Kingston, NY, the county seat of Ulster County, is an hour and a half’s drive up the Hudson River from New York City. The population hovers just over 23,000. Back in 1777, it was the capital of New York State – but after the battle of Saratoga, the British came along and burned it to the ground. Today, the place abounds with pre-revolutionary stone house, artists, technology companies, and is just about the nicest small city you could ask for. IBM used to be a huge presence in the local economy, but back in 1994, they pulled up stakes and moved out. The area has never quite rebounded.
In the past 12 years, I’ve had the privilege of participating in countless forums, round-tables, conferences and strategy sessions, and have witnessed the desire to help this place become what it could. I’ve heard quite a few ideas – some about marketing and others about infrastructure. There are so many interdependencies – affordable house, education, peer groups, institutions of higher learning – that solving the problems in a holistic way just might not happen.
In business, I’ve learned that we start with Vision – it is the locus of ever single action that follows. So, I’m going to take a stab at a vision: that Kingston is the crown jewel of the Hudson Valley, the gateway to the wonders of the Catskills – that there is a thriving business community of 20 or more small technology companies (1-5 million in annual revenues, with 10-30 employees), that there is simply a plethora of art galleries, music venues, and cultural institutions – that our education infrastructure starts to get on a path of improvement and reinvestment of infrastructure, and that there is a healthy stock of affordable housing. I could go on; but basically, the picture I’m painting is that of a fairly healthy economy – and a place that is attractive to that wonderful mass of potential visitors downstream.
Networking. LOTS of networking. I want to see Kingston and Ulster County become the networking capital of the world. Networking is often the half an hour we have before another event. Networking is the brief encounters we have with other business people at the coffee shop. I propose that if we create an environment where networking is wildly rampant, that our local economy will flourish, and grow towards that vision that I described above.
Not all networking is equal, or even looks the same. In local networking, there are main types of networking,:
A few years back when my previous company was located out at the old IBM facility, I had a monthly breakfast with 2 CEO’s of other companies. One was in manufacturing, and the other was in health care. Our differences didn’t matter as much as the wonderful conversations we were able to share. I was able to share my perspectives on using the web. It was a critical experience to the growth of that company. I still meet with other community members – in fact, this blog post was really born of a conversation I had last night with PR guru, John Mallen.
We could help make Peer to Peer networking happen in this community on a much larger scale. The Edward Lowe Foundation provides a lot of wonderful and free advice on the idea. WHAT IF our local economic development entities got behind this concept, and became a mentoring resource for peer-to-peer networking. WHAT IF there were 20 such groups in the area, each made up of 4 to 8 individuals? What would the impact be on local businesses? I propose that the impact on business retention would be phenomenal. I don’t know how many businesses might not have left the area if they had dialogue with people who could have directed them to the resources available here.
I don’t mean traditional classrooms. It could be seminars where 10-20 people are sitting around a table. It could mean a room full of people, like the recent tourism event that UCDC sponsored. It could mean individuals mentoring business owners. But the volume on this needs to be cranked up. There should be an open educational event available in this town every month. WHAT IF we created 20 individual mentoring relationships created every year. SCORE is doing some great work in this arena, but what I’m suggesting would be in addition to what they are doing – hopefully even complementary.
We do have the Chamber breakfasts and the Chamber after-hours mixers. And they are good solid events. I don’t know if they fit the bill, though, for the types of networking events that bring together, say, technology companies. I think for that we need a different type of event. The now defunct Hudson Valley Technology and Commerce meet-ups did it well, and the Digital Corridor meet-ups are doing nicely. Sometimes, though, those organizations have difficulty finding venues (HVTC never was able to break out of its venue on the outskirts of Woodstock) or marketing their events. So, we have a case where it is kind-of happening, but could use support. WHAT IF we had at least one such event in the city per month – perhaps even two.
And finally, we have events that help to bring together potential employers with potential employees. Of course, those other events listed above could be helpful. Just recently, taking our cue from technology firms in New York City, we had a ‘talent meet-up’ – with wonderful results. More companies could participate, and it could be something happening more often. WHAT IF there was one such event per month?
There are many “What-ifs” above. If this area became a region where all of those “What-Ifs” came true, there would be thousands of interactions between entrepreneurs and business people. An enormous mass of knowledge would be transferred. Businesses would benefit. Entrepreneurs outside of the region would hear about what a networked region ours is, and feel that they would want to be a part of it. Attracting those 20 or so technology companies would be viable.
And making this happen would not be expensive, and could easily fall within the purview of existing organizations: UCDC; The Office of Employment and Training, SCORE; Kingston Economic Development; the Chambers of Commerce; and more. And if they have the resources, perhaps UCDC would be the best candidate to lead and consolidate the effort if they have the resources. But whatever the case, making this happen, making Kingston and Ulster County the most business-networked place in the country, would require a concerted effort. I propose that the effort would have a tremendous pay-off, and perhaps, be the prescription for what ails the area economy.