What It’s Like Inside SURF Incubator After A “Wild And Unforgettable” Year
It’s 4:45pm on a cold and wet Thursday afternoon in downtown Seattle. Perplexed and a bit agitated as I walk down 2nd Avenue , I find myself rushing back to the office like I’m late for an important meeting. Being February – still cold and rainy in Seattle – it’s not a good day to be trekking back across a PNW city. In fact, it’s blistering cold. You know those days where it’s a wind-whipping-your-face type of evening, making your walk that much worse. A better idea would be to stop and wait inside a warm building for a cab or grab an Uber.
But I don’t care! It’s happy hour at 5pm at SURF and I ain’t missin’ out!
Over the past few weeks, I have been reflecting on my last 12 months and I cannot talk about the year without mentioning SURF. SURF Incubator opened their first full time location in Seattle almost a year ago and Seconds had the opportunity to be a tenant pretty much from the day they officially opened.
I wanted to take a moment and review the last year with SURF Incubator, what they are about and what they are looking to do next, because I believe it’s one of the best things to happen to Seattle’s tech scene in quite a while and you should probably hear it right from the source.
To begin with I must admit I wouldn’t be here today – not only writing this but as a startup – if it weren’t for SURF Incubator and the support of the two individuals running the show, Seaton Gras and Neil Bergquist. If only to speak for the larger group, I feel the support, encouragement and the SURF community is truly a blessing for an early stage startup still trying to find its way.
Seconds could easily be the prototypical startup Seaton loosely refers to when he describes SURF and its story of survival, evolution and filling a need for early stage startups.
According the Seaton:
“For three years, prior to being in the Exchange Building, I ran SURF Incubator at numerous locations – including Regus, friends’ offices, FiberCloud, restaurants, coffee shops and even my condo’s meeting room. It was a wonderful time to experiment with different ‘products’ from consulting and meetings to networking and roundtable discussions.”
“The sad thing was that I did not have enough square footage to offer any long-term working space for my members. Even so, the membership in my two Meetup groups continued to grow and was more than 1,000 strong when I began looking in earnest for a permanent large space to call home and fulfill the bigger vision that I had for SURF Incubator.”
For those who aren’t familiar with SURF, it provides office space for tech-oriented startups so they don’t have to work out of their homes or in random coffee shops around Seattle. They host events, organize meetups, partner with local service providers (legal, recruiting, etc…) and help young fledging startups with the nuances of getting out of the gate on the right foot.
Realizing SURF needed a permanent home, Seaton secured office space in the Exchange building in Downtown Seattle and officially opened their doors in April 2012. “Now, with the new location at the Exchange Building with more than 15,000 square feet, we have been able to create and/or host some amazing events. Having a permanent location has really helped SURF Incubator do much more. We have also been able to host some wonderful happy hour events as well as some fantastic networking parties and meetups.”
Four years into their journey and almost a year into their permanent residence (and seeing it first hand) I can say Seaton and Neil have pulled it off. I am quite impressed and it’s only the beginning. Walk down to any coffee shop or talk to entrepreneurs at various events and their ears perk up when you mention you are a SURF startup. It is obvious SURF has exceeded expectations of both their tenants as well as the greater Seattle startup community.
But more waves are forming on the horizon.
SURF just announced their biggest deal to date, and in my opinion have just set in motion a chain of events no one inside SURF could have predicted. The newly announced B2B accelerator 9Mile Labs will be taking residence inside SURF and holding their 3-month program in SURF’s office space.
This is great news and you can literally feel the change taking hold inside SURF. It’s like we just dipped down on the rollercoaster and are now speeding up the other side.
According to Gras, 9Mile Labs was attractive for a few major reasons. First, they are unique because they are focusing on Business-to-Business startups and are offering follow-on support. “Their program was of particular interest to me because they offer more than just a 3-month program. Three months, in my opinion, is not enough time to really gain adequate traction and in the B2B space, this is even more of an issue. So, I think it is wonderful that 9Mile Labs is looking at 3-months to Demo Day, followed by 3 months of continued support.”
And although 9Mile Labs is a newly formed accelerator, they have already gathered amazing traction and a strong board of mentors. The long list of high-quality mentors is very impressive and will positively impact 9Mile startups as well as the larger SURF community. “These mentors offer a vast amount of experience and since experience can make all the difference for a startup, it’s a great opportunity for the chosen group of 9 startups,” Gras added.
Very true: with experienced professionals by your side startup founders are much less likely to make fatal mistakes.
The 9Mile Labs deal cannot be understated. For a fairly new incubator space still in its infancy, SURF just further solidified its place in the larger Seattle tech ecosystem. In addition, by partnering with an “accelerator” program SURF now expands the opportunities it can offer early-stage entrepreneurs.
Every day is unique at SURF. With the diverse companies inviting friends, families, customers and advisers to take a tour, we have always a different mix of people. The companies run the full gambit from medical and educational to gaming and cloud services (and payments!) and any given day you will find yourself in a conversation with someone who can teach you about a new industry or business model.
In addition to local visitors, people from more than 30 countries have stopped by for a tour.
This is especially interesting for Seaton, since he spent so many years traveling around the world. “For me, it is such a pleasure to get to meet these wonderful entrepreneurs, get to learn about their plans and see their vision unfold. And sometimes, I get to ‘lend a hand’ by sharing my own perspective, which was learned the hard way … my own struggles with building my businesses,” said Seaton.
According to Neil Bergquist, the year has been “Wild, it’s nothing what I expected but has become everything I wanted it to be!” He also added it has been a huge learning experience for not only him but also the entire SURF management team.
To say the last 12 months have been wild is an understatement. My take is it’s quite possibly the best place to plant yourself as an early-stage founder in Seattle looking to soak up startup knowledge and wisdom. You could meet possible cofounders like I did, engage in numerous happy hours and gatherings, learn from various service professionals and continuously meet interesting people. All those are important, especially when you are just getting out of the gate.
“During the last 12-months, we have held about 200 events. Topics covered included two main areas: Business Development and Programming. For the business development, we had professionals present detailed informative sessions on marketing, corporate formation, intellectual property, employment issues, graphic art, go-to-market strategy and much more. For the Programming side, we held meetings where programming languages were discussed and demonstrated. For example, Ruby on Rails, PHP, MySql, Scala, Android, HTML5, XCode and Windows8.”
So what’s next for SURF?
Neil mentioned expansion is on the horizon but the need to operationalize (which comes with growth) is paramount. They will soon be adding a complex educational program for members – both in programming and business development. Seaton strongly believes programmers need to constantly learn about the new features of their particular programming language and hopes the education can be supported by a grant. “These languages are very dynamic with new features added almost every day. Without vigilant study, a programmer may actually go backwards and may ultimately ship an obsolete project. I know this … because it has happened to me.”
He’s totally right. No matter how seasoned an entrepreneur may be there is always a need to learn the latest perspectives. For example, Twitter and other social media tools have forever changed the way businesses promote their products, services and even their existence. We all, regardless of age or experience, need continual education on how to leverage the latest technical advancements.
I can tell you 12 months ago I had no idea I would be sitting here thanking these two individuals for not only opening their doors for me and my team but changing the Seattle startup landscape in the process. It’s amazing what they have accomplished in such a short period of time and I can only imagine what this next year will bring.
I know one thing for sure – those typical “two guys in a coffee shop”, even though they are working dutifully, are definitely making a mistake.