What It’s Like Inside SURF Incubator After A “Wild And Unforgettable” Year

Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 6.52.04 PMIt’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.

Maui Huge Wave

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.

It Just Got Even Easier To Find Talent At SURF Incubator

logo_104x60One of the most common challenges for early stage startups is finding talented and willing people to join your startup.   In the early stages, finding the right developer can be the difference between success and failure for a young startup.

Today, SURF Incubator announced how they are addressing the recruiting challenges of its tenant companies by partnering with local recruiting agency Capability IT.  With an intellectual partner like Capability IT, startup entrepreneurs are empowered with intellectual resources and a robust network to find culturally and technically capable employees, enabling them to more quickly secure talent and get back to work.

Although the Puget Sound region has proved itself to be home to a world-class high-tech workforce over the last few years, with several companies either opening Seattle engineering offices or expanding their engineering departments, it still remains a tough hiring environment for early stage startups.  Especially since the competition can promise an immediately rewarding salary with large signing bonuses, full benefits and various amenities like a famous executive chef at Google.  But through a partnership with Capability IT, SURF startups will receive greater access to a network of developers and potential growth opportunities, making their lives a bit more pleasant in the process.

Over the past year, Capability IT has made solid traction in the tech community, by adding superior talent to a number of Seattle based startups.  Not only does Capability IT provide more access to developers, they can also help startup entrepreneurs identify and secure contract assignments. It is quite common for entrepreneurs to take on technical consulting projects while their startup gains traction, enabling entrepreneurs better cash flow and sometimes even finance their startup. Because Capability IT works with companies ranging from early-stage startups to publicly traded companies, they are able to efficiently source opportunities for fledging entrepreneurs.

Being a SURF tenant startup founder myself, I can validate how important this move is for all the startups within the SURF Incubator community.  During the early prefunding stage of a startup, founders have little more than their dream to pitch to prospective early talent.   We also have limited time and energy to somehow go and find this talent., which requires scouring online profile databases, attending local meetups and events, searching through our own networks or simply asking around.

At times those can work, but where I see Capability IT really helping is farther up the funnel, providing founders with a larger pool of applicants/names to sort through.  Even though we might still be looking for a needle in a haystack, Capability IT will give early stage startups more haystacks to look through and in the end helping us find better talent to join our teams.  In this way, Capability IT’s partnership with SURF Incubator is just one part of SURF’s mission to be a community-supported space for digital startups.

SURF will be celebrating this announcement with a happy hour event, including beer and wine as well as a few startup pitches from resident companies.  Everyone is welcome to attend, if you are interested – RSVP here.

Launch Event – When & Where

Thursday, January 24th, 2013 from 5:00 – 8:00pm PST

Exchange Building – 821 2nd Ave, Suite 800

5:00 – 6:00pm          Hosted wine and beer

6:00 – 6:15pm          Partnership announcement

6:15 – 7:00pm          Startup demos

7:00 – 8:00pm          Entrepreneur conversations


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

The Proper Way Give An Acceptance Speech By SURF Incubator Pitch Contest Winner

What a great launch party SURF Incubator had last week.  More than 300 people attended the event.  It was awesome.  We hung out.  We drank.  We socialized and networked.  We even had a pitch competition, where 10 chosen founders from SURF startups had 90 seconds to explain their concept to the crowd.

The attendees voted after everyone was done.

And we won!  Seconds wins 2 tickets to fly down to San Francisco to attend the DEMO conference in Oct.

Here’s a video of my acceptance speech, where I am not totally sure at the moment I knew exactly what to say…  but deflecting my own praise and edifying SURF seemed to be what instantly came to mind.  When in doubt, edify the organizer.

(my portion starts about 4:30 into the video)

Below are some images from the event and to find more pictures: bit.ly/SURFphotos

waiting to pitch

giving the pitch

shaking hands with Seaton Gras, founder of SURF 

giving acceptance speech

SURF Incubator Launch Party Happening Friday June 22nd. And It’s Gonna ROCK!

The unofficial mantra at SURF is: Get inspired. Explore ideas. Start companies.   It’s crazy how you feel it the moment you walk through the doors.  Although SURF Incubator opened its doors at the end of April, they were busy accepting startups and inviting them to join the party even before the April 30th opening.

What once was a quite space with more empty desks than people walking around has now turned into a bustling center for early founders and tech startups.  Somehow I feel a lot more at home in SURF than I ever have at coffee shops or other temporary offices around Seattle.  More than 25 startups have joined the team and remaining spaces are quickly being claimed by others.  In fact, there is so much interest they doubled the tenant base over the last 2 months and Neil Bergquist believes “with about 150,000 square feet of vacant space in this building there’s no reason why we can’t take all this space.”

It’s now time to have a launch party and make the launch official.

The night is dedicated to Seattle’s startup community and specifically to (us) entrepreneurs who are taking the risks necessary to advance our vibrant ecosystem.  It’s about time we were honored!  They expect quite a few in attendance and in an effort to accommodate SURF took an additional 2,000 square feet in the building for the launch party and startup demo.

From the sound of it – it’s gonna ROCK.

The event will feature a Startup Demo Competition, successful entrepreneurs, and the investors and companies who support them. Attendees will also have the opportunity to network with the SURF community, which includes resident startups, entrepreneurs, mentors, and sponsors. A few SURF resident startups will be selected to give a three-minute demo presentation in front of local media and hundreds of attendees. The crowd will choose the best pitch via a text-voting system and the winning team will be featured in GeekWire and flown to Silicon Valley for DEMO Fall 2012.

Register for the Launch Party.


5:00 – 7:00 Meet the startups, Tours, Brewery and Winery exhibit, Hors d’oeuvres
6:00 – 6:30 Startup Demo
7:00 – 7:30 Keynote and program
7:30 – 9:00 Network, Brainstorm, Celebrate

Current SURF Startup Tenants







SURF Incubator Already Barrelling With Numerous Startups and Entrepreneurs

As you might have heard, Seconds is one of the first tenants to stake claim on high value territory in Seattle’s newest tech hub SURF Incubator.  They officially opened their doors April 30th but already we are seeing some solid action emerging from within.   We’ve only been in there a few weeks, but here’s some highlights from a few early  SURF tenants I was able to get some time with in between  the craziness of startup life.

Knotis, which helps you discover great deals from businesses you’ll love, is one of the initial launch tenants.  CEO McLean Reiter says he chose SURF because “their mission is to help startups launch as quickly as possible so they can get out on their own, which is pretty much every statups’ goal.”

For background, knotis is reviving the concept of the digital coupon by taking the marketing strategy originated by Asa Candler with Coca-Cola and infusing it with 21st century tools. They are calling this new take on coupons an Online Social Incentive and merchants can now easily create as many as they wish at the low monthly cost (as opposed to the Groupon style of massive revenue share which can be detrimental to businesses). Merchants can share these self-generated OSI’s in online banner ads or through their social media channels like Facebook and twitter.

Knotis is doing business differently and intelligently by charging its merchants a low, flat-rate of $14 per month, and if the merchant doesn’t make a sale during the month, they are not even charged! “That’s just company culture,” says 28 year old founder, McLean Reiter. “We want to help local businesses thrive!”

Asked about why he favors SURF, McLean adds “My favorite thing so far is that everyone is there for the same reason – to succeed – and other entrepreneurs and developers, although busy, are still willing to help other teams achieve success.”

Another early startup is Shopobot, a better search engine for shopping. For example, stores are constantly changing their prices (even day to day), and they make it clear when it’s the right time to buy – which can save people a lot of money. At their heart they’re an analytics company, and  using their data and UI to give people an edge when shopping online.

According to one of the founders Dave Matthews, they went through more of an accelerator in San Francisco before coming back up to Seattle.  “When we started Shopobot we went through an incubator in San Francisco called AngelPad, which was super helpful for doing the demoday / launch / fundraising push. It was really hands-on with all the companies in the program moving on the same schedule towards launch. Now that we’re past that phase, SURF is a great spot for us to focus on our product and growth – while getting the benefits that come from a shared space.”

He notes they wanted to work in a shared space for the unexpected conversations, and meeting other people working on startups. “SURF has the right balance for us of lots of meetups and events and other teams working here, but we still get our private area to focus as a team.”

Lastly is Pandamonium Games, who just announced a Kickstarter project called The End Saga: Revival.   In short, it’s a 90’s style mobile role-playing game, bottling the best of that era and sticking it into a beautiful mobile gaming experience. Using the art of nexxing to build new items, while you amass a team of fighters, magicians or rogues to take out the evil Ismata.    (You should go check it out on Kickstarter!)

Jimmy Gambier from Pandamonium Games says “We chose SURF because we’re not big enough to have a dedicated office space and yet meeting in coffee shops was getting old. I’d also visited places in the Valley like Dogpatch Labs were you can feel the sense of community in the air. We wanted a place where we could bond with like minded people and companies.”

Digging a little deeper on why they chose the Kickstarter/crowd-funding route , Gambier said they went with Kickstarter because they wanted to go directly to the community versus spending their precious time pitching to investors. “We would rather spend the next 6 months heads down on our product instead of raising money.”  I can attest to that!

Gambier believes Kickstarter is the next evolution in investment, as you can receive instant market validation which helps you determine if you are heading in the right direction.  Interestingly, he sees a side benefit from crowd funding platforms.  “Building a fanbase is also crucial for the kind of game we’re working on. We’re catering to a hardcore gamer audience and we thought building that user base early would be wise.”

Through his words it’s obvious Jimmy couldn’t resist the entrepreneurial pull and is the exact person SURF and other incubators need to help cultivate a great community of founders.  “I had been involved in startups in the past and had an unshakeable desire to start a gaming company. It almost seems like there wasn’t anything else worth doing. The art of building a fun game has fascinated me for years and continues to as I learn more about the craft.”

If you are like me, you’re probably not familiar with Pandamonium Games, a scrappy Seattle based games startup who loves RPGs. They’ve made a couple of social games before, but this is their most ambitious game to date. The team has worked at places such as Nintendo, Wizards of the Coast, Amazon and a large MMO company.

Here’s Jimmy’s take on their quick history:

“For the past two years, we’ve been a small but committed team working in the social games space. When Glen Matsushita and I met at Tully’s in Bellevue, Washington, in 2009 to brainstorm our first title, we had never built a game before or worked together as a team. By the end of the first month, we had settled on using the Facebook platform to create Champions of Justice, a superheroes game. We brought on a couple of guys who had worked at Wizards of the Coast—a publisher of fantasy and science-fiction based role-playing games, board games, and collectible card games—to help with the art and writing, and went to work.

“The company was founded on the principle that there is a place for hardcore games in the next evolution of gaming.We made a couple of games along the way—neither a major hit—and are now working on our third title. Whether or not this will be our breakthrough in what has become a highly competitive market, we have the same passion and dedication that got us into the business in the first place. In fact, as we’ve gotten more experience, we’re getting better with each iteration and this title has been the most fun to work on since we’ve carved out more definitive roles and skill sets among the three founders.”

It’s early days for SURF Incubator and I look forward to meeting (and possibly writing about) many more startup founders.  If you are interested in SURF office space, feel free to visit their website and send them a note.

How SURF Incubator Was Started And Why You Should Go To Meetups

As an entrepreneur, I am always curious of how people come to start their projects.  Here’s a little Q & A with SURF founder Seaton Gras.  SURF Incubator is Seattle’s newest hub for tech startups and my new home for the foreseeable future.

1) Where did the idea of SURF originate?

The idea for creating the SURF Incubator came out of my personal frustration when I was trying to learn mobile app development from a textbook. No matter how hard I tried with great pains of details, none of the sample apps would function. The book, as it turns out, was full of bugs and there was no way that a novice, such as myself, could discern where the bugs were located or how they could be fixed because the error messages were even more baffling to me. I started looking for other programmers who wanted to learn a new language, which led to the formation of a Meetup group, which later pivoted into SURF Incubator.

2) Sounds like SURF is a startup itself? Can you describe the path that got it here?

I attended a Meetup group for iPhone developers and proposed that it would be easier to learn iPhone coding with peer support. I had one eager participant: Ken Decanio. So, we agreed to meet weekly, starting the very next day. The group grew organically as we expanded the hours and the frequency. It did not take too long before we outgrew our free location.

Then, the meetings were terminated until I made favorable arrangements with Regus. But, as it turns out, the economy caused Regus to reduce their own space and there was not enough room for SURF Incubator to continue. In November last year, I began to look for a permanent home for SURF Incubator. When I toured the Exchange building, it was so obvious that it was absolutely ideal for many reasons. For example, it was fully furnished and included Internet wiring to every desk. This provided a way for SURF Incubator to get up-and-running very quickly with minimal capital expenditures.

Surf Incubator: Seaton Gras (left) and Neil Bergquist

3) Why does Seattle (and possibly other parts of the world) need SURF?

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. Trying to secure an office is a major step forward but few landlords are willing to lease office space on month-to-month terms to a tenant with little to no operating history. 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.

4) What do you look for in founders and startups wanting to be part of SURF?

First and foremost, we are looking for passionate people who are committed to advancing their business. Second, we are looking for product and service ideas that have the ability to rapidly scale and disrupt large markets. The ideal businesses are the ones that challenge mainstream thinking and can make a significant contribution to the well-being of the world.

5) What do you think SURF will look and feel like in 3- 5 years out?

SURF will be an international community of entrepreneurs launching and advancing globally disruptive companies and technologies. It will be a community that enables startups to go further with less money. They’ll receive access to critical services at a fraction of the cost if they were to go at it alone and they’ll have exposure to a diverse set of global thought leaders. In the few weeks leading up to our launch I am already overwhelmed by the quality of connections made in the SURF community. “Game-changing” advancements are already occurring. I can only imagine what will happen in 3-5 years time. The success of the SURF residents is really what gets me fired up.

If you are interested in SURF, feel free to email Seaton directly –  Seaton@surfincubator.com.