Tech parties often get a bad rap. At one recent event, the organizers paid for a 600-pound tiger in a cage and a monkey trained to pose for Instagram photos. Another party for a prominent Googler featured mounds of manmade snow in 70-degree weather. But not all corporate parties are the epitome of Silicon Valley excess.
In fact, historically the best Valley parties have left a huge mark on the industry.
When people think of tech industry parties, the Startup and Tech Mixer may come to mind. Founded by Ari Kalfayan and Apple alum Andrew Vecchio, the Silicon Valley event has rapidly grown from a 75-person house party to a 2,500-person tech event. Mixing TED-style talks with mechanical bulls and in-door jousting, the Mixer was recently unflatteringly described by Valleywag as "the tech party so obnoxious it doesn’t seem real."
While your chances of bumping into the mythical "brogrammer" stereotype may increase at an event like the Startup and Tech Mixer, Kalfayan and Vecchio are clear to point out that what they were doing with the event was to take a typically startup approach to the idea of tech parties. In other words, they took a problem (how to connect people in an often disconnected place like Silicon Valley) and tried their best to answer it.
"What we realized was how hard people work in Silicon Valley, and how often they are inwards-focused and don’t have the time or opportunity to connect with other people," says Kalfayan.
Certainly it’s one of the big ironies of today that the people helping to create the social networks and other tools designed to help us connect can often be antisocial themselves. While there’s not necessarily any problem with being introverted, it can result in missing out on many of the serendipitous events that result in truly memorable innovations.
"When we’ve said [in the past] that the Startup and Tech Mixer wasn’t a party it’s because we didn’t envision it being about people getting drunk or hooking up or doing any of the other things associated with nightlife," Kalfayan continues. "For me, a party is forcing everyone into one big room, handing them a drink, and saying, ‘Connect.’"
With attendees from Google, Apple, Cisco, and Facebook—as well as dozens of smaller startups—the Startup and Tech Mixer certainly provides an opportunity to connect with exciting people. However, Kalfayan and Vecchio wanted to make sure that these connections were more about inspiration and genuine connections than just cynical networking. Because of this, the event features a range of talks, rooms themed by passions and values, or just entertaining ways of letting off steam.
"Because our events take place on a Friday night, after people get in from work, we wanted to create fun spaces to allow people to let loose," Kalfayan says. "That might be the bar, or an interactive exhibit, or arcade games, or the mechanical bull, or jousting—we just wanted to create unique spaces where people could have fun. Because if people are having fun they’re more likely to be inspired, and to be ‘present’ in a way that feels authentic. Our mission statement is to build a more connected community."
While events like the Startup and Tech Mixer focus on streamlining the social side of the party experience, other events focus on creating actual products—albeit in the kind of relaxed, free-form way that would not typically be possible in a work environment.
For the past eight years, engineers from companies including Google, Oracle, and others have gathered once a month for an event called SuperHappyDevHouse—a concept created as parties for hackers and thinkers. Starting out as 150 to 200 people in the Bay Area, SuperHappyDevHouse has now expanded internationally—with events in places as far-flung as New Zealand, Switzerland, and the U.K.
"SuperHappyDevHouse is really a monthly party for hackers, where they can get together and have a 24-hour hackathon," says Celestine Johnson, innovation partner at Innovation Endeavors. "The party element is about people coming together to create cool things that they’re really passionate about, but may not normally have the time to do because they’re too busy with work. It’s also a great chance to get feedback from each other. It’s a really collaborative atmosphere, with food and drink served, and good music playing. It’s non-stop creation that’s happening."
Each SuperHappyDevHouse event ends with a series of what are called Lightning Talks. These are five-minute talks given by developers in which they can present a new project that was fully coded during the devhouse in question. Lightning Talks help keep the party vibe of the event going by opening projects up for questioning and scrutiny from the group. Although this is the most organized part of SuperHappyDevHouse events, it still remains refreshingly relaxed and agenda-free: Using them to pitch your company, recruit new talent, or demo a product you’re trying to sell are all strictly prohibited.
Despite its lack of focus on many of the "business networking" elements often seen at tech parties, DevHouse has been key in creating new products and ways of doing business. Programmer and inventor Otávio Good met his cofounder of augmented reality translation app Word Lens at the event. Discovery fund Mexican.vc and Hack the Future also happened as a result of DevHouse—while Facebook and Yahoo's hackathons are the direct results of the event.
"A lesson I think people could learn for their own businesses from SuperHappyDevHouse is to foster the kind of free-form, playful environment that makes people feel comfortable trying new things," Johnson says.
"There’s definitely something to be said when it comes to using play in a way that lets people better connect to one another—where they’re outside their comfort zone and open to new ideas. There’s also kind of cross-pollination with artists and other creatives [I’ve also seen come out of the events] which can result in really inspiring content. It means thinking out of the box, and that’s when really innovative things start to happen."
While technology moves quickly, this free-form party approach to innovation and startup culture in Silicon Valley goes back a number of years. In the 1960s and '70s Silicon Valley was known for two things: computers and the counterculture. In equal parts, both of these ideas helped structure the modern tech industry as we know it—a place where making money and providing profitable quarterly earnings is certainly important, but perhaps not quite as important as changing the world.
Although part of the '60s counterculture was certainly a response to specific political events happening at the time, an equally large aspect of it was simply about transforming the way people lived and worked. Look at business manuals from the time, for instance, and you’ll find writers like Yale Law School professor Charles Reich who described how people could choose concepts like "liberty" and "freedom" over the routinized "robot life" of their parents. Partying was not simply about avoiding work—it was about imagining a whole different way to work.
"Silicon Valley has always been characterized by the conflict between the corporations to patent and lock down everything in sight, versus the zeal of rebels to share ideas," says Jim Warren, a retired computer programmer, entrepreneur, and activist. "I think you could look at something like the open-source movement as a direct example of the rebellious attitude you’re talking about [with this article]."
Back in the 1960s, Warren became known for hosting "clothing-optional" parties in the Bay Area—events which attracted a large number of frustrated Silicon Valley engineers, including many IBM employees. Inspired by the success of his parties, and believing that there was a link to be found between innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, Warren went on to play a role in creating events such as the West Coast Computer Faire and the Homebrew Computer Club.
Why should you care about either of these? Because without them we wouldn’t have some of today’s most influential tech companies—including Apple, whose earliest computers premiered at Homebrew and began selling at the Computer Faire. By breaking down hierarchies and opening the doors to all comers, events like Homebrew and the West Coast Computer Faire started a way of thinking about innovation that leads directly to modern-day ventures like SuperHappyDevHouse. Key with all of these events is that partying isn’t simply an awkward add-on to an existing corporate infrastructure, but a whole new way of thinking about business.
Today the "tech party" approach to innovation can be seen in everything from the smallest hackathon to giant events like Burning Man. A more relaxed approach to business—based on party-like concepts such as serendipity and the gift economy—further serve to demonstrate just how core these ideas are to shaping social media and other aspects of tech here in 2014.
While a certain percentage of people are going to dismiss tech parties as elitist regardless of what they do, there has also been a real concerted effort to widen participation in this area. "When I saw how well the party environment was working [for SuperHappyDevHouse] I decided to try and scale it up," Johnson says. In 2012 she created what became known as the Super Happy Block Party Hackathon—which has only grown in prominence in the years since.
"I wanted to take the party DNA of the SuperHappyDevHouse, but make it something was accessible to the wider community," she continues. "Block Party was about bringing together entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, hackers, and the general public for a day-long event."
Ari Kalfayan and Andrew Vecchio are also keen to open up the Startup and Tech Mixer beyond just San Francisco. "Our three-year plan is to take this international," says Kalfayan. "Since our business is based on connecting people and exposing them to new ideas, we feel that this will help us take what we’re doing to another level."
Silicon Valley has always been about play. Now it’s time to roll that idea out globally.