Andrew Vecchio, the co-founder and CEO of Startup and Tech Mixer, wanted to make it absolutely clear that his Friday night event — with 2,500 attendees, a bouncy blowup game of Twister, and a mechanical bull in downtown San Francisco’s W Hotel — was not a party.
“We don’t use the word ‘party.’ We’re bringing consciously designed spaces and innovative thinkers together to inspire,” said Vecchio, who is 26 and formerly worked at Apple and J.P. Morgan. “This is our fifth mixer. People are like, ‘Andrew, what could be next?’ And it’s like, ‘Oh. Done.’ We have a mechanical bull. Game-changer. Innovate.”
The Startup and Tech Mixer, which was free for attendees, and paid for by sponsors like Uber and and GoPro, spanned two stories of the high-end, modern hotel, with elaborate programming, games, and “Tech Talks” by entrepreneurs. Topics included “The Future of Giving,” “The Kindness Economy” and “Secrets of Startup Success.” Guests wore name tags with their Twitter handles, and stood elbow to elbow, while a DJ spun pop and electronic music. Every hour, a guru led a meditation session in a room called the Serenity Space.
The line between work and play is blurry in the tech world. And as more young people flood into the city for work and look for friends, networking events have become a new sort of party circuit, one that mixes the trending startup lingo (“iterate,” “game change,” ted talks) with more traditional fare (booze, games). The team behind the Startup and Tech Mixer events think the demand for raucous and potentially career-building events is huge, and they might be right: This was their biggest work-centric rave yet, by far.
Vecchio, who was chewing gum, blew a bubble and then said he would be leading his friends, two young women named Jessica, on a tour of the mixer. The Jessicas, who were playing Anki Drive, a racing game made famous when its founders debuted it at an Apple conference, agreed.
The Serenity Space had terrariums and a projected starscape on the wall. People lounged on the sofas. Representatives from Kind, which makes healthful snack bars, were handing them out for free.
Upstairs, Vecchio, whose day job is at “a stealth startup,” nodded when he saw the packed crowd in the expansive Workroom 2. A mechanical bull tossed startup founders off its back. A few women were giggling in a nap pod. People lined up to play the row of classic arcades like Donkey Kong and Street Fighter. There was a costume parlor with wigs and pharaoh hats hanging by a photo studio.
Aaron Saari, 29 years old and the founder of a startup called Vase of Fire, said this was a lot more interesting that the average startup mixer in a bar — and that it would probably bring attendees closer together.
“Most startup mixers are like, “Let’s go to a bar and get f—ed up.” Here, there’s a mechanical bull. There’s an arcade. This is actually how people make deeper connections. After this, they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, man I fell off the mechanical bull before you did,” Saari said. “I invited a lot of my friends who aren’t in tech. Like you, Tony.”
“Actually, I am. I’m in wine tech,” said 33-year-old Tony Nguyen. “I honestly didn’t have a specific plan coming here, but, hey, I am having fun.”
Mike Vladimir, 34, said that since everyone was a potential target for networking, the event felt like a gay dating event.
“A straight dating event, you only want half the people. But everyone’s here for the same purpose. You could want anyone.”
Vladimir was, however, uneasy about the business-casual dress most of the attendees wore.
“I see a lot more button-downs that T-shirts, which makes me suspicious. People dressed up.”
As the night wore on, I asked Vecchio if there was an after-party.
“We don’t call it an after-party. We call it after-hours.”
Vecchio led the Jessicii — one of whom decided to be called “Jane” to make it easier — to an inflatable Twister mat at the center of the after-hours room. He set down his Corona Light and leaped onto the bouncy cushion, making a few flips and pointing to a friend before sitting down in the middle of it and checking his phone.
“Upstairs is the real after-hours,” he said, leading the group to the 31st floor of the hotel. And so it was. There, against an expansive view of the Bay Bridge, a small group of venture capitalists and older entrepreneurs quietly sipped wine and nibbled nuts and cheese.
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