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Aaron Shapiro is the CEO of Huge, a global digital agency founded in Dumbo.

Dumbo Techs Off

by Alexandra Wolfe | Photo: Gregg Delman | Manhattan magazine | December 3, 2012

As a serial tech entrepreneur, Aaron Shapiro always thought he’d end up in Silicon Valley. But when he became CEO of a digital marketing agency, Shapiro, along with a host of other New York tech-company founders, instead brought Silicon Valley to Dumbo. His company, Huge, and Etsy, the online crafts retailer, may be the two biggest employers in the neighborhood, but the area’s 100 or so other rapidly expanding tech companies, as well as NYU’s Polytechnic Institute incubator, which opened this past January, have created a booming tech industry in Brooklyn, a world away from Silicon’s Sand Hill Road.

Considered a gritty neighborhood just 10 years ago, Dumbo now inspires Shapiro to swear he “can’t imagine starting the company anywhere else.” Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson agrees, having found that running his company out of New York gives it an advantage over West Coast competitors. “We’re in the world capital of other creative industries like media, fashion and advertising,” Dickerson says, “and people tend to live in more diverse communities, with neighbors from all walks of life.” A creative atmosphere if ever there was one.

Shapiro, born and raised in New York, joined Huge in 2005, six years after its founders launched the company as a two-person design business in an apartment at 66 Water St., not far from its current offices. “At the time, it was a very sketchy neighborhood,” he says. “The lore is, we had to escort female employees to the subway because it was so dangerous.”

But because so many of Huge’s clients were based in New York—from Fortune 500 companies to television networks, most of digital media is just across the river in Manhattan—it made sense to stay put and keep building out the headquarters here. “Everyone talks about Foursquare or DoubleClick as the New York tech community, but they make up only a small percentage,” Shapiro explains. “People forget the digital divisions of Time Warner, HBO, American Express...” And because of the proximity of these “digital partners,” everything from the initial research to the strategy to the consulting work Huge does can be accomplished in Brooklyn.

Huge’s headquarters are housed in a spacious old warehouse, as are most tech offices in the area, creating an open, level work environment where employees are encouraged to be casual and creative. Dogs are allowed at the office, and it’s not unusual to see bicycles lining the halls. In this building the size of a city block, the square footage, lofty ceiling height and playroom-chic decor is an appealing switch from many of the more traditional top-down Midtown firms. Not surprisingly, the staff skews young, with most employees living in the surrounding area. And those who don’t can reach Dumbo via the Williamsburg ferry, and walk just three blocks to the office. “It’s our secret recruiting weapon,” says Shapiro with a laugh.

Etsy, the second-largest employer in Dumbo after Huge, has a similar feel. Etsy was founded in 2005 in an apartment in Fort Greene, and has been a Brooklyn-based company ever since. Being in the midst of the media, finance, fashion and advertising industries in New York has been a boon to business. “Silicon Valley can feel like a mono-industry,” says Etsy Communications Manager Sara Cohen, “while New York is international and diverse, and breeds a very creative culture.” Situated in a historic building at 55 Washington St. that was once the world’s first cardboard box factory, the Etsy office is surrounded by startups of every kind, including independent designers, architects and even artisanal food vendors like One Girl Cookies and the Brooklyn Roasting Company. And no doubt this is only the beginning for Etsy: In a recent funding round, it raised $40 million to fuel international expansion.

“Etsy enjoys so many benefits being based here in Brooklyn versus Silicon Valley,” says Dickerson. “We also have a very different culture than many Silicon Valley companies. For instance, our engineers and other staff use their spare time to play in bands or host art shows, not just work on side tech projects.” That well-rounded staff gives the company the perspective it needs to solve a wide range of problems. “I think Dumbo is a great place for Etsy to continue to grow,” Dickerson says, “because creative people want to live and work in communities populated with other creative people.” Adds Sara Cohen, “Companies here are built with a long-term goal in mind, not just to be a ‘quick flip.’”

And as much as the tech companies reap the advantages of their surroundings, the area has also profited in return. Dickerson sits on the board of the Dumbo Improvement District, and the company has its own Vice President of Brand & Social Responsibility, Matt Stinchcomb, who oversees various positive initiatives, many of which are in the community. “Over the last 15 years, Brooklyn has clearly established itself as the most creative borough in the city, and Dumbo is proof positive of that,” says Stinchcomb.

“New York’s tech industry is young, but, because of the creative energy here, far more interesting and vibrant than its counterpart in Silicon Valley. We’re excited to be here.”