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Why I owe my success to LA’s tech community

In a few weeks, I will co-host the 10th Annual Digital Family Reunion, which celebrates the richly diverse community of technology professionals in Los Angeles. In honor of the occasion, I thought it was important to share some historical perspective on the technology community in Los Angeles, going back some 24 years.

It all began for me with a Wall Street Journal article by Jared Sandberg in 1993. His message about how hypertext markup language would soon bring the world together through images, sound and video across Internet’s World Wide Web stirred something in me that I will never forget and immediately caused me to turn all of my energy toward a career in digital marketing.

I was captivated by the potential the Web represented, and I knew if I wanted to capitalize on it professionally I needed to learn everything and meet everyone I could who knew anything about the Web, which led me to seek out others who were doing the same. My search led me to participate in several networking organizations, which over time became the foundation for the technology industry community we have here in Los Angeles today.

At the time, I was transitioning out of my entertainment PR account executive role under legendary Hollywood publicist Phil Paladino. When Phil became ill and the company ended, I  got the chance to sell under Murphy O’Brien partner (and later X-Drive CEO) Brett O’Brien.  But I  wanted to get closer to the  Web.  With the help of Andy Nelson (not from LA), I landed a director of marketing and sales role at CD-ROM game developer Viridis Corp. I applied my communications background and a budding interest in sales and marketing there under Lee Barnes and Christopher Thompson.

To help put Viridis on the map in 1994 and connect my role there to the community that was making the transition from CD-ROM to the Web, we sponsored a meetup in the atrium of the Westwood Gateway building off the 405 and Santa Monica Blvd. I was so jazzed about the success of that event – I felt like I was part of something transformative, and the energy that was building around everyone’s shared desire to learn and collaborate was palpable. People were sharing business ideas, which led to investment, which led to jobs and the eventual spark of LA’s part in the dot-com boom.

My first exposure to LA’s tech community was at a local chapter meeting of the International Interactive Communications Society (IICS) in Hollywood.  Through that community, I met Jeannine Parker, Joey Tamer, Sue Marrone and Hal Josephson, at that time the producer of Motorola’s Interactive Media Festival at Digital World. At about the same time  I met Seth Shapiro (aka @Zebcom) – we would spend long hours on the phone discussing the technical inner workings of the Web and its potential in business.  And there was Ben Mendelson, whose Learning Annex class about the World Wide Web turned into a long professional friendship.

Later I would find my now lifelong friends Joe Andrieu and Christian Gray at the Association of Internet Professionals (AIP), and soon thereafter met the true don of the digital media industry in Los Angeles, Jim Jonassen. Along with producer Molly Lavik, Jim’s LA New Media Roundtable (LAwNMoweR) events were the happening digital scene between 1994 and ‘97.

Jim and Co. would eventually parlay that momentum into the creation of the Digital Coast Roundtable, along with Mayor Richard Riordan, David Hankin, Rocky Delgadillo and others. Along with executive director Conchetta Fabares, the group created the Digital Coast moniker to brand the region from Santa Barbara to San Diego in hopes of attracting more investment from the Bay Area into the converging entertainment and technology industries (often referred to as Silliwood).

During those years I chaired the DCR’s Industry Relations Committee, which brought together community leaders from across the region to collaborate, share information and host a holiday networking party (not unlike the Digital Family Reunion model of today). Our biggest and most successful was in 1998, when Gary Baker of IBM helped us underwrite a huge gathering at the California Science Museum.   Other IRC members at that time included the LA Venture Association, Internet Developers Association, Tech Coast Alliance and  VIC – ah yes, VIC.

Brad Nye and Larry Roth started the Venice Interactive Community around a coffee table at the Firehouse Café in Venice in 1995. Along with Fran Pomerantz, Spence Bovee and Mariana Danilovic, I was among the founding board members of  what would grow to become the biggest and most important social network in the converging technology, media and entertainment industries throughout the late ‘90s. Our monthly parties migrated to James Beach and the World Café before landing at the Victorian, where “VIC at the Victorian” became the place to see and be seen for anyone in tech (or as we said in those days, “interactive” or “digital media”). The VIC stories encompassed  millions of dollars, thousands of participants, hundreds of deals, companies forged and fortunes created. .

That same year I co-founded InterActive Agency, Inc. (aka iAgency), the world’s first Internet PR firm and one of the first full-service interactive agencies.  VIC is where I got my deal flow, feeding our 15-person team up until the dot-com crash. The relationships I made there continue to be  invaluable.  The stories around iAgency are  too numerous to cite and the amazing clients too many to thank, but I would be remiss if I did not mention Stuart Halperin, Steve Katinsky and the team at Hollywood Online for writing the first check to iAgency, and Mark Jeffrey (The Palace), Jim Moloshok (Warner Bros. Online) and Steve Bradbury and Jeff Liebowitz (Engage Games Online) for believing in us early on.

Along with my partner, Alan Wallace, our first employee, Tracy Bagatelle, Will Akerlof, Matt Paladino, Sharon Boyajian and the rest of our crew, and office mates Dan Dickenson, Richard Titus, Stephen Anspach and may others, we made community happen every day. And the relationships I made then continue today; those people are still part of my network and part of the community, each of them willing to help me in any way they can, as I would do for them.

It’s that spirt of networking and helping each other along that is at the heart of our character as a technology community in Los Angeles. Ask anyone who comes to Silicon Beach from New York or San Francisco and they will tell you the community here is generally more willing to take a meeting and network with one another to help facilitate the introductions and forge the relationships needed to advance our respective businesses and careers. I believe that attitude and culture in the LA tech community of today goes back to “the VIC days,” if not earlier.

And then the dot-com bust, ugh.

Again, hundreds of more stories to tell.  DEN, PointCast, Pixelon (my personal) Pets.com, eToys  — I could go on. Gone were the dot-com parties, IPOs, paper millionaires and jobs, not to mention some amazing technologies – poof! What followed in its wake, besides a dose of sound business fundamentals, was a dearth of community and networking. There was nothing going on in LA.

Enter Kurt Daradics.

It was the summer of 2008, and young KurtyD parachuted into the industry and into our lives. He was making his own transition to tech, so I could relate to his enthusiasm and respect that he was having meetings with all the right people around town. He had also started his own curated networking group Meeting of the Minds (aka MOTM) to serve as a catalyst for his discovery of the industry.

We decided to meet for dinner with Brad Nye at Kate Mantilini in Woodland Hills. As we chatted about Web 2.0, social media and the younger generation of professionals that was breathing life back into tech in LA, an idea came to us – what if we hosted a party to connect our Web 1.0 community with this younger set? After all, we’re all connected, we’re all family – and thus the Digital Family Reunion was born. We needed a fiscal sponsor, which led us to David Leighton, CEO of Women in Technology International, who has managed the finances, registration and our Web presence over the years.

What happened on that December night in 2008 was nothing short of magical. The best part was that everywhere you looked around Ahmanson Hall at the Skirball Cultural Center, people could be seen greeting and embracing friends and colleagues they had not seen in years – they were beaming! It gave me such pleasure to know I had a hand in creating so much joy. But there was more to it. That familiarity, combined with the mingling of the two generations of tech workers — 800 of them — being introduced for the first time was electric. There was instant camaraderie and a sense of pay-it-forward mentality happening all over.

There were dozens of new exhibiting companies to see, senior executives to meet and high-profile speakers such as Jason Calacanis and Ryan Scott to learn from – and I got to present our first DFR Outstanding Achievement Honor to Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. Add in the good vibes from DJ Loomer, visual stimulation from Annmarie and Chris Penny’s infinity mirror and a life-sized sculpture made up entirely of business cards from the 1990s, and it was one helluva good networking event. We have since turned it into an annual holiday tradition for LA’s tech industry, fueled by more than 50 community partner organizations who promote it to their members.

Over the past decade, LA’s technology industry and related social scene has exploded. In recent years, Thursday Nights connected entrepreneur CEOs with the venture community while giving back to the Girls and Boys Club of Santa Monica. Ken Rutkowski’s METal group started in 2000 and continues to thrive. Kevin Winston has dominated the scene in recent years with Digital LA and Silicon Beach Fest. Rachel Horning and Zach Sekar’s Startups in the Sky is rallying around the vibrant tech community in DTLA. Along with my pals KW Low and Nicole Jordan, we host a few LA AdTech meetups and educational panels each year. Kudos to Susan Franceschini of ThinkLA for truly serving the advertising and marketing community across the region. Alon Goren and Gary Livingston’s 805 Startups has rallied the community where I live in the Conejo Valley. Ash Kumra’s YOUNGRY is inspiring young entrepreneurs in Orange County and elsewhere. Stephen Meade pulls together a consistently high quality and eclectic crowd for the Beverly Hills Breakfast Club. The Tech Council of Southern California, now part of SIIA, is rebooting under the direction of Rhianna Collier and Jenn Carl. Mark Jeffrey and Ken Brook created Crypto Beach to address the burgeoning blockchain community. And newcomer Built In LA is on the rise with its publishing and events model catering to hiring companies.

Incubators and accelerators are also creating community. I’ve been especially impressed by Heidi Hubbeling and the team at Stubbs, Alderton and Markiles’ Preccelerator Program, were I’m currently a mentor. Paul Bricault and Oded Noy have done phenomenally well with the Amplify.la community. And LA’s original incubator, Idealab, has been going strong since 1996.

There are at least 100 other local networking organizations and professional associations actively giving professionals a place to connect and thrive in and around LA tech. I have tremendous respect for what their leaders have done to foster the growth of our community and I know firsthand that it is quite literally the lifeblood of our industry.

Community is everywhere, and it’s what you make of it. Whether you start your own meetup or simply show up at one that interests you, one cannot help but to be thrust in the path of opportunity. The tech community in LA has fed the growth of my career and has been the foundation of countless industry friendships and connections, for which I will be forever grateful.

I’m proud that our DFR meetup in 2008 was special enough to become an annual holiday event. I don’t take our strong community for granted, and I hope others will appreciate the importance of being in the room on Wed. Dec.  6 in DTLA to celebrate what we’ve created together and envision what we can do over the next 10 to 20 years. Whether or not you’ve attended DFR before, if you are working in tech in LA, we’re having a party in your honor and I hope you will come.

Check out http://digitalfamilyinc.com for more details and join the conversation at http://facebook.com/digitalfamilyreunion.