New York’s New General Assembly Incubator Attracts Entrepreneurs With Camaraderie, Classes, and a College Feel

Brad Hargreaves, co-founder of New York City’s newest tech incubator, was just 19 years old when he learned some bitter lessons about starting companies. He was the chief operating officer of GXStudios, one of the first players in online social gaming. The venture-backed company’s flagship product was GoCrossCampus, a multiplayer, rivalry-themed game played by college kids across the country. But there was a problem.

“We could not figure out how to make money,” says Hargreaves, now 24. GXStudios ultimately shut down.

Now Hargreaves is passing his wisdom to more than 30 companies headquartered at General Assembly, a new incubator that opened in January in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. General Assembly’s 20,000 square-foot space is designed like a miniature university, presided over by Hargreaves and fellow founders Adam Pritzker, Jake Schwartz, and Matthew Brimer.

Unlike the tech incubators of the early 2000s, this one is not backed by any venture capitalists. The funding comes from organizations like Skype, Ideo, Silicon Valley Bank, and the New York City Economic Development Corp. (NYCEDC) General Assembly, then, is more about educating and nurturing entrepreneurs and less about spewing out companies ill-suited for primetime.

From left: Hargreaves, Pritzker, Brimer, Schwartz

That makes General Assembly fundamentally different than the incubators of a decade ago, Hargreaves says. “The fact that we aren’t venture backed lends itself to an open environment,” he says. “It allows people to be more forthright about issues and to ask the community for help.”

As Pritzker, 26, leads a walking tour of the freshly decorated space, he emphasizes its educational mission. General Assembly holds about two classes per day, in topics ranging from HTML to online advertising to “How to Pitch Your Startup to Big Media.” Some are taught in small seminar rooms, others in bigger classrooms. One classroom has a giant sliding door that doubles as a chalkboard. “We have different typologies for teaching,” Pritzker says.

More informal networking events might be held in the incubator’s main entryway, where huge, black, modular couches can be quickly cleared out to open up more space.

General Assembly has just unveiled a new classification system for its courses. Each one has a label—Technology, Design, or Business—so entrepreneurs can design a curriculum that fits their needs. The classes are also tagged with numbers, ranging from 100 for easy to 900 for advanced. So “A Practical Introduction to Javascript” is labeled “Tech 463,” while “An Online Advertising Primer” is “Business 253.”

General Assembly’s founders have been working hard to attract teachers who bring real-world experience to the table. Recent instructors include Matt Cooke, CEO of Sandcastle, and Mike Potter, co-founder of Disrupto. “Someone who wants to be a CEO will be taught by someone who has been a CEO,” Hargreaves says.

And General Assembly differs from other incubators in that it offers three membership choices. Startup execs can apply to get workstations for $500 a month. Or, for $300 a month, they can buy a “communal membership,” which gives them full access to classes and to the public spaces at the office, where they can work on their new ventures from their laptops. Entrepreneurs from across the city can also elect to just take the classes—which are open to the public—a la carte.

General Assembly’s founders are young, but seasoned in entrepreneurship. Pritzker worked for the Earth Institute at Columbia University, where he was responsible for putting together syndicates of experts and investors to make product prototypes. Schwartz, 32, is a financial analyst who most recently worked for Associated Partners, a tech-focused private equity firm co-funded by Liberty Media and Goldman Sachs. And Brimer, 24, founded several software companies before joining the incubator’s team.

Hargreaves says the idea for General Assembly came from a hunch the founders all shared. “We saw a lot in terms of really interesting entrepreneurial stuff happening in New York,” he says. “There were seasoned entrepreneurs starting their third, fourth, fifth ventures. But there was no center for them. There was no education for them.”

The big-named backers gave General Assembly some credibility out of the gate, but it was the city’s support that provided the resources they needed to fulfill their mission. At the time, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was heavily promoting tech as one of the industries that’s vital to the city’s future growth. So the NYCEDC gave General Assembly a $200,000 grant for programming.

“They’re branding the city as a center for innovation and entrepreneurship,” Hargreaves says. “Our mission spoke to what the city was looking to accomplish. “

General Assembly is only in its third month, but the incubator has already attracted nearly 100 entrepreneurs, all drawn to the site’s community-like feel. Kimberly Skelton, co-founder of the social shopping site WingTipIt, says her company joined General Assembly’s communal section after the lease on the office space they won in a business plan competition ran out in December. “Our other office was a real office, with doors that close,” she says.” But we prefer this. It’s great to bounce ideas off other people. We don’t have to make decisions in a vacuum.”

General Assembly’s classes are about 80 percent full, and its top membership tier is completely stacked with companies the founders handpicked for the incubator. “Our main concern is getting people who will come in here and add to the community,” Pritzker says.

As Pritzker and Hargreaves stop to reflect on their whirlwhind launch—plopping down in one of many upholstered, high-backed “pods” that General Assembly entrepreneurs use for meetings and occasional naps—they grow more animated as they describe the incubator’s residents.

The startups include Yipit, a company that filters group-buying deals according to users’ preferences, and VHX, a site where people will be able to collect, watch and share their favorite videos. General Assembly is also home to Neverware, which developed an inexpensive way to network old computers in school districts and other cash-strapped institutions.

“It’s so brilliant,” says Pritzker. “You can take any old computer and run new software on it.”

Adds Hargreaves, “They’ve gotten some great traction.”

Unlike Dogpatch Labs, another new incubator in New York, General Assembly doesn’t kick companies out after six months. Instead, the founders decided to limit a company’s stay in the incubator by measuring its growth. “We decided to limit it by employees, “Pritzker says. “When you get to 14, it’s time to move out.”

David Lifson, founder of Postling, came to General Assembly after he exhausted his six months at Dogpatch. His company, which is developing tools to help small businesses manage their social-media accounts, now occupies six desks at General Assembly. “If I get to 12, it will be time to move out,” Lifson says. In the meantime, he says, “I love that I can sit back-to-back with one of the founders of Yipit and we can talk blocking and tackling of startups. We can share all this tribal knowledge.”

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