Not every media organization can say it has local ties to more than one region — especially regions outside of New York City and San Francisco.
But Tech.Co, formerly Tech Cocktail, can. That’s what its co-founders are probably most proud of as they start preparing their company for its acquisition by MVF Global.
“Home [for the company] is where we are,” said Frank Gruber, co-founder of Tech.Co, in an interview.
Tech.Co got its start over a conversation at a Chicago Potbelly Sandwich Shop location in early 2006. Gruber and Tech.Co’s first co-founder Eric Olson wanted to create a networking events series around the burgeoning tech scene there. At the time, they called it Tech Cocktail. It was the early 2000s, early-Facebook and social media age, so it’s fair to say there was little-to-no competition in the Windy City.
Now, over a decade later, that events group is a 20+ city-wide network of tech media sites that’s been sold to MVF for an undisclosed price. Early-day tech communities in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas helped bring the company to where it is today.
“It started as this simple idea in Chicago,” Gruber said. “We saw it was very siloed. There were a lot of big companies, there were a lot of small companies, and they didn’t know each other. It was starting to become an exciting time.”
The first networking event in Chicago happened in July 2006 in Lincoln Park. Only about 250 people showed up, Gruber said, but the feedback they got encouraged them to keep hosting the events quarterly.
They started out hosting free events, but they quickly outgrew that model as more and more people started showing up and the bills at the bar grew astronomically. The first few events were hosted on the top floor of John Barleycorn in Wrigleyville, and each one was packed with attendees.
“We couldn’t find a big enough space at a certain point,” Gruber said. “So that’s when we said we should start charging a nominal fee so we could manage it because it was really insane.”
In the beginning, all of these events were done on the side of their full-time day jobs. Even as Gruber and Olson expanded into new cities, including D.C., Boston and Boulder, they were only hosting quarterly networking events during their down time.
Eventually, a full-time gig at AOL drew Gruber from Chicago to Washington later in 2006. His current co-founder, Jennifer Consalvo, was coincidentally the person who hired Gruber.
As Consalvo stepped into the co-founder role in 2010 after Olson’s depature, the duo decided to take Tech Cocktail full time. They left their jobs at AOL and explored what Tech Cocktail could be. The first step? Expand into the media and community development world. The next step? Rebrand to Tech.Co.
Flash forward 12 years from Tech Cocktail’s launch and Gruber and Consalvo are married, have a two-year-old child and co-wrote a book together — all while growing their media and events company.
“It wasn’t about an event, it wasn’t about a website, it was about a mission to help startups and entrepreneurs,” Consalvo, who is also Tech.Co’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. “It was really important to us that we allow ourselves the leeway to evolve as the market evolved.”
Eventually Consalvo and Gruber made the move out to Las Vegas in 2012 after re-connecting with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who was focusing a lot on revitalizing Vegas’ downtown district. (Hsieh also was behind Tech.Co’s first funding round that closed later in 2012.)
But from 2006 until their move, Tech.Co was a dual D.C.-Chicago-based company — so it’s hard to underestimate how much the two cities network’s helped them. Specifically, in D.C. coming from AOL in the early 2000s helped them.
The AOL running man at a Tech Cocktail D.C. event in 2009. The event was hosted August 27, 2009 at Left Bank in Adams Morgan.
“It’s hard to throw a rock and not hit somebody who worked at AOL when you’re in D.C.,” Consalvo said. “That network also helped us in finding sponsors and partners and people who could help us build the company in that way.”
Tech.Co’s co-founders also helped launch the well-known monthly DC Tech Meetup alongside Peter Corbett of iStrategyLabs and Justin Thorp, who later joined the Tech.Co team.
The first D.C.-based Tech Cocktail event, as it was known in 2006, brought out the likes of Gary Vaynerchuk and the team from Hungry Machine (which later turned into LivingSocial). Over the years, Tech.Co launched annual conferences of their own and later co-produced DCWEEK, a 10-day tech conference hosting 100+ events throughout the District. They’ve even kept tight connections with the Case family and joined the “Rise of the Rest” bus tour.
“We were able to build a deep and loyal following there of people who really supported us,” Consalvo said. “Even now, people from D.C. are always the first to jump in. That’s where we have long, deep relationships and friendships.”
Now, as they prepare for the transition into MVF’s hands, Gruber and Consalvo finally have time to think about both a vacation and their next hustle. They want to see MVF continue to turn Tech.Co into a globally known tech media network, and they didn’t go into the acquisition lightly. As Gruber said about the acquisition, “We just want to make sure that we’re sending it off to a school in a good place. We wanted to make sure it had a good home.”
And as they sit back and take a moment to breathe, Gruber said he has one final piece of advice for anyone who is also sitting in a Potbelly Sandwich Shop, or equivalent, chatting about launching a new venture:
As published by DC Inno – Sam Sabin – 1-22-17