Café SURF: How A Startup Incubator Turned Tech Hangout In Less Than A Year

The Seattle startup scene just gets better by the day.  One of the coolest things to come out of Seattle this year has to be SURF Incubator, which opened in April and is now home to more than 40 startups.

Yes, there are other startup spots in Seattle (ones where I have thoroughly enjoyed spending my time), but the progress SURF has made in less than a year is staggering.  Over the last five months they have grown from just a glitter of an idea into a strong argument for the tech startup epicenter of Seattle.

Not a week goes by where something’s not happening in their massive office space.  They’ve thrown a raging launch party, hosted entrepreneurs from 23 countries, facilitated a number of members to join forces and become cofounders, hosted various meet-ups and weekly tech gatherings, and let’s not forget the frequent and tasty happy hours!

Community-supported space for digital startups

SURF is dedicated to advancing the ideas and passions of technology-focused entrepreneurs.

I believe the vision of SURF founder Seaton Gras and Director Neil Bergquist for a better startup experience is the main reason SURF is seeing such awesome adoption.  That, and the fact that paying an arm and a leg for office space is pretty much a non-starter for most early stage startups.

Entrepreneurs around the world can be more productive when they collaborate and have access to a broad network of business and technical resources. Working at home or in a coffee shop makes it difficult to gain exposure to fellow subject matter experts. It’s also hard to maintain momentum or gain any serious traction.  SURF can reduce the barriers of entry by providing flexible and affordable space with a robust community of resources. This reduces entrepreneurial risk and enables startups to operate incredibly lean.

Realizing people love hanging out at SURF, today they are announcing their latest concept, Cafe SURF.

Entrepreneurs who may not be ready to lease office space and typically work in low-cost locations such as coffee shops or local cafes now have another option.  SURF Incubator just created its own cafe inside the incubator’s 15,400 square foot facility in downtown Seattle and has opened it up to the public.

SURF is building the cafe to help integrate the startup ecosystem thereby helping entrepreneurs collaborate with one another and engage with the various support resources available at SURF Incubator.

Highlighting the technology and companies built within their walls.

The thing is, Café SURF isn’t your ordinary coffee shop. With the contributions of resident startups, Café SURF is Seattle’s first tech-focused, fully self-serviced coffee bar. Patrons pay just $50 per month and receive unlimited coffee, 100Mbps internet access, and designated work space.

Additionally, food and tea are available for purchase via Seconds, my company and a SURF resident startup, which deploys a text-based mobile payment system. Café SURF members can also provide feedback to the management through a text messaging comment service provided by another SURF resident; Talk to the Manager. Thanks to the various technologies from SURF residents such as Seconds and Talk to the Manager, Café SURF will be sustained as a fully self-serviced operation.  SURF has also partnered with local coffee roaster, Caffe Vita to help establish the cafe.

Café SURF members may attend open office hours with investors, mentors, and SURF Incubator’s corporate partners who provide counsel and startup services. This startup centric cafe is anticipated to become a central link for innovation and networking within Seattle’s technology community.

The technologies and services being integrated into Café SURF are outlined below:

Seconds – Deploying a text-based mobile payment system.

Talk to the Manager – Text message comments to the SURF Café management

Knotis – Online marketing, advertising, daily-deal promotion

Imaginative Design – Creative work

Equilitree – Logo and SURF Café page design

Best Practice – Space design and architecture planning

Caffe Vita – Coffee

What Any Startup Can Learn From Starbucks

Update:  This post was republished on

As I drove past the Starbucks headquarters today I glanced up at their big green logo.  Instantly I thought “man, what a iconic brand.”  I mean, when most people see a white coffee cup with green letters, they know it’s Starbucks Coffee.  Then I thought “how did they get there?”  Here’s what most forget: Starbucks was a startup at one time.   They had to start somewhere and work hard to establish this incredible brand.  Although I do not know Howard Schultz personally (someday I hope to), it’s obvious he understood a thing or two about creating an iconic brand.  Even if you do not wish to build a business to the size or likes of Starbucks, here are a few things to keep in mind as you grow your company.

Headstrong Founder

Howard Schultz is one of those entrepreneurs you read about in history (or Amazon) books.  He grew up in Brooklyn.  He was the first person in his family to go to college.  He started as a salesman selling Xerox equipment.  Interestingly, before he founded “his Starbucks’ he joined the a small coffee company named Starbucks.  Then after differences in vision he left to start his own coffee company, and as fate would have it he ended up buying the original company’s assets and ultimately named his company Starbucks.  The vision in question?  Changing the way coffee was enjoyed here in The States.  That is no small task and probably why the original Starbucks owners wanted no part in it.  You better believe he encountered and fought through more than a few obstacles along the way.  I will not list them here, but I would recommend reading his book Pour your Heart into it – it’s good.

Founders of startups need to, like Schultz, be headstrong.  It isn’t always going to be fun and roses.  In fact, based on your odds it’s down right impossible for you to take your nascent idea and build a fledgling company around it.   My opinion is most founders quit before they even get started.  Maybe you need to seek out more initial customer feedback?  Maybe you need keep trimming the fat to find your MVP (minimum viable product).  I don’t know.  But if Howard Schultz was sitting across the table from you right now, here’s what I think he would say:

You must be headstrong in your passion, desire, focus, product, marketing, communications, leadership, and recruiting.  In all those things, be headstrong and dead set on doing what-ever-it-takes to make your vision come true.  Anything less will be your company’s demise.

larger Purpose

Early on Starbucks set out on a journey with a larger purpose in mind.  Schultz realized very quickly the coffee industry, although a relatively large market in the US at that time, had become stale.  People were mostly consuming coffee in their home from a tin can.  Schultz knew they could take something familiar and transform it into something altogether new.  They wanted to create a third place.  Not the home.  Not the office.  But a third place.  Somewhere you could go to hang out, drink coffee, talk with a friend, have a business meeting or read a good book.

It was there, at this third place, they figured people would come to be a part of the community.  And drink coffee.  They made this purpose (the place) bigger than their product (coffee).  And it worked to the tune of a $27b market cap.  Go ahead, think about our world without coffee shops.  I am writing from one right now, and it’s all do to Starbucks.  Thank you Howard.

A startup – no matter their industry – needs to find their greater purpose.  “Why on earth are people going to use your application over the millions of other things to play with at this moment?” You must be able to make it clear and concise why their life will be better when they use your product.  I believe this comes together when the overall purpose of your product or service is greater than just making money (for you).   I can’t tell you what your purpose should be; it’s your job to find it.  I feel so strongly about this that if you can’t state your purpose in one sentence, I would recommend finding something else to do.  Because, if you can’t clearly state the purpose of your business how do you expect others to figure it out?

Always Get better

We all know the story, there’s a Starbucks on every corner.  With more than 15,000 stores in approximately 55 countries, it’s fair to say Starbucks won the game.  For a while there I think the executives were also saying the same words behind closed doors.  As the economy collapsed and things got tight, Howard has some decisions to make.  He closed some stores as well as doubled down on their core competencies.  He understood the notion that regardless of what you have done up to this point you need to always get better.  Yes, Starbucks was a successful corporation.  But if not careful, successful corporations are susceptible to failure due to their own hubris.  Howard nipped this in the bud and brought back the idea of continual improvement.

This doesn’t just happen to large corporations.  It’s all relative you know.  To be successful, startups need to continually learn new things and aim to get better as time goes on.  Launching a product and seeing a few million downloads is only the starting line.  What happens after people use your product once?  Ten times?  Two years? You need to get better.  Better analytics to study usage patterns.  Better customer service.  Better executives.  Better management processes.  I am sure there a lot more things to get better at, but whatever it is… just get better.

This is what I thought as I drove by the Starbucks headquarters today.  Hope it helps.