Dubbed “Digital Nomads” by the Washington Post and the LA Times, Frank Gruber and Jen Consalvo are the definition of new economy executives. Throwing off the shackles of typical corporate culture, they opt to work anywhere with a wifi signal, be it an Adam’s Morgan coffee shop, a hotel lobby, the Bolt Bus to New York or even a rooftop pool.
These web entrepreneurs both previously worked at AOL in product strategy and development. Frank left AOL to focus full time on building Tech Cocktail into a full fledged media company while maintaining his popular personal tech blog Somewhat Frank. Jen left AOL in 2009 to work with Frank as COO and co-editor of Tech Cocktail and together they founded Shiny Heart Ventures which has produced Thankfulfor and Shiny Maine Lobster.
In between hosting their own events and speaking at others, WashingtonExec was able to catch up with Frank and Jen to get their thoughts on where their companies are going and what’s happening in the tech world:
WashingtonExec: TechCocktail has grown a lot over the past few years, where do you see it going in the next two years?
Frank - We have grown! What started as a simple community event in Chicago in 2006 and DC in 2007 has grown into a full fledged media company focused on tech innovation across the globe. It’s been amazing to witness the growth in brand awareness and traffic, etc. We want to keep that growth going and accelerate it – we’re growing our team of writers, focusing on building out the site making it more of a resource for entrepreneurs and people in tech, and expanding our footprint across the country in terms of events. We believe we can be a top brand in tech media, grow a brand that is loved and respected by fans and grow a fantastic team with a unique culture.
WashingtonExec: You are currently featuring 14 cities on your blog, what made you pick those and do you have any plans for expansion?
Jen - It’s an interesting mix – we started events and media coverage in some cities as a natural evolution based on our team locations and certain communities reaching out asking us to bring Tech Cocktail events and coverage to their neighborhood. Of course, some are very strategic because we want to reach those communities. We’ll definitely be expanding and have some exciting plans to do so. Despite the growing number of industry events out there, we’ve been able to provide a very special experience and opportunity via our combination of mixer/tech events and online media coverage – right now we have a list of requests from many “underserved” cities around the country (underserved in terms of their tech coverage) and we’re excited to work with them.
WashingtonExec: What kinds of people and companies do you expect to see at your DC Start-Up Mixology event in June?
Frank - Startup Mixology, this time in Washington, D.C., is a full day conference focusing on all the ingredients that go into starting and running a new venture. We have a fantastic line-up of speakers ranging from Steve Case (AOL, Revolution, Startup America) to Jill Stelfox (serial entrepreneur), Aaron Batalion (Co-founder, LivingSocial) and so many more. Our audience so far is a good mix of entrepreneurs and people in tech although I think the majority of them identify with the “entrepreneurial mindset” despite where they work. We’re also seeing students, designers, developers, marketers and investors – which is very representative of our other events (a true “cocktail” of tech people). We’re still taking applications for the startup mixer afterward and look forward to some exciting new startups to participate in the startup innovation showcase at the event.
WashingtonExec: Are there any DC area start-ups that you’re really excited about, besides TechCocktail of course!
Jen - Personally, I really like HelloWallet, which is focused on helping people make better financial decisions. Obviously LivingSocial is doing amazing things, as is OPOWER and Clearspring. I also think PopVox is really on to something. I’ve been super impressed with the young team behind CampusSplash… there are so many others too – I can’t list them all here!
Frank - Jen mentioned a lot of the companies I like, LivingSocial, ClearSpring, OPOWER, HelloWallet, PopVox and CampusSplash but there are others that we are keeping our eye on which include the more established companies like SB Nation, HealthCentral, SnappCloud and the earlier stage companies like Personal, Invincea, Brazen Careerist, Goodzer, WatchParty, YouEye, Groupflier and Spinnakr. There are a lot of startups in the D.C. area right now, which makes it an exciting time for us and any tech enthusiast.
WashingtonExec: On Tech Cocktail Glen Hellman’s The West Coast Deal post appeared pretty unflattering towards DC investors, what do you think about his take on the local investors? Do you think local innovators can realistically find local investment capital, or do you expect many will go West?
Frank - I think it’s important for Tech Cocktail to offer various opinions of what’s happening in the region. Some may say that is controversial but maybe this type of assessment by Glen Hellman, who’s been in the industry for a long time, will start a healthy conversation around the topic. In my opinion, it’s less about the money and more about creating a strong network to keep the startups moving along and moving towards success. I think its pretty obvious you can be successful anywhere you go and can find money too. It’s just that in certain areas of the country investors are more familiar with certain kinds of deals or companies and tend to invest in what they know. That makes sense to me, but might cause some startups and entrepreneurs to be discouraged. But the best entrepreneurs are persistent and do whatever they need to be successful.
WashingtonExec: I saw a Google HotPot ad on a bus the other day, and I thought “Poor Yelp!” How big of a competitor do you think HotPot will be for Yelp?
Jen - Like any Google (or Facebook) product, it definitely has the potential to crush any competitor, but it still remains to be seen. People are quirky and we never can totally predict what will take off. The fact that they are advertising does say something about their commitment though, so if I were Yelp, I’d be taking the threat seriously.
WashingtonExec: Are you still digital nomads? Is this trend growing? Is it realistic for companies of any size to manage their digital nomad employees or is it a luxury of a big company?
Jen - Yes, but not in the way some more extreme “nomads” are (we’re not traveling the country in an Airstream with a satellite on the top), but we do spend a good part of each month on the road which requires us to work from anywhere and everywhere (airports, hotel lobbies, coffee shops, guest offices, etc). As more people work for themselves and larger companies give employees more flexibility around their schedules, we see more and more of this. We already see it around us wherever we are. I don’t think it’s necessarily about the size of the company – I think it’s more about the type of business and the roles people play. Not everything lends itself to the same flexibility, but hopefully it’s a positive trend for many.
Frank - I’d say we are still digital nomads. We are on pace to top 100K miles traveled this year for Tech Cocktail. With that I’d say we’re on the road half of the year. As Jen mentioned we don’t have an Airstream though that would be pretty neat and is something to shoot for (we’d need a little sponsorship help on that one) but we do work from unique and beautiful places. For example, we did an off-site in Kauai last December to regroup after our 2010 tour. It was definitely refreshing to be able to work from anywhere (including paradise) and get just as much done as we would at home – but I have to say there is no place like home. In today’s day and age though, we still rely on telecommuting with team members in a number of different locations to stay in touch and all on the same page.
WashingtonExec: You two have another company, ShinyHeart Ventures which created Thankfulfor, can you tell us about Thankfulfor Jen?
Jen - Yes! Thankfulfor was born out of a desire to put something positive out in the world. I was a gratitude journaler and couldn’t find an online solution, so we quickly designed it and got out there. The response has been so positive that we’re still working on improving it and adding more features (slowly but surely!).
WashingtonExec: Why tell the world what you’re thankful for?
Jen - There’s actually a body of research that shows that people who write down what they are thankful for benefit in multiple ways – it helps improve their overall sense of well-being, their ability to reach goals, improve health and focus, etc. It’s actually quite amazing. And honestly, the letters we’ve received from individuals saying what a positive impact it’s had on their lives makes it all worth it. We added the public component because we felt like those positive vibes should be shared. Someone once called it like PostSecret, yet positive and inspiring and I think that really rings true. I love reading the “public stream of thanks” to see what people are posting. It’s slightly voyeuristic, but fills you with positive feelings and gets you thinking about what you’re grateful for in your own life. Thinking about the positive in your life, no matter how difficult it may be to find it, shifts your mindset and opens you to seeing more and feeling like you have more to give. Try it for at least 3 months and see what a difference it makes.
WashingtonExec: It would be nice to see more positive stuff floating around out there. Do you have an app for Thankfulfor?
Jen - Yes! We totally agree. That’s why we released the iPhone app last Thanksgiving- you can get it here: http://th4.us/iD3jYL We’re also getting ready to release the Android version and make a few updates.
WashingtonExec: What are you thankful for today?
Jen - I’m super thankful to be staying at my girlfriend’s house in San Diego while we’re here for our event, to have the flexibility and the amazing opportunities that Tech Cocktail provides us on a daily basis, the people I get to meet and for friends & family. And for the interview of course!
Frank - I’m thankful for living the dream. I am super passionate about entrepreneurship and tech innovation and Tech Cocktail offers such a great canvas to create amazing things from written interviews to actual video interviews to full day experiences, I am happy to be doing what we do. It’s a joy and I am fortunate to have such great people to work with as we continue to build an amazing organization that celebrates people’s achievements, while not forgetting to stop and smell the roses a little bit along the way.
You can meet these two on June 16th at Tech Cocktail’s Start-Up Mixology Conference in DC.