Tech of the town
TECH cocktail 7 gets Net workers networking.
One chilly night in October 2006, an army of limos lined Lincoln Avenue in front of the sleek nightclub Gramercy. The cars provided a regal exit for revelers, considering the crowd: Rather than celebutants or rockers, a phalanx of eggheads were conversing behind the club doors, sipping drinks and discussing tech projects—from blogs to dot-com start-ups.
But for Frank Gruber and Eric Olson, no element of TECH cocktail, their semi-annual networking party, is too grand. And this could explain the success of the free event for tech-industry workers, which holds its seventh fete on February 21 at Wrigleyville bar John Barleycorn. TECH cocktail offers tech enthusiasts—from casual podcasters to programmers—a chance to connect with each other. They also can snap-up swag doled out by tech sponsors like Web-host company midPhase, which provided the limos as a way to safely cart off the 350 or so techies who’d been imbibing gratis beer.
The event also includes demonstrations by small up-and-coming tech companies, whose creative displays rival the big-name sponsors: In previous years, text-message site Interactive Mediums let participants interact with a demo using cell phones while restaurant-review site Menuism had participants review the food served at TECH cocktail.
The mingling event is the brainchild of Gruber, who now works on product development for AOL, and Olson, a consultant for Internet start-ups. The two crossed paths in April 2006 at a meeting between their respective employers. Hitting it off, they went to lunch a week later and began discussing how they had gone out of their way just to meet each other. “We were going out to conferences in other areas,” Gruber says. “And we noticed in Silicon Valley and a couple other communities there were a lot of activities; everyone knows each other. [That] was like night and day compared to Chicago.”
They started mulling over an idea for a huge, local networking party. “We thought, Why don’t we try to foster a better local community, get everyone together and have fun doing it?” Gruber recounts. In only three months they pulled together the first TECH Cocktail, which served two purposes: get people together for a social mixer, and “amplify”—Gruber’s word for showcase—Chicago’s innovative tech community to the world.
That first TECH cocktail kicked off in July 2006, and was planned with little time and a shoestring budget. A website (techcocktail.com) was also thrown together. (It now has about 1,1000 subscribers who can access a job board or read postings about tech news and events.) “We said marketing budget is zero, so we need to be creative.” Gruber says. Olson and Gruber announced TECH cocktail on their respective personal blogs, ericjohnolson.com and SomewhatFrank.com, which report on tech issues. “We kind of figured we’d get the right people—the entrepreneurs, techies and coders—because those are the kind of people that are going to read our blogs,” Olson says.
February 21’s TECH cocktail is expected to draw around 600 people. Start-ups such as online price comparison company Transfs.com and business promotion site HoodFind.com will demo at tables lining the perimeter. Google, Chicago Micro, a few local lawyers who specialize in Internet publishing and other sponsors will set up social activities similar to last April’s Nintendo Wii home-run derby. After the night ends, people can go to the TECH cocktail website, see pictures and videos of the evening and contact participants through social-networking links.
Olson and Gruber say the sweat and overtime they’ve put into event organizing and website upkeep has paid off. TECH cocktail has gone without a hitch, except for a debacle with the aforementioned limos (“Someone hijacked one of the limos and abandoned it down the street—no one was hurt!” Gruber says). And unlike when they started, Olson and Gruber notice a more tight-knit tech community. “I walk down Lincoln Avenue and bump into guys working on technology start-ups, and say, ‘Oh let’s grab a beer.’ I don’t know if that would’ve happened two years ago,” Olson says.
“When it gets to that point,” Gruber says, “you feel good that you helped out the community.”