Arts & Culture

Start Me Up

A regular entrepreneur event aims to make networking more fun.

A tall slender man in a red baseball hat cruises around the roller rink alone at Shake & Bake Family Fun Center in Upton. The music is loud and a crowd of onlookers chats and sips their drinks. In time, once the beer kicks in, a brave dozen or so will join him. Their business-casual suits and summer dresses will look odd paired with his jean cutoffs and bandana, but no one will care.

The man is Patrick Rife, co-founder of Startup Soirée, a regular event that brings the local business community together. After he completes a final loop, he invites Innovation Village’s Richard May onto the rink. Rife introduces May and outlines the concept behind Innovation Village, a program designed to bring economic growth to Central West Baltimore, before the pair launches into an off-the-cuff discussion about race, class, entrepreneurship, and access to technology through the lens of May’s project. The rapt crowd leans against the walls of the rink, too engaged by the conversation to remove their skates first.

This is just one example of Startup Soirée functions, which also feature food and drinks from local vendors and a town-hall style discussion between Rife and a featured speaker. The networking events are free and the discussions don’t focus simply on how to be successful in business, but how to be successful in business in Baltimore.

Startup Soirée’s origin story is fairly simple. Rife is the co-owner of the now ubiquitous Pixilated photo booth company. (If you’ve been to a party with a photo booth, that’s probably them.) He and his business partner, Nicolas China, saw that local business owners (themselves included) needed a way to connect, and knew they had the skills to do it better than they’d seen it done so far.

“We built Startup Soirée because we didn’t like being mowed down by people doing sales networking,” explains Rife over rooftop beers. “We wanted to build something that had a greater inherent value for the attendee. We have a different perspective on the market and see the value in the young creative and entrepreneurial class of Baltimore getting together.”

The discussions don’t focus on how to be successful in business but how to be successful in Baltimore.

It’s not that surprising that Rife and his team thought they could build a better networking model. He thought he could build a better photo booth, too. After seeing an early-concept photo booth at a wedding, Rife and China believed it could be improved upon, and designed the prototype of the stand-alone concept they use now. They opened Pixilated in 2012. Their first office was near Belvedere Square, but they have now moved to a 2,600-square-foot warehouse off Caton Avenue on James Street (also the original event space for Startup Soirée).

Pixilated’s initial focus was weddings, but they quickly realized there could be no real growth if they only worked on weekends. China and Rife began to explore other opportunities for growth and turned to the business-to-business world. Through dedicated social media and networking efforts, Pixilated started building its brand—and people took notice.

Specifically, Jessica Gignac and Rachel Robinson. Acquaintances since high school, the duo worked as event planners at Medifast, but left their jobs to found Intrinsic Events, an event management and planning company. In a digital-age meet-cute, they discovered Pixilated on Instagram and watched its rise through the app. Intrinsic, like Pixilated, relied heavily on the wedding industry and was looking to depend less on brides and more on business clients. By the time the four entrepreneurs met in real life, both of their companies were expanding, and they were already well versed in the challenges of making meaningful connections in Baltimore’s B-to-B universe.

“When [China and Rife] approached us about becoming their Startup Soirée business partners it was a no-brainer to get onboard,” says Robinson. “Startup Soirée is about building a community through relationships and looking out for one another. It’s not about how many business cards you can hand out in an hour—it’s about getting to know like-minded people, sharing ideas, and helping one another grow.”

The connectivity and lack of sales networking are two of the things that set Startup Soirées apart from other networking events and organizations. Though the events are sponsored by big names like Smartlogic and InvestEd, the corporate sponsors are not offered carte blanche access to the attendees. The model exists around the belief that by quietly showing their support of local startups, the community will turn to those sponsors if their services are required. Rife says it’s an unusual concept, but one that has paid off.

“Many of us have been through the same struggles, the highs and lows of growing a business.”

Their effort to eschew the traditional mainstays of networking successfully seeps into other facets of the Soirees—like the fact that the nametags handed out at registration are blank. Despite being at a gathering specifically designed to make business connections, the majority of networkers tend to fill in only their name and business, not job title. In nearby status-conscious D.C., that detail is worth mentioning. Obviously career data emerges eventually, but in Baltimore, an impressive nametag subtitle isn’t the typical conversation starter. The need to feel deeply connected and to connect with others in ways beyond the superficial is palpable.

“I love the small-business community in Baltimore,” says Carlee Pipitone, founder of wine importer Tenth Harvest, and a partnering sponsor of Startup Soirée. “Many of us have been through the same struggles, the highs and lows of growing a business. It’s inspiring to hear stories and connect with people in a wide range of industries who come as guests or speakers at Startup Soirée.”

Across town, a month after the Shake & Bake event, a fresh batch of 60 or so professionals gather in the Morgan Stanley building at the office of Horsetail Technologies, a company that provides information technology services for credit unions. Tonight’s speaker is Horsetail founder and CEO Chris Sachse. The company’s work isn’t sexy, and the conversation dips its toes into the jargon pool a few too many times, but the information seems relevant to nearly every person in the room.

By a show of hands, more than a third indicate they’re working to build software for their companies. Sachse and Rife discuss Horsetail’s fundraising efforts, how to discover an untapped market, and changing perceptions—broad, arching themes pertinent to anyone in the business world. Unlike the Innovation Village discussion, this talk isn’t emotionally powerful, but it drills down into practical applications.

Startup Soirées vacillate in this way each month. Rousing, affecting conversations meant to inspire give way to frank dialogues about how to actually go out and make things happen. And in the ultimate display of “show, don’t tell,” the events themselves are bolstered by local businesses that are thriving in Baltimore.

“It was the first place I got to meet people my own age, who were choosing a similar career path.”

The Soirées rely not just on corporate sponsors, but also on the symbiotic relationships formed with their partner sponsors—local outfits that use the platform to share their goods with the crowd. Dana Sicko, founder and CEO of Gundalow Juice and Nutreatious (sister companies that offer cold-pressed juice and professional chef catering services, respectively), has known the Soirée team since they all shared space in the building on James Street.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without Startup Soirée,” she says. “It was the first place I ever got to meet people my own age, who were choosing a similar career path. People who come to the events start their businesses because they want to help people in Baltimore.”

There is something almost parental in Startup Soirée’s compulsion to put Baltimore startups first. Each decision is calculated to place the spotlight onto a fledgling business or concept and to foster collaboration.

Remember Light City Baltimore, that weeklong display of lights, music, and art? Well, Startup Soirée was a big part of it.

When Intrinsic Events was approached by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts (BOPA) to helm the conference portion of Light City’s inaugural year, Gignac and Robinson jumped at the opportunity, even though it meant having only four months to pull together a massive, days-long event with no preexisting blueprint. They tapped into their Startup Soirée community, successfully courting companies like Whole Foods Market and local talent like DJ Al who offered in-kind services. Pixilated jumped onboard to run registration and make connections, and the team started planning a massive Soirée for the citywide festival.

“Light City was six days of everything falling into line,” says Gignac of the community’s response.

Their success with the event came, in no small part, because Soirée and Intrinsic didn’t hesitate to share their spotlight. And, like any startup entrepreneur, they were able to alter their plans on a dime to turn potential adversity into an advantage.

Enter Moms as Entrepreneurs (MAE), a team of local women who offer affordable business training to mothers in Baltimore and who planned a launch party the same evening as the Light City Startup Soirée event at the Columbus Center. Rife knew that a major faction of the startup community would be attending the Light City event, which meant MAE and its event host, Impact Hub Baltimore, would likely have a low turnout. The Startup Soirée team reached out and invited MAE to be a part of the Light City event. The result: Moms as Entrepreneurs was given a platform of hundreds from which to launch its endeavor, Impact Hub was given a sponsor nod, and Startup Soirée had an additional business to highlight for its crowd.

“We love the multiple-win scenario and we find it super easy to do,” China says. “We deal in karma.”