How Three Temple Grads Aim to Make Philly the Next Big Tech Hub

By John Paul Titlow
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 11, 2012

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From Left Sean Blanda, christopher wink and brian james kirk

On its face, the idea could hardly have seemed more naive. In early 2009, the media industry was going through what must have felt like its death throes, as newspapers across the country laid off staff and instituted unpaid furloughs. And those were the lucky ones. Others, like the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, filed for bankruptcy protection. A few shuttered their doors forever.

Despite all of this, three then-recent Temple University graduates decided to roll the dice and launch their own media startup. While most of their former classmates struggled to find jobs in a beleaguered industry, Sean Blanda, Christopher Wink and Brian James Kirk—all veterans of Temple’s student newspaper—decided to give themselves job titles. Instead of “freelance writer” or “blogger”, they anointed themselves “co-founders” and launched Technically Philly, a news website dedicated to covering technology news in and around Philadelphia.

“It didn’t cost anything but our time, and we had a decent amount of that,” says Blanda, who pulled the technical pieces together while Kirk led the branding effort and Wink focused on business and editorial direction.

“We just launched it,” says Wink, “and started going to events just to see if there was any real action in the Philly tech scene.”

Three years later, Technically Philly has evolved into Technically Media, a company that not only publishes a local tech-news site, but plans to expand to other cities, starting with Baltimore this summer. In the meantime, the trio does digital publishing consulting for nonprofits—and hosts increasingly well-trafficked events.

The culmination of their event-planning work will come the last week in April, when the company hosts the second annual Philly Tech Week. Starting on April 20, the region will be the site of more than 80 technology-related events, ranging from advanced coding and robotics to entrepreneurship and design. Everything from technology’s impact on music and culture to its role in solving some of the city’s most deep-rooted problems will be explored by academics, journalists, entrepreneurs, hobbyists and curious citizens alike.

Last year, the inaugural Tech Week drew more than 4,000 attendees, 30,000 visits to its website and a flood of coverage in both new and traditional media. City Council even passed a resolution declaring Philly Tech Week an official citywide celebration. That success paved the way for an even bigger event this year, complete with big-name sponsors like AT&T, Comcast and Microsoft, in addition to a long list of local businesses, tech startups, universities and media partners.

One of the flagship happenings in the series is a presentation called Switch Philly, in which five local startups will demonstrate what their young companies do, and a panel of judges will vote for the best one. This year, that panel includes venture capitalist Josh Kopelman and Mayor Nutter. It’s the kind of event that happens too regularly to keep track of in the Silicon Valley. For Philadelphia, it happening even annually signals the slow emergence of a legitimate, thriving tech scene.

It’s also emblematic of Technically Philly’s post-millennial approach to covering its beat.

On the national level, technology news is practically covered to death. Traditional outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times chase the same scoops as newer, web-only players like TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb and Engadget. Anyone who follows general tech news has no shortage of sources stumbling over one another to deliver it to them, sometimes in regurgitated form.

Locally, it’s a very different story. The Technically Media trio noticed that while many local news outlets sometimes touched on technology, nobody was drilling down aggressively enough to cover Philly’s tech scene as thoroughly as they believed was warranted. “There was just a huge hole in the marketplace,” says Blanda.

When they first started out, the trio worked out of their apartments, cold-calling would-be advertisers from their cell phones. Today, they occupy offices at 15th and Market streets, a few floors above the Center City campus of their alma mater.

Getting to this point wasn’t without its challenges, though.

Between the three of them, there was plenty of student journalism experience, lots of tech know-how and very little business savvy. That took time, self-education and what Wink describes as “really embarrassing cold calls and conversations” to get beyond. “I remember shaking while doing my first sales calls,” says Wink. “As journalists, we’ve all spoken to people far more important, but calling the manager of a tech organization who we’re asking for a $100 ad from—that was more nerve-wracking.”

Over time, they realized that their future as a media organization would have to go beyond simple reporting and ad sales. As digital media pundits like Jeff Jarvis were proselytizing, a sustainable news operation would have to rely heavily on other forms of community connectivity.

It hit them during a chat about Philly Beer Week: If the city could spend a week celebrating a beverage, why not do the same for technology? There were already plenty of cool tech events—it was just a matter of organizing them into a single seven-day period.

Even though events like Philly Tech Week don’t seem like they serve a traditionally journalistic purpose, its organizers see it differently. Wink suggests that the “middleman” role Technically Media now plays within the local technology community isn’t that different from what newspapers once did. “Philly Tech Week is much more actionable than writing a story and things of that nature,” says Kirk.

“I think in terms of mission, that’s where we want to continue to be. Hopefully, it will mean making cities better through technology, not just Philadelphia.”

As far as the three partners are concerned, that focus on action means more than just helping the tech community socially network through events. It means joining forces with city government itself to help citizens network on the most basic level.

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