DST Global

A hothouse for startups

September 7, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

With new top-line investors and a partnership with GE, General Assembly -- a new kind of urban networking campus -- is set to grow fast.

By Alex Konrad, reporter

General Assembly

General Assembly

FORTUNE -- General Assembly, which provides workspace and training for budding, high-tech entrepreneurs in New York City, has just attracted an all-star list of investors: Howard Schultz's Maveron fund, Yuri Milner of DST Global, and Jeff Bezos's Bezos Expeditions. What do they see in this fledgling company? Incubators that offer shared workspace and Wi-Fi are nothing new, but GA has morphed that model by offering sophisticated courses in business and design. Last month GA hosted Wharton's incoming MBAs, and its new partner GE will send about 100 employees for weeklong digital boot camps.

At GA's New York City campus one night in August, a dozen students took notes on Macbooks and iPads, while occasionally asking their instructor incisive and persistent questions. GA uses successful, local entrepreneurs to teach many of the classes, but also brings in heavy-hitters such as Sequoia Capital partner Roelof Botha for "fireside chats" and workshops. GA is careful, however, to provide a workspace insulated from direct venture capital influence.

These mostly young entrepreneurs have come here from work and, considering the evening hour, their focus might seem surprising. Yet all are eager to hone their critical skills -- "Closing Tactics" in this case, but also product design, marketing, copywriting, a guide to angel investing and other crucial business topics. They are just a few of the one hundred or so GA members coding and brainstorming away at any given time. Even though GA provides the high-speed connection and coffee expected of a shared workspace, it doesn't see itself as an incubator. Because of its broader focus on applied education and community, GA sees itself more as a new kind of urban networking campus.

Eschewing seed money from venture capital, GA has operated since January on the strength of a $200,000 grant from the city, sponsors such as Skype for its workspace, and an immediate, paying member base -- $300 per person, per month gets you unlimited use of the lounge spaces, conference rooms, and discounts on classes (a membership providing your own work desk costs $600). At the end of July, GA hosted a hackathon competition called Reinvent NYC.gov, where programmers competed in a 36-hour programming binge to redesign the city government's website. Mayor Bloomberg met with the winners for a planning breakfast -- one hopes after they'd gotten a shower.

In August, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School sent its incoming class on a daylong crash course in entrepreneurial concepts. "I told them hustle is the most important thing they can bring to their MBA experience," says Jake Schwarz, one of four co-founders of GA. The founders' downtown, vaguely hipster vibe belies their Ivy League background: co-founders Brad Hargreaves and Matthew Brimer were classmates at Yale; Schwartz also did hard time in New Haven before attending Wharton for business school; Adam Pritzker attended Columbia.

The foursome's own hustle helped land a partnership with General Electric (GE). More than one hundred GE employees will spend a week at GA over the next year in a sort of digital boot camp. Schwartz says the GE employees will get up to speed on everything from organizational structures to social media. "It's really an overview survey of the modern startup," he adds. A bonus of the partnership: GA grads get to interview with GE, should they choose, for jobs and internships in programs such as digital marketing.

With its new investors, GA has the backing to expand globally and online. Milner's DST can help with reaching entrepreneurs outside the U.S., while Amazon.com's (AMZN) Bezos knows a thing or two about scale. Lead investor Maveron, which invests in education projects, says it sees great potential in GA offering online programs.

In the meantime, there's a long waitlist to get space at GA. Classes are easier to join -- and with online expansion first on the to-do list, Pritzker has his own brushing up to do, and plans to take GA's 60-hour intensive program in front-end web development.

 (A shorter version of this story appeared in the Briefings section of the 9/26 issue of Fortune)


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