There are now 61,000 members of the Silicon Beach Young Professionals organization and Grid110 is building a massive tech hub in downtown LA (DTLA). But can any of them code? Or is it just about making money and marketing products these days?
It used to be a badge of honor that you pored over manuals to learn a new programming language. Before YouTube instruction videos, hackathons, and intensive courses came on the scene, grubby back copies of computing zines and early internet bulletin boards parceled out hard-won knowledge.
Did the soul of digital culture die when it washed up on the beaches of Southern California? Or does the rise of Silicon Beach herald a bright new future where anyone with a good idea and enough drive to see it through can triumph? Miki Reynolds, Executive Director of Grid110 chooses door number two, and explained why in a recent phone conversation.
Miki, what was your first digital experience?
My first experience in digital media was logging into AOL via 14.4 kbps and my brain exploding at the access to this new world wide web concept.
What was your first digital gig?
I had a few marketing internships in college that introduced me to digital media in a professional capacity. The first was as a Campus Ambassador for CDNOW, an online retailer for music. It was an interesting time to promote paying for music (and having to wait for it to be delivered), as Napster had just been introduced and taken over the college campus music scene. The second internship was for an online advertising agency, where I primarily helped seed content on message boards/forums to promote video-on-demand releases for Universal Pictures.
When did you first get paid to participate in the burgeoning digital revolution?
My first paid experience was working hands on with a tech team when I was at the Hollywood studio MGM. While managing our email newsletter campaigns, I taught myself basic HTML and CSS to allow myself to be more self-reliant and less reliant on the bandwidth of our production resources. I then worked on the digital team at 20th Century Fox.
What brought you to what is known now as Silicon Beach?
While I’ve worked in tech for most of my professional career in LA, I didn’t really feel like I was part of the burgeoning “Silicon Beach” startup scene until I joined General Assembly. As someone who lives/works in Downtown LA, I’m also a bit resistant of claiming that moniker as I don’t feel it fully and accurately captures the entire LA tech ecosystem.
Good point. How did you end up in LA then?
I came south from the Bay Area, where I grew up, to go to University of California, Los Angeles and never left.
What do you see as your primary function at Grid110?
Grid110’s focus is to help define clearer pathways for successful entrepreneurship and activate the community in Downtown LA. When Grid110 came onto the scene in 2014, office space was one of the biggest hurdles. Entrepreneurs were having a hard time finding appropriate office space in Silicon Beach, while DTLA ran perennial commercial space vacancies of over 20 percent. Downtown LA now hosts a myriad of co-working and office spaces, accommodating teams from one to 50 plus.
Grid110 had an early focus on fashion startups, right?
Yes, but once we’d learned about the critical needs of early stage startups we wanted to scale the program to a broader market and our current programming is open to any business vertical. We’ve also launched a second program aimed at idea-to-prototype founders who are at the early stages of their entrepreneurial journey.
With a refreshingly diverse bunch of entrepreneurs, judging from the happy graduation day picture on Instagram. Why did you pick DTLA for Grid110 rather than a beach community?
I really like a city center. When I was looking for my next career opportunity I started to explore my physical neighborhood and found I had a hard time tapping into a community to find my people. Geography plays a factor in the fragmentation of the LA startup community, so we chose to focus our efforts on our own neighborhood because we saw its potential.
You seem to be tight with City Hall. (In December, Mayor Garcetti honored Miki as one of six highly achieving Angelenos.)
Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City of LA are incredibly supportive of the growth of entrepreneurship and the tech ecosystem here in LA. The mayor’s office has been a partner of Grid110 since our creation in 2015.
Do people still need to know how to code to be successful in digital/tech startups today?
No, I don’t believe you need to code in order to be successful in digital/tech today. Coding is one aspect of a successful tech company, but there are many pathways to being successful in this industry.
So as long as the founders have an innate understanding of tech—and how to bullsh*t detect a chancer—they’ll do OK?
Some of the smartest founders I’ve met come from a non-tech background, but are able to incorporate tech into the execution of their idea through a technical co-founder, dev shop, freelancer, or existing platform.
If someone does want to enter the industry on the technical side, which languages do you think are important now?
Aside from mayoral support, inward investment (and the clement climate), what do you attribute the rise of tech in LA to?
Blockchain technology has exploded over the past few years and the industry is looking to LA to fuel demand. As recreational cannabis got legalized, LA is primed to see growth in that area as well. LA has a large number of media/entertainment companies, which I think is the primary contributing driver to the tech growth here, and is historically the top seed funded category. TechFair LA, LA’s largest technology hiring event, saw 11,000-plus attendees in its first year and is gearing up for its second event on March 8. There’s a lot of energy in LA right now and we curate an ongoing list of tech/creative/startup focused events.
When a startup founder comes to see you, what are you looking for in how she/he talks about their business, vision, and technology background?
Any successes you can share from Grid110’s startup cohorts to date?
Vanessa Stofenmacher launched Vrai & Oro, a direct-to-consumer online fine jewelry store without the traditional markups, in 2014, and bootstrapped it with just $8,000. We selected it for Grid110’s first cohort in 2015, and, a year later it reached $3 million in annual revenues and did a successful exit, being acquired by Diamond Foundry.
Then there’s CONVRG, co-founded in early 2017 by Audrey Wu and Liz Snower, an end-to-end AI chatbot and voice experience development company helping brands and retailers achieve business goals via automated conversations that feel personal. We selected the company for Grid110’s third cohort in the fall and, since then, it has closed deals with Proactive, Sephora, and The Grammys to power their chat/voice experiences, soaring to a six-figure revenue stream already.
What’s coming up next for Grid110?
We will be at SXSW if anyone wants to connect! Then we’ll open applications for the summer cohort of Idea to Prototype (I2P) in early April after our two-day startup bootcamp at the end of March.
PCMag has sent me far and wide in the past few years, looking beyond the coasts for tech tales in Denver, CO, Huntsville, AL; Austin, TX; Augusta, GA; St. Louis, MI; Los Alamos, NM, Salt Lake City, UT, and, outside the US: to Berlin and Dublin, Ireland. If you could work anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I often joke that my ideal retirement situation is a hut on a beach with Wi-Fi access so an overwater bungalow in the Maldives would be my jam. I love being near the ocean, but still accessible to the digital world. I’m also curious to gain a different perspective and learn from other tech/creative communities like Toronto, Dubai, Seoul, Singapore, Amsterdam, Berlin (as well as emerging communities like Detroit). Hopefully I’ll see the launch of one of Elon Musk’s rapid transportation services in my lifetime to make those places more accessible.
Get a move on, Elon.
You said it. [Laughs]