Surf’s up for innovative startups in Los Angeles, where today thousands of startup founders are riding the sunny Southern California city’s cresting wave of digital entrepreneurship. Some of them quite literally, including wave shredder Robert Lambert.
A serial entrepreneur, Lambert started his first Internet-based business when he was only 18, and in 2012, he launched Silicon Beach L.A., Inc. His goal was to bring together local tech startups, investors, developers and designers through a series of events, from open-invite gatherings to invite-only networking nights and more. Lambert’s events have since expanded to include surfing meetups along the shores of what has become known as Silicon Beach.
Greater L.A.’s trendy tech startup nebula — a day’s drive down Pacific Coast Highway from Silicon Valley and home to heavy hitters like Snapchat and Tinder — stretches from coastal Venice and Santa Monica into the Hollywood hills, from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City, and as far north as Pasadena. The densely populated region ranked among the leading 25 rising American tech epicenters on the latest Innovation That Matters study, a joint project between Free Enterprise, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and 1776. According to the report, Los Angeles’s digital economy is well-heeled across the board, demonstrating significant strides in the edtech, healthtech, energy and smart cities sectors.
Teeming with approximately 30 startup incubators and 20 accelerators, $3 billion in venture capital funding last year alone, and more than 11,820 new companies at present, per the AngelList startup community, Los Angeles is fast becoming one of the hottest locales in the U.S. to launch from. Fueling the vibrant startup scene’s recent explosion are the urban sprawl’s 284 sunny days per year, quasi-affordable housing relative to Silicon Valley, and a wealth of tech talent and celebrity investors.
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“The lifestyle here, and more affordable talent and housing costs in comparison to San Francisco, plus our ever-widening rich angel and venture capital network, are creating a perfect storm for successful startup creation in L.A.,” Lambert told Free Enterprise, “not to mention the area’s increasing crossover of entertainment and tech, plus the massive amount of skilled talent coming out of our top universities.”
Lambert also pointed to the local startup ecosystem’s overall inclusivity as a boon to newcomer entrepreneurs putting roots down in and around Tinseltown.
“Silicon Beach is absolutely unique in how welcoming and inclusive the community is toward others,” he said. “I think it’s in large part due to the fact that L.A. hadn’t historically been known as a startup hub as much as it has been the entertainment capital of the word. Everyone’s interest in seeing it become a notable tech and startup city seems to drive this shared interest to see and help each other succeed.”
But area tech-savvy entrepreneurs weren’t always so welcoming or easy to connect with, Lambert recalled.
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“When I first started out, I almost immediately made all the first-time founder mistakes,” he said. “After about six months, I realized how much faster I could be progressing with the right mentorship and community. I asked around and researched, but came to the shocked realization that a large and strongly entrepreneurial city such as this didn’t really have a community for startup founders like myself.”
That was back in 2006 and 2007.
“It was around this point, and in part due to the economic crisis of the time,” Lambert said, “that I wound down my startup and committed myself to building and launching an online and offline resource for Los Angeles founders based on solving some of the pain points I experienced during my first startup.”
He also decided to do what many people, startup founders included, do to blow off steam in L.A. — hit the waves and hang ten.
“I would have monthly meetings with local L.A. influencers and almost every conversation began with, ‘So, where’d you paddle out this morning?’” he said. “I figured that we could move our coffee and office meetings into the surfing line-up in the mornings, so we could get some exercise, some waves and ultimately be more efficient with our time.”
At first, the group began with 15 surfer startup founders. After a month or so, it swelled to 70-plus surfers.
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“Then we hit 200 surfers,” Lambert said, “and I realized that the group needed additional structure, and that’s when I created Silicon Beach Surfers.”
Today, the wave-shredding professional networking group boasts more than 500 members total, with about 15 applications to join landing in Lambert’s email inbox every week.
Kelsey Doorey is a Silicon Beach Surfers member and the founder and CEO of Santa Monica-based Vow to Be Chic, an up-and-coming e-commerce site that rents designer bridesmaids dresses. The UCLA Anderson School of Management graduate moved to Southern California from the East Coast due in part to her longtime love of surfing. She joined Lambert’s beach bound non-traditional startup club after meeting him at a pitch competition.
“What I love about networking in an unconventional setting is that the ideas and suggestions you get come with a different energy,” Doorey told Free Enterprise. “I’m calmer when I’m out on the water. I get a sense of clarity about any challenges that can be evasive when I’m hustling through my day to day.”
Floating free, on a surfboard bobbing in the mighty Pacific Ocean alongside other area digital entrepreneurs, Doorey has crossed paths with an open and experienced network of investors and tech talent that she might not have otherwise tapped into.
“Compared to Silicon Valley, we’re a small community here, so there’s a closer camaraderie among fellow startup founders,” she said. “I’ve personally experienced other founders going out of their way to help guide me through their past experiences. Also, I’ve found that one of the major pros of growing a business in Los Angeles is that amazing people really want to live here. There’s an excellent selection of highly talented people who live in L.A., and I’m constantly being surprised by innovative new companies. I’ve also noticed that the entrepreneurial ecosystem here is especially ripe for fashion e-commerce and entertainment startups.”
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While Doorey and Lambert are quick to point out the benefits of starting up in L.A., ample opportunities to ride killer waves alongside like-minded entrepreneurs included, both took pause when asked to share the downsides. Doorey did not name any cons, though Lambert pointed to the region’s infamously awful traffic.
“It’s honestly a bit difficult to come up with cons, and this is mirrored by my listening for complaints from those in the startup community,” he said. “But, if I had to share one drawback, it would be that L.A. is a large, sprawling city that has well-known traffic concerns. Founders who aren’t able to locate their home or apartment, and the majority of their employees and their offices, within a semblance of close proximity to each other, let’s just say they are ‘gonna have a bad time.’”
Lambert also noted that startup founders in Los Angeles would generally experience more success if representatives from larger local public entities and companies would more readily reach out and connect with them.
“Larger entities can reach out to smaller startups and attend events, sponsor hackathons, you name it,” he said. “There are hundreds of ways these bigger groups and companies can contribute and get involved once we know they’re keen to participate in the Silicon Beach community. As a first step, they can email me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll be happy to provide some personalized recommendations.”
You never know, maybe he’d even be down to catch a wave with you. It’s worth a shot.