GovPilot is proud to be a part of New Jersey’s technology startup scene—a vibrant community that is just beginning to receive the media attention it deserves, thanks to people like Benjamin Doda.
Doda’s career lends legitimacy to the old writing adage, “write what you know.” As Public Relations (PR) Manager for Hackensack, NJ-based, telecommunications company, Vidyo, and contributing writer to New Jersey Tech Weekly, Doda has spent the last few years working to secure his home state’s position as a leader in a larger technology startup landscape dominated by California and Massachusetts.
Mr. Doda sat down with GovPilot and shared the story of his journey from tech outsider looking-in to tech insider reaching-out to the media to pivot the spotlight toward the Garden State’s rapidly growing startup scene.
5 Questions for Benjamin Doda
GP: When did you become interested in technology?
BD: In December of 2011, I was asked by a husband and wife founder team to become the first employee of a very early-stage digital health startup. They had already been accepted into the inaugural class of the Healthbox tech accelerator in Chicago, which was to kick off that following January, but they didn't tell me that before asking me if I was in. Of course I said “yes”, without knowing anything, which is typical of me. I had no money and no career yet, so taking a risk didn't matter. It was only after I had said “yes” that they told me that the company had already been accepted as one of ten portfolio companies for this new program for digital health startups. I was already working for the CEO, Mark Hall, who ran a PR agency at the time, which is how we knew each other.
Until this point, I had no experience in technology. Quite the opposite —I studied History and English at Rutgers, and didn't work on any tech clients at that PR firm. Writing was the only thing I was good at. Helping to launch United Preference, and going to Healthbox, was how I learned about the world of venture capital, tech startups and accelerators and incubators. It changed my life, because I discovered that you can build a solid career by challenging the status quo. I grew up in the local punk and hardcore music scene in Central New Jersey, so for me, being successful by working within a professional counterculture was music to my ears.
During this time, I was asked to manage a team of rambunctious interns, do business development with VCs and major healthcare networks and help pull together our value proposition, all while trying to get better at PR and get us some good launch publicity. I was already confident in doing PR, but when it came to all of these other aspects of starting a company, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. United Preference was based out of Princeton, but I don't think Tigerlabs existed yet. I saw Mark there recently; he is working on building his next payments startup.
GP: Small world! GovPilot and Rutgers are good friends and frequent collaborators.How did you get your start as a tech blogger?
BD: When I came back from Healthbox in Chicago in 2012, I was upset, and quit United Preference that June. I had no money or career and was already 26 years old, so I felt like a failure. We were pre-revenue, and there was no guarantee that we would get either a seed or Series A. I remember Mark being very stressed out around this period. Sure enough, just a few months after I quit, they got funded to I believe the tune of almost a half a million dollars. Soon after that, they launched a pilot program with one of the Blue Cross network hospitals. When I saw Mark at Tigerlabs this past summer, he told me that their business had recently been acquired, just like his wife said it was going to be back in 2012. Me quitting that startup too soon was a key lesson for me.
I went back to what I knew, working for a small business in Brielle at the Jersey Shore that built beautiful custom homes by the beach. I actually liked it a lot, but I knew I would never be the same professionally after what had just happened, and I needed more. I was still making barely any money. I saw my chance to get back into the tech game when Dice offered me a job as a PR Associate for Dice.com and Slashdot.org in the summer of 2013. I was there for maybe three months, and quit because I hated commuting to New York every day from Red Bank, which is where I wanted to spend all of my time.
I also saw when I returned from Chicago that New Jersey had very little going on in terms of a tech startup scene. Where were the accelerators? Where were the coworking spaces? Venture capitalists? I had just learned so much about tech startups, and what I came home to seemed like this blank void.
I started digging around AngelList and writing about New Jersey tech startups that I thought were cool - ones that got no attention at all. The mainstream New Jersey business media wasn't living in this world at all (they're still not). People liked the content; it was getting shared a lot, and I was getting some good traffic - it was a lot of fun.
At that exact same time, completely coincidentally, I connected with Yan Auerbach of SpeechTrans and Panu Keski-Pukkila of Caktus (a TechLaunch portfolio company) via the freelancer site ODesk (now UpWork), and did some content writing and PR for them. Yan had worked for Bessemer, which was involved in the NJ tech community. All at the same time in 2013, I started both blogging about NJ tech startups and doing a little work for NJ tech startups by total chance. I discovered the TechLaunch accelerator through Panu, which was exciting, because that's what I was searching for. This happened while I was living and working out of Red Bank, which I think definitely inspired me to want to help the NJ tech startup community, because cities like Asbury Park and Red Bank can really be ideal and amazing places for these companies to plant roots and grow.
I shut down the blog after becoming burnt out and frustrated. Money was tight as a freelancer, and I didn't believe I was cut out to be a business owner. I went back to work for a tech PR agency that is now based out of Bell Works. Of course, by December of that year, I already missed it and reached out to Esther Surden at New Jersey Tech Weekly to ask if she'd syndicate a blog post that I recently wrote about 2014's “hottest" NJ tech startups. She ran it, and then I asked her if she needed help covering our tech startups, and she said that she did. I have been contributing to New Jersey Tech Weekly ever since. I actually burned out a second time in early 2016, and just recently began writing for Esther again. Self-care, along with saying “no”, is so important.
GP:What makes New Jersey a fertile breeding ground for startups?
BD: Apple and Facebook were founded by anti-establishment rebels. I remember when WIRED named my New Jersey-based friend, who co-founded KryptoKit, one of their top 10 "most interesting people" at SXSW 2014 due to his groundbreaking work with cryptocurrencies. I kept blogging and tweeting about it so that the NJ tech community would hear about him.My friend that I mentioned is also a co-founder of Ethereum, and no one even knows that he is from around here. I believe New Jersey is a fertile breeding ground for startups because there are a lot of personalities here who are not afraid to go to war with the status quo. I think we have a lot of entrepreneurs who are independent, free-thinkers who don't just accept what they're told.
This rebellious and countercultural spirit is alive and well in NJ cities like Red Bank, Asbury Park and Princeton, inside our universities and at iconic national landmarks of science and innovation like Bell Works in Holmdel.
New Jersey is also a fertile breeding ground for startups because of our innate ability to out-hustle anyone. Nobody hustles like people from the Northeast. I have never been the smartest person in the room by any means (I actually never made it past Algebra 1,) but I have always hustled harder than my peers, which is why I've found some success in my little corner of the business world. If I told you the amount of cold emails I used to send out per day to potential clients when I was trying to freelance full-time while living in Red Bank, you would be disturbed by it.
Finally, New Jersey is a fertile breeding ground for tech startups because our history in this space is second to none. As a public relations and marketing guy, I've seen how many marketing "gurus" around the state are still struggling with how to rebrand New Jersey. In reality, we are just not telling our story the right way. From Thomas Edison to Albert Einstein in Princeton, and Bell Labs verifying the Big Bang theory in Holmdel, we have such a cool story. Dr. James Hughes of the Rutgers Bloustein School demonstrates over and over in his 2014 book, New Jersey's Postsuburban Economy, that New Jersey has always been the most relevant and advanced tech community in the world - and continues to be. We don't need to try to become Silicon Valley - we are Silicon Valley. NJ is amazing at technology, but I don't think we've packaged and sold that very well in many years.
Thomas Edison in his West Orange, NJ lab. GovPilot joined other NJ innovators at last May's Propeller Fest, in Hoboken, NJ.
GP: You wrote about GovPilot back in May, after we exhibited at Propeller Fest by our headquarters in Hoboken. What made you want to cover GovPilot?
BD: Good governance is one of the four key tenets of sustainable development, which will be the most powerful economic force that we have seen in decades. The opportunities surrounding the sustainable development revolution will be akin to the dawn of the Internet, or even the age of computers in general. Smart entrepreneurs around the world are going to make trillions of dollars by de-carbonizing the planet, creating social inclusion, re-designing intelligent cities, securing food and water and moving us onto sustainable infrastructure. The United Nations in 2015 put into action the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have replaced the Millennium Development Goals that ran from 2000 - 2015, which were focused mainly on eradicating poverty in second and third world countries.
I like GovPilot simply because without good governance, a sustainable future is possible at all. Good governance means that governments at the municipal, county and state level all need to become much more transparent, tech-friendly and civic-minded. The GovPilot team is doing their part in trying to make this happen, and I believe that it will.
GP: Thank you, we certainly are! What do you think the NJ tech startup scene will look like in 5 years?
BD: This ties into what I said above. I really believe that in five years, we will have better reclaimed our identity as the "Garden State" through the sustainable development market. I believe that a lot of New Jersey's technological innovation over the next five years will be directly connected to the push for sustainability. We have so much infrastructure here; it's going to be a gold rush of activity.
New Jersey has such a rich history in farming and agriculture (that is just as core to our identity as Thomas Edison). Being on the coast, we are also in a position to lead in offshore wind turbine energy and cheap, practical water-based transportation.
The NJ tech startup scene that I've associated with over the last several years has mostly been based around Hudson County and Manhattan. Over the next five years, I see that changing as places like Mercer County, Bell Works, Asbury Park and Red Bank increasingly become where the free thinkers and countercultural people in New Jersey choose to live and start companies.
I think in five years, the NJ tech startup scene will have stopped trying to attach itself to New York, or be hip like the Midwest or Silicon Valley, and will have created its own identity through the sustainable development movement.
I think that sustainable development will define our scene moving forward because we are going to make not only amazing improvements to our economy, infrastructure and overall happiness, but also insane amounts of revenue in the process. If the New Jersey tech scene does galvanize around sustainability, and I believe that it will, then in five years I think the Garden State will be even more awesome.
GovPilot would like to thank Mr. Doda for sharing his story and for being one of the Garden State startup scene’s most vocal supporters.