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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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]