right.” Another local, Arsham Mirshah, only planned on recruiting talent for his company at the event but found a team doing something he thought was cool that needed a developer, so he joined them.
Though every plan called for some programming skills, most people were not of that bent so developers were in high demand. With tickets about $200 apiece (students got discounts), these entrepreneurs were serious about finding help. A few floating mentors and representatives from sponsor companies assisted with advice and coding.
The non-profit umbrella organization of Startup Weekend, headquartered in Seattle, sets up local entrepreneurs who want to organize their own weekend by providing guidelines, managerial support, and a mentor at the event. Here in Baltimore, that mentor was Kav Latiolais, a Microsoft manager by day, and an avid Startup Weekend mentor by weekend – he typically does one or two events a month, all over the world.
With years and miles of observations – Latiolais recently returned from a Startup Weekend in Palestine – his take on Baltimore is encouraging. “The dedication I’ve seen from the Baltimore community in building up the startup scene is absolutely amazing,” he says. “I think with how supportive the community is here, we will absolutely see some serious companies coming out of here.”
The first two days of the event were held in the ETC; Sunday’s work moved to the University of Maryland Biopark across town. After the final rush that day, everyone gathered in an auditorium. As seats were found, people exchanged hellos via a projected Skype call with the concurrent Startup Weekend in New York City. A handful of other cities around the world were having Startup Weekends at the same time, but Baltimore and New York had chosen each other for a virtual “hashtag” battle on Twitter – winner was the one with most Startup Weekend tweets.
Then, for the first time all weekend, the prizes were announced. First, second, and third place would receive $2,500, $1,000, and $500 respectively, with one catch: winning teams would need to incorporate within thirty days – the check would be made out to their company. Additionally, all winners would be given the option for six months of free workspace in the ETC.
Parking Panda, a mobile app business designed to connect people who have available parking spaces and those looking for a cheap spot near a busy event, took first. The team plans to debut their company at Preakness, an annual horse race in the city that was coming up the next month. Second place went to a business that plans to put banners in vacant storefronts, providing a phone number and text system in which passer-bys can dial and vote for what business they’d like to see move in.
Third place tied and both teams won the prizes. Dapprly is a Twitter application that allows a person to model two outfits and let the masses tweet-vote for which is best, maybe in preparation for a date. Talk Chalk is a Facebook app for students, teachers, and parents, allowing for virtual homework assignments and online game-style award incentives for doing them, like badges (think Farmville) or even points to redeem as gift certificates at real retail stores.
The hardest part in choosing winners, says Sharon Webb, CEO of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council and one of the judges, was knowing how much effort every team put in over the weekend and then having to split hairs over the viability of their plan. Most of those who didn’t win top prizes, the five judges agreed, had still already come so far that their businesses would likely take off anyway. Some already had ideas they planned to take to another Startup Weekend.
“I know that most of the people here today will be back for the next one,” Latiolais tells me. Because he’s talked to them? “No, because that’s how this works.” I like to think that he’s not just referencing this event, but tech in Baltimore. The scene is here to stay, and everyone’s invited.
EPILOGUE AND THANKS
This story began with a press conference about Google Fiber – or really it may have begun in the summer of 2010 when I was realized as I clicked through my workday that I had no idea, really, how the Internet functioned. I still don’t entirely get it. But in trying to figure it out, I heard about this amazing stuff called fiber optics and Google’s Fiber for Communities program. The search engine tycoon was offering to install a network of high-speed fiber optic cables in one lucky city based on an application process, and Baltimore had applied. Not only that, but they were organizing, forming a grassroots group to bring fiber to the city regardless of whether Google picked us or not. I thought this community push was incredibly intriguing, and that Bmore Fiber would surely be one of the hottest topics of the year.
It was and wasn’t. But as I began getting the scoop, I soon discovered the people of tech in Baltimore. By the time Google’s January-postponed-to-March final decision date had passed, I’d almost forgotten about it. Instead I was busy writing stories about all of these other things that were going on, talking to people in my city with great ideas and the motivation to make them manifest – and they all had enough going on that Google’s offer seemed almost … generic in comparison. Wouldn’t we do a better job building our own fiber infrastructure, and have more fun doing it ourselves anyway?
Well, maybe that’s debatable. But I’m feeling scrappy.
Also incredibly grateful for all the help I’ve had along the way. For the long months of conversation from so many members of the tech scene, especially Mike Brenner, Mike Subelsky, Jonathan Julian, Dave Troy, Monica Beeman, and Ron Schmelzer, who all spent hours in interviews telling me about not only their individual projects, but their personal backgrounds, their takes on the scene, and what it really means to be a part of tech in Baltimore. Many, many others have also offered their opinions and insights to me in shaping this story, kept me updated about events that were happening, and directed me when I had questions along the way.
And in writing, I’d be nowhere without the help and guidance from my adviser, Ann Finkbeiner; my classmates, Allison Bohac, Ellen Gray, Helen Thompson, and Mike Bullwinkle; and the editors at Bmore Media and Urbanite, Neal Shaffer and Greg Hanscom, who have offered invaluable assistance with many pieces of this narrative that appeared slightly-altered in their respective publications throughout the year.
I’ve enjoyed it more than I could say.
Thanks for reading, hon.
Note: parts of this thesis were previously published by Bmore Media and Urbanite