#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Brett Greene and Red Russak, Founders at New Tech Northwest, (Greater Seattle, WA)
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
What are your respective roles in the greater Seattle area startup ecosystem?
Brett Greene: I’m a community builder and connector. As the co-founder of New Tech Seattle and the founder of New Tech Northwest, I run the largest monthly events for technologists and entrepreneurs in Seattle, Bellevue, and Tacoma. We have over 30,000 members and over 600 monthly attendees at regular meetups. We bring everyone together under the philosophy of “what are you up to, and how can I help?” to make great things happen for each other and the community as a whole.
Red Russak: Since 2009, I’ve been an active startup leader in the greater Seattle area. I have achieved this by partnering with Brett to co-organize New Tech Seattle, as well as the Cannabis Tech Meetup for all the canna-crazed entrepreneurs ready to tap into this newly formed industry. Beyond event creation, I have actively managed Seattle’s largest startup event newsletter, Startup Digest, and have worked full-time at a startup called Apptentive for the last 5 years.
Wow! You both are busy. Can you tell us more about what New Tech Northwest does?
Greene: New Tech Northwest is an umbrella resource for the Pacific Northwest tech community for people to come out of their silos and contribute not only to each other, but also to our ecosystem. We bring smart, talented people interested in innovation together to have fun, learn about new or unique technology, and share resources to help each other take their next career steps and build companies. Many people find the fast, fun, ‘neighborhood block’ environment of our events to be refreshing and helpful.
Red: I agree. Broadly, Seattle is applauded for attracting external (both domestic and international) talent to our city, and New Tech opens the door and integrates those people into our greater community.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened for New Tech Northwest in the past few years?
Greene: We were one of 50 meetup groups to be invited to attend the first ever Tech Meetup at the White House in April of 2015. In addition to that, we also hit 30,000 members last year.
Red: And coming up, we’ve got our five year anniversary!
Seattle is a well-established tech city. How does this help make it an ideal place to start a startup?
Red: Seattle is home to some of the largest and most recognizable tech brands in the world (Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft, Costco, etc.), and those companies do a great job of attracting talent. Many of their former employees go on to start their own companies. Being a startup in Seattle means accessing the fruits of larger, well-established companies’ labor—from the talent they provide, to having the opportunity to collaborate and/or service those companies directly.
Greene: In addition to the large tech presence here, there are a lot of other factors that make Seattle an ideal place to build a startup. We have an environment of collaboration, a laid-back but focused attitude, connections to multi-national companies, angel groups, venture capitalists, over 300 tech meetups, and a local, world class university, not to mention over 55 colleges and universities across Washington state.
What is the biggest challenge you face in the greater Seattle area?
Greene: I’d say the biggest challenge is funding. We have a good angel and venture capital community, but there are not a lot of them as compared to cities like San Francisco and New York. We have great companies that report having to go to San Francisco for their initial funding after trying to go through Seattle channels first.
Red: While I can't speak for the entire community, I can say that freeway traffic has become somewhat of a problem. Unlike New York and San Francisco, we don't have a strong underground rail system to beat out traffic, and our roads aren't currently built to accommodate the new influx of people.
What unique resources does Seattle provide entrepreneurs that they can’t find in traditional tech hubs like New York or San Francisco?
Red: When comparing Seattle to New York, we find that our natural resources and overall access to nature and outdoor activities is a huge differentiator. When aiming for work-life balance, knowing that you can escape the city to the mountains in under 30 minutes is a huge deal. Another big perk is the cost of living. Seattle is a lot more affordable than New York or San Francisco—and our metro system is a lot younger and cleaner!
What are some of the inputs that have helped your ecosystem grow?
Red: When a local company is successful, it's important that the employees take their success and re-invest it back into the community. Whether it's a lot of money from an exit/IPO, or an experience they can share in the form of mentorship or talent, it's helpful to give back. In these ways, some of the larger tech companies in our community like Amazon and Microsoft have done a fantastic job of fueling our local ecosystem.
Greene: In terms of additional major players and inputs, I’d highlight meetups including New Tech Northwest, hackathons, former enterprise tech employees, Geekwire, Washington Technology Industry Association, University of Washington CSE department, Startup Hall/Co-Motion Labs at the University of Washington, Institute of Technology at University of Washington | Tacoma, local coworking spaces, Startup Haven, and Techstars.
Are there specific public policies that have enabled innovation or startup growth in your ecosystem?
Red: The city of Seattle purchased my company, StartupSeattle.com, in 2013 and they have turned it into what is now The Startup Seattle Initiative. This is a great example of our local government getting involved in the promotion of the startup ecosystem and fighting to improve the inclusiveness of the tech community.
Greene: Yes, that was definitely a huge win to have the city become so intimately engaged in and supportive of your work.
Have you had interactions with local or national policymakers?
Red: Through StartupSeattle.com, I have had the opportunity to work closely with the Mayor of Seattle and others at the local level, such as the city’s Office of Economic Development.
Greene: Beyond that, we’ve worked with policy leaders at the state and federal level too. At the Tech Meetup at the White House, Red and I talked with Megan Smith, the former CTO of the United States, and other government officials about how to build community and connect government and startups in various ways. We’ve also worked with the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) along with other community leaders who influence state policies. Part of WTIA’s mission is to represent the tech community on legislative issues and they have strong ongoing relationships with our state government officials.
What are your goals for the next year? The next 5 years?
Greene: My main goal is to listen to what our tech community needs and use that information to help our ecosystem to grow. I’d also like to continue our current growth of 500 new members to our community every month. For the next 5 years, I’ll be writing a book on community building and consulting with companies and organizations on how to create more meaningful relationships in their work environments.
Red: My goal for the next year is divided into 2 categories: Work & Life (and the delicate balance). For Life, I want to make sure my wife, child, and baby on the way are living a quality lifestyle here in Seattle. For Work, I want to continue playing an active role in leading the Seattle startup community, and at the same time, continue to make sure Apptentive (the startup I'm working for) is successful. In the next 5 years, my hope is to take that success and find more ways to invest, support, and refuel Seattle's startup ecosystem.
Are there some startups to watch coming out of the greater Seattle area?
Greene: There are so many great companies growing in our ecosystem, but to name a few:
City Bldr in Seattle is making huge strides after 3 pivots to help homeowners get the highest price in selling their homes and helping to build smarter cities.
Liftport, which is based in Tacoma, is building an elevator into space. In 2001, NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC) began researching the feasibility of a Space Elevator. In 2003 they published a report outlining exactly how one could be built, saying that indeed a Space Elevator was possible to build and there were many reasons to build one. LiftPort was founded in 2003 after that study as a spinoff from NIAC.
OfferUp from Bellevue is currently valued at over $1B. They’ve taken the Craigslist model and made it easier and more fun and it’s working. They’re now the biggest mobile marketplace for local buyers and sellers.
Red: I’d also add that if you're not yet following Apptentive, you should be. Apptentive is helping the world’s largest brands get feedback from their customers. It’s a fantastic company to work for and it may only be a matter of time before I personally have the opportunity of working with you (the reader), as well.
Finally, check out this video showcasing Brett and Red's work with New Tech Seattle: