Parties are serious business for The City's Netizens
"The City of San Francisco wants to do everything we possibly can to help your industry thrive and grow," Supervisor Leslie Katz told an audience of Internet professionals in The City.
The crowd had gathered for 415 Tech, a new regional business development and networking event organized by Brian Webster and Associates . Charging businesses $200 to $1,000 for an exhibition table and individuals $5 to $15 for admission, 415 Tech filled Club Townsend with 30 companies and 1,200 professionals Wednesday night.
"Most of the Internet industry has grown in spite of us instead of because of us," Katz said. "So we are doing what we can to try to make it easier for businesses.
"We are getting a fiber optic ring throughout The City. We are talking about possibly putting in a teleport. We have the San Francisco Partnership's Digital Media Workgroup, which is focusing on issues of importance to the industry.
"And the Mayor's Office of Economic Development has been holding special meetings trying to see what we can do to support business growth in The City," Katz said.
On stage for only five minutes, Katz offered few details. Instead, after announcing a job opening at the San Francisco Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (415-554-0801) and inviting e-mail comments (firstname.lastname@example.org), she left the stage.
Unsatisfied, I caught her before she left the club. Does San Francisco really have trouble attracting business, I wondered. If so, could The City really help?
"San Francisco doesn't have much of a problem attracting businesses," Katz said. Still, some challenges exist even for Net companies, including a shortage of office space and a dearth of high-speed Internet access.
The government is working on those things, she said. For example, planned projects in Mission Bay, Bayview, the Mission and South of Market should create new office space. A fiber optic ring, developed jointly by The City and private businesses, including AT&T and TCI, will provide broadband Net access.
In addition, the Mayor's Office of Economic Development and the Telecommunications Commission are looking to see if traditional tax incentives can apply to Internet business. For example, tax credits that now apply only to industrial equipment could apply to Internet expenses as well, Katz said.
Further, The City is working with local organizations, such as the San Francisco Partnership , to provide support and services. Information about all these things will be available online, since The City has plans to put a local business portal on its (currently useless) Web site.
Despite Katz's enthusiasm, I remained skeptical. As it stands, The City's Web site is an ironic underachievement for a place that sees itself as ground zero for the Web business. Far more useful information can be had from 415tech.com's Business Resource Center site. As usual, online or off, the government moves slowly, and the Internet moves quickly.
Few 415 Tech attendees, however, expressed much interest in Katz's speech. That the government would promise big and deliver small would be no surprise. More importantly, they had attended the event for very different reasons.
The real attractions
Instead of crowding Katz, they crowded the book-signing table, clutching their copies of "Rules for Revolutionaries" and "The Silicon Valley Way" and waiting for signatures from authors Guy Kawasaki and Elton Sherwin.
Instead of expressing hope in tax credits, they expressed hope in winning the raffle, especially the grand prize: a pass to Web Attack, Michael Tschong's Internet marketing conference in San Francisco June 16-17.
Most of all, they had attended 415 Tech to schmooze. After all, even the most digital businesses benefit from the analog tradition of networking.
With launch parties, mixers, meetings and gatherings every night, the Internet industry is no exception. In fact, off-line events have played a crucial role in the history of San Francisco's Internet scene.
Publicized through e-mail and Web channels, powered by high-tech light shows and fueled by a work force hungry to escape its cubicles and computer terminals, Net events both influence and reflect the swiftly changing industry. In particular, as the Internet industry has moved from maverick to mainstream, its parties have focused less on fun and more on funds.
415 Tech provides a perfect example of this trend. In creating the quarterly event, Brian Webster modeled it directly after Last Saturdays, a monthly social gathering of Internet professionals that began in December 1996.
Held at local nightclubs, complete with dance music and free drinks, Last Saturdays used fun to entice local Web workers and wealthy corporate sponsors.
Ultimately, the event became so popular and profitable that its creator, Bob Ayres, took it upscale and international. Now known as The Next 20 Years , it is an expensive industry insider international series, hitting Los Angeles, New York and London as well as its hometown, San Francisco.
Brian Webster created 415 Tech largely to fill the gap created by Last Saturdays' demise. Only, as Webster acknowledged, what filled that gap has taken a different form.
Gone are the meat markets and pick-up scenes of the Last Saturdays heyday. Now, the corporate sponsors provide sufficient incentive for the $15 cover charge, and instead of hunting for dates, Web workers hunt for clients.
"I am here to meet the next big thing," said Gil G. Silberman, a partner at Britton Silberman & Cervantez , the law firm he and two other lawyers founded in 1997 to represent Internet and other tech start-ups in The City. Although the firm does not lack clients - in fact, it's hiring lawyers to expand - it pays to keep your eyes out for the "huge company of tomorrow," Silberman explained.
Over at the PricewaterhouseCoopers booth, the management consultants agreed, as did the venture capitalists from 21st Century Partners roaming the floor.
From investors in search of vehicles to headhunters scouting potential job candidates, from PR representatives looking for clients to Internet start-up founders seeking buzz, the 415 Tech scene reflected the modern Net business universe, where the currency is contacts and the diet consists of leads and tips.
The importance of connections
The Internet industry runs on cooperation, collaboration and mutual favor exchange.
An Internet company's health is gauged by its supply of strategic alliances. Even companies that compete directly often partner with their rivals if the page views and Web site traffic pay off for both.
Without links from other sites, a Web company may as well not exist.
Online, sites garner links through sponsorships, banner ads and co-marketing campaigns. Off-line, people build the business relationships underlying the Web links by linking face-to-face at meetings or industry events.
For that reason alone, Net companies will pay good money for opportunities to schmooze.
This potential payoff created the market for industry events like 415 Tech. They also contribute to San Francisco's ability to attract Internet businesses despite high rents, office shortages and slow Net connections.
The City provides an opportunity to network with the right crowd. This is more valuable to companies than tax credits and more valuable to Web workers than free beer.
This doesn't mean that Katz should scrap her plans for offices, fiber optic networks, tax incentives and teleports, but it does suggest that a few good parties couldn't hurt either.
Rebecca Eisenberg is a Bay Area writer. She also writes for CBS MarketWatch.com.