How Hoboken, New York’s Baby Brother, Built An Innovation Scene Of Its Own

New Jersey might not have the luster or the talent pool of the big city, but it's still home to a lively, tight-knit community of tech workers. Here, we drop in on the New Jersey Tech Meetup to discover more.

It’s a Thursday night in Hoboken, New Jersey, and 100 people are attacking a stack of pizza boxes. Thirty-plus vertical feet of glass lets in the view of the nearby Hudson River and Manhattan skyscrapers, while tech dorks and entrepreneurial hustlers network furiously. Pizza in one hand, business cards in the other.

The crowd is visibly distinct from that of a typical tech meetup across the river. Instead of scrawny, tattooed hipsters, Hoboken’s ranks boast a high percentage of men in dress shirts, often bulging slightly at the middle.

Abruptly, as if a drill sergeant has called in orders, the throng marches into an auditorium--a routine that’s clearly familiar--where, after a few startup demonstrations, Jeff Hoffman, founder and former CEO of Priceline.com, addresses the group.

"A good idea is a good idea, and it doesn't care where it came from," Hoffman preaches from the pulpit at the Stevens Institute of Technology. "Entrepreneurship can pop up any time, anywhere."

The dress shirts applaud furiously. This is why they’ve come each month for two years to the Hoboken Tech Meetup (recently rebranded to New Jersey Tech Meetup). Just because it resides in the shadow of the vibrant New York tech community doesn’t mean Jersey can’t have an innovation scene of its own.

In the startup revolution currently sweeping the U.S., the same formula appears again and again: A handful of inventors in a region gets together to battle entrepreneurial loneliness and talk shop. Regular meetups start forming, and eventually someone opens a coworking space. Then an incubator pops up. Suddenly, programmers emerge from basements with ideas and have a place to go for feedback. Kids working corporate jobs see a community ready to support harebrained ideas. So they quit jobs and form startups. Someone’s company gets acquired by Google or Salesforce or Amazon, and the community’s entrepreneurial itch triples.

In Jersey, it happened with Audible.com, a Newark-born audiobook store which sold to Amazon for $300 million in 2008. Two years later, Diapers.com from Montclair cashed out to the same buyer for $550 million. Two years after that, the New Jersey Tech Meetup boasts 1,972 members and a wait list of startups wanting to demo their goods.

“When people have a recurring event and recurring community on which they can rely, and get out of their offices and homes and be a little bit inspired, it helps rally the troops,” says Aaron Price, the meetup’s captain, Entrepreneur at Large for DFJ Gotham, and founder of CrafterMania.com.

Of course, North Jersey benefits from its proximity to NYC’s investors and startup community. Hoboken is a 15-minute train ride to New York’s array of tech meetups, lean startup clubs, and coworking hubs like General Assembly and WeWork. But the Jersey startups--just like Jersey residents--don’t identify with the city. When asked for a show of hands, 90% of Hoffman’s audience indicated they live and work in Jersey.

Which makes sense: Jersey’s eight million residents by and large live a more residential, suburban, and often blue collar lifestyle than their eight million neighbors in New York City. While New York thrives on media, fashion, art, and finance, New Jersey’s mainstay industries include pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and manufacturing.

“This is a little bit less flashy,” says Bert Picot, a meetup attendee who works in software in Jersey City. “It has more nuts and bolts.”

Will Jersey truly rival NYC or Silicon Valley in tech innovation? Not anytime soon. It lacks the luster of the big city and the talent pool of the bay. And while its university system is robust, it doesn’t have a Stanford or Columbia or MIT or NYU to attract an unfair share of overachievers.

Hoboken, being hip and young and hungry, has “all the right ingredients” for a tech community, Hoffman says in an interview. But, he says, in today’s socially connected world, a kid in Middle America or a villager in Africa can build the world’s next great idea. Communities like Hoboken’s strengthen what people can now do online. Something about networking, learning, and marketing in person spurs the drive to build something big.

“The reality is guys like you and me are busting their asses in coffee shops and coworking spaces trying to build companies wherever they are,” Price says. “When companies get outside of TechCrunch and into the New York Times and New Jersey Star Ledger, people get hungry. The community gets more accessible, and the idea that the barriers to entry to start a really profitable company are becoming really low.”

The entrepreneurs of New Jersey, it seems, are as ravenous for innovation as they are for free pizza.

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #USInnovation.

[Image: Flickr user Bala Sivakumar]

Add New Comment

18 Comments

  • Aaron Price

    In case this doesn't fully post, the entire response is on my blog, failwaytosuccess[dotcom].
    As the founder of the NJ Tech Meetup, I feel compelled to respond to the recent Fast Company and BetaBeat articles about the NJ Tech Meetup.
    The commentary in these articles reminds me of something I’ve noticed in my travels: People frequently proclaim New York City as the best city in the world, implying that the rest of world’s cities don’t stack up against it. I love NYC too. It’s beautiful, exciting, vibrant, energetic, chaotic, inspiring and so much more.
    But Paris is pretty cool. And Sydney is sweet. And so are Quito, Shanghai, San Fran, Ho Chi Minh City, and Marrakech. That doesn’t make NYC any less good. But I know that tourism brings with it a lot of money, so tourism boards see these other places as the competition. You and I - we just like to travel.
    I’m reminded of this when I see some of the exchanges on BetaBeat and here on Fast Company. They have great things to say about Hoboken and the NJ Tech Meetup - and for that I’m grateful - but they clearly feel the need to put Hoboken down in the process. They need to sell ads around content - I get that. I understand that a little controversy helps. But wouldn’t it have been great for them to take a different approach and go with, “Hey, nyc tech people - there’s a hidden gem right across the river.” It might have been less exciting, but that’s actually the hidden truth of both stories. And that truth is something I’m proud of: We have an amazing community in the NJ Tech Meetup and get a very big draw from all around the region at our sellout events. We’ve even had some international representation at several recent meetups including attendees from Germany, Ecuador, and Croatia, some of whom planned their trips around the event.
    I started the NJ Tech Meetup because I care about inspiring people to start companies and supporting those who do. What I don’t care about is east coast/west coast, NYC/NJ, or any other divisive narrative. Great companies and great people live in many places. This isn’t sports - there isn’t just one winner in entrepreneurship. Your company can get bought and so can mine.
    That’s why I’m pleased to have sat down recently with many local players, including the NY Tech Meetup and several politicians in the area. I can tell you that we share common goals: we all want to make it easier to start a company and build an amazing team. You’ll start to see more from us about that soon.
    I hope that Shane at Fast Company and Adrianne and her peers from BetaBeat will continue to cover the NJ Tech Meetup. Maybe next time they will take our mission of Inspiring Ideas, Sparking Connections, a little more seriously. Because we certainly do.
    But you know, as long as we’re talking Hoboken vs NYC: I live on the water. I have a big backyard. I have a bbq. Come on over sometime and we can toast to entrepreneurship over a beer and a burger and talk about your startup.

  • Rgiordano

    " Will Jersey truly rival NYC or Silicon Valley in tech innovation? Not anytime soon."

    The question should be when will NYC and Silicon Valley catch up to New Jersey. 

    I guess Mr. Snow has not heard of Bell Labs nor Ft. Monmouth.

    "So how can we explain how one relatively small group of scientists and
    engineers, working at Bell Labs in New Jersey over a relatively short
    span of time, came out with such an astonishing cluster of new
    technologies and ideas? They invented the future, which is what we now
    happen to call the present. And it was not by chance or serendipity.
    They knew something. But what? "

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02...

  • Brill2

    It's clear to me that the author is really out of place and doesn't understand what's going on at NJ Tech.  It's like he was forced to go to the big bad NJ and wasn't happy about it.  God forbid you had to step inside a "Technical Institute".  I really question if you understand how a startup works.

  • Shane Snow

    No need to get personal. I actually lived in New Jersey for a couple of years, and I've worked in startups for the last 10 years. There's a ton of great things happening in Jersey, and the NJTM is an amazing organization.

  • Susan Newman

    You seem to have missed the "heart" of this meetup. Innovation! From the mingling, to start-ups to guest speakers, what we are all learning is what each other is doing in New Jersey and what the coolest new ideas are out there being developed. In addition this large group of professionals are not just technical geeks, but a variety of entrepreneurs and investors, designers, marketing and more. This group is about sharing ideas and opening minds to the possibilities.

  • Tivity

    Agree - the networking, access and vibe at the NJ Tech Meetup is much more endearing and beneficial than other Tech Meetup's I've attended, especially New York.  The article comes off negative and hostile and has a title that is completely misleading.

  • Kirsten Bischoff

    I know that I am biased - but having attended both the NJ and NY Tech Meetups - I can say that entrepreneurs will likely find they get much more out of the NJ Meetup.  The NY Meetups  are so massive, there is little networking opportunity for anyone not already plugged into the scene (not to mention how difficult it is to get a ticket).  The NJ Meetup is well run, and Aaron - who oversees it really does a great job of encouraging networking - that's not my strong suit - but as a result of the focus the group maintains on meeting and greeting in the beginning of the session - I have definitely made some interesting contacts.  I also really love that it is much more of an educational focus - with amazing guests who always show up and give honest insight - and not canned speeches.  Even the few demos that happen in the beginning are always met with earnest enthusiasm and the presentations don't have the same "America's Got Talent" circus feeling that the NY Meetup does - and I think that serves the entrepreneurs demo-ing much better.

  • Catsrule

    likewise, hoboken is home to stevens institute of technology, an outstanding school for biztech; and the city is also housing its fair share of NYU and other manhattan-based-university undergrads...

  • Peter Kestenbaum

    Good article but you seem to think of the NJmeetup as a junior version of New York...  Not even close (opinion)...  The Jersey guys are ahead of their NY counterparts...  Many have real work experience in the corporate world ( the pharma's, the telco's ),   and the quality of the speakers is much stronger...  there are only a few demo's in the main session and then a legit speaker...  author, CTO,  institutional or angel investor and so on...  there is also a tight educational program around (ie its not a standalone meetup..  see the demo.. lets go to the bar )...  you could go to a 1-3 hour session arranged  by the meetup team for items such as legal basics or employee management for startups or similar...     Demographics in NJ are of different.. some of it is a plus... you find far fewer participants are trying to figure out how to save 10 bucks on their phone billng or wanting to have a discussion on why the NY Times needs to charge for their on line product vbecause they cannot afford their share of rent in their loft...  It appears that many own homes, condo's or even have a spouse working full time.  My last meetup I sat next to a Harvard grad/Michigan MBA ( but lives and works in New York ) who took Path over. Logically she should be in the NY meetup shouldn't she?   

  • shanesnow

    It's definitely a mature group and an amazingly well-organized system. I think New York could certainly learn from what the folks at NJTM have put together. This comment thread is evidence of the passion NJ entrepreneurs have for their community. Keep it up!

  • Ken Lonyai

    Nice to see NJTech recognized, but you've mischaracterized the group a bit.

    First Aaron Price and his team has done a remarkable job building a sizable/viable Meetup group in record time (ask the folks at Meetup!). Viable because he brings in top-flight speakers and an excellent smorgasbord of start-ups pitching their concepts, month after month.

    Additionally, there's many tech and non-tech business leaders/thinkers movers/shakers that make the commute across the Hudson every day. So while it's true, the tech/business environment in the city is much larger and more robust than in "Joisey" there was no need to draw a line in the river making comparisons of one side to the other.

    Most importantly, we need to salute the organizers, presenters, and rank and file of NJTech. They have created a community that many would (do?) envy.

  • shanesnow

    Couldn't agree more. In my opinion, Aaron Price runs the NJ Tech Meetup better than any other meetup I've been to – on either side of the rive. That says a lot. And the speakers are always phenomenal. I think things will continue to grow in Hoboken for sure!

  • Diplo

    "And while its university system is robust, it doesn’t have a Stanford or Columbia or MIT or NYU to attract an unfair share of overachievers."

    I'm pretty sure Princeton attracts more than its fair share of overachievers. Also, Rutgers is a fine university with an intelligent student body.

  • Tali

     Not close to Hoboken, but I think DIPLO was responding to the author's description of NJ as a whole.