Are New York City religions contributing to the city’s booming start-up scene? Can Manhattan’s Silicon Alley rival Silicon Valley for faith-inspired enterprise?
To explore these questions A Journey has followed entrepreneur Nathan Meeks as he has conceived and started a new web venture to help NYC musicians. This Spring he entered his plan into a contest held by the Entrepreneurship Initiative of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. The results were announced this last weekend to a national gathering of social entrepreneurs.
Social media apps, online news media & advertising, web shopping sites and the like dot New York’s tech startup scene. These new businesses are sprouting across the city so quickly that Mayor Bloomberg’s office created a digital map in February to track them. Local tech-related jobs have grown nearly 30 percent since 2007, outpacing every other city in the nation.
Silicon Valley’s growth was also quick and involved a spiritual component that is sometimes overlooked. William Hewlett, one of the heroic founders of Silicon Valley, was an active mentor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. His son told A Journey’s reporter that his father’s deep and thoughtful faith commitment could be seen in how his Dad would take his children into his lap to teach them “how to follow the score of Handel’s Messiah.” Out of Hewlett’s traditional Protestant ethic came the famous Hewlett Packard way of teamwork, flat hierarchy, innovation and quality. The faiths of the middle generation of Silicon Valley are represented by people like John Chambers, the design leader for many famous Intel chips, and Milo Medin, a designer of high speed internet networks used by ATT and others. They were serious about combining their faith, values and high tech work. Katherine Leary Alsdorf, founder of Redeemer’s Faith and Work initiative, cut her teeth in tech as a CEO in Silicon Valley during the great crisis of the dotcom bust in 2001. She has a pretty good idea about the challenge of joining the inner toughness that it takes to be an entrepreneur with the values of doing good to society.
Many of the startups in New York City are the result of a growing number of young entrepreneurs who are not content to merely work to live. They want their work to be meaningful-- sometimes in a religious sense, and to improve the lives of people. In response most city universities have programs in social entrepreneurship. Columbia University business school reports that they have “a rapidly growing number of prospective students who identify social entrepreneurship as one of their primary interests.” Columbia's program notes that social entrepreneurship is a trend that cuts across all types of enterprises: for-profit, non-profit and public (government). New York University boasts programs dedicated solely to this interest.
“People feel like they want to be more than an intermediary; they want to help people in real ways,” said Meeks, an investment banker turned social entrepreneur, during an interview with A Journey.
Social entrepreneurs like Meeks often come to their ideas after hearing the laments of underserved and underpaid New Yorkers.
Two and half years ago, busy selling international stocks and bonds at an investment bank, Meeks needed help in connecting his religious values with his prosperous career. He had an “eye-opening” encounter with God during a prayer. Meeks realized that his priorities had to change. He needed to put God first, and then all the other things which he worried about would fall into place.
So, to augment his Sunday worship, he joined a fellowship of financial people at Redeemer Presbyterian Church to talk shop and pray about how to be a better influence in his industry. His thoughts about this challenge percolated.
Under former Silicon Valley executive Alsdorf’s leadership, Redeemer has promoted a vision for cultural renewal in the workplace. One practical way that they are pursuing
this vision is through their Entrepreneurship Initiative (EI), a network of social entrepreneurs. The effort includes workshops, conferences, mentoring and relationship-building.
Venditti recounted how difficult it was for a trumpet player like him to become “established.” After graduation from Juilliard, Venditti had played professionally for several years around the city. However, he believed that being established was going to take a long time and involve high financial friction. “Being established,” he said, meant steady work and playing with the people you want to play with at the places you want to be at.
Looking down the road, the trumpet player estimated it would take ten years to become established. A long hurdle, Meeks thought to himself.
“If I can play good music with good musicians and get paid [enough to pay the bills], then I’ve made it,” Venditti concluded. The conversation meshed with the inner debate that Meeks had about how to be faithful to God in business.
The entrepreneur observed, “And that spawned a conversation about why very talented people have a hard time breaking in and finding demand for their services.” He says he discovered in a personal way through the conversation that “everybody plays for exposure, but exposure doesn’t pay rent. Finding work is hard. Getting paid is harder. And paying for exposure makes things even worse.”
Meeks was particularly interested in artists. At an early age he himself had started singing in church. He enjoys the memorry of learning his first choreographed dance from Beyoncé in Houston. Though his only art now was the rat-a-tat sound of typing on a computer terminal, he hadn’t lost his interest in the arts. Meeks wondered what a more efficient creative arts industry would look like for struggling artists like Venditti.
The entrepreneur started to develop an idea for an online marketplace for artists and artist-seekers. After talking to artists and looking at existing business models, he concluded that he could offer something better, something more efficient with the time and energy of artists.
What if there was a website, a global marketplace, that connects artists like Venditti to artist-seekers? A new mother could find a muralist to paint her baby room. An art gallery owner could find a pianist for a cocktail party.
Websites like this exist, but Meeks and Venditti say that they do not give consumers a sense of the artist’s quality or provide easy price comparisons. Further, they charge artists to post profiles even if they don’t get any gigs.
“In order to get a gig, to get opportunities sent to you… you have to subscribe to them monthly, paying for the mere possibility of getting paid,” Meeks explained. “That’s wrong. What it degenerates into is essentially selling hope.”
Meeks believes those business models are bad models because they are “vulnerable to perversion.” The sites make a profit off artists even if the businesses don’t help the artists.
“If you are charging artists whether or not you’re fulfilling the goal of your business, that’s a bad model,” he said. “A lot of times, artists are not benefiting as they should. They are paying but not really receiving.”
What if artists could post profiles for free and pay a small fee only when they first get paid for a gig? What if artist-seekers could compare prices and quality in minutes?
Meeks became so enamored with the idea that he couldn’t sleep. “The story of God in my life is full of revelations... as you get closer to God, Christianity is not about all the things you can’t do, but all the things he opens to you,” he said. The woes of his trumpet playing friend provided a new sense of direction in life. The need for a more stable ramp into the professional art world was driven home by Venditti’s decision to continue his music career by entering the U.S. Army and joining their band.
Nine months ago, Meeks used his savings to finance Gigzolo, his vision for a redeemed creative arts industry. After he began working on Gigzolo full-time last fall, he entered Redeemer’s Entrepreneurship Initiative.
At the center of EI is the belief that a business can reflect the truth and beauty of Christ by providing great services, products and honor to its customers.
“More than the funding, it’s the support. You don’t feel like you are alone striving for something that has more than one mission, you feel like you are walking together all on the same page,” Meeks said.
EI Director Calvin Chin points to Restore NYC, a non-profit providing rehabilitation to women rescued from sex trafficking, Inheritance of Hope, a non-profit serving children with a terminally-ill parent, and Tegu, a toy manufacturer with overseas operations and American investors, as examples of the successful ventures EI has supported.
“This is just a starter,” Chin said. “We’d want people to gush over the product, service or experience.”
Chin explained that a business by a Christian without gospel work values might be a deli that dehumanizes by grabbing as much money as it can without much concern for the customer. The deli would provide overpriced, poor quality food with cashiers focused indifferently upon taking a customer’s money — cold meats in the cooler, cold cashiers and a cold feeling leaving the store. Meeks wanted something better than a bare cash nexus revolving the world.
Shortly after working on Gigzolo full-time, Meeks met a man who became his co-founder. Another participant in the Redeemer Entrepreneurship Initiative introduced Meeks to Henry Tseng, a computer engineer and marketer. A thirty-minute coffee meet turned into two and half hours. Meeks realized that he had found someone as excited about Gigzolo as himself.
Also, Tseng’s skills in software writing and digital marketing seemed to complement Meeks’s skills in business and finance. “I’m more the tech guy and Nathan’s [Meeks] more the business guy, so I think the way we think has a very different dynamic,” Tseng said. Meeks said that those early conversations created the boundaries for a good partnership. “I just defer to his strengths, and he defers to mine,” he observed.
Meeks and Tseng also discovered a good personal chemistry. Tseng observed that “also personality wise, we joke around a lot, hash around with each other.” Still, they knew that a partnership is a little bit like a marriage. So, they soberly considered the deal.
Meeks thought that working with someone he had recently met would be a challenge, though he was optimistic. He thought that it was “not an overwhelming or insurmountable challenge.”
To preempt as many disagreements and resentments as possible, the two went through what Meeks jokingly calls a marriage counseling checklist. They talked for hours about why each one wanted to work on Gigzolo, why they should work with each other, if they would both be full-time, and so forth. The two were aligned by their faith in God and a sense of mission to give artists and artist-seekers.
Meeks sums up their common platform with a bit of business theology: “If two people or more are joined by the same mission to glorify God through whatever they do, to live in accordance to God’s will, in order to bring people to God to know and love God better, whether through scripture, worship or song or creativity, those are all aligned depending on where your heart is toward the Father.” Meeks and Tseng consider working for Gigzolo a way of worshipping God.
Meeks says God has directed them to “be very intentional” about who they involve, to find lawyers, designers and others who align with Gigzolo’s mission and care for the arts. But Meeks is quick to tell people that being “missionally-aligned” with Gigzolo does not require a faith in God.
“In no way are we restricting the art on the site or the people we employ or involve in the business to a particular faith,” Meeks said. “What we are very conscious of is bringing in people that care about the arts, about what we want to do as much as we care about it.”
Meeks and Tseng also want to foster a work culture that redeems “shalom,” a Hebrew word for “peace.” Fostering shalom in the workplace is one of EI’s goals. Shalom emphasizes the humanity of people and aligns the employees onto the same mission. The theory is that when such a business succeeds, the customers and employees succeed too. The pair already have seen their start-up as a way to spread shalom through other people.
“We are following up with our interns, getting them more involved in the business, caring about their career paths, and vouching for them for future jobs,” Tseng said.
On a day that A Journey visited with the entrepreneurs, Meeks said that one intern had called to give thanks for helping him get a job in the music industry.
The nascent Gigzolo management decided that entering the Redeemer Entrepreneurial Initiative contest for startups would help them improve their proposal and maybe win a little startup money. They competed against eleven other entrepreneurs from five ventures for three cash prizes up to $20,000 each or more. Each venture had six minutes to present their business plans to a panel of judges.
The pool of twenty-four contestants featured Mosaic, an after-school arts program affordable for impoverished kids, and Themba International, a clothing manufacturer that employs South African women with living wages.
Over eight years, the contest has received 278 entrants (a few entered twice). In a market in which eighty percent of startups fail within five years, Calvin Chin, the current director of the Entrepreneurial Initiative, says that the contest has been successful in picking winners. “So far, we have had twenty-two winners, four runner-ups. None have shut down.” Currently, the contest picks three winners each year and three runner-ups.
The social enterprises in the contest are broken down by three categories: for-profit; non-profit; and the arts. Gigzolo competed as a for-profit enterprise.
Gigzolo was selected as a finalist with another venture called Shairporter, a website for travelers to find and share rides to NYC airports.
The night of decision
On the way to Redeemer for the night of the competition, the entrepreneurs prayed together.
“We just want everyone in the audience to understand that your presence is here because you’re seeing a group of people joined together in purpose to renew what you’ve put in the world, to polish up the reflection you wanted to show through all types of ventures,” Meeks said.
Tseng nodded his agreement with Meeks and added, “We can’t forget what this is about,” Meeks said to Tseng. “It’s about increasing shalom.” The duo waited for their turn up to bat.
Two minutes to go, Meeks looked cool, calm and collected as he queued up his powerpoint presentation on Redeemer’s Macbook Pro. His wardrobe of Converse, jeans, a black vest and white-collared dress shirt seemed designed to reflect the mesh of the business and art that he had spent more than two years dreaming about.
Thirty seconds to go.
Meeks hopped on stage and grabbed the microphone.
He flashed the audience with a smile and, conscious of the decision-makers, looked for the judges. They would give the signal to begin. “Okay,” they said. And he started his presentation.
Packing an excited energy into his words, Meeks began, “Gigzolo is this company that seeks to glorify God by essentially redeeming the inefficiencies of the creative arts industry.”
He tried to convince the judges that the market for artists was very ripe for Gigzolo. He painted a picture of fields of artists turning up their faces in joy at Gigzolo.
“When we sat down with musicians that we knew and started telling them about what we’re doing, all the sudden you could see their eyes were brightening up,” Meeks said. The entrepreneur recounted how Vendetti inspired the project.
Venditti, who is now playing as a bugler at the United States Military Academy at West Point, says that the new enterprise could make the path to success for artists much easier than it was for him. “As far as I know, there are no businesses like Gigzolo,” Venditti said. “I believe Nathan [Meeks] may have found a way to revolutionize the live music industry.”
Meeks observed that after talking over his new idea with a jazz musician recently recent graduated from The New School, the artist made up a list of fifty young artists interested in signing up for Gigzolo. “So the multiplication factor is there,” Meeks told the audience.
Meeks believes Gigzolo can help artists set prices for their talent. When music students graduate, they typically “collapse” on the same opportunities, driving prices down.
On Gigzolo, Meeks explained to A Journey in an interview, artists would be able to price discriminate through a pricing algorithm, allowing their prices to change depending on who is looking at their profile, the type of service offered and the quality of the artist. Artists would input the prices they charge for different events and locations, and that information would be displayed when an artist-seeker inputs details for a particular event or service. A customer specifying a wedding in New York would view artist profiles with their approximate prices for working on a wedding in New York.
“This transparency is a huge change from the current bid-based framework most service marketplaces operate on,” Meeks said during his presentation.
For example, Gigmasters and Smartshoot, websites catering to entertainers and videographers, require customers to bid on artists before receiving price estimates.
“We offer event planners and churches something no one else provides, the concept of pricing,” Meeks told the judges. “The fact that you can go on our site and quickly and easily see the approximate price for an artist directly is practically unheard of in the creative world.”
Artist-seekers would also be able to watch high-quality videos of the artists’ performances thanks to a partnership with a videography firm that Meeks and Tseng met through EI.
After the contest presentation, the partners nervously awaited the results. They received a heads up to be prepared to present their Gigzolo to hundreds of social entrepreneurs that came from around the country to meet at Redeemer this last week-end. They had won the for-profit category. They will receive a grant of $25,000 and legal services and advice from professionals within the Entrepreneurial Initiative network. Now, Meeks and Tseng do the heavy lifting of raising more money and launching, planned sometime in the near future. Their vision is rising.
“We are creating a global marketplace for the creative arts industry where anyone has the power to find and hire creative people from all over the world,” Meeks said. “And we are glorifying God.”
With additional reporting by Tony Carnes