Notes from Northside


Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A neighbourhood known as New York City’s “Little Berlin”, an ethnic melting pot where industrial heritage rubs shoulders with gentrifying hipster culture and a creative buzz characterised by a vibrant contemporary art and music scene. Not surprising, then, that for the past few years it has played host to Northside Festival, a celebration of technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, and the investment that makes it all possible.

Iain Alexander


I was fortunate enough to bag myself a pass for the 2017 incarnation of Northside, setting off not entirely sure of what to expect in spite of the dizzying array of big names and interesting characters due to take part in the various panels, presentations, and fireside chats. Set on stages across three gorgeous modern boutique hotels nestled in the shadow of the iconic Brooklyn Brewery buildings, Northside presented a conference experience much more intimate than others I’ve been to with a similar calibre of speaker on show — it was certainly a world away from the sprawling exhibition centres and thronging masses of MWC or Web Summit.

Another endearing quality that really set Northside apart from other events was the way it felt like a festival for enthusiasts, rather than a business conference. Every attendee I spoke to was genuinely excited to be there, revved up by the opportunity to get up close and personal with speakers and absorb as much as they could, whether with a view to growing their own business or just out of amateur curiosity. How refreshing to have conversations where the other person wasn’t just waiting for a chance to hand over a business card and move on to the next networking opportunity!

That enthusiasm extended to the speakers themselves, many of whom seemed genuinely pleased to be involved and delivered insight and humour above and beyond the by-the-numbers performances you often see at major events. Even if that meant that sometimes the panel moderators were too eager to make a session about them and their experiences and thoughts, rather than facilitating the conversation, it’s hard to argue with that kind of infectious enthusiasm.

There was far too much going on to see it all — too much, in fact, even to cover everything I did see in great depth — but here are a few of my favourite snippets…

  • Only 18 of the current Fortune 500 companies are still led by a founder. That’s a gem unearthed by Erin Griffith, and – in light of a lot of talk about how founders need to evolve during their business journey – I’d love to find the time to look at who those 18 are, how old they are, how they are performing, and how their business model, corporate culture, and brand have changed over the years.
  • Startup founders shouldn’t be fazed by feeling like they are walking around in their dad’s suit, ‘playing business’. There’s no magic moment of maturation into a ‘real’ business leader; everyone is learning on the job and working it out as they go along.
  • San Francisco isn’t the haven of independent free thinking that it used to be. There’s a monoculture emerging that’s instilling an impatient, selfish mindset, resulting in too many people jumping from job to job constantly in search of the Next Big Thing that’s going to propel them onto the top table. In fact, it’s stereotypically cynical New York now providing the best home for mission-driven individuals who want to commit to seeing through a company vision.
  • Design-led business is on the rise, but designer-founders need to ‘break out of the craft box’ to build successful products, teams, and companies. Stubborn perfectionism is a great trait for a designer to have, but you can’t run a business solely as an obsessive craftsman. Designer-founders have to make their company their craft, and not fetishise the product.
  • Apeel Sciences might just hold the solution to dramatically reducing food waste. The company is turning waste plant material from farms into a nutrient-rich ultra-thin organic and edible coating for fresh produce that naturally extends shelf-life by slowing the rate at which food loses water.
  • Shingy is an irrepressible force of nature. I wasn’t sure what to expect from AOL’s wild-haired ‘digital prophet’, and admit I was absolutely ready to mock a vacuous, pretentious presentation. Except that wasn’t what I saw. Shingy had a packed house eating out of the palm of his hand with a talk that more than matched its borderline chaotic energy with some unexpectedly profound insight into how evolving technology is affecting individual and social psychology.
  • Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is a fiercely impressive woman with some very smart things to say about mobilising grassroots movements for change.
  • New York City mayor Bill de Blasio did something I’m sure many in public office would love to do as he took BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith to task over the media’s obsession with inconsequential and ephemeral ‘news’ at the expense of provocative debate about the ‘real issues’.
  • The guys who work on TIME magazine’s brilliant cover art are really smart. (And no, those ‘devil horns’ really weren’t deliberate.)

Now I just need to find a reason to go back next year…